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Lena Dunham speaks uncomfortable truths about 'Girls'

In her HBO series, the 'Tiny Furniture' writer-director-star explores the awkwardness of twentysomethings.

April 08, 2012|By Joy Press, Los Angeles Times
  • Lena Dunham, creator and star of the new HBO series "Girls."
Lena Dunham, creator and star of the new HBO series "Girls." (Carolyn Cole, Los Angeles…)

Lena Dunham is sitting at a Larchmont Boulevard cafe in a pale yellow dress and a blazer, rummaging around her bag for a bottle of green juice. She's drinking it to stave off illness caused by frequent plane travel — one of the hazards of being an in-demand wunderkind.

Her upcoming HBO series, "Girls," was filmed in New York, where she sleeps in her parents' basement while she waits for her new place to be ready. But Dunham just spent half a year in L.A. so she could edit and consult with the show's producers, Judd Apatow and Jenni Konner.

Life here didn't go entirely smoothly: She failed her driving test and found that renting a house in the hills didn't jell with her Hollywood fantasy. "I was having real delusions of grandeur — like, I am Joan Didion!" But as winter nights grew longer, the isolation freaked her out: "I was hiding under the covers and imagining all these running escape routes down the hill."

All that angst was worth it: Critics and fans are hailing 25-year-old Dunham as the uncomfortably true voice of millennial women. "Tiny Furniture," her low-budget indie movie starring friends and family, levitated out of the South by Southwest film festival in 2010. Many reviewers were startled by its intimate glimpse of an articulate, self-flagellating twentysomething. The buzz has grown louder still with "Girls," a 10-episode HBO series that she wrote and directed as well as playing the central character. Premiering April 15, it's a sexually graphic, emotionally luminous half-hour dramedy about a quartet of female friends (Allison Williams, Zosia Mamet, Jemima Kirke and Dunham) stumbling toward adulthood.

"Girls" follows on the heels of a cluster of female-fronted network comedies like "Whitney" and "Two Broke Girls," but its vérité vulnerability makes those series — with their contrived punch lines and tweaking of taboos — seem as fake as "Friends." Dunham's writing fills a gap felt by young women (and some men too) who've come of age with the Internet's confessional overshare culture and long to see the messiness of their lives depicted naturalistically onscreen, whether dealing with sexual embarrassment, drug experimentation, body image issues or career screw-ups.

"Girls" pivots around Hannah Horvath (Dunham), an unemployed aspiring writer who has a bad habit of sabotaging herself. (Note to job seekers: Don't make rape jokes to a prospective boss.) Romantically entangled with an elusive, slightly creepy hipster guy (Adam Driver), Hannah is also drifting apart from her college best friend (Williams). The show's opening episode deals Hannah a final blow: Her professor parents have decided to withdraw their safety net.

"I think I might be the voice of my generation," she protests to them, trying to win back financial support. "Or at least a voice. Of a generation."

Hannah is zonked on opium tea when she announces this, but she is at least half-serious. An odd combination of uncrushable self-confidence and wry self-deprecation, Hannah "feels like she deserves praise she's not getting while thinking she doesn't deserve anything," Dunham says. "It's the trademark of many Jewish comedians, but it is sort of a new thing to see in a girl that age."

Dunham's semi-autobiographical heroine is charmingly neurotic and needy in a Woody Allen / Richard Lewis sort of way. Instead of flopping on a shrink's couch, though, she turns to Google to wallow in her anxieties ("Diseases that come from no condom for one second") or broadcasts them on Twitter. And when she's done with that, she'll dance ecstatically around her bedroom with her best friend or prowl Brooklyn clubs searching for adventures to document in her memoir.

Inevitably, "Girls" has been compared to"Sex and the City," another HBO show about four women that put female friendship and affairs front and center. But in Dunham's world, awkwardness always trumps glamour. There are no gigantic shoe closets or suave heroes. As she joked during a news conference last January, "[My boyfriend] in the pilot is not Mr. Big. He literally does not have bedsheets!"

"Girls" defuses the comparison by dropping a reference to "SATC" in the pilot: One character sizes up another by saying, "You're definitely like a Carrie with some Samantha aspects and Charlotte hair." Dunham says she prefers to think of her series as the love child of "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and "My So-Called Life." There were plenty of intimate female experiences that Dunham felt had never been presented properly on the small screen, however, like "that moment where you're splayed on the gynecologist's table and scared about what you're going to find out."

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