'Girls' premiere review: Exhilarating, fresh comedy, or a Debbie Downer?

girls

Image Credit: Jojo Whilden/HBO

There is no joy in Girls-ville. It’s a testament to how well Girls, the new HBO creation by writer-director-star Lena Dunham that premiered Sunday night, is constructed and paced that the overwhelming joylessness that could easily have engulfed this enterprise was mostly avoided in its premiere episode. Dunham was wise to commence her first episode with a scene that placed her sad-sack central character Hannah with parents played by Peter Scolari and Becky Ann Baker. These two pros brought an energy to the crucial set-up of the show — that these people who brought Hannah into the world, who’ve paid for every morsel of food and every morsel of education she’s taken in, have decided, two years after her college graduation, that the buck stops here. (Scolari has long lived in the shadow of the out-sized success of his erstwhile Bosom Buddy Tom Hanks but he’s remained a fine laser-focused comic actor, while Baker has had too few opportunities to display her brand of tough maternal affection since her brilliant work on the brilliant Freaks and Geeks.)

That opening scene, written by Dunham, gave everyone at the dinner table her or his due. Hannah made the case for her life, which consists of trying to write a group of essays that will somehow cohere as a book-length memoir that will make her “the voice of my generation, or a voice of a generation” (Hannah is, like so many people her age, all about a youthful ego hedging its bets), and which in the meantime requires the patronage of her parents because, like, “do you know how crazy the economy is now?” And of course Hannah’s parents do know how crazy the economy is now, which is why they’re stanching the flow of dough to their daughter — dammit, Mom wants and feels she deserves “a lake house” in her late-middle-age, and doling out $1,100 a month to Hannah (I love Dunham’s precise monetary figures) is standing in the way of one version of middle-aged happiness.

In the space of a half-hour, Girls did a remarkably fluid job of introducing us to a sizable cast and setting plots in motion. (As anyone who’s seen Dunham’s excellent feature film Tiny Furniture knows, one of her gifts is brisk exposition through dialogue even when there seems to be no action occurring in the frame of a scene.) Quickly dispatched was Hannah’s unpaid internship with the marvelously opaque Chris Eigeman. Less quickly dispatched was an excruciating sex scene between Hannah and her dolt-bully actor-woodworker boyfriend (“Lie on your stomach… I’m gonna go get some lube”). Hannah’s friends came into focus with precision — Whit Stillman characters on rapid downslides: her best friend Marnie (Allison Williams), who can’t abide her too-sensitive, too-adoring boyfriend; Jessa (Jemima Kirke), a Brit faker whose gotten only so far on the strength of her accent, her looks, and a worldweariness that tries to pass for wisdom (she gives Hannah the worst life-advice); and Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet), bubbly with trite speech patterns, designated to deliver the speech about the extent to which life — or at least HBO — has changed since the heyday of Sex and the City. (Shashanna is the character that needs the most development; right now, I’d rather see Mamet being the tough wisecracking photog in time-period-competitor Mad Men.)

Dunham handled most of the comedy, superlatively. Her downing of opium tea, gagging because she thought it was going to taste like Twix, rather than what had been actually said — twigs — was followed by some stoned poignant slapstick with her parents at the Windham Hotel. And her verbal dexterity is at once clever and poignant, as she proved during Hannah’s speech about why she’d scrawled tattoos on her body, “illustrations from children’s books mostly,” dating back to a time when she had “gained a lot of weight” and resolved to “feel very riot grrl — ‘I’m taking control of my own shape!’” It’s in moments like that, when Dunham makes serious points via rapidly spoken, deceptively thrown-away lines, that she creates vivid characters who think very seriously about their lives but are not yet bold enough to articulate those thoughts with confident conviction.

And always, always, Girls is obsessed with money — how little of it there is to go around; how everyone has been screwed by the economy, and screwed up in their thinking about what other people should do with their money. Hannah’s arrogant boyfriend assumes it as his birthright that his grandmother should give him $800 a month so that, to his way of thinking, “I don’t have to be anyone’s slave” — i.e., get a job. Hannah thinks nothing, when she wakes in the empty hotel room her parents have abandoned, of taking not only the $20 bill her parents have left her, but also the $20 bill her parents have left the hotel housekeeper, who probably needs that dough more than Hannah. (And how pointedly demeaning it is that Hannah’s parents — well, let’s face it: you know it was her mom who left the money — left their daughter and Housekeeping the same amount of money.)

In the coming weeks, the pregnancy Jessa alluded to will become a scene that’ll separate the true Girls fans from the dabblers, and the series will just get richer — in emotion, if not actual scratch.

What may prevent Girls from vaulting into top-tier status so far is the absence of one necessary element of the genre Dunham is working in: joy. Consider that even her HBO cousins Curb Your Enthusiasm, Mike White’s Enlightened and Lisa Kudrow’s mighty The Comeback — none of them Mary Tyler Moore-ish, hat-flinging life-affirmers — have included moments in which their central characters were allowed moments of giddy triumph. But the mere fact that I’m considering Girls among these worthies, based on only three episodes I’ve seen so far, means this is a series with the ambition and talent to grow ever more potent and varied.

Twitter: @kentucker

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