‘Girls’ is a Knockout

A fan of Lena Dunham’s Tiny Furniture, I was excited to hear of her deal with HBO to develop a series about four 20something friends navigating the sexual, social, and financial perils of New York. Now, having seen the first three episodes of Girls, I can’t wait to see the next seven. With its precisely drawn characters, winning performances, and frank, well-observed humor, Girls is a knockout.

When the series begins, Hannah (played by the show’s creator and director Lea Dunham) is at dinner with her visiting parents (Becky Ann Baker and Peter Scolari), who have just dropped a bomb: they will no longer be supporting her. After two years of paying Hannah’s rent, insurance, and cell phone bill so she can finish her memoir, “Midnight Snack” (it’s a working title), and intern at a publishing house for no pay, they are making “one final push” to send her from the nest into the real world.

At first, Hannah is nonplussed, insisting, “But I’m your only child. It’s not like I’m draining your resources.” But she quickly realizes that even if her father is sympathetic, her mother won’t budge. To perform her resilience, Hannah cancels plans to see them the next day. With spoiled self-importance, she spits out her excuse: “First I have work, then I have a dinner thing, and then I am busy trying to become who I am!”

She retreats to the apartment she shares with her best friend, Marnie (Allison Williams), a pretty art gallerina who is supremely confident in her belief that she knows what is best for everyone else. Here she also shares her woes with her sometime booty call, Adam (Adam Driver), the playwright/carpenter who treats Hannah’s heart “like monkey meat.” He seems to like her funny belly, though, which he jiggles to make himself laugh.

In their interactions and others, Dunham captures the messy textures and rhythms of everyday life. She also reminds us of her terrific ear for dialogue, be it the backhanded compliment (“Oh, you were never fat: you were soft and round, like a dumpling”), self-entitled blather (as when Hannah admonishes her parents, “I could be a drug addict! Do you realize how lucky you are?”), or the absurdly inappropriate (at a gallery opening, the owner purrs to her assistant, “Julian, be a lamb and grab my tit tape”).

Some critics have complained that the representation of sex in Girls is bleak, but as a friend of mine once remarked, until a person is mature enough to be intimate with another person, he or she tends to “have sex at their partners instead of with them.” The sex scenes in Girls illustrate this idea well. Hannah and her friends — the virginal Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet) and the effortlessly cool globetrotter Jessa (Jemima Kirke) — are old enough to want to take responsibility for their sexuality (Hannah insists on using condoms), but still young enough to want to appear “totally cool with” whatever is asked of them. As they’re dealing with a pool of guys who grew up with untrammeled access to Internet porn, well, the requests can take a perverse turn rather quickly.

The sex scene between Hannah and Adam that begins the second episode is a farce — hilarious and mortifying on all counts. His tapestry of dirty talk is too explicit to detail here, but the capper to their conversation is killer, not only because it’s laugh-out-loud funny, but also because it reveals so much about their competing investments in this tryst. Adam tells Hannah that she’s not allowed to orgasm without his permission, whether he’s with her or home masturbating. “If you think you’re going to come, you better call me first!” he demands. She replies, her voice cracking with barely suppressed hope, “You want me to call you?” Oh, Hannah, my precious dumpling: run!

Of course, her problem is familiar, the one that can drive typically sane people crazy: an uncommitted partner who pays you just enough attention to keep you hoping and trying for more. The show reveals repeatedly the tantalizing and toxic effects of this mind-fuck (heart-fuck?). Even the levelheaded Marnie, who has a lovely, caring boyfriend, isn’t immune to the “charms” of unavailable, swaggering men. At a gallery opening, a hot young artist flirts with her, and although she is intoxicated by his attention, she demurs at the possibility of the two of them kissing. But then he sidles up to her and whispers, “Okay, but the first time I fuck you, I might scare you a little, because I’m a man, and I know how to do things.” Soon she is running off to lock herself in a room at the gallery to masturbate. Oh, Marnie! This won’t end well.

The characters of Girls might not always do what is in their best interests, and they can flake out of their responsibilities, to be sure. But they often try to do the right thing, even when it’s uncomfortable. When Hannah has an STD scare in the third episode, Shoshanna is initially casual about it (“Jessa says that ‘all adventurous women [have HPV]’”). But she still urges Hannah to contact her ex-boyfriend, Elijah (Andrew Rannells), in case she caught it from him. “You have to tell him,” Shoshanna says, “Do you want all his future lovers to suffer from the same disease that you do? No offense.”

Hannah agrees and arranges a date with Elijah. Their discussion starts out convivial and civilized but soon degenerates after Elijah reveals a secret of his own. Upon hearing the news, Hannah bursts into tears, and then attempts to explain her intense emotional response: “What I am having is an inappropriate physical reaction to my joy for you” (a line that was written to be stolen and used in case of emergency). When her “joy” eventually gives way to rage, her first impulse is to take her case to the Twitterverse, planning to spread information about Elijah that’s not really hers to share. But she hesitates, and a glimmer of redemption is born. Instead, Hannah decides to speak for herself and “adventurous women” everywhere.

After a night like that, other girls might have crawled into bed and pulled the blankets over their heads. But not Hannah. She turns up the music on her laptop and shakes what her mama gave her. And once Marnie returns home, it becomes a joyous dance party of two. Maybe these girls will make it after all. I’ll definitely keep tuning in to find out.

RATING 8 / 10