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Now and Then: 'Girls' Was the Season's Best New Series. When Did That Happen?

Photo of Matt Brennan By Matt Brennan | Thompson on Hollywood! June 18, 2012 at 4:21PM

The pilot of "Girls" was an ugly, awkward little thing, delivering its one-liners with a nervous titter. Despite its refreshingly frank appraisal of modern sexual mores, its quartet of young women came off largely as archetypes, not characters. But I stuck with the series, and it paid off.
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Lena Dunham, Jemima Kirke, and Allison Williams in "Girls"
HBO Lena Dunham, Jemima Kirke, and Allison Williams in "Girls"

The pilot of "Girls" was an ugly, awkward little thing, delivering its one-liners with a nervous titter. Despite its refreshingly frank appraisal of modern sexual mores, its quartet of young women came off largely as archetypes, not characters. But I stuck with the series, and it paid off.

It's common for a new show to start strong and fade fast, to lose its way once the sharp edges of a pilot are blurred by the rigors of the production schedule. Far more rare is the "Girls" model. This is a series that, for all its first few episodes' flatness and insecurity, clearly contained the germ of a fresh idea — it marked itself from the outset, with the pilot's canny joke about a poster in Shoshanna’s bedroom, as the anti-"Sex in the City," and so it was. Though it took a while to find its footing, "Girls" emerged as the best new series on television, mastering a light, commanding rhythm that proved it was unafraid to blur the lines between comedy and drama, sex and love, adolescence and adulthood.

I can trace my own crush on "Girls" to a pair of episodes at midseason. In "The Return," Hannah (series creator Lena Dunham) heads home to Michigan for her parents' anniversary; in "Welcome to Bushwick, a.k.a The Crackcident," the protagonists head to a wild warehouse party. The former has its funny moments, namely Hannah's excruciating attempts at talking dirty to a white-bread pharmacist and former classmate, but its atmosphere is elegiac, even painful. Hannah cycles through excitement, comfort, anger, regret, and guilt — especially guilt, for not coming home often enough, and then for the sense of relief she gets from leaving once more. The latter, my favorite episode of the season, hilariously nails the tenor of youth's late, late nights, which always start off with so much promise but tend, in the gloaming of the very early morning, toward disappointment.  

The two episodes could scarcely be more different in tone and subject matter, but this is the subtle genius of "Girls," moving easily between the serious and the comic in ways its initial bawdiness seemed to preclude. Here the series first achieved its strange brand of realism, similar to that of Dunham's breakout feature, "Tiny Furniture": a preternatural understanding that laughter and sorrow exist only in tandem, that life as we live it is built from their consonance or dissonance.

This article is related to: Now and Then, Reviews, HBO, TV, Directors, Genres, comedy


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.