Lena Dunham's 'Girls': Still Sex, Still The City, Different Show

Apr 8, 2012
Originally published on April 9, 2012 8:15 am

Lena Dunham's new series Girls debuts on HBO on April 15. Dunham, who got quite a bit of attention for being the star, director and writer of the 2010 indie film Tiny Furniture, fills the same three roles in this ensemble show about four young women in New York.

Of course, it's not HBO's first time out with an ensemble show about four women in New York, and as Dunham tells weekends on All Things Considered guest host Laura Sullivan, the shows are very different in tone and content, but there's a relationship nevertheless. "Not only because [Sex and the City] carved the space for women in television that it did, but because the girls this show is about probably moved to New York three-quarters because they watched a Sex and the City marathon and thought, like, 'I want me a piece of that.' "

The girls in Girls, however, are constructed a bit more out of something that's intended to be real life. Dunham's pitch for the show, she says, was "the kind of pitch that you can only give when you have no idea what a pitch is actually supposed to be. It was completely fueled by naivete." She says it's not clear yet whether people will watch a perhaps more relatable show about women, but she hopes they will.

"I feel like, especially women — and really, by women, I'm speaking for myself — have been waiting to see a reflection of somebody who feels a little more like someone they could know, or someone they could be," she says.

The life of a show creator has its ups and downs, though, and you might expect it would be awkward that Girls includes some nudity and sex scenes that Dunham wrote, directed and performed herself.

"I don't know what my damage is, but I was not that nervous," she says. After all, there are advantages to being in charge of shooting your own sex scene, as she points out. "It's sort of the life fantasy, where you basically get to tell a guy, 'OK, 10 seconds in, you're going to move me to the left.' You get to be the complete director of that experience."

In fact, Dunham says, it's not the nudity that's the most challenging — it's the scenes with emotional heft. "I find it really awkward to do a scene where I'm supposed to seem like I'm in love. That stuff to me feels in some way more dangerous than just having my butt exposed."

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Writer-director Lena Dunham's new show "Girls" centers around a group of 20-something women living in New York City and the struggles that they face.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (As character) Hannah, your mother and I have been talking, and we feel that it may be time for one final push.

LENA DUNHAM: (As Hannah) What is a final push?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (As character) We're not going to be supporting you any longer.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (As character) See, I wasn't going to phrase it like that.

SULLIVAN: That's Lena Dunham's character Hannah talking to her parents in the pilot episode. Although "Girls" makes its debut on HBO April 15th, it's already garnering rave reviews from television critics. It's produced by Judd Apatow of "40-Year-Old Virgin" and "Bridesmaids" fame, and it was Apatow who first brought the relatively unknown 25-year-old to HBO to pitch her first show.

DUNHAM: And I sort of went into this mini-diatribe about how I felt like my girlfriends were this really specific kind of girl, kind of post-recession college graduate girl who's like possibly been in therapy since she was 12.


DUNHAM: And I had this, like, whole spiel for them, and I was shocked to find out that it actually resonated.

SULLIVAN: Well, the show is already being compared to the other HBO show "Sex and the City." And I find this a little bit strange because the only thing that the two things seem to have in common is that they have - both have four girls in them, and they are in New York. What do you think of the comparison?

DUNHAM: I mean, if you're the - sort of the first woman-centric ensemble show coming to HBO after "Sex and the City," you have to know you're living in the shadow of one of the biggest TV phenomenons ever. And it was, of course, an incredibly meaningful show to me, and I feel like this show couldn't exist without it, not only because it carved the space for women in television that it did, but also because the girls, who this show is about, probably moved to New York, you know, three-quarters because they watched the "Sex and the City" marathon and thought, like, I want me a piece of that.

But it is covering a really different time in the lives of these women, and I'd say, totally, it's pretty different too.

SULLIVAN: Definitely. I mean, the thing that strikes me about it compared to "Sex and the City" is that, you know, even with Carrie Bradshaw, she was kind of wacky in some ways, but she was thin and beautiful, and she dated these incredible men, and she had this fabulous life, and she had all this style and the shoes and the clothes, and you wanted to be her.

But your characters are so raw, and they are so real. Do you worry that it's hard to draw an audience around such reality? Will audiences want to see real girls onscreen?

DUNHAM: I hope so, because I feel like, especially women - and really, by women, I'm saying - I'm speaking for myself - have been waiting to see, you know, a reflection of somebody who feels a little more like someone they could know or a little more like someone they could be. And so I hope that that comes through. And also the fact that we're really, you know, we're making it clear that you're allowed to laugh at these girls, that they are making mistakes, that we're not sort of, you know, promoting their behavior as, sort of like, models of healthy wellness.


DUNHAM: And I think that's an important detail too.

SULLIVAN: Definitely. The way that men sometimes write women can seem sort of superficial to a lot of women. And I think that what we often see on television are women's relationships that are, you know, silly, or they're full of envy for each other or competitiveness, and they're sort of...


SULLIVAN: ...lacking in depth. But you have written these characters that are smart, independent people who have these incredibly deep friendships. They trust each other. And it's the muddling through life part that's sort of driving the plot. Is that something you did on purpose?

DUNHAM: Yeah. I mean, I think my goal was to show that these are girls with really three-dimensional friendships, sort of like, they're as complicated and as up and down as romances are. And so I think that that is something I really wanted to see, and also, you know, the idea that these girls are sort of challenged but hopeful.

I think that's the thing, for me, that makes all the sort of fumbling bearable, is the fact that they all - I like, sort of envy my character Hannah's, like - she's sort of, in some way, like a little bit of an unsinkable Molly Brown. She's like - she's just always rising up again after the most. Like, chuck her in the mud, she's up again. And I don't even know how she does it.

SULLIVAN: The character Hannah is so vulnerable and so fearless at the same time. And I think - I'm sure you know what I'm going to say next, but the nudity in the sex scenes - we can't play any of these scenes here.


DUNHAM: They're not safe for work. They're not safe for radio.

SULLIVAN: Were you nervous about shooting them?

DUNHAM: You know, I don't know what my damage is, but I was not that nervous. I always want to say, like, yes, it was terrifying. I mean, there's the moment when you first take off your robe where you're like, I hope everything's in the right place. But at the same time, like, what's scarier is, like, playing the emotional vulnerable notes that exist.

I find it really awkward to do a scene where I'm supposed to seem like I'm in love. Like, that stuff to me feels in some way more dangerous.

SULLIVAN: The four characters in "Girls" are in their early 20s. And if the show is a success, and I certainly hope it will be, do you already know where you wan to go with them?

DUNHAM: What I loved when we came up with the title "Girls" was the idea of having, you know, five years down the line a show about four women that you're calling "Girls." You know, seeing that transition happen. And I do have a sense of where these relationships go, but also the amazing thing about - that I've learned doing TV is how consistently surprised you are because you'll cast someone for what, you know, you think is one episode arc, and the relationship will work so well that you can't let them go. I mean, it's really cool how much the characters take on a life of their own.

SULLIVAN: That's writer-director Lena Dunham. Her new show "Girls" premiers on HBO on April 15th. Lena, thanks so much for being here.

DUNHAM: Thank you. I really appreciate it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.