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HBO’s Excellent New Comedy ‘Girls’ Premieres at SXSW

The Lena Dunham-created, Judd Apatow-produced series debuts this April

Here’s a question: How long will it take before the inevitable My So-Called Life reboot? If the scavenging of our past continues unchecked (see: 90210, Melrose Place, Footloose), it’s only a matter of time until the prematurely canceled series appears ripe for rediscovery, an elevator pitch that starts and ends with, “Hey, remember this?”

Bless Girls’ creator Lena Dunham for not doing exactly that. The actress/director/producer/writer was only eight when My So-Called Life debuted in 1994, but her half-hour dramedy, which premieres on HBO on April 15, is hands down the most resonant series about a young woman — actually, women — since MSCL, even if the format couldn’t be more different. Executive produced by Judd Apatow, who seems to be rapidly evolving beyond bromance after the success of last year’s Bridesmaids, Girls deftly captures four twentysomethings as they negotiate the recklessness of youth and the anxiety of adulthood.

The setting is present-day New York (meaning Brooklyn) and the subject matter is often explicit, making it impossible not to reference another popular series that took its televised bow on the same network eight years ago. As if to beat us to the punch, a Sex and the City poster looms large in the living room of virginal Shoshanna, the most naive of Girls’ core quartet. Begrudging respect?

While the comparisons are not unwarranted or unfavorable, Dunham and her writing staff radically tackle situations that it took SATC seasons to address, without divvying them up according to archetype. It’s preppy Marnie (Allison Williams) who desires more intensity in the bedroom, complaining that her boyfriend is “so busy respecting me that he looks right past me and everything that I need,” before flirting with a local artist (Lonely Island’s Jorma Taccone). Meanwhile, Hannah battles neuroses worthy of Woody Allen when she worries about how safe protected sex actually is with her elusive boyfriend-type-person, awkwardly Googling “the stuff that gets up around the sides of condoms.” Another friend considers shmashmortion, a nervous euphemism these women would never bother with. Even when the characters are crude and juvenile, the humor isn’t. Also? Three episodes in, and no one’s even mentioned shoes.

Not that there won’t be accusations of elitism. The cast is predominantly white and particularly pedigreed. Dunham grew up in SoHo, the daughter of two successful artists. Her post-Oberlin experience provided material for her deeply witty 2010 film, Tiny Furniture, and obviously informs her sensibility here. (Thankfully, Furniture’s Jemima Kirke, daughter of Bad Company drummer Simon, returns.) Williams’ father is NBC Nightly News anchor Brian (yet she bears a striking resemblance to Ione Skye). And Zosia Mamet — yes, that Mamet — plays Shoshanna. This on top of jokes about mixologists and moving to New York because of Rent might make for somewhat of an insular worldview. Anyone familiar with the Broadway production will recognize the similarly self-conscious shout-outs to gentrification and bankrolled bohemia that function as both criticism and apology. When Hannah asks her parents to pay for her lifestyle while she finishes a collection of essays, Dunham pretty much lays her own cards on the table. To her credit, no matter how selfish or humiliated or misguided Hannah may be, she’s never pathetic, even after she passes out on her parents’ hotel-room floor high on opium tea.

Lately, many of television’s most compelling female characters have been retrofitted for period dramas (Mad Men’s Peggy, Downton Abbey’s Mary), leaving a gaping hole where a modern woman — who huffs up too many flights of stairs to an affordable-looking apartment where she deliberates over her Twitter feed, dances to Robyn, and deals with life — should be. Despite existing within a tradition of romantic comedies, friendship dramas, and New York myopia, Girls feels entirely original. And very, very funny.

Early on, Hannah confides to a gynecologist her paranoia about contracting HIV (“It’s a Forrest Gump-based fear”), only to preemptively console herself with a monologue about the superior drugs now used to treat the disease, before concluding that she’d rather confront something than be afraid of it: “Maybe I’m not scared of AIDS. Maybe I thought I was scared of AIDS when what I really am is wanting AIDS.” The scene is like the logical extension of a moment from My So-Called Life’s pilot when Angela absentmindedly describes Anne Frank as lucky because “she was trapped for three years in an attic with a guy she really liked.” Both are incredibly ignorant, narcissistic notions formed by emotionally intelligent people. Coming-of-age is filled with lots of those.

Tags: Wide Angle