"Well, enjoy going through life as yourself."
To be honest, a part of me was really dreading the prospect of watching Lena Dunham's HBO series 'Girls.' You see, the show is about a bunch of struggling, clueless, self-pitying, self-centered twenty-something-year-olds all stricken by an undeserved sense of entitlement and a delusional ambition toward greatness. In other words, it's about my generation… and I kind of hate my generation. Wait a sec, did I mention we're all self-loathing too? As a distressingly prototypical example of the millennial demographic, I'm already full of so much contradictory narcissism and insecurity, that the idea of having to sit through more didn't exactly thrill me. Thankfully, after watching the show's first season, I've now realized that my apprehension was mostly unfounded. Told primarily from the female perspective (the series is called 'Girls,' after all), Dunham's creation offers a funny and sincere look at Generation Y troubles that simultaneously celebrates and criticizes contemporary young adults and all their head-scratching decisions. If nothing else, the show reveals that while we may not be the most instantly likeable generation, we sure can be amusing to watch.
Hannah (Lena Dunham) is an aspiring writer and unpaid intern living in New York. After her parents decide to cut her off financially, she is forced to fend for herself. As she struggles to find a job, she also tries to balance her increasingly chaotic personal life. Meanwhile, the series also follows the exploits of Hannah's three best friends, Marnie (Allison Williams), Jessa (Jemima Kirke), and Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet), who all deal with their own escalating problems. With the quartet fighting to stay afloat, bad breakups, unhealthy relationships, rampant anxieties, and lots of sex in the city abound!
Dunham, who first gained notice with her indie feature film 'Tiny Furniture,' not only stars in the series, but also handles the brunt of the writing and directing duties. Along with 'Louie,' this makes the show one of the closest things TV has to a truly "auteur" effort, and this singular creative stamp gives the season a strong and distinct voice. Throughout the ten episodes, Dunham tackles a series of easily relatable young adult troubles (you know, like that time you accidently smoked crack) and puts an amusing comedic spin on various weighty issues -- including abortion, AIDS, and sexual harassment. Those might not sound like a typical recipe for laughs, but Dunham finds the right tone to make it all work. The girls various misadventures lead them down many exceedingly cringe-worthy paths, and the series blends humiliating comedy with pop culture references, witty observations, and frequent bursts of hilarious vulgarity. Dialogue is emphasized, and the numerous conversations about sex and dating prove to be both honest and entertaining.
Speaking of sex, in the hierarchy of HBO raciness, 'Girls' definitely holds its own against (if not surpasses) the amusing perversity found in other series like 'True Blood' and 'Game of Thrones.' Come to think of it, this show is home to some of the most awkward sex scenes I've ever seen, and the infamous "climax" to episode five just might be one of the most uncomfortable, creepy, and hilarious moments to ever grace the network. To put it lightly, reserved audiences should probably keep their distance.
The copious nudity and risqué content are certainly noteworthy, but the real success of the show lies within its strong character work and performances. The four lead actresses all do an impressive job of forging distinct and believable personalities. Dunham's Hannah is the show's central figure, and while her many paradoxical traits can be frustrating to endure, they also make her endearingly human. As the creator/star details in one of the included commentaries, the character has self-confidence but no self-worth. She's egotistical yet extremely insecure all at once, and what's worse, at times she seems to be acutely aware of her flaws, but can't do anything about them.
The beautiful Allison Williams (daughter of NBC newscaster Brian Williams) also does great work as Marnie, Hannah's responsible but occasionally uptight roommate. The duo's close friendship is one of the series defining relationships, and their occasional bickering leads to some effective drama. On the complete opposite end of the spectrum is Jemima Kirke's Jessa, a free-spirited woman who lives a rather bohemian lifestyle. Despite her rejection of social conventions, she's just as lost and unhappy as the rest of the group, and Kirke plays the character with an unassuming eccentricity. Rounding out the ensemble is Zosia Mamet (daughter of famed playwright David Mamet) who turns in a surprisingly scene-stealing performance as the virginal Shoshanna. Her fast-talking, often nervous observations lead to some healthy laughs.
As memorable and talented as the entire cast is, the series really wouldn't be what it is without the indescribable insanity that is Adam Driver. As Hannah's "love interest," the actor crafts the series' most unique and unexpectedly layered character. Throughout the first half of the season he's depicted as little more than a sex-addicted creep (and possible sociopath). In fact, before episode seven, we never actually see him outside of his apartment… or wearing a shirt. But just as we're about to write the character off as nothing more than an unlikeable obstacle, Dunham takes the relationship in a surprising direction, and suddenly new, very enlightening facets of Adam are gradually revealed. Full of bizarre quirks, Driver somehow makes the character humorous, repulsive, nuanced, and eventually (and rather astonishingly) quite likeable. His relationship with Hannah serves as one of the season's most important arcs, and their coupling ultimately illuminates many of the protagonist's biggest faults.
In the included special features, producer Judd Apatow discusses Dunham's atypical approach to television plotting, and it's true that the writer doesn't always follow traditional beats. Yes, characters still have clearly defined arcs, but Dunham's approach is a bit more meandering and unfocused -- and in this case, I actually think that's a good thing. Her unfamiliarity with the supposed "correct" formula of television writing actually results in a refreshingly unique experience, and just because the narrative beats aren't conventionally structured, doesn't mean the approach is somehow wrong. With that said, there are still a few notable stumbles in the show's execution.
While I admire the series' irregular storytelling, a few subplots do end up feeling disconnected and unfulfilled. The finale also introduces a pretty random twist that I found to be a little too haphazard and out of place. Likewise, the show's comedic tone can be erratic, with the style of humor shifting slightly depending on certain characters and guest stars. This is actually something I've noticed in a lot of contemporary comedies, and it can leave some jokes and improvisations feeling like they came out of a completely different show. Though it's actually one of my favorite installments, episode six has a few good examples of this, and though funny, Chris O'Dowd's character also seems to stretch beyond the series' typical style. A few of the show's references and observations can also be too "cutesy" and "hip," and despite the strong performances, the characters and their mind-numbingly poor decisions can be very annoying.
Like her fictional alter ego proclaims, Lena Dunham might not be the voice of her generation, but she's certainly at the very least "a voice, of a generation." Funny, unique, and perceptive, 'Girls' places viewers directly in the mindset of a twenty-something-year-old woman striving for greatness as she tries to combat unhealthy relationships, economic recession, and the many hardships of… being herself. A self-aware and sincere examination of Generation Y culture, the series' relatable appeal goes far beyond what its gender limiting title might imply. In fact, I'd be lying if I said I didn't see a lot of myself in the show's frequently irritating characters. Thankfully, I don't mind lying. So, for the record, I'm nothing like these crazy people. Nothing, I say! Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go reassess my life choices…
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
HBO presents 'Girls: The Complete First Season' in a Blu-ray/DVD/Digital Copy Combo Pack. All ten episodes and special features are spread out over two BD-50 discs housed in a foldout case that comes packaged in a cardboard slipcase. An additional foldout sleeve containing one flipper DVD (with all ten episodes) is also included, along with an insert with instructions for a downloadable digital copy. A booklet with some of Lena Dunham's tweets and photos from the shoot is provided as well. After a streaming promo for HBO, the discs transition to standard menus.
The show is provided with a series of 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfers in the 1.78:1 aspect ratio. Shot digitally in high definition, the image has a fairly sharp and pleasing look.
With the exception of some light noise, the digital source is clean and artifact free. Detail is strong throughout, revealing a welcome assortment of fine textures and patterns in the characters, sets, and various New York locations. Colors veer toward a fairly natural palette, but can sometimes look a tad dull. Likewise, contrast is a bit low in some scenes and depth is on the flat side. Black levels are also a little light, giving a few nighttime sequences a faintly washed out appearance.
Despite an occasional dullness, the picture features strong clarity and the modest, stripped-down aesthetic fits well with the show's indie tone.
The episodes are presented with English DTS-HD MA 5.1 mixes, French DTS 5.1 mixes, and Spanish DTS 2.0 mixes with optional English SHD, French, and Spanish subtitles. This is a dialogue driven show, but the audio offers a solid sense of atmosphere and a few lively kicks thanks to the series' thumping soundtrack.
Speech is clean and clear throughout. Most scenes feature a comparatively small sense of space (they're predominantly set in cramped apartments, after all), but outdoor sequences offer the usual assortment of city effects and minor ambiance (traffic, crowds). Directionality is minimal, but character voices and isolated sounds (the ever-popular door knock, for instance) are relegated to specific speakers when appropriate. Imaging is also natural and smooth when present, creating a seamless, albeit limited soundscape. Though certain elements of the audio can be a bit limp, the show's fantastic indie soundtrack is a real highlight, and all of the tracks feature great separation and fidelity. Low frequencies shine in the music as well, and a few scenes set during rowdy parties feature great bass response.
'Girls' is not a true standout in the audio department, but all the show's witty observations come through just fine. The music soundtrack adds an extra dash of energy to the mix, and some standard atmospherics create a reserved but authentic soundscape.
Buckle down and get comfortable, 'Girls' fans, because you're in for a real treat. HBO has put together a very strong collection of special features, including commentaries, outtakes, table reads, auditions, and deleted scenes. Those looking for a fun drinking game might also want to challenge friends to take a shot whenever someone mentions the show's similarities to 'Sex and the City.' On second thought, you better not. You'd all probably end up in the hospital. All of the supplements are presented in 1080p with DTS 2.0 sound and no subtitles (unless noted otherwise).
'Girls' offers a funny, sincere, and insightful peek into Generation Y culture from the female perspective. While the comedic tone and plotting are a little erratic, and the characters can be a bit annoying, Dunham's voice is unique and entertaining. The video and audio are both very solid with no major issues. HBO has included a very extensive collection of interesting special features that should more than satisfy fans. Its occasionally risque content might not be for everyone, but this is a strong release for a very worthwhile show. Recommended.