When a TV critic reports on a new show, it’s okay to say the series is promising, even the next big thing, but ideally, one shouldn’t go native. One should probably also talk in the third person. In this case, however, I’ll have to make an exception. Because from the moment I saw the pilot of Girls (which airs on April 15), I was a goner, a convert. In an office at HBO, my heart sped up. I laughed out loud; I “got” the characters—four friends, adrift in a modern New York of unpaid internships and bad sex on dirty sofas. But the show also spoke to me in another way. As a person who has followed, for more than twenty years, recurrent, maddening debates about the lives of young women, the series felt to me like a gift. Girls was a bold defense (and a searing critique) of the so-called Millennial Generation by a person still in her twenties. It was a sex comedy from the female POV, taking on subjects like STDs and abortion with a radical savoir-faire as well as a visual grubbiness that was a statement in itself. It embraced digital culture, and daily confession, as a default setting. Even before the Republican candidates adopted The Handmaid’s Tale as a platform, [Lena] Dunham’s sly, brazen, graphic comedy, with its stress on female friendships, its pleasure in the sick punch line, its compassion for the necessity of making mistakes, felt like a retort to a culture that pathologizes feminine adventure. As my younger colleague Willa Paskin put it, the show felt, to her peers, FUBU: “for us by us.”
But really, the show Girls most closely resembles doesn’t involve a girl at all. It’s FX’s Louie, the acclaimed DIY cable comedy now filming its third season, created by the middle-aged comedian Louis CK. The top stand-up in the country, Louie CK has become a bit of a secular saint to his followers, a model of the auteurist showrunner—the man who didn’t compromise his vision. Like Dunham, he writes, edits, directs, and stars as a character based on him. Of course, Louie is a recently divorced middle-aged comic with two kids; Hannah is a twentysomething memoirist hooking up in Brooklyn. Yet the two share many qualities: They’re Mr. Magoos of the dating world, stumbling into mortification, then exploiting it as material. Each exposes an imperfect body for slapstick and self-assertion. These characters are sensitive solipsists, artists struggling through a period of confused limbo, prone to fits of self-pity—although the fictional personae are far less driven, hardworking, and ambitious than their creators.
Dunham is interested enough in the parallels that she dressed as Louis CK for Halloween, in a bald cap and facial hair. She posted a picture to Louis himself on Twitter, apologizing for the poor resemblance. But that experiment clearly left her with mixed feelings. She tweeted, “Me dressing like a man for Halloween does not have a Melanie Laurent in Beginners-ish quality. No Jules & Jim vibe. I look like Pat. Ugh.” Then the next day: “Chances are if you dressed as a sexy cat this Halloween it feels different to live in our minds.”