Lena Dunham’s series "Girls" premieres this Sunday on HBO, and preliminary hype is so intense that if you haven’t heard about it by now, you probably aren’t spending much time on the Internet. Or reading magazines. Or wandering around L.A. or New York, where billboards of the young stars of the show -- Dunham, Allison Williams, Jemima Kirke and Zosia Mamet -- are plastered around town.
"Girls" is a half-hour comedy about the messy friendships, ambitions and sexual misadventures of four twentysomething women in New York, written and directed by 25-year-old Dunham, who also stars as aspiring writer Hannah Horvath. There’s no doubt the show will be polarizing: fans who have seen it (SXSW screened the first three episodes last month) love it for portraying young women in a realistic, ambivalent way, but detractors complain about the graphic, unsexy sex and the narcissism and privilege of the characters.
I interviewed Dunham several times for last Sunday’s Calendar feature -- once by phone last fall while she was on the set of Judd Apatow’s upcoming movie "This is Forty," in which she plays a small part; once in person in Los Angeles; and again by phone after she had returned to New York, where she called from the bathroom of a restaurant. ("I’m standing in the bathroom not because I’m going to the bathroom, but because I’m organizing things in my bags," she reassured me at the start of the conversation.) Here’s a megamix of our conversations about sex, being the daughter of artists, and Jordan Catalano.
What was the original pitch for "Girls"?
I went into a meeting at HBO and my ignorance was helpful. I said, "Here’s the kind of show I haven’t seen on TV." And I went on a tirade about my friends and the kinds of problems they were dealing with as twentysomething women, trying to navigate the social landscape that was totally reliant on texting and Facebook. I overshared about my own relationship foibles and I was like: which of my friends hasn’t been on Ritalin since they were 12? The one time I took Ritalin I punched an animal! And I hit on something for them. And then Judd [Apatow] got involved and helped me figure out where to take these girls.
You have a very strong voice. Were you worried that having Judd Apatow as a producer might dilute it?
One of my criticisms of my own work is that I write five girls who sound like me all talking to each other, so it was helpful to have people say, "Not everyone peppers every sentence with a reference to their favorite early teen soap opera."
There have been so few shows about young female experience on TV, and yet suddenly all these network shows appeared ["The New Girl," "Two Broke Girls," etc]. Did you know about them?
We called the show "Girls" and within two months, we heard of four other shows with the word "girl" in the title.... I know some of these female creators and every one of them has a very different perspective on what it feels like to be female right now. We haven’t had any of that, so to have a glut is a gift! I don’t want it to be a zero-sum game where there’s one girl show so there can’t be another one.
Being on HBO allows you to use more graphic sex and language than a network would.
That’s one reason I knew that what I do at this point in my life couldn’t be on network. Frank depictions of sex and sexuality are such an integral part of my experience as a twentysomething woman that to have to hide bodies, it would be challenging to tell this story. The pilot I handed HBO -- the first draft -- opened with an aggressive sex scene. It was essential to understand: There is going to be sex and it’s not going to be sexy. A lot of the time girls are allowed to be a mess in an adorable way, and this is girls being a mess in a not adorable way.
Do young women raised with the oversharing world of blogs expect a more honest approach?
I am constantly tweeting things and going, why did I just say that to the world? I wanted to capture that feeling of there being no clear boundary anymore between public and private. And also, my characters will choose to keep really strange things private. They will share some sexual humiliation but refuse to tell their friends they lost their job. It’s an interesting thing in this culture what we choose to keep secret.