Picture the scene: a nondescript hire car, the occupants three twentysomethings, driving through upstate New York on their way to collect a friend from rehab. The silence is broken by the woman who is sharing the back seat with an upside-down rocking chair.
“I don’t think this road trip is a metaphor at all,” she remarks casually: “it’s so boring.”
The line is so tightly crafted, it takes a few seconds to unpick the meaning – it’s taking off the American pop-cultural obsession with road-based epiphanies, but the listless, complacent way Lena Dunham delivers it also hints at a self-obsession rampant among privileged young adults in the west. It’s a good backdrop for uncomfortable comedy, each character at all times vying for the spotlight: why isn’t this road trip more about me?
Girls has always been at its best when, as this moment from the new series demonstrates, it flirts with the line between reality and surreality. Dunham, who writes and directs the series as well as starring in it, has created characters we all recognise. They feel probable – most of them are white, entitled young people playing at adulthood in New York City – yet at the same time we can rejoice in the comic strangeness of the lives they lead.
As the show’s title suggests, it has a female-dominated cast, headed up by Dunham as the neurotic would-be writer Hannah Horvath. This, coupled with the fascination with Dunham’s own rise to fame, has unleashed a media obsession with Girls so intense that it frequently seems to be forgotten that it is a television programme at all.
Instead, it is a cultural bellwether. Dunham is the voice of her generation, a ballbreaker, a trailblazer. And very little nuance is permitted: either Girls speaks for all women, representing some kind of unified theory of feminism, or it is nothing. Commentators stare at Girls in the way Hannah stares out of the window of the car, desperate for meaning to leap out.
There is another HBO show that elicited a similar response. Like Girls, Sex and the City had four female protagonists, was set in New York, and also dealt with sex, relationships, careers and friendships. Since it first aired in 1998 it, too, has been pored over for its implications for women and feminism, as if the answer to a centuries-long struggle for equality could be found in the question: “Are you a Carrie or a Miranda?”
The obsessive analysis of Girls is closely connected with the fortunes of its cast. The show is about a group of fictional young women trying to “make it” in New York, played by a group of young women who have very much “made it”. It’s very easy for the two to blend, feeding the assumption that Girls is not so much fiction as fact.
At the UK premiere of the third series on 15 January, Dunham and some of her cast took questions. Responding to journalists’ confusion, Zosia Mamet, who plays the uptight, fast-talking, insecure Shoshanna, was forced to remind them that Girls isn’t an accurate record of her life.
“The great thing about our jobs is that we’re playing pretend all the time,” she said.
If you can make it past such absurdity, Girls will reward your trouble. Dunham’s scripts are witty, painful and compelling. Her female characters are allowed to be complex: mostly they are hateful, but only in the most lovable way. Their antics are funny, disgusting and moving, often all at once.
It’s wonderful television – why does it have to mean anything at all?
Series three of “Girls” is broadcast on Mondays (10pm) on Sky Atlantic HD