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When we were young

For all its sassiness, Lena Dunham's new show "Girls" seems to speak to an older audience.

Lena Dunham’s TV show Girls (Mondays, 10pm) is like nothing you’ve ever seen before. Do I mean this in a good way or a bad? I don’t know. To be Dunham-ish about it (she is all about ebb and flow), I’m having a bad time today and the thought of it is making me pretty mad. Why do young women – any women! – always have to be portrayed as so bloody ditzy? But two days ago, when I was feeling more benign, I loved it. It took me right back to the dread days when I used to ricochet around London, a silver ball in a bagatelle board. I’m one of those people – like the nurse at the women’s health clinic in episode two –who would not be 23 again if you paid me. I didn’t know who I was, or who I wanted to be, and I had so little clue about who I wanted to sleep with that I, well . . . I should perhaps draw a veil here.

Lena Dunham writes Girls and she stars in it, and sometimes she directs it, too – which would be enough to make you sick if she wasn’t so talented. She’s a good actor, warm(ish) and natural, and her writing has the ring of truth about it, a fact I find moderately surprising given how precociously successful she is; after all, the stuff she dishes up for the delectation of horrified subscribers to HBO (Sky Atlantic in the UK) has mostly to do with failure. The failure to get one’s parents to subsidise one’s kooky Brooklyn life. The failure to get a job worthy of a graduate. The failure to sleep with a male of the species who is anything less than physically repulsive. Her character Hannah’s current boyfriend, Adam, is straight out of The Name of the Rose. She likes him well enough but her affection is shot through with low-level gratitude and a weird passivity most women will recognise. When they have sex – his foreplay begins and ends with the words: “lie there”, and he is prone to shouting “dirty whore” at her during the act itself – the expression on her face is one of mild interest, almost as if she were watching herself from across the room. He’s more of an experiment than a boyfriend. But you sense that he has the capacity to hurt her nonetheless. This feeling I really remember. Oh, the men who made me cry when I didn’t even like them!

Girls wears its pop-culture references on its sleeve, in the manner of hard-won Girl Guide badges. Think Manhattan, think Clueless, think Sex and the City. Especially Sex and the City. But where Candace Bushnell gave us archetypes – the brunette square, the blonde sex maniac, the red-headed workaholic – Dunham gives us something more blurry. It’s brilliantly knowing the way she plays wannabe writer Hannah sitting, Carrie-style, on her bed, her laptop open, only for her to type the words “diseases you can get from the stuff that gets up around the sides of condoms” into Google. She and her friends Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet), Jessa (Jemima Kirke) and Marnie (Allison Williams) even look alike, all four of them being brunettes.

Their sisterliness is kindly, but it’s also flexible and therefore realistic. When one of them requires an abortion – wow, an American TV show that allows having an abortion to be about as traumatic as going to the dentist – they pitch up to the clinic together. On the other hand, they think nothing of being late for one another should circumstances (ie male attention) intervene.

They’re not especially likeable, these girls. They’re entitled. They’re not hard up the way most people are hard up. Hannah is the spoiled only child of college professors and her face when they told her they would no longer fund her perma-intern lifestyle was ghastly to behold (another actor would have looked horrified straight away, but Dunham smiled first, as if at a private joke). However, in the right mood, this suits me fine. I don’t hold with the drippy school of thought that insists fictional characters must be likeable. And besides, which of us didn’t behave badly, or at least stupidly, when we were young? That’s the really weird thing about Girls. For all its sassiness, for all that it was written by a 26-year-old, it seems to speak mostly to an older audience – to those of us watching it from a position of safety, an extra decade having reduced our foolishness to grim memory.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 29 October 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Something Rotten