If the pilot episode of HBO’s Girls tells us anything, it’s that the show– sprung from the mind of Lena Dunham– has a lot of potential. That’s a fairly inarticulate expression of my opinion of the show, inasmuch as it’s an incredibly broad conclusion, but that’s actually a fairly loaded statement. What kind of potential are we talking about here? Potential for greatness? Potential for failure? Put bluntly, the answer is “C, all of the above”; in far more accurate terms, Girls has a lot to say, a lot of ways to say what it wants to say, and ultimately a lot of different places it could go as the first season rolls on. At the same time, it could end up falling victim to the weight of expectations and fall short of living up to the promise it holds, which is substantial, or it could end up veering off in different, lesser directions.
At a glance, though, Girls looks like a winner. Aimless 20-somethings aren’t a new invention of narrative fiction– which may end up working against the show– but the pilot episode’s structure approaches that trope among the work of the young self-reflectively. Girls, in short, isn’t a half hour-long unchecked whine-fest promoting White People Problems. Forget the fact that the issues the girls of the title face in just one installment alone are universal; Girls‘ central theme, by design, thrives on each of these girls being called on their own petulance or selfishness. Rather than exist as a narrative founded on rewarding or otherwise canonizing its leads for the character flaws which drive both plot and story forward, Dunham’s endeavors here appear to be earnestly introspective.
Girls grounds itself in New York City, and latches onto its four eponymous young, modern, working women: Hannah (Dunham, creator, executive producer, writer, and sometimes director of the show), Marnie (Allison Williams), Jess (Jamima Kirke), and Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet). Each of them comes equipped with their own baggage and foibles. Hannah’s spoiled by parents who fund her life in NYC while she works toward realizing her ambitions of becoming a writer (though we actually see her strive very little toward this end); Marnie’s in a relationship with a nice guy and yet she can’t help but dislike and feel unloved by him; Jess lives on her own hippie-dippie bohemian planet, thoroughly detached from her friends’ problems; Shoshanna, well, we barely get to meet her, but she seems very sheltered and simultaneously fueled by her consumption of pop culture offerings. For the other girls, though, this only presents a broad overview, the most basic details, but it also provides the essence of what’s in play by the end of the pilot.
Where Dunham– who surely represents the face of Girls despite the other talented names involved– ends up going with those various plot threads and character details is another matter. The pilot definitely ends on a note which suggests that Girls‘ first season will focus on how these young women confront and deal with their problems instead of how they wallow in them. There is no pat on the back to either assure Hannah that she’s fine, or that she’s going to be fine; there’s just uncertainty, and a tinge of optimism.
What likely won’t change over the course of the season is Dunham’s knack for writing dialogue with sly, hinting nuance and shaping very real characters who are easy to relate to. But the key lies in how she applies that talent. Women, particularly women Dunham’s age, don’t often get opportunities as golden as this; it’s one thing to have an HBO series, it’s another for that series to have Judd Apatow in its corner. And so, with the size of the opportunity well-estimated, there’s an equal and yet somehow much more immense amount of pressure on Dunham to knock Girls out of the park. Is it fair? Absolutely not. But it’s unavoidably a real thing.
So what does Dunham need to do with Girls to succeed? Break away from reveling in waywardness. Give the cast a starting point and an ending point for the season. She’s already halfway there; we know by now where these ladies are at, and I think that for each of them Dunham has at least a germ of an idea of where they’ll end up. (Though I feel like that may be giving her less credit than she deserves.) If anything can sink Girls, it’s sameness and an aversion to progression and development. Should the show fail to develop its own identity in the “directionless young people” miasma while maintaining stagnancy in its characters, Girls won’t end up being a fraction of what it could be. For now, I think Dunham has yielded a solid starting point for something with all of the raw materials necessary to be great; we only need to sit back and see where she takes us.