They grew up watching Sex and the City, but no one could mistake the girls of Girls, HBO's new comedy (Sunday, 10:30 ET/PT), for Carrie and her cohorts.
For one thing, there's all that fumbling, awkward sex. The hipster enclave of Greenpoint in Brooklyn, N.Y. And those humiliating setbacks as four post-college pals find career ambitions thwarted.
Yet "this is a show that couldn't exist without Sex and the City," says Lena Dunham, 25, its creator, star, executive producer and sometimes-writer and director. "Not just because of the place it carved for women on television, but also, these are characters who probably moved to New York because they watched marathons on New Year's Eve with their mom and went, 'I want me a piece of that.' "
The girls are Hannah Horvath (Dunham), whose parents cut her off financially while she's working as an unpaid intern; Jessa (Jemima Kirke), a free spirit floating in after time spent abroad; Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet), Jessa's younger, virginal cousin; and Marnie (Allison Williams), Hannah's roommate and best friend, who has a real job at an art gallery and a boyfriend she doesn't like. (Two of the stars are celebrity offspring: Mamet is the daughter of playwright David; Williams' father is news anchor Brian.)
Hannah is a slight variation on Aura, the character Dunham created for her 2010 indie film, Tiny Furniture, which brought her to HBO's attention. But while Aura had been home from college for all of three weeks and wanted to do basically nothing (her real mother and sister played impatient versions of themselves), "for Hannah, it's been two years, and she's starting to look around and say, 'Is this normal?' " Dunham says.
The show is "a fun, fabricated version of Lena's life in real time," says comedy-film maven Judd Apatow, who is executive producer of his first TV show since Fox's Undeclared in 2001. "When you're young and you haven't found the person you're going to spend your life with, you're in the middle of a series of bad dates and bad sexual encounters, and that's what life feels like. You're like, 'I can't believe it's not better than this.' "
And Dunham is fearless about depicting herself naked, needy and prone to humiliation by her friend-with-benefits Adam (Adam Driver). "The fumbling first kiss … is always where my instinct has gone," she says. "For me, it's scarier when I have to perform a scene when it looks like I'm falling in love with somebody. That feels vulnerable and terrifying."
Apatow (Bridesmaids, The 40-Year-Old Virgin) knows perhaps better than anyone that humiliation equals laughs.
"All great comedy is things going terribly wrong. There's nothing fun in maturity," he says. But he's a softie at heart; Dunham says he had asked, "Can there be one situation where two people kiss and then no one, like, masturbates on the other? Let's see a little romance, because romance is hope."
Already, Girls has won glowing reviews for its fearless, tragicomic depiction of frustrated youth and, like Sex in its heyday, has been labeled the voice of its generation. Or, as Hannah tells her parents of her in-progress memoir, "at least a voice of a generation."
That's a lot of pressure on a cable TV show: "I hoped the fact that my character said it when she was on drugs would be proof that we weren't trying to claim it as a mantle," Dunham says. "It's so crazy. I'm trying to speak for a specific segment of weirdos, aka myself."