Of all the things that have addled and irritated the watchers of Lena Dunham’s HBO series Girls (the characters are too white and overprivileged! Lena Dunham spends too much time naked!), of all the things that have made a noisy sliver of them feel that the show is worthy of their “hate,” the late-in-the-game revelation that Dunham’s middle-class lost-girl princess Hannah suffers from OCD seemed all but designed to stoke the hostility of those who dislike Girls but can’t stop watching it. To someone like me, though, who adores the show (I’ll put my passion right out there: In two seasons, I think there has hardly been a false moment on it), when Hannah began to deal with her anxieties by counting, compulsively, to eight, any and every way that she could, even to the point of mutilating her eardrums, I found the twist gripping and scarily authentic — and one of the reasons that I absolutely went with it is that, after the first OCD episode, I began to imagine what a character trait like that one might have looked like in, say, a mediocre Sundance movie devoted to a discombobulated heroine with OCD. And I could just, you know, see those cutely kooky scenes of personal derangement (look, she’s arranging her Tater Tots into a perfect triangle!), the deadpan-disturbed lead performance by Elle Fanning, even the ad campaign (“Love is a compulsion”). And I just thought: What that movie wouldn’t have is what Dunham brought to every twitch and tremor of Hannah’s obsession — an anti-kooky concentration and troubled fever, a sense of how the OCD is literally, physically torturing Hannah, but how it’s also her way of hanging on to an identity, of giving herself one, as her assorted other roles in life (girlfriend of Adam, transgressive e-novelist) fall away, with nothing to replace them. To a desperately exacting degree, she became The Girl Who Counts To Eight. And, more important, she took us with her.
A great many television series may now be as good or better than the majority of movies. But I would argue that it’s still rare to find a series that is, in its rhythms and textures, an extraordinary movie. That’s what made The Sopranos so singular and game-changing: It was, in its GoodFellas-meets-the-Jersey-McMansion-suburbs way, the great Martin Scorsese movie that Scorsese hadn’t made since GoodFellas. In creating and crafting that series, David Chase defined television, for the very first time, as a place where you could be the new Scorsese. That sort of transformation doesn’t happen too often; I’d argue that shows as good as Sons of Anarchy and Homeland haven’t reconfigured the medium in quite that way.
Girls, on the other hand, does. It may have been built on a Sex and the City template, but the scenes don’t play that way (they amble and digress), and Dunham’s performance as Hannah is a feat of ironic sincerity. Even her funniest lines aren’t just funny — they’re antic defense mechanisms that mask (barely) her raw nerves. One of my favorites occurred in a very early sex scene in Season One with Adam Driver’s Adam, that tenderly skewed goateed caveman who manhandles women because it’s what he thinks they want. Asked by Adam where on her body, exactly, she’d like to, you know, receive his love, Hannah replied, “What are the options?” That’s a line Dorothy Parker would have applauded, only Dunham — as actress, as writer, as director, as Hannah’s controlling muse — delivered it with an undertone of what am I doing here? dread that made it as emotionally expressive as it was hilarious. It’s because of moments like that one that Girls subsumes, and trumps, a school of moviemaking as surely as The Sopranos subsumed, and trumped, Scorsese. Girls has become the great indie movie about love and hooking up, about longing and disconnection, about the generation that grew up in the age of texting and Internet porn and a faltering economy that the independent-film world has otherwise failed to give us. Did you see Lola Versus? Your Sister’s Sister? The searching and scattershot Like Crazy? None of them can hold a candle to the self-dramatizing APP of wisecracking alienation that is Girls.
It’s worth noting how much Dunham rewrote the rules of TV/cinema crossover the moment she signed on to do the series. As an actress-filmmaker, she had exactly one movie behind her, the pinpoint observational Tiny Furniture, and though it was justly celebrated by critics, it was basically a marvelously shot mumblecore movie that never found anything approaching a sizeable audience. (It was barely trying for one.) In terms of the splash it made, it was sort of the equivalent of Richard Linklater’s Slacker or Darren Aronofsky’s Pi: an inspired debut that caught the film world’s attention and made one eager to see how this talent would blossom in a bigger-budgeted sophomore follow-up. (The films that Linklater and Aronofsky each made next were Dazed and Confused and Requiem for a Dream, both modern indie classics.) Now that Lena Dunham had arrived, what would she deliver?
One of her key next steps was to link up with Judd Apatow, and this, too, suggested a conventionally admirable path to Hollywood creativity and success. No one would have been shocked if she’d been chosen to direct his next production, the same way that he’d plucked the gifted art-head dabbler David Gordon Green from the indie world to direct Pineapple Express, or Greg Mottola before him to direct Superbad. (Given that Bridesmaids became the normally testosterone-centered Apatow factory’s all-time biggest hit, the timing seemed perfect for him to expand further into comedies of feminine experience.) Girls, instead of appearing on HBO, could well have been an Apatow-produced, Dunham-directed movie.
It became a series instead — but, at the same time, it still is that movie. As written and acted and shot and staged, it retains all the purity of Dunham’s indie DNA. The sex scenes, which have been dissected so much, are a beautiful case in point. It’s not just what they show, or how far they go. It’s their unhurried, unfolding, and unblinking rhythm, so that what’s happening between two characters physically becomes not just an “act” but a dialogue, an adventure that doesn’t feel like it’s been choreographed from the start. It may be erotic, or it may be unerotic (as bad sex, by definition, is), but it is always a spontaneous expression of something.
What else makes Girls a “movie?” The unusually rich and supple way that the show is photographed, with deep clear saturated colors, reminds me of how the great cinematographer Gordon Willis shot New York in Annie Hall. The streets are sensual and vibrant, the boho Brooklyn apartments fantastically specific, with a vivid sense in almost every image of the city as a crumbling, idiosyncratic playland. It never looks stagy or airbrushed (the way it did on Sex and the City). Yet the true movie-ness of Girls is its seductively layered vantage, the way it wallows in the messiness of its characters’ passions yet, at the same time, takes an almost magically detached, bird’s-eye view of them. The single most artful feature of Tiny Furniture, after all, was the way that Dunham kept the spotlight on her character’s niggling narcissism. She wouldn’t let her off the hook, which is just what most low-budget Sundance hipster romantic movies end up doing. They’re not tough enough to stand back from the adorably quirky characters, and flaky bohemian enclaves, that they create. And Dunham has carried that clear-eyed remorselessness right into Girls. The whole premise of the show is that Hannah’s drive to be a “creative” person is understandable, and also borderline infantile, because it’s the right desire in the wrong era. She’s not just out of work, she’s seriously deluded.
And that’s what makes her such a cathartic heroine, a focal point for the eager, desperate “loser” in all of us. The real transition in Girls this season was that the show, without giving up its light-fingered acerbic adventurousness, grew past having to present itself as a “comedy,” and relaxed into being what it always was: a drama with piercingly funny moments. The water cooler conversations I ended up having about it this season were less focused on love-it-or-hate-it debate than on basic questions, and often disagreements, about what was going on inside the characters. The way that Hannah’s wormy self-doubt undermined her last tango with Patrick Wilson, the way that Adam’s recent fling with a beautiful blind date got caught up in a swirl of class difference and sexual correctness — these were arrestingly ambiguous encounters. In a way, the whole (organic) tranformation of Adam from brusque comedic weirdo to complicated savior represents how the series has deepened.
I can’t wait for this movie to continue. However it turns out, though, what’s already clear is that Lena Dunham, like David Chase before her, has blazed a new career path for filmmakers. She has made the small screen home to something that it was never fully home to before, and that it now seems the ideal place for: the generation that grew up looking at itself as though it were watching itself on TV.
Follow Owen on Twitter: @OwenGleiberman