Lena Dunham and the New ‘It’ ‘Girls’

It’s easy to think of Lena Dunham’s new series “Girls” (HBO, 10:30 p.m.) as a kind of anti-“Sex and the City,” a reality check for young women who imagined fashion and fabulousness for their young years in Manhattan and instead face dead end jobs and relationships, nowhere internships, unreliable boyfriends and generally less gloss than the previous HBO series.

Dunham in a way is extending the story she began in her own largely autobiographical indie film that explored some of the same issues, “Tiny Furniture,” which also featured her mother and sister as her mother and sister.

“It’s closely based on my own experience of getting out of college and not having a sense of whether I would ever get to do the thing I wanted to do, and I was really miserable,” she says.

After graduating in 2008, Dunham says, “for two years I was working as a babysitter and in a children’s clothing store and as the worst law firm secretary you ever met in your life.”

It was bleak, but funny from a distance.

“I was working in a baby clothes store and just, like, excited that I got free cookies in the afternoon,” she says. “I remember asking my mom, like, four times one day, ‘Do you think that I will ever have enough money to live outside of your house?’ And she would be like, ‘You know, you just never know. You don’t know.’”

Even when she was making “Tiny Furniture,” she had to keep her other jobs. “I would have to take days off during shooting to fulfill my babysitting obligations, and I remember someone being frustrated because I had to go to a film festival and couldn’t pick their kid up from acrobatics class.”

It was never Dunham’s intention to make an answer to “Sex and the City.” In fact, like many who watched it was aspirational.

“One of the best New Year’s Eve of my life was watching a ‘Sex and the City’ marathon with my mother, maybe nine episodes in a row. I don’t think I thought I would make a ‘Sex and the City’ show. I think I thought I would move back to New York and have a really elegant boyfriend and a really incredible shoe closet, and that was not the reality that I was greeted with.”

She knew the comparison was coming because it’s young women in New York and HBO. “But it really felt like it was tackling a different subject matter,” she says. “ ‘Gossip Girl’  does the sort of teens duking it out on the Upper East Side, and ‘Sex and the City’ was about women who sort of figured out work, figured out friends and now to want to nail family life. And there was this whole in-between space that really hadn’t been addressed.”

She does throw in a “very loving ‘Sex and the City’ joke” in the first episode, Dunham says, “because we want to make it clear that these are girls who moved here with the hope of a ‘Sex and the City’ lifestyle, and that’s almost this ghost that’s following them around. Their shitty boyfriend whose bed is on the floor is their Mr. Big. That guy in the pilot is now Mr. Big. He literally does not have bed sheets.”

The small jobs and daily humiliations, the hand to mouth roommate and apartment situations were what she and her friends faced.

“It was a really kind of confusing, frustrating time, and I saw a lot of my friends going through the same thing, and it didn’t feel like it was being reflected back at us,” Dunham says. “And I’ve always been someone who feels better if I see if I see what I’m going through in a movie, I’m like, okay. It’s not the worst. So I really wanted that for me and for other people.”

“Girls” succeeds by  being more based in reality than any number of contemporary comedies that purport to show modern young women, from “New Girl” to “2 Broke Girls” to “Whitney.”

At the same time, others have wondered why she and her characters in “Girls” don’t just grow up and stop hitting their parents up for money.

“We’ve all been really conscious of making sure that it’s clear that they’re trying their hardest and that they make mistakes, but they’re also they are working toward something,” Dunham says. “It’s a ‘two-steps forward, one-step back’  situation. They do need to grow up. That’s what the show is about. It’s about that sort of effort to change. I don’t know.”

Executive producer Judd Apatow says “it’s OK to be annoyed” by the characters in “Girls.” After all, he says, “they’re making terrible mistakes. There’s a sense of self- entitlement. They’re immature.”

And the show, he says, features “every disaster that happens before you figure out your life.”

Which can be funny.

Especially when her character seems to always make the wrong decision, Dunham says.

“You could place two decisions in front of her, and someone could be, like, ‘That is the right choice. This is the wrong choice. That one leads to delicious candy and bunnies, and that one is you in a fire,’ and she would be like, ‘What?’ She has no clue. And it’s almost it’s almost a little stylized in a certain way.”

Working at HBO instead of on her own, she says, “felt as personal and understanding as making a movie with my mom and my sister. I just didn’t have to buy the pizza.”

She just had to get used to shooting on a sound stage with a replication of her actual bedroom on it.

“It was all very confusing and ‘Being John Malkovich’y,” she says. “ And then I got into the bed, and on the New York sound stage they sound three alarms to let you know that it’s time to shoot. But I didn’t know that, so the three bells rang, and I was like, ‘Thank God. There’s a fire drill. I don’t have to do this. I can leave right now.’”

But after about two takes, it started to feel more comfortable. Now the set, she says, has “a very communal vibe. People are always bringing their daughters to work.”

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