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Girls behaving badly an edgy lesson in how not to grow up

Four young women learning the ropes of life makes for bold TV.

CREATED, written, co-produced by and starring 26-year-old Lena Dunham, Girls was one of the most attention-grabbing and avidly discussed TV arrivals of 2012. Essentially the story of four white, twentysomething, female friends living in New York, it burst forth from the US cable channel HBO - once the home of Sex and the City - to be ecstatically hailed as ''the voice of its generation''.

But with considerable skill, Dunham's comedy-drama soon revealed itself to be a decidedly ambivalent voice as it presented a clutch of self-absorbed characters full of anxiety and doubt, wracked by confusion and frequently behaving badly.

Which is why Girls - which is poised to start its express-delivered second season on pay-TV's Showcase channel on January 14 - is ultimately so much bolder than its sparkly predecessor.

Superficially, it might appear to be cloning a proven formula: a quartet of gal pals lookin' for love and a fabulous life in Manhattan. Seen it all before, you might think, with memories of Carrie and co still fresh in your mind. Well, yes, and no.

Girls inspires inevitable comparisons to Sex and the City and, in its focus on the social, sexual and professional lives of four women, Dunham's series is certainly exploring similar territory.

But while there are similarities between the shows, there are also notable differences, ways in which Hannah Horvath (Dunham) and her friends - earnest, fretful Soshanna (Zosia Mamet), reckless, feckless Jessa (Jemima Kirke) and pretty, tightly wound Marnie (Allison Williams) - exist not just several downtown blocks but a world away from their older screen sisters.


In its own distinctive way, Girls is breaking new ground. Dunham is a lot tougher on her characters, even to the extent of challenging a basic TV convention by often making them dislikeable. Their struggle isn't a pretty one and she presents them warts 'n' all. As a result, her sad, funny and complex portrait of young women on the verge has an edge that Sex and the City lacked, especially in its later, more conservative years.

What the women in both shows share is confusion, but in Girls, where the characters are younger, it's an uncertainty about what they're supposed to be: how they're supposed to act, with each other, with men, in the workplace.

In Sex and the City, the women have established careers and are largely trying to figure out romantic relationships. But the characters in Girls are at a more formative stage of life, holding down more menial jobs and trying to pay the rent. They're also flailing around gracelessly, hurting themselves and each other, and wounding and baffling the men in their orbit.

Dunham's characters might technically be women, but they're also the girls of the title: often immature, sometimes petulant and irresponsible, disastrously impulsive, struggling to find a foothold in the adult world. They can't be mistaken for role models. Anyone who uncritically cheers their often-destructive actions is almost wilfully misreading Dunham's cleverly nuanced representation of them.

They're troubled and troubling, and Dunham, who's deft with a killer line, writes with a laser-like, unsentimental acuity about them and, by extension, her generation. There's no Barbie doll glamour here. What she sees around her is messy and she evokes it with brutal frankness.

Her show is emotionally raw. Her characters can make you cringe and their sexual encounters are often as uncomfortable and unsettling as their social ones. Girls' sex scenes are explicit and often awkward, the characters literally feeling their way through the accompanying doubt and dissatisfaction.

The key word for these girls is self: they're selfish, relentlessly self-absorbed, sometimes self-loathing. When Hannah's boyfriend Adam (Adam Driver) - one of the most fully fleshed and fascinating male characters to grace the small screen last year - accuses her of not knowing him, of talking to him only about her weight worries, her financial problems and her frustrations as an aspiring writer, he's absolutely right.

The character that Dunham has chosen to play is a bit of a monster, ruthlessly analysing everyone around her in her self-anointed quest as a writer, but remaining blissfully free of self-assessment. She's not someone who can be relied upon, repeatedly leaving people in the lurch when they need her. She's not a friend who conforms to the ''I'll be there for you'' TV ilk. All that can be relied upon with Hannah is that her immediate needs, however banal, will invariably take precedence for her, even if it comes down to abandoning a drug-affected and scared Marnie at a party in order to dance to a favourite Scissor Sisters song.

Dunham is fearless in the way she puts herself on the line as Hannah, baring not just her thoughtful and inquiring mind with the show but also her less-than-model-perfect body. She's earned rightful respect from female viewers living in an age where impossible ideals of physical perfection are routinely presented as desirable and attainable.

But her real gift to us with Girls is that she makes us care about these young women in all their messiness. In that way, her show is a whole lot more grown-up than Sex and the City.

Season 2 of Girls starts on Foxtel on Monday.