The critics could barely contain themselves when the first episode of a TV show called Girls screened in America.

"One of the most original, spot-on, no-missed-steps series in recent memory," glowed the Hollywood Reporter. "From the moment I saw the pilot ..."

The New York Times's cultural sage, Frank Bruni, called it Sex and the City in a charcoal-grey Salvation Army overcoat.

"It's a recession-era adjustment. The gloss of Manhattan is traded for the mild grit of Brooklyn's more affordable neighbourhoods. The anxieties are as much economic as erotic. The colours are duller, the mood is dourer and the clothes aren't much."


No one can remember the last time a television series was greeted with the rapture seen this week. The response is all the more remarkable because the plot of HBO's Girls - the sex lives and friendships of four 20-something women in New York - echoes that of Sex and the City, another HBO series that was greeted, in its day, with rapture. The difference is that Girls is bleaker, sharper and more explicit, and thus viewed as a mirror to a new generation.

All of this is a heavy burden of meaning and expectation to rest on a 30-minute comedy. Just two episodes have screened. Is it really that good and that important?

Or is it, as some dissenters have claimed, a media hype-fest that betrays its own obsessions with youth, sex and New York?

If the show does embed itself in the cultural landscape it will be to the credit of Lena Dunham, the precocious talent who has written, directed, produced and starred in the show. The fact that she is merely 25 and stumbled to fame via a YouTube clip she made of herself bathing in a public fountain has invested Girls with the possibility that Dunham really is, as her slacker character mumbles to her parents in one scene, the voice of her generation.

The daughter of a photographer mother and painter father, Dunham turned her unanticipated YouTube excoriation - the clip was intended for friends but went viral, with comments focusing on whether she was fat - into part of a US$25,000 ($30,600) feature-length film, Tiny Furniture, in which she cast family members and played a version of herself: a college graduate back home with her folks moaning about boys, film-making and her role in the world.

It landed her an award and a contract with HBO, the cable television network, to make a primetime series under the watchful eye of Judd Apatow, Hollywood's comedy king.

His influence has been detected in some of the sex scenes, which depict intercourse as awkward, unerotic, and, at least for Dunham's character, humiliating. They are also, depending on taste, brutally honest and funny or toe-curling and unwatchable. In this they resemble the film Bridesmaids, which showed a strong female character submitting to the sexual whims of a commitment-averse creep.

Dunham's parents have supported her work, but her father has flinched at her sex scenes. "Hannah [Dunham's character] and the show are all about internal conflict and so is the humour, while sex ... is the metaphor for all that conflict," said Newsday. "It's grotesque, malignant, unpleasurable and a particularly devious torture chamber, at least for the women, who still submit to it." A scene in which one character turns her abortion into a group outing immersed the show deeper into the foaming battle over reproductive rights.

Sex apart, another reason for the show's appeal, according to Eric Klinenberg, the author of Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone, is that it depicts a new way of living. The four main characters, he said from his New York University office, are typical of college graduates who move to cities and form "tribes" of friends en route to maturity and independence.

"We always see a tension in these friendships because this is a phase, a second adolescence, which will give way to something else," he said.

Klinenberg, a sociology professor who studies urban and demographic patterns, said that this was a relatively new phenomenon. "It's a kind of luxury for young Americans from affluent families. It used to be you married young and stayed married."

According to Klinenberg, in the past half-century the number of Americans living alone has soared from four million to 31 million. The characters in Girls share an apartment - reflecting their financial squeeze, despite sponging off their parents - but you could imagine them moving on to solo living, he said. "After a few years the sharing gets tired and complicated.

"Typically, someone starts making more money and uses it to buy the privacy of their own apartment."

The sociologist enjoyed the first show: "My book is about the re-organisation of our personal and family lives and so is the show. Compared to Sex and the City it feels more deep and honest."

The acclaim has already triggered a backlash. Several critics have complained that the lead characters are all white.

"It feels alienating, a party of four engineered to appeal to a very specific subset of the television viewing audience, when the show has the potential to be so much bigger than that," wrote Jenna Wortham in The Hairpin, an online women's magazine. Others, such as Brian Lowry, Variety's chief television critic, described the first episodes - critics have been given advance screenings of the first three, regular viewers have seen two - as interesting but not reason enough to gallop home and turn on the box.

Lowry also criticised the media "infatuation" that he attributed to a bias towards HBO, which elitist circles considered more prestigious than regular television, as well a bias towards youth and New York. "Put them all together, and you get the onslaught we've seen over the last couple of weeks."

The hype risked making the show irritating even before the public gets its first exposure to it, he wrote. "For many, there's almost an inevitable 'Really? That's what all the fuss was about?' effect, especially with a show as understated as this one."

Dunham's talent was not in question. "But would the series be garnering this sort of attention if set [in] a different city, on a different network, about a different [translation: older] age group? I sincerely doubt it," he said.

Speaking from his office, close to Beverly Hills, Lowry laughed off suggestions that his complaints reflected a west coast bias. The first episode, he noted, garnered about 1.1 million viewers, a decent but not spectacular audience for a new HBO show. "All those positive reviews didn't make people rush to watch it," he said.

- Observer

Girls screens on Sky's Soho channel from May 10.