Watching episodes No. 4-10 of "Girls" -- shrewdly provided to critics by HBO to capitalize on their rhapsodic reaction to the first three, which even spilled over onto op-ed pages -- provided enhanced perspective on the Lena Dunham series.
With its quartet of single white females in New York, "Girls" has invited inevitable comparisons to "Sex and the City." Except instead of that other HBO show, as the program unfolded I found myself reminded of a 1978 movie, "Girlfriends," from director Claudia Weill and screenwriter Vicki Polon.
Although I haven't seen the movie for years, it's one of those little understated gems, about two college friends -- Susan (a pre-"thirtysomething" Melanie Mayron) and Anne (Anita Skinner) -- sharing an apartment in New York. Only Susan's life changes when Anne announces she's getting married, leaving Susan -- an aspiring photographer/artist who is shooting Jewish weddings and bar mitzvahs to make ends meet -- to get by on her own. Plump and needy, she engages in various questionable decisions, including a flirtation with the elderly rabbi (Eli Wallach) with whom she works.
If this sounds a trifle familiar (oh, and did I mention Susan is a budding poet?), it should. The tone is extremely similar to "Girls," where the characters are also recent college grads, also covet careers in the arts, and also engage in questionable romantic entanglements, including flirtations with older guys, such as the dad to the children one of them nannies. The main difference between Dunham's central character, Hannah, and Mayron's Susan is the latter wasn't able back then to send text messages or (even if she could afford it) watch HBO. (You can find more on "Girlfriends" and its interesting back story from critic Emanuel Levy.)
This is less a commentary on Dunham's creation -- which features some strong moments in the subsequent episodes, as well as some particularly tired ones, mostly involving Hannah being a romantic doormat -- than the dearth of nuanced portrayals of women, which hasn't been helped by a shift away from the indie-film world "Girlfriends" occupied.
As for TV, which has filled some of the character-driven void, yes, the medium features plenty of prominent female characters. Yet when they're not solving crimes or serving as district attorneys, the small groups of them palling around Manhattan tend to be more of the "Friends" or "2 Broke Girls" variety. Perhaps that's why something like "Girls" can be heralded by some as a cultural breakthrough or subjected to bruising derision by the likes of Gawker when it ultimately amounts to HBO using its promotional heft to serve old wine in a new bottle.
(An aside here: "Girls" has been questioned and analyzed on several fronts, including its lack of racial diversity, which is noteworthy. That one element, though, is actually emblematic of a larger drawback that becomes apparent in these later episodes -- namely, the lack of depth in anybody featured in the show over the age of 25.)
Of course, Dunham wasn't even a dirty thought in her parents' minds when "Girlfriends" was released, which makes her 21st-century take interesting, whatever its flaws, and entitles her to a real-world claim on Hannah's aspiration to be recognized as "a voice" of her generation.
It's not a bad voice. It's just not a terribly new one, unless you're blessed with a short memory.