Like many 25-year-old women, Lena Dunham grew up on "Sex and the City," even staying in with Mom one New Year's Eve to watch a nine-episode marathon.
Unlike her peers, Dunham created a show about that infatuation. But "Girls," which premiered at 10:30 p.m. Sunday on HBO to the kind of critical praise that welcomed "Mad Men," is not an homage to its predecessor. It's an indictment, blaming Carrie Bradshaw and company for setting a ridiculous, and even dangerous standard that scarred a generation. The series is rarely laugh-out-loud funny, but it's always think-out-loud provocative television.
Dunham, who wrote and directed most of the episodes, plays Hannah, a recent college graduate who has moved to New York with visions of cosmopolitans and sexual adventures. But Hannah's dream of being the next Carrie is slowly falling apart, even if she refuses to see it.
She doesn't understand why her unpaid internship hasn't led to a fashion column. She's flabbergasted that her parents won't give her a grand a month while she's "busy trying to become who I am."
She can't come to grips with the fact that her boyfriend, a shirtless non-wonder whose idea of foreplay is playing out pedophilia fantasies on his sheetless mattress, will never turn into Mr. Big. She's startled that a job interview goes south because her flirtatious dialogue includes a joke about date rape.
Her naivete is compounded by the myriad tattoos on her back - all illustrations from children's books.
"I think I may be the voice of my generation," she tells her parents after chugging some marijuana tea, just her latest attempt to be hip. "Or at least a voice of a generation."
Hannah isn't the show's only lost soul.
Her three girlfriends have their own issues with expectations. Jessa (Jemima Kirke) has mistaken traveling the world for sophistication and refuses to take her appointment at an abortion clinic seriously. Marnie (Allison Williams) has secured a perfectly loving boyfriend, a gift that's driving her up the wall. And then there's Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet) a virginal, fragile tag-along who still hangs a "Sex and the City" poster in her bedroom and describes herself as a mix of Carrie, Samantha and Miranda, when it's clear that her only hope is becoming a Charlotte. If she's lucky.
Dunham, who landed on the pop-culture landscape in 2010 with her acclaimed indie film "Tiny Furniture," based the characters on her post-college life, when she made her living working at a candy store and baby-sitting.
"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 said in an interview earlier this year. "These girls thought they were going to live the dream and now that they've arrived, it's something decidedly different. 'Sex and the City' is the ghost that's following them around."
The journey can be an ugly one.
Dunham, an all-American beauty in person, goes out of her way to make Hannah a visual and emotional mess, gobbling cupcakes while lying naked in the bathtub, rambling incessantly during a gynecological exam and describing herself as a "fat baby angel." When she asks an ex-boyfriend why he went out with her even though he was clearly gay, he delivers a dart: "There's a handsomeness to you."
Most painful are her graphic sex scenes with Adam (Adam Driver), who laughs off her requests for a condom and kneads her belly like it's four cans of Play-Doh. "Do you ever try to lose weight?" he says with all the tact of a longshoreman.
These moments will make you sympathize with Hannah, but Dunham doesn't let her character off the hook so easily. She can be selfish, childish and incredibly lazy. This is someone who thinks the world owes her something, even if she can't quite figure out what that something is. It's a bold move, one that elevates "Girls" from being just another squirm-inducing sitcom into the rarefied category of important television.
"It's important that you realize that it's OK to be annoyed by these characters, because they're making terrible mistakes," said co-producer Judd Apatow, the director of "Knocked Up" and "The 40-Year-Old Virgin," films that prove he knows a few things about people who have a hard time growing up. "There's a sense of self-entitlement. They're immature and they (suffer) every disaster that happens before you figure out your life."
There's no telling how long it will take Hannah and her gal pals to get to that place, but if the audience loves the show as much as the media do, it promises to be a long, hilarious and sometimes agonizing climb.