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‘Girls’ Deserved What It Got. But It Also Deserved Better.

Ten years ago today, ‘Girls’ premiered on HBO and catapulted Lena Dunham to fame, for better or for worse. Is it time to separate the creator from the project and start appreciating the show on its own terms?

HBO/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Hindsight may be the best thing that ever happened to Girls. When the HBO series first premiered, 10 years ago to the day, the pilot marked the crest of a tsunami of hype. The furor had been building for over two years after creator Lena Dunham’s film Tiny Furniture earned her a Best Narrative Feature prize from the South by Southwest film festival. Then came the most symbolic accolade of all for an artist on the rise: a profile in The New Yorker, written when Girls was still known as “Untitled Lena Dunham Project.”

Once the show had a name and a release date, the buzz went from merely loud to deafening. There was a cover story in New York magazine, including a photo shoot by future Emma director Autumn de Wilde. There were enthusiastic raves, praising Girls for its offbeat humor and unvarnished style. Finally, as required by the laws of physics, there was the equal-and-opposite backlash, a volley of complaints lodged for reasons both valid (the lack of diversity) and not (comparing Dunham’s tattoos to “self-mutilation”). One could barely make out the show itself through all the chaos surrounding it.

Many of the critiques performed the same rhetorical sleight of hand, conflating Dunham not just with her Girls character—the clueless, impulsive, underemployed Hannah Horvath—but an entire production with hundreds of collaborators, including executive producer Judd Apatow and co-showrunner Jenni Konner. “To understand Girls … we must first talk about Lena Dunham,” read a review in Tablet.

The equation of Dunham with her show was understandable; a 25-year-old with a premium cable show is already media catnip, let alone one who writes, directs, and stars in it. But the blurred line also made it hard to separate analysis of Girls from Dunham’s own status as a cultural lightning rod, prone to making the kind of ignorant comments that necessitate citing “a ‘delusional girl’ persona I often inhabit” in her subsequent apology. In the same statement, from 2016, even Dunham seemed to collapse art and life, admitting of said persona, “That’s what my TV show is, too.”

Such discourse ebbed somewhat after Girls ended its run in 2017. In the half-decade since, it’s become easier to separate Dunham from the project that made her a household name. Dunham has moved on, putting distance between herself and Hannah. She’s gotten married and shared her experience with chronic illness. In her professional life, she’s ended her partnership with Konner, stepped behind the camera for directing and producing roles on shows like Industry and Genera+ion, and returned to features. Dunham has two coming out this year: Sharp Stick, a Sundance indie about a 26-year-old virgin having an affair with a much older man, and Catherine, Called Birdy, a medieval comedy based on a children’s book. She’s certainly in a different place than where we last saw Hannah, adjusting to academia and single motherhood in a spacious house upstate.

As its creator has evolved, Girls has stayed in place. The further we get from its award-winning, controversial run, the easier the show is to appreciate on its own terms. At the time, thanks to the breathless praise and a title that suggested ambitions to be more universal than the series ever truly was, Girls was asked to stand for a lot more than just itself. (To be fair, White Millennial Upper-Middle-Class Girls in Brooklyn doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue.) In 2022, Girls can be both more and less than what it was held up to be in 2012. To paraphrase Hannah’s most memorable line from the pilot, if she isn’t the voice of a generation, she can at least be a voice of a generation. And when Girls no longer bears the burden of being the show of the moment, it can be admired as a show that contributed to a turning point in its medium—starting with that first episode.

The principal irony of Girls was always that its strongest bits of satire were often interpreted as unintentional acts of telling on itself. Hence a show that faced frequent accusations of nepotism, with all four lead actresses having at least one parent employed in media or the arts, opening with the ultimate act of filial entitlement: When Hannah’s parents gently inform her they’ll no longer be paying her rent, she spitefully refuses to see them again. “I am busy,” she hisses, “trying to become who I am.” Dunham’s actual parents, the photographer Laurie Simmons and painter Carroll Dunham, were fine artists only vaguely adjacent to Hollywood. (Simmons has a cameo in Girls and played the mother of Dunham’s character in Tiny Furniture, shot in the family’s Tribeca loft.) But their daughter so convincingly played a woman grown used to two full years of parental largesse that many assumed she was speaking from experience—which she was, if not so directly.

The plot of Girls’ initial outing could’ve been ripped from any number of concern-trolling headlines about hookup culture and post-recession malaise. Hannah unsuccessfully attempts to turn her unpaid internship into a job, ends up unemployed, and freaks out in her parents’ hotel room, pausing her downward spiral only for an awkward, unsatisfying encounter with her noncommittal boy-something. But even as its story could be studiously contemporary, the show always wore its influences on its thrifted sleeves. Motormouth Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet) greets her nonplussed cousin Jessa (Jemima Kirke) with a slew of Sex and the City references, a parallel driven home by the massive poster on Shoshanna’s exposed-brick wall. Yet when Hannah wakes up in bed spooning with her best friend and roommate Marnie (Allison Williams), by far the episode’s most sincere display of true intimacy, we learn they fell asleep bingeing a less frequently cited forebear: The Mary Tyler Moore Show, another comedy about a woman scrambling to keep pace with modern life.

Dunham was careful to cite her sources. But much of Girls remains strikingly original—especially its treatment of sex, a third rail that would go on to ignite some of the show’s biggest firestorms. Hannah’s on-again, off-again love interest is played by, of course, Adam Driver. He’s shirtless when we first meet him, as he would often remain, and while clearly not yet in Kylo Ren shape, he’s still ripped in a more naturalistic way. When Hannah all but shows up on his doorstep unannounced, Adam lets her in almost begrudgingly. After some stilted banter, the two start to make out, and you can spot the precise moment when any other show would cut away and let the viewer imagine what happens next. Instead, Dunham’s camera keeps rolling, directing herself lying ass-up on the couch as Adam gets up to find a condom and requests they “play the quiet game.”

Now freed from contemporaries’ assumption that Dunham is speaking for all women her age and the sex they may or may not be having, Girls still stands out for its embrace of the gray area between empowering and abysmal. Hannah’s liaison with Adam plays out with disarming candor, with every stammer and grunt allowed to linger unaccompanied by music, framed in largely static shots—no blurry handheld shots of unidentifiable limbs to obscure what’s really going on. “Disarming candor” was, in effect, Girls’ de facto motto, applying equally to its portrayals of sex, a shabby New York cleansed of unrealistic opulence, and its own characters’ glaring flaws. Dunham refused to cut away from debasing scenes like Hannah’s meltdown in front of an aghast Peter Scolari, excellent as her closeted father, Tad. The discomfort was entirely intentional, though it also proved too much for some detractors to bear.

Girls arrived at a time when TV was experiencing a kind of behind-the-scenes revolution. Two years before, comedian Louis C.K. had one-upped legendary showrunners like David Chase and Matthew Weiner by not only writing his FX sitcom Louie, but also starring, directing, and editing as well, all on a shoestring budget. The Louie model helped catalyze an influx of career filmmakers into television, from heavyweights like David Fincher to indie trailblazers like Karyn Kusama. Girls was often compared to Louie, though the former’s portrait of oblivious young womanhood anchors a very different perspective than the latter’s divorced father of two. But because television remains Dunham’s most visible platform, she’s rarely cited as an example of the ensuing auteur boom. The evidence is still there, if you care to look. Dunham began her career in features, and has since returned to them.

In the years to come, Girls would peak with relatively stand-alone episodes that didn’t have to serve a larger story. Before “One Man’s Trash” or “American Bitch,” however, there was the pilot—a half hour that contains everything that keeps Girls in the conversation, a full decade after it started.