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HBO's Girls - Here comes trouble

Critics loved Lena Dunham's new series – till they saw it, and all hell broke loose.

It's almost a given that if a show is heavily hyped then the subsequent backlash will be both swift and merciless. So it has proved with HBO's newest comedy, Girls, which airs on Sky Atlantic later this year. Two weeks ago every bus-side and subway stop in New York appeared to be advertising the new comedy. Editorials hailed it as "groundbreaking" and "revolutionary". New York Magazine placed Lena Dunham, the show's 25-year-old writer, director and star, on the cover and described Girls as "like nothing else on television right now".

Then the first episode aired and suddenly as many people were queuing up to bury Girls as to praise it. An acerbic piece in Mother Jones magazine branded it "unstoppably irritating". Influential website Gawker.com published a venomous take-down. Even financial website Business Insider got in on the act with a report claiming "Girls hits too close to home for Millennials" (people in their early twenties). That article raised a valid point: how much of the backlash was fuelled by those who felt either unable to recognise their lives in Dunham's show or, conversely, found themselves all too uncomfortably represented?

"I didn't need it to be funny... I did expect it to be engaging and thoughtful. Instead it reminded me why I hate 'my generation'," wrote a poster on Entertainment Weekly's website. "I think this is the problem with this generation. Sometimes you've got to sacrifice and take a crappy job because at least it's a job... it sucks... but what else are you going to do?" wrote another, commenting on the lead character's decision to beg for hand-outs from her parents.

At women's website Jezebel respondents were also up in arms. So why has Girls got everyone so wound up? The story of twentysomething Hannah and her three friends, Girls, which is written and directed by Dunham and produced by comedy overlord Judd Apatow, the man behind everything from Knocked Up to Bridesmaids, has been described as a new generation's answer to Sex and the City. Only this time instead of high heels, cosmopolitans and dates with Mr Big, our heroines are under-employed, short on funds and sexually dysfunctional. Where Carrie and co flitted from swanky soirée to girly brunches, Hannah and her friends throw disastrous dinner dates in their tiny flats, engage in awkward bondage fantasies and attend crowded parties in dimly lit areas of Brooklyn.

It's both more realistic than Friends and much funnier. Yet that very realism is what appears to have got people's backs up. The appeal of Sex in the City was that it sold a fantasy vision of New York as a place where a freelance journalist could own a huge apartment stuffed full of designer clothes. Similarly, Gossip Girl showed us New York as a city of twinkling lights and jaded repartee. By contrast, Girls says that being young in the city isn't much fun. Even the best lines – "You could not pay me enough to be 24 again"/ "Well, they're not paying me at all" – are downbeat.

It's also the case that the casting has done little to avoid accusations of nepotism: the other girls are played by Allison Williams, daughter of TV anchor, Brian, Zosia Mamet, daughter of playwright David and Jemima Kirke, daughter of Bad Company drummer Simon. As the review on Gawker had it: "Girls is a television programme about the children of wealthy, famous people and shitty music and Facebook and how hard it is to know who you are." Nor is the lead character particularly likeable. In a now infamous line from the pilot, Dunham has Hannah declaim to her long-suffering parents: "I could be the voice of my generation. Or at least a voice. Of a generation." Yet while it's clear we're intended to laugh at Hannah's delusions, the show's critics looked at Dunham's youth and privileged background (she is the privately educated daughter of a well-known New York artist) and took her seriously.

A large part of the Girls backlash is fuelled by the fact we have not yet reached the point where female characters can be truly dislikeable. In the UK, where comedies such as Peep Show have long celebrated the self-absorbed and unaware, Girls would be less likely to stand out, but America still prefers to leaven even its darkest comedies with a little bit of a heart, and it's arguable that it is Dunham's refusal to do that which has caused most of the fuss.

In particular, her bleak sex scenes, which unsparingly chronicle Hannah's lack of self-worth, have come under attack. In The New York Times columnist Frank Bruni despairingly asked: "You watch these scenes... of the zeitgeist-y early-twenties heroines of Girls engaging in, recoiling from, mulling and mourning sex, and you think: Gloria Steinem went to the barricades for this?"

Of more concern are accusations of homogeneity. A thoughtful piece in online women's magazine The Hairpin commented on the overwhelming whiteness, remarking: "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". Other writers were less retrained – a post on the site Womanist Musings was headlined: "Girls is all about Spoiled White Girls." Dunham has admitted the lack of diversity is a problem, adding that she only became aware of how white Girls was when watching the rushes.

And despite average-to-low ratings of 1.1 million, that second season seems likely, given that the show's supporters have been as vocal as its critics. Salon hailed its warm depiction of female friendship. The New York Times praised its "acerbic and deadpan tone". The Los Angeles Times called it "nothing short of revolutionary".

Apatow remains bullish about the new comedy's chances. "When we made it, we always knew that it was a show you should fight about," he said recently. "It was built to be a show that you'd have to defend or argue about – for some people, it would make them angry – and we go over that terrain for the course of the 10 episodes. Hopefully people will fight about it every week."

'Girls' will air on Sky Atlantic later this year