Why New York's sitcoms are going for broke

Forget Friends and Sex and the City. It's time for a less aspirational approach to life in the Big Apple, says Sarah Hughes

It has long been the rule that comedies set in New York are aspirational. Think of Friends, with that ridiculously large apartment, mysteriously situated in central Manhattan, or Sex and the City, with its endless parade of to-die-for shoes and designer cocktails. Even Seinfeld aspired to show viewers that the average New Yorker was wittier than them, no matter how mundane the things they chose to be witty about.

That's all about to change, with the arrival of a new wave of New York-set sitcoms which are not so much about living the high life as about the day-to-day struggle to fail to reach those heights. From current HBO comedies such as How to Make It in America and Bored to Death to the cable channel's highly anticipated new comedy Girls, which focuses on the misadventures of three under-employed twentysomethings and starts this autumn, New York-set sitcoms are turning away from fantasy to examine the reality of life when you're young, broke and living in the city.

"My show is definitely about the discomfort of trying to live in a place that doesn't even want or need you," says Lena Dunham, the creator of Girls. "Shows like Friends or Sex and the City had moments of financial struggle but the delightful apartments and jet-set lifestyles were never questioned. In so far as Girls has an agenda, we're definitely trying to shine a light on the least glamourous aspects of life for a young female in an urban environment."

Nor is HBO alone in switching its focus to those who aren't quite sure where the next paycheque is coming from. Apartment 23, from ABC, and the CBS series 2 Broke Girls start next season and centre on mismatched pairs of twentysomething girls, trying to earn a crust. In Apartment 23 a young Midwesterner finds herself cheated out of her savings by first her rapacious new boss and then her new flatmate. In 2 Broke Girls, which is executive-produced by Sex and the City's Michael Patrick King, a former society girl struggles to make ends meet in a Brooklyn diner, alongside a more streetwise co-worker.

Both shows clearly owe as much of a debt to The Odd Couple as they do to Sex and the City – 2 Broke Girls hopes to come across as a modern-day version of the 1970s hit Laverne and Shirley – but they are also gambling that some sharp, offbeat casting (Veronica Mars' Krysten Ritter in Apartment 23, the rising indie queen Kat Dennings in 2 Broke Girls) will help them to break new ground and appeal to a savvy generation of young women.

All the sharp casting in the world, though, won't help if the setting feels wrong. Although Apartment 23 has fun showing otherwise, these days it is increasingly unlikely that the truly broke would live on Manhattan's glittering island. Instead, the new breed of New York sitcom prefers to look across the Brooklyn Bridge. The befuddled detective of Bored to Death haunts the coffee shops of Brooklyn's Fort Greene and Girls is set in Greenpoint. 2 Broke Girls takes place in that Brooklyn diner. Meanwhile, the two wideboys of How to Make It in America might hustle Manhattan's achingly trendy Lower East Side but much of the comedy arises from the difference between their Brooklyn pasts and their new dreams in Manhattan.

"Where they come from is important," says Victor Rasuk, who plays the fast-talking Cam Calderon. "Manhattan might only be across the bridge but they feel like outsiders and because of that they're prepared to take some risks."

There is one trait that the new breed of New York sitcoms shares with the old: a very American seam of optimism. Despite constant setbacks, the would-be entrepreneurs of How to Make It in America refuse to be depressed; the cast of Apartment 23 might cheat and lie but like those long-gone Friends, they're there for you; even Girls, with its dates gone askew and jobs not managed, is wryly upbeat about life on the fringes.

"My characters are being exhausted by trying to tread water when the current is swift," says Dunham. "But they're hopeful. They have the (possibly delusional) belief that they have something to offer the world."