HBO’s “Girls,” premiering Sunday at 10:30 p.m., is nominally a comedy. It’s a sort of angsty, indie, younger, poorer take on “Sex and the City,” as we tag along in the lives of four very different 20-something female friends: type A Marnie (Alison Williams), girlishly chipper Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet), stylishly jaded, sexual free spirit Jessa (Jemima Kirke), and hot mess Hannah (creator-writer-director Lena Dunham).
But there is also an element of horror at work as the bad choices, meltdowns, and humiliations made by or visited upon each member of the quartet leads to cringeworthy moments that reverberate with heartbreaking realism.
Some viewers will laugh, but they might also find themselves watching through their hands as Hannah dissolves into a distasteful puddle of entitlement when her parents inform her that they will no longer be bankrolling her existence. Or when Shoshanna — Mamet playing a terrific contrast to her character Joyce on “Mad Men” — chirps cluelessly from a “Rules”-type book called “Listen Ladies.” Or when Jessa takes out her anger and confusion about her own sexually spawned predicament on Hannah. Or when a callow young lover refers to Hannah as “not that fat anymore” and considers it a compliment.
Dunham, who mined similar territory in her critically acclaimed 2010 indie film, “Tiny Funiture,” manages to ties the grimaces and grins together with a comedic sensibility that allows you to see these characters as they are with all their irritating and contradictory behavior, but still root for them as they feel their way into adulthood. And, this being HBO, there is a lot of feeling going on and, like the rest of the show, it is almost all comically awkward.
One of Dunham’s strongest qualities as a writer is the ability to write for voices outside her own head. So often with an “auteur,” be it in film or television, Woody Allen or Shonda Rhimes, the characters speak in the very identifiable cadences of that creator. In “Girls,” each character is her own person with individually defined neuroses and vocal rhythms. While each might represent a facet of the creator herself, they are allowed to operate autonomously. This includes Hannah’s parents — Becky Ann Baker (in a much more forceful version of the worried mom that she’s doing over on “Smash”) and Peter Scolari (a welcome return of a familiar face as a well-intentioned helicopter dad) — who play an entire spectrum from stuffy to shticky.
Watching the first few episodes you may alternately want to hug, shake, feed, and scold these “Girls.” But if Dunham, and co-executive producers Judd Apatow and Jenni Konner, can keep melding the laughs with the embarrassments, you may want to keep watching to see what these “Girls’’ do and say next.
Sarah Rodman can be reached at srodman