Where have you gone, Carrie Bradshaw? A nation of TV single ladies turns its poor, lonely eyes to you.
HBO, the pay-cable network that struck gold with "Sex and the City," will premiere "Girls" today, another bawdy comedy about four young, unmarried gal pals living in New York. Only now there's a glaring shortage of designer fashions, fizzy cocktails, bling-filled parties and elegant hunks.
Instead, this middle-class foursome -- all fresh out of college -- are awkwardly navigating a recession-era New York of brutal job prospects, humiliating letdowns and lousy lays.
"These girls moved here with the hope of a 'Sex and the City' lifestyle, and that's almost this ghost that's following them around," explains creator and star Lena Dunham, during a media conference to promote the show. "Their (crappy) boyfriend whose bed is on the floor is no Mr. Big. He literally does not have bed sheets."
Welcome to the new, more-gritty-than-glitzy world of prime-time females. This season has delivered a windfall of sitcoms about young single women, a trend enhanced by the fact that several of the shows were created by female writers. But while today's characters may follow in the footsteps of icons like Mary Richards and Ally McBeal, they not only talk differently -- breaking all records for vagina jokes -- they're faced with a vastly different reality.
Instead of working for a TV news operation or a plush law firm, the women in "2 Broke Girls" (Kat Dennings and Beth Behrs), for example, are scraping by as waitresses and sharing grubby living quarters because, well, they're broke. Same goes for the luckless June (Dreama Walker) of "Don't Trust the B-- in Apartment 23." Left penniless when her company imploded (thanks to a Bernie Madoff-like embezzlement scheme), she's living in roommate hell with a con artist named Chloe (Krysten Ritter).
The doe-eyed Jess (Zooey Deschanel) of "New Girl" has it almost as bad. A grade-school teacher, she's recovering from a messy breakup and sharing a loft apartment with three dysfunctional male roommates.
So why all the hardship? What happened to the kind of TV gal who could simply turn the world on with her smile? Consider it a reflection of the times, says Melissa Camacho, a professor of television and media studies at San Francisco State University.
"Years ago, there was a materialism in the world that we kind of enjoyed, but that crashed and burned," she says. "Now, you've got these shows that are trying to present a more realistic and less romanticized view of what young women are going through. You don't have to hyper-stylize everything to appeal to viewers."
Denise Witzig, coordinator of the Women's and Gender Studies program at Saint Mary's College in Moraga, Calif., considers it a refreshing shift in pop-cultural dynamics.
"It's great because the old reality was never truly the reality. Everyone had these fabulous apartments in big cities, and you never saw them worrying about money," she says. "As fun as 'Sex and the City' was, all the luxury and fairy-tale fantasies did get to be bothersome."
No single-woman series avoids fairy-tale fantasies -- or TV convention -- as willfully as "Girls," which is as bleak as it is brazen, and uncomfortable as it is funny. The show's aesthetic, as described by critic Emily Nussbaum of New York magazine, is "raw and bruised, not aspirational." And unlike the model-pretty women who headline most female-centric shows, the short and fleshy Dunham doesn't exactly possess the kind of body that winds up on frat-house walls.
The show, which also stars Allison Williams, Jemima Kirke and Zosia Mamet, plunges its intriguingly flawed characters into a post-collegiate drift, struggling for financial independence, chafing at conventional ideas of womanhood, and confronting subjects like STDs and abortion.
Even the sex scenes aren't all that sexy. The first time viewers spot Dunham's character, Hannah, in a carnal encounter, she's with a neglectful, self-centered weirdo who has no patience for her repeated questions about proper technique.
"Let's play the quiet game," he suggests, in an attempt to shut her up.
"Girls" is executive produced by Judd Apatow, the master of crude humor who helped bring "Bridesmaids," another edgy female comedy, to the big screen. But its voice and heart undeniably belong to Dunham, 25, a self-declared "over-sharer" who first seized attention in 2010 for her cult favorite indie film, "Tiny Furniture." She says she took her inspiration for the series from the anxieties of her own post-college years.
"It was a really kind of confusing, frustrating time, and I saw a lot of my friends going through the same thing," she says. "And it didn't feel like it was being reflected back at us (in films and TV). I've always been someone who feels better if I see what I'm going through in a movie. ..."
Camacho believes the time is right for an offbeat show that takes an honest and unvarnished look at what women of the so-called Millenial generation are going through.
"I think there's going to be a huge response because a lot of people will be able to relate to it," she says. " ... Life is more complicated in your 20s than it used to be. For a long time, women have talked about wanting and having it all. Now there's a new generation of women saying, 'Yeah, we get it, but it's not going to be an easy journey.'"