Ah, to be 24 again! Wouldn’t you give anything to go back to those halcyon days of carefree living and late-night parties? Just think of the possibilities. Be careful of what you wish for, though, because being 24 ain’t what it used to be; at least not in the eyes of Lena Dunham, the multifaceted wunderkind responsible for HBO’s edgy new comedy “Girls.”

Ah, to be 24 again! Wouldn’t you give anything to go back to those halcyon days of carefree living and late-night parties? Just think of the possibilities. Be careful of what you wish for, though, because being 24 ain’t what it used to be; at least not in the eyes of Lena Dunham, the multifaceted wunderkind responsible for HBO’s edgy new comedy “Girls.”


Dunham, who wrote, directed and stars in the 10-episode series, offers a more realistic – and decidedly pessimistic – view of today’s twentysomethings facing a world of joblessness, HIV and broken dreams. She confronts all these issues with refreshing honesty and unflinching realism. At times, it’s difficult to watch, but you simply cannot take your eyes off Dunham and her three gifted costars: Allison Williams, Zosia Mamet and Jemima Kirke.


All four actresses know New York City like the back of their hands, having spent either part or all of their lives in the Big Apple courtesy of being the offspring of such talents as news anchor Brian Williams, playwright David Mamet, Bad Company drummer Simon Kirke and renowned artist Laurie Simmons (Dunham’s mother and co-star of her groundbreaking indie feature, “Tiny Furniture”). And that inherent knowledge of the rhythms and moods of the city add immensely to the verisimilitude of a show that prides itself on its vérité style.


Leading the gang is Dunham as Hannah, an aspiring novelist who believes she’s “the voice of a generation – or a voice of a generation.” It’s a view not shared by her parents, who have just informed her that they will no longer foot the bill for her “groovy” lifestyle, meaning that she either finds a job or moves back home. But with the unemployment rate for twentysomethings hovering around 16 percent, finding a job outside of a McDonalds or minding other people’s children is nary impossible.


Then there’s Hannah’s passive-aggressive “boyfriend,” who views her more of a coconspirator in kinky sex games than a companion. He’s played by Adam Driver with a loutishness that is typical of almost all of Dunham’s superficial – and egotistical – male characters. But who cares? It’s the women that we’re here for, and they seldom disappoint. The standouts are Williams as Marnie, Hannah’s employed, seemingly got-it-together roommate whose worst fear is that she’s not good enough for her clingy, over-eager boyfriend; and Kirke (reprising her scene-stealing from “Tiny Furniture”) as Jessa, an oversexed, drug-addled British import with a propensity for one-night stands and irresponsible behavior.


The undisputed sweetheart of this deal is Mamet’s Shoshanna, a 21-year-old virgin who adores her cousin, Jessa, almost as much as she worships the four ladies from “Sex and the City,” a show that Dunham wastes no time distancing herself from even though both are about four women confronting men and careers in New York City. If anything, “Girls” is the antithesis of “Sex,” with its austere sets, shabby-chic wardrobes and glitz-free style. Instead of cosmopolitans they sip on cups of fresh-brewed opium, which, we are told, tastes just like “twigs.” If there’s a complaint, it’s that “Girls” is more clever and knowing than funny, which is true of almost every enterprise produced by Judd Apatow. But like all of Apatow’s productions, “Girls” never fails to have its heart in the right place, as it grosses you out one minute (graphic discussions about the stuff that “leaks out the sides of condoms”) and elicits a well-deserved tear (Hannah realizing that her life has been a crock) the next. What holds you, though, is how deeply you find yourself getting involved in the misfortunes of four young women who aren’t as easy to like as they are easy to love.


GIRLS Cast includes Lena Dunham, Jemima Kirke, Allison Williams and Zosia Mamet. Written and directed by Dunham. 3.5 stars out of 4.