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'Girls' Just Want To Be 'Enlightened'

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Diane Ladd and Laura Dern in "Enlightened." (AP/HBO)
Diane Ladd and Laura Dern in "Enlightened." (AP/HBO)

How can people this bad make you feel so good? Larry David and Louis C.K. started it with “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and “Louie,” but now Lena Dunham and Laura Dern have gotten into the act with “Girls” and “Enlightened.” They make you wince, they make you cringe, they make you want to run from the room. But you keep coming back week after week. You can’t get enough.

At least some of us. They’re not the highest rated comedies on television, but they’re the highest regarded, along with ABC’s “Modern Family.” But one thing the network comedies have in common is a sense of uplift, albeit a bizarre sense of uplift, and even a sense of heroism. Liz Lemon might not be a heroic figure, but Tina Fey is. Jim and Pam with their quietly anti-bureaucratic attitudes – more mischievous than political – are the moral center of “The Office.” And while no one individual is the hero of “Modern Family,” it’s the face of the new democratic America. Given the results of the last election maybe that should be capital D Democratic.

“Girls” and “Enlightened” are back for Season Two this week, the two cornerstones of Sunday night quality television. (“Shameless," Californication" and “House of Lies,” their Showtime counterparts, are too over the top for me. “Downton Abbey?” Don’t get me started.)

These HBO shows are decidedly anti-heroic. The lead characters try to do the right thing – at least in their own often deluded minds – but more often than not they just make things worse. “Girls” is the more talked-about show of the two for its devastating anti-“Sex and the City” attitude. These are ordinary people, as often as not looking for Mr. OK or a job that treats them with a modicum of respect and something more than minimal wage.

I gave up on “Girls” early in the first season, mostly because of Hannah’s relationship with a guy who didn’t give her that modicum of respect, and scenes like this that seemed, to use their terms, overwrought. The language is R-rated.

Scenes like that make you wonder if these shows should even be called comedies. At any rate, Hannah has a new boyfriend, who’s a black Republican, and after watching the first two episodes of the season I’m ready for more. Dunham is an excellent writer and even if she makes you cringe – as when she tries to convince him that she’s colorblind – she has a way of endearing herself to you (as a writer, if not as a character).

But as good a writer as Dunham is, I prefer Mike White, writer and director of  the low-rated “Enlightened.” White plays a computer geek, but the star is cocreator Laura Dern in a courageous turn as Amy Jellicoe, who has been relegated to the basement of Abaddonn, a sleazy company where she was once a mistress of the universe. But she flamed out and after rehabilitation in an expensive ashram, she’s trying to put her life together – and bring down the company after she learns of its low-down ways. She hopes to unite her fellow basement dwellers in a revenge-of-the-nerds scenario.

She’s hardly a hero, though. White is at his funniest when he’s poking holes at Amy’s self-help mantras, often through the cynical words of her mother, with whom she’s living, and who’s played by Dern’s mother, Diane Ladd. I’ve never seen Ladd better, with her cynical words of wisdom and quizzical looks that make skepticism a beautiful thing to see.

“Do you believe in fate?,” Amy asks her mother, who with a simple “no” makes you laugh out loud. There’s less narration this year and more plot, which I hope will win it a larger audience, which it will need for a Season Three.

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The really amazing episode is next week, when Dern fantasizes about bringing down the company and her former best friend who now wants nothing to do with her. While White, like Amy, has his own anti-corporate sentiments, he’s well aware of the egomaniacal bent of many a reformer (hi, there, Ralph Nader). You could even say “diabolical” (Abaddonn is Hebrew for “destruction” and there are other Satanic incarnations) but I’ll let you see for yourself. Be careful what you wish for, Amy.

I’m just wishing for Season Three.My un-"Enlightened" old colleague David Bianculli prefers "Girls."

Lena Dunham on "Fresh Air."

This program aired on January 12, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.

Ed Siegel Twitter Critic-At-Large
Ed Siegel is critic-at-large for WBUR.