Shows feature female characters facing challenges

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Out of all the women-centered new shows this fall, two examine the hardships wrought by crashes — one emotional, the other economic — and couldn’t be more different. In “Enlightened,” Laura Dern plays a woman weathering a devastating personal collapse. And in “2 Broke Girls,” a pair of Williamsburg waitresses supplement their meager wages by extolling raunchy retorts. As it turns out, the aspiring tranquility and optimism of the former is more palatable and enjoyable than the pessimism and cruelty of the latter.

In many ways, “Enlightened” doesn’t belong on HBO. Created by Dern with Mike White (who wrote “School of Rock”), it is perhaps the most understated and breezy of anything the network known for gangsters and over-sexed vampires has ever aired. Based in part by White’s own stress-induced mental breakdown, Dern plays Amy Jellicoe, a health and beauty buyer for a Big Business who suffers a very public meltdown after having an affair with a married co-worker.

Amy’s conniption erupts with fiery vengeance, but Dern masterfully manages to keep Amy’s edges just soft enough. In the pilot’s fantastic cold open, where an enraged Amy, her hair frazzled, brow-furrowed and mascara running, peels open the doors of an elevator in pursuit of her wrongdoer, it’s equal parts humiliating, comedic and tragic.

It’s impressive how smoothly “Enlightened” actually runs given how much story and ideas it somewhat confusedly tries to unpack. It’s hard to tell when Amy begins espousing all her New Age teachings to herself and everyone around her if the show is taking her utterly serious or is offering a staunch critique of neo-hippie-liberalism. When she occasionally loses her cool and snarls a coarse response or is shown scheming (like when she pretends to be homeless to get out of work in a future episode), are we suppose to laugh with her or at her?

The way the show is vague about how it feels about reinvention through spirituality is a hallmark of White’s, who wrote all 10 episodes of the show’s first season. Either way, Dern’s performance sells it. She captures Amy’s resilience, naivete and desperate clinging to sanity with a calmness that’s almost transfixing. In lesser hands, Amy could have been too neurotic and zany a character to stomach.

Her best moments are the ones she shares with Luke Wilson — full of tenderness and hedged hopefulness. The heartiness of this relationship is what grounds the show more than anything because without it, “Enlightened” is thinly plotted and tensionless. Despite that, it often manages to wash over you like a bizarre mediation — even as Amy does a gooey, almost saccharine narration at the end of each episode, they’re so light and airy, you give in to them.

It’s not as easy to warm to the bitterness of Kat Dennings’ character in “2 Broke Girls.” Dennings plays Max, a surly diner waitress who could go toe-to-toe with her male counterparts in yuks from any Chuck Lorre (“Two and A Half Men,” “Mike and Molly”) or Seth MacFarlane (“Family Guy”) show — indeed, in the three episodes that have aired so far, Max has made jokes of the anatomical, masturbatory and scatological variety — one time all in the same episode.

Max takes in Caroline (Beth Behrs, who does something brilliant in making the blonde rich girl character substantive), a formerly wealthy socialite who lost her fortune after her father was incarcerated for a Ponzi scheme. Together, they’re working and saving up to open a gourmet cupcake shop. The two leads have an incredible rapport, occasionally balancing out Max’s overwritten sourness with Caroline’s gumption.

The characters that work with them in the diner though, are all unfunny outlines of racial stereotypes. The Asian diner owner who seems to only speak in malapropisms is almost offensive. But what makes “2 Broke Girls” almost unsettling to watch is the nearly unbridled cruelty that Max treats Caroline with. Laughter at the mistreatment of others has long been a standard in comedy, but here, it comes insufficiently motivated, cold and bitter. According to “2 Broke Girls,” the only way to survive an economic crash is to get meaner.

Printed on October 10, 2011 as: Two shows highlight female leads fighting against economic, emotional difficulties