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'Girls,' 'Scandal' light up airwaves

"You couldn't pay me enough to be 24 again," says the gynecologist with her hand inside the heroine's private-most parts.

The doctor has just been trying her level-headed best to listen to her 24-year-old patient's nattering and darkly funny anxieties about AIDS and sloppy condom use. The doctor momentarily lets her professional reserve slip enough to reveal her mild disgust with what might laughingly be called "the mental processes" of the inexperienced young woman.

This is from next Sunday's episode of Lena Dunham's terrific new HBO series "Girls," (premiering this Sunday), one of the two most exciting series to hit the airwaves in a long time. (I'll get to the other -- Shonda Rhimes' "Scandal" on ABC -- farther down.)

Our neurotic young heroine -- played by writer/director/creator Lena Dunham (the young, countercultural Tina Fey) -- has already been informed by her academic parents that they're no longer picking up the tab for her unpaid attempts to gain traction in the New York publishing world. Their position is simple: two years after college graduation, she ought to be on her own financially. They love her to pieces, you understand, but it's "write if you get work" all the way.

We also see, in Sunday's first episode, how the adorably yammering daughter talks her way out of turning a yearlong, unpaid internship into a paying, full-time job.

She hasn't, you see, quite gotten the hang of not being too smart for every room she happens to be in. In next week's episode of "Girls," another employment opportunity collapses from sheer nerves and she somehow manages to turn a friend's abortion appointment into a weird sort of impromptu friends' social gathering (that, like all her social endeavors, goes hopelessly wrong).

The twentysomething women in "Girls" are labeled with pitiless accuracy in the show's title. They aren't really women yet, but they're trying, even though they're still at the stage where they're liable to identify New York City life roles by the names of characters in "Sex and the City" (Carrie, Miranda, etc.). They're as self-absorbed as children and hopelessly neurotic and secretly fearful about every bit of sexual confidence and swagger they affect in their ultra-clumsy sex lives.

They're all perversely lovable in Dunham's up-close-and-personal examination of their pseudo-adult abandonment of lovability. Like "Juno," they're learning how little of all they know actually qualifies as wisdom. A wonderful show for those in its "demographic," but also very much for those you couldn't pay enough to be 24 years old again.

It could be called "Daughters" almost as much as "Girls." Playing our heroine's larval buddies are lovely Allison Williams, daughter of NBC anchor Brian Williams, and Zosia Mamet, the daughter of writer David Mamet and actress Lindsay Crouse. Filling out the star quartet is Brit Jemima Kirke. All are superbly watchable in very real ways.

Just as "Girls" is realism's delightful way of sticking it to "Sex and the City's" comic fantasy, Shonda Rhimes' new show "Scandal" (Thursday nights) is a radical plunge into the funkier underside of Washington life in a 2 4/7 news cycle and a blogosphere world.

Something fascinating is happening here. Network TV shows, up to now, glorified doctors, lawyers, reporters, cops and crusading pols. "Scandal" gives us Kerry Washington as our very first "crisis manager" -- a ruthless "fixer" who can convince herself she's still got the moral high ground while she's doing the filthiest of presidential dirty work by reducing one of the hypocrite's unadmitted sexual dalliances to a tear-soaked glob of terror, shame and fear.

Let's grant that the show needed more than a dollop of melodrama to make it out of pilot, but in its focus on the world of moral equivocation and compromise, it is taking the next dirty step after "The West Wing."

Nor was that bit of altogether amazing moral equivocation the only lightning flash of creativity on "Scandal." The show's tremendous cold opening featured quasi-screwball dialogue at supersonic speed while Katie Lowes was recruited in Washington's firm by Columbus Short.

That, frankly, was it for me. I was forever on "Scandal's" side, right then and there. Anyone who knows anything about movies and TV knows how hard it is to replicate well the tempo of classic screwball dialogue a la Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell in "His Girl Friday" or William Powell and Carole Lombard in "My Man Godfrey."

"Scandal did it right out of the box. It's a show for grown-ups of all ages, not "girls" and "boys." It's terrific.

***

The recent death of "60 Minutes" founding co-anchor Mike Wallace will, obviously, spur another must-see event on Sunday when his broadcast alma mater pays tribute to its greatest single on-air figure.

Wallace created the prosecutorial mold of the "60 Minutes" interviewer. His influence on journalism everywhere was so enormous that even print journalists had to retrain all those ambitious interns who thought that Wallace's aggressive pseudo-courtroom challenges were the proper way of eliciting crucial information.

Quick story: I once told a hugely bright summer intern a story about a fading Broadway star whose husband, legendarily, figured out how to game the TV ratings by finding out who had ratings diaries and then influencing them. The results were absurdly high ratings for his wife's show. Our interviewer used that story as his first accusatory Wallace-like question to the fading star who was coming to Buffalo for a one-woman show. She said "goodbye" and hung up the phone. So much for our interview.

I've never doubted, for a minute, that newspapers everywhere had their own version of that in a post-Wallace age full of young journalists who thought that Wallace's flamboyant interrogative style was the profession's basic fact-gathering tool, rather than a TV performer's flourish.

Here, from a 1977 essay that had its own compromises, is Michael Arlen's eloquent, if snotty, description of what amounts to Wallace's influence.

"On the one hand, '60 Minutes' appears to imitate the surface conventions of the city room or magazine office, with its correspondents nearly always properly attired in white shirt, necktie and suit (in the fashion of a 1950s Time reporter) and brandishing their little spiral notebooks as they ask the old-fashioned newsman's tough questions. On the other hand, the form in which '60 Minutes' presents its investigations has little to do with the conventions of print journalism...

"With '60 Minutes' the news gathering process itself has become part of the story -- sometimes a big part, with the TV newsman first shown outside trying to get in, then inside, facing down an uncooperative or hostile subject, who in turn is shown in closeup on the screen often caught by the camera in a carefully edited grimace or expression of seemingly revealed truth which later may turn out not to be truth at all -- or truth of a quite different sort. One obvious result of this cinematic dramatization of the news interview is that the public is all too likely to follow the seductive flow of the news-gathering drama without paying close attention to its content."

Arlen's specific focus was Dan Rather in that piece, but Wallace perfected the form on "60 Minutes," practiced it best and was the one who -- when the movies actually told the story of a "60 Minutes" investigation "inside" something -- was the focus of Michael Mann's superb film "The Insider."

Wallace was a truly great figure but one whose very greatness helped make the current 2 4/7 news cycle necessary, not just technologically inevitable.

Unlike, say, that of Edward R. Murrow, Wallace's greatness was an enduring and pivotal triumph for television, not for American journalism.

A huge American figure, nevertheless.

email: jsimon@buffnews.com