Melissa Maerz
February 08, 2013 AT 05:00 AM EST

No one makes people care about bighearted losers quite like Molly Shannon, the mastermind behind SNL‘s Mary Katherine Gallagher and Sally O’Malley. And her new, four-episode role on Enlightened might be her most touching performance yet. In her first episode, Shannon’s character, Eileen, a lonely secretary at Abaddonn Industries, shares a kiss with her shy co-worker Tyler (Mike White). She admits that she really likes him but doesn’t want to get hurt. ”I just don’t want to deal with a jerk or a dick or someone who’s fake or mean…” pleads Shannon, 48, her voice cracking. ”I’m just too old to get kicked in the face, you know?” What Eileen doesn’t know is that Tyler is in on a plot to overthrow Abaddonn, and he’s already stolen company secrets from her. Her face is about to get kicked, hard.

Still, Shannon’s deeply expressive performance is so full of raised-eyebrows eagerness and shaky half-smiles that she makes you root for the doomed pair anyway. Her vulnerability comes from a real place. ”My mom died when I was 4, and I felt petrified to get close to anyone when I was dating,” she tells EW of the years before she married artist Fritz Chesnut in 2004. ”I didn’t want to go through losing someone again.” But she gets why Eileen feels safe with Tyler. ”He seems like a freak. And she feels like a freak. It’s two freaks in love.”

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