Enlightened centers on Amy Jellicoe (Laura Dern), a 40-year-old woman who returns home to California after a month’s stay at a holistic treatment facility, a result of having a mental breakdown at work triggered by her self-destructive ways. She returns to her old life with a new cultivated approach and perspective which includes daily meditation and exhorting the power of self-help and inner-healing. Though Amy wants to be an “agent of change” in the world, the people who know her best are skeptical of her latest intentions.
Over the years I have shifted much of my attention away from television and focused squarely on movies. Television simply reached a saturation point with me, the bad and/or mediocre far outweighing the good. And then a gem like Enlightened comes along. HBO’s engrossing and temperamental dramedy, co-created by Mike White (School Of Rock, Chuck & Buck) and Laura Dern (Rambling Rose, The Master), makes a very strong case that television series’ can be profound, insightful even, pushing the medium forward into new directions.
Dern, in a Golden Globe-winning performance, plays Amy Jellicoe, a corporate executive with the Abbadon Corporation who suffers an on-the-job meltdown. With her personal and professional life having successfully conspired to send Amy to her breaking point, she returns home from a lengthy stay at the Open Air Treatment Center in Hawaii and moves in with her exasperated mother Helen (Diane Ladd, Dern’s real-life mom). Focused, grounded and centered, relying on her newly found skills of meditation and holistic remedies to steer her back to a life of normalcy, Amy ignores the prickly relationship with Helen and sets out to get her job back.
After meeting with Human Resources she is informed there are no jobs available but Amy’s relaying of information obtained from her lawyer quickly changes Abbadon’s tune. Returning the next day, she is assigned to Floor H, a department and floor no one she has worked with even is aware exists within the organization, and her glamorous 15-year executive past collides brutally with the cold, clinical and colorless computer lab she is now assigned to. She sees her new colleagues as misfits, groundlings existing beneath her, but Amy needs the work. Naturally, Amy believes that she has everything figured out. Quickly, however, her Zen-like view of the world is put to the test, especially in her efforts to reconnect with old friends, co-workers and ex-husband Levi (Luke Wilson).
Difficult to categorize, Enlightened covers a lot of ground over the course of its 10-episode first season. Billed by some as a comedy, White and Dern may not deliver obvious jokes and easy to spot laugh-a-moment gags but vigorously deliver whimsical, real-life situations which viewers can connect and relate to. White’s teleplays often take a turn toward introspection and dig deep into the human psyche, more vivid and probing than anything he has written before. Dern sells every moment and her high wire act in making Amy as annoying, empathetic, boorish and endearing as possible is indicative of some of the finest acting I have seen in episodic television.
As creators of the series, Dern and White are smart to recognize that embracing Amy is likely a challenge for viewers, at least initially, so there is a richly populated and densely written supporting cast of characters which all have their moments to shine over the course of the first season. Wilson is engaged and refreshed playing Amy’s former husband who still loves his ex-wife but has allowed different types of demons to overtake what he always thought was a stable, controlled and sustainable life. Sarah Burns is a standout as Krista, Amy’s former assistant who moves into her office with a young husband and baby on the way and who struggles with tolerating Amy’s emotional lashouts. She is the main benefactor of Amy’s departure and through her performance Burns conveys wide-eyed anxiousness evoking a character caught in the rip and pull of personal conviction and the backstabbing culture of office politics.
White writes himself a wonderful character in Tyler. He’s playing what is essentially Amy’s only friend in Floor H. He is kind but a loner, disconnected from his co-workers but not the Abbadon Corporation where he has some history. He is loyal but guarded, sensitive but cold, and like Amy simply hopes for some spark of a connection to get him through the day.
Diane Ladd is terrific, her character gaining breadth and depth as the season goes on. Issues are explored that will likely be developed more in the pending second season but the stuttered relationship between Amy and Helen, their inabilities in repairing a frequently fracturing bond, is as fascinating as it is heartbreaking. The penultimate ninth episode, a standout, is where White pulls the focus from Amy’s life and focuses it almost exclusively on Helen, largely written through an elongated exchange in a grocery store between Helen and an old acquaintance, and it is as uncomfortable as it is unnerving.
Dern and White employ a talented slate of directors to steer this ship, Miguel Arteta, Jonathan Demme, Nicole Holofcener, Phil Morrison and White himself all working beautifully together. Rather remarkably the show never deviates in tone or feel and Laura Dern proves, no matter who is at the helm of a particular episode, that she not only lives and breathes Amy Jellicoe but is simply one of the finest and most underrated actresses working today. She and White are clearly working in sync with one another, the actress hitting every emotional bend, vacant-eyed stare and hyperkinetic behavior expertly. Enlightened offers her the chance to play off of various different personality type; watching her match the rhythm and cadence of these quirky but organic personality types something special.
Sadly, the Emmys failed to consider Enlightened in its first go around and perhaps its searing and honest life-based dramatic and comedy beats hit too close to home. I can safely say as a pretty big fan of Mike White’s cinematic explorations this show feels like his best work both as writer and as an actor. By its design, a show like this will struggle to find an audience because you cannot compartmentalize it easily into one definable category. Those looking for comedy will not see the comedy they are expecting and those wanting something more dramatic will furrow a brow at the quirkiness infused into the writing.
My best advice? Just clear your mind and see where Enlightened takes you because this first season is as well-written and riveting as anything HBO has produced in years.
Enlightened finds its first ten episodes spread out in a two-disc presentation (five episodes per disc) with the each presented in its original 16:9 Widescreen format.
This DVD features an English 5.1 Dolby audio mix. Viewers can additionally watch the show with a French Dolby 5.1 audio track or a Spanish 2.0 surround sound audio tracks. The audio mix works nicely, especially in the scenes on Floor H where a nice audible hum underscores much of the happenings in Amy’s new work environment. Subtitles are available in English, French, Spanish and Chinese.
Extras here include:
· Inside Every Episode – This follows each episode and features Mike White in brief, individual featurettes summarizing (and rather obviously) explaining everything we’ve just seen. I enjoy these types of segments but rather than just listening to White restate everything we have just seen there is not much to take away from these segments other than seeing him validate the connections we make as viewers to the events that have transpired.
· Audio Commentaries – Commentary tracks are on four episodes. On Disc One White and Dern discuss the pilot episode on their lonesome. They bring in their cinematographer to discuss the fourth episode, “The Weekend.” On Disc Two the commentaries are held to the final two episodes and listening to Dern and Ladd discuss “Consider Helen” is a nice listen. On the season finale, White discusses the episode and the series as a whole with producer/director Miguel Arteta.
Enlightened was an absolute surprise, a television show that is as engaging, intriguing, well- acted and well-written as anything you are going to find. Provocative shows like Girls, Dexter and higher profile network shows may nab headlines and garner most of the attention, but this one delivers episode after episode. Mike White and Laura Dern have a clear vision and my mind races at where they will take their second season. So much promise still exists for this show and I cannot imagine anyone not being curious or taken by the treasures this series offers its viewers.