Dennis: Now in its second season on HBO, this half hour sort-of comedy series isn’t getting the same press as the uber-buzzworthy (and excellent) ‘Girls’. Maybe it’s the general lack of naked young flesh that’s keeping this show in semi-obscurity, or, you know, the fact that it is almost impossible to describe in a way that will make anyone want to watch it, ever. I mean, I resisted Enlightened for a good long while before finally succumbing, and now it’s appointment viewing for me, so I’ll give it a shot. A vehicle for actress Laura Dern, the show follows her character who, as the show begins, is Amy, a hard-driving, even harder-partying junior executive at a typical corporate multi-whatever who, after a particularly public breakdown at work finds herself attending a holistic rehab facility. While there, Amy wholeheartedly adopts the spiritual awakening philosophy and returns to work, only to find that she’s being phased out of her old job and that, shockingly, her newfound social/environmental/all other ways consciousness doesn’t jibe with the corporate philosophy. Shunted down to the literal and figurative basement of the company, she finds herself little more than a data entry drone, surrounded with the rest of the company’s misfits; the company can’t really fire an employee who’s undergone the recommended treatment, but they sure can bury her in drudgery and humiliation and hope she’ll quit on her own.
The thing is- this new Amy is filed with the righteousness that only the truly self-righteous can know and she takes it upon herself to bring her newfound, well, enlightenment to the corporate world- and then probably the world, especially when she accidentally discovers that the company may be up to more than the typical corporate malfeasances that go hand in hand with good ol’ capitalism.
There- now you can see that I’ve spent a lot of words trying to convince you to watch this show and that I have failed completely. It sounds like a drag, frankly: maybe it’ll be a bummer of a self-satisfied liberal polemic, or a nasty-headed cringe comedy mocking new agey types. I thought it was going to be one of those, but what I didn’t count on was Mike White, the sneaky genius whose written things like Chuck & Buck, School of Rock, Year of the Dog, and more, and under whose guidance (he writes every episode), ‘Enlightened’ has revealed itself as one of the most multi-layered, surprising, character-based series in a long time. The key to the show (as it was with White’s underrated Year of the Dog) is that it’s entirely possible to be absolutely right in your convictions and yet be absolutely insufferable in your actions. Dern’s Amy, like Molly Shannon’s awakened vegan animal rights activist in Dog, undergoes what to her is a meaningful spiritual awakening that completely takes over her life, and then loses all perspective on the fact that, just because you’ve had an epiphany, you can’t just assume that the rest of the world is going to do everything you say.
Now, that may sound a lot like the aforementioned “new age bashing” but Enlightened really isn’t that; sure Amy’s newfound obsessions are played for queasy, uncomfortable laughs more often than not, but you get the sense that White thinks her positions are essentially correct. It’s more a show about a fundamentally unhappy woman who exchanges one unhealthy obsession (her career) for another (fixing the entire world) without the leavening wisdom of perspective to prevent her from becoming, well, a monster. Because, in Dern’s hands, a monster is what Amy becomes, her toothy, wide eyed earnestness whooshing past the needs of others and sweeping the unwary along with her on her monomaniacal yet unformed crusade to save the word, largely by destroying the company she’d once lived for. It’s a stunning performance which (like Shannon’s in Dog), plays empathy ping-pong with the viewer as Amy is at once the humiliated underdog out for vindication and a single-minded zealot out to wreak revenge on those who she thinks have wronged her, no matter who her vendetta destroys. (And, as ever, the shocking openness of Dern’s face is absolutely captivating to watch- and terrifying.)
The balancing act White and Dern pull off here is fascinating, but that’s just the half of it. The show has a habit of pulling back from Amy’s story unexpectedly to throw an entire episode at one of the minor characters (that’s how she sees them, anyway) in Amy’s life, giving them an entire episode to show what a life in Amy’s fanatical orbit is like. Luke Wilson, who hasn’t been this good since The Royal Tenenbaums, gets one as Amy’s still-addicted ex-husband, and Diane Ladd (Dern’s real mom) gets one as Amy’s put-upon mother who takes Amy back into her quiet retirement (and formerly peaceful house). And Mike White himself, who heartbreakingly portrays Tyler, the ghostlike office mole and computer expert who finds himself unable to resist getting sucked into Amy’s quest. (Seriously, his season 2 episode had me in awe-struck tears throughout, when I wasn’t laughing.)
So there you go- ‘Enlightened’ is a weird, ambitious, unsettling, funny, heartbreaking, nigh-uncatagorizable series anchored by great writing and a daringly bananas lead performance. I’d watch it, if I were you…