How can one person make a difference in the world? Can we really overcome our baser motivations – our envy, our grief, our spite – and act with purity of intention? Does anyone really ever change? These are some of the questions facing the protagonist the excellent HBO comedy/drama Enlightened. Though cancelled last year after an all-too-brief run, this show tells a story both tender and joyful, while never glossing over the spiky, uncomfortable realities of human imperfection.
Laura Dern plays Amy Jellicoe, 40-year-old divorcee who works for a large pharmaceutical conglomerate called Abaddon. At the start of the series, she is a wreck – a high-strung, borderline alcoholic, sleeping with her boss and living with her mother– and has an extremely public nervous breakdown. After Amy is sent away for a month at an expensive recovery/therapy resort in Hawaii, she comes back a newly-minted vegetarian, meditating, spouting New-Agey mantras and, crucially, determined to transform her life. She doesn’t just want to find inner peace. She wants to do good. The problem is, she’s not quite sure how to do that.
Amy returns to Abaddon and is instantly demoted to a menial data-entry job in the basement, working with a collection of oddballs and “losers” and being snickered at by former colleagues and friends. But her zeal for becoming an “agent of change” will not be quelled, and her persistence outweighs her frustration. As readers of the book of Revelation (or Milton) may have inferred from its name, Abaddon may not be as benign an entity as its public image suggests. What begins as a small push for environmentally friendly policy may snowball into an exposé of corporate corruption.
Dern’s luminous performance as Amy brings to life a type of character we rarely see gracing our screens. Female characters are still much more constrained than male ones by the need to be ‘likeable’. It’s rare to see a TV show trust its audience to keep watching someone like Amy, despite it possibly taking quite a while to warm up to her. And it’s even rarer to see a woman in her forties as a lead character. Creator/writer Mike White allows Amy to just be a relatable, imperfect person.
And that person starts out anything but likeable. Though she herself is assured of her newfound enlightenment, Amy is still petty, awkward, and driven as much by vanity as altruism in her good deeds, protests, and quests. She considers herself above her new data-entry position, and consequently does a terrible job at it. She’s so unreliable that her mother refuses to lend her her car, she’s the laughingstock of her former office, and she has a tendency to view the people in her life as supporting players in her own life story. She’s the friend you invite to your party out of guilt, but privately hope won’t stay too long. She is in some ways the opposite of so many male antiheroes of our current much-lauded ‘Golden Age of Television’. Unlike the charismatic, ingenious ego-monster that was Breaking Bad’s Walter White, Amy Jellicoe is not the least bit cool. She’s irritating, tone-deaf to others’ social cues, and embarrassingly upfront with her emotions. Her desire to help people is infected with an urge to skip to the part where she’s already a hero, lauded for her beneficence like Joan of Arc meets Mother Teresa.
And yet, she is unshakably focused on working for justice. We root for Dern’s character not just to succeed in her quest, but for her to mature enough to do it for the right reasons. Her slow, incremental journey of growth inches her a tiny bit closer to wisdom with each episode. It is a frustratingly accurate portrayal of how maddeningly slow and difficult it can be to change oneself for the better – and even moreso, the world.
The secondary characters of Enlightened are as thoughtfully handled as Amy is. Luke Wilson plays Amy’s ex-husband, Levi, with whom she is on relatively good terms. Wilson is very affecting as a man so unable to confront his wounds he has chosen to numb them by any means available. Though laid-back, charming, and funny, his self-destruction is quieter than Amy’s was and it’s a real danger that he could just slowly slip away. Amy’s mother, Helen, is played by Laura Dern’s real-life mother, Diane Ladd, and their strained relationship is tested by Amy’s new persona. Helen’s skepticism at Amy’s choices wears on her daughter, and their living situation seems to be all that is keeping Helen from a life of near-silence, frozen in her past. And series auteur Mike White steals the spotlight as new coworker Tyler, a man so bland, timid, and achingly vulnerable that it’s searing to the heart. As much comedy as pathos is derived from Tyler’s social invisibility, until he is suddenly, painfully humanized for us in the best episode of the series. An unlikely co-conspirator, he is often collateral damage in Amy’s schemes, but her influence helps him and many other characters slowly start to bloom.
Enlightened, unlike its main character, is surprisingly gentle in making its points. Most episodes begin with a meditation narrated by Amy, a quote from her self-help books. These mantras may seem a bit facile at first, but by the episode’s end they take on new weight of meaning. Though packaged in somewhat self-satirizing New Age format, the morals of the show are resonant with Christian spirituality. It’s so easy to live one’s life going with the flow, thinking of oneself as a “good person” simply because one is nice or has committed no crime. It’s a whole other matter to actually do good on a concrete, tangible level, a choice that Saint Francis and Pope Francis would approve. It can feel surprisingly transgressive to live out one’s ideals, to be unafraid to stand up to injustice in ways that make people uncomfortable.
We all do good things for imperfect reasons. Even the noblest saint acts with a mixture of genuine charity and selfish motivation, and we all hunger for validation and acclaim. But like all virtues, detachment is a muscle, and like Amy, by working it we can slowly improve our selflessness-to-ego ratio. People do have the capacity for change, but growth is painful, and maturation comes only through struggle. That struggle, however, can end in triumph. In the interest of avoiding spoilers, suffice it to say that Amy discovers the wisdom she seeks may take the form of a burst of laughter – laughing at temptation, venality, greed; at how silly and trivial those things suddenly seem.
That Enlightened was cut short at two seasons due to low viewership could be seen as a sad oversight, and certainly it deserved more attention than it got. But it tells a complete story in the course of its 18 episodes, and perhaps its brevity makes it sweeter. Though it can take a couple episodes to warm to its unique pacing and storytelling style, those who give it a chance will experience a lovely and very human story about people’s capacity to grow.
Amy tells us that “You can walk out of hell and into the light, you can wake up to your higher self, and when you do the world is suddenly full of possibility of wonder and deep connection. You can be patient, and you can be kind, and you can be wise and almost whole. You don’t have to run away from life your whole life. You can really live. You can change and you can be an agent of change”
Because, as Joanna Newsom delicately croons over the end credits of one episode, “kindness prevails.”
Enlightened ran for two seasons and is available on DVD, HBO, and Amazon Instant. It was nominated for two Emmys, and won one Golden Globe [Best Actress for Laura Dern]