When I first heard about the HBO show Enlightened it was the poster that scared me away. The photo with the tagline “Meet the new face of tranquility” shows Amy Jellicoe (Laura Dern) in what looks like it could be an FBI interrogation room, mascara running diagonally down her right cheek.
The photo has lunatic woman with issues written all over it and given my already steady diet of television viewing that has carved a large chunk of what used to be movie watching time didn’t seem like something in my wheelhouse. Boy was I wrong.
After about the 15th time of reading Enlightened mentioned in the same sentence as shows like The Wire, Friday Night Lights, Breaking Bad and Mad Men as reasons for why we are currently living in the Golden Age of Television, I decided to throw my book cover judging dismissal to the wind and dive into the series.
The first episode, which explains how and why Amy’s eye make-up is smeared in the poster, didn’t do too much to change my mind. She was a lunatic, an awkward one at that who was something of a mash-up of a female unfunny version of Michael Scott and Julianne Moore’s character in Magnolia. This, of course, is before she gets “enlightened” through a New Agey rehab program in Hawaii, from which an even more awkward train wreck of a self-help book cliche emerges.
Where things really started to click for me – and I imagine the critics who assured me of the show’s must-see status – is around the time the audience is introduced to the basement of Abaddonn Industries, the large corporation for which pre-breakdown Amy has been an executive for 15 years. The basement is where a crew of misfits is hard at work on a productivity software program called Cogentiva, which is a Big Brother-style software that tracks movements of employees around the world with the potential for an array of potential for exploiting workers. It’s there that we meet Tyler, the shy and nerdy character played to perfection by series creator and writer Mike White.
If IT Crowd had had a third member of the basement department in the British comedy, they couldn’t have done any better than casting Mike White. After finishing what might end up being the full slate of episodes this week, it is Tyler’s character who stays with you the most, particularly an episode focused on him where he describes himself as a ghost. Other characters in the show, Amy’s ex-husband Levi (played by Luke Wilson) and Cogentiva boss Dougie Daniels (Timm Sharp) leave an impression – I can’t stop trying to imitate Dougie saying “What?!” – but none hollow you out quite like Tyler.
In fact, I would argue that the strength of the show, the thing that enabled me to overlook my initial skepticism and disregard of Amy (my beef was always with her character, but never the brilliant and beautiful Laura Dern), was the supporting cast in the basement. It makes sense too because the show is Mike White’s creation and the enlightenment Amy finds snorkling in Hawaii and tries so hard to maintain as she picks up the pieces of her life back home is something White, a former preacher’s son (his dad’s coming out as a former Religious Right figure inspired the second season’s whistle-blower plotline), is said to have sought in his own life in the Buddhist practice of meditation.
White’s writing shines in each episode in the opening and closing segments when we hear the inner thoughts of the characters over montages that add weight to the dramatic, quirky and awkward moments in the day to day lives of the characters. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s that internal, meditative feature of the show that worried HBO brass from the start and might end up being the death knell for the series in the face of low ratings.
“Everyone is running so manic, and what’s interesting, too, is when we turned in the show, the more quiet, meditative aspects of the show made HBO the most nervous,” White told NPR in an interview. “Because people, especially in TV, first they want their comedies funny, and they want their dramas juicy and kind of operative, and this is very internal.”
That Enlightened can’t be easily pigeonholed and doesn’t always give “the audience” what it wants is part of what makes it such a charming show that like other aforementioned heavy-hitting critical darlings possesses a cinematic quality that feels more like a nine-hour movie (so far) than it does a television show (perhaps if HBO doesn’t renew, Netflix can give it the House of Cards treatment).
If we are, indeed, living in the Golden Age of Television, Enlightened should be considered one of the exhibits in the evidence room, whether we’ve seen a “satisfied” Amy Jellicoe walking down the sidewalk outside of a Riverside, California Starbuck’s for the last time or not.
UPDATE: A third season isn’t happening.