“It stands out for its stillness, its unglamorousness, but above all, for its conflicted attitude toward its characters and their world.”
LAURA BENNETT review of ‘Enlightened’
I think I am psychically drawn to flawed, complex, female protagonists. Hence my current viewing habits: a disconcerting love/hate reaction to Hannah Horvath, Lena Dunham’s way over-analysed ‘Girls’ character; and Amy Jellicoe, Mike White’s ‘Enlightened’ protagonist, portrayed intensely by Laura Dern. I came to both these HBO “drama & comedy” shows in typically delayed fashion – an aversion to anything that receives an obscene amount of hyperbolic applause and simultaneously hysterical criticism (in essence, anything trending) thankfully kept me away from ‘Girls’ until I just felt like watching it one day. On the other hand, ‘Enlightened’, whose creator I have inexplicable maternal affection for, has not received the smallest fraction of the hype of ‘Girls’, and even fewer viewers (I only mention this because the shows were apparently paired in the HBO schedule). However, the critical response, particularly for the second and sadly last season (which I am about to watch, in addition to the second season of ‘Girls’), has been very favourable. But it was a podcast interview with the sensitive White himself that finally compelled me to view season one. I just love the guy.
And I loved the season, too. As batshit (pathologically honest) and annoying as its protagonist can be, ‘Enlightened’ both amused and moved me, in a way that ‘Girls’ – although it distracted and amused me (sort of) – never did. With ‘Girls’, aside from Dunham’s idiosyncratic sense of humour, it was her own portrayal of Hannah that I found strangely compelling. Had she not been playing that role, with her normal body occasionally on display, I would not have watched beyond the pilot. It fascinates me how the uninhibited exposure of a body shape so against the typical screen-acceptable vision of a woman, provides the perfect bait for the inner misogynist, and mean girl, in many people (cue “she’s fat/ugly/unworthy” insults from haters all over the world – I think I find the reaction to Hannah more interesting than the show itself). And so, the awfulness of Hannah’s entitlement somewhat diminished for me because she was so… odd. And so messy. Amy Jellicoe is messy too – but in a different way. Hannah needs to get her shit together if she wants to be a professional writer and functioning adult, and Amy is living the continuing challenge of integrating a higher consciousness (a post breakdown-induced “spiritual awakening”) into her daily life, with long held self-destructive patterns to overcome every step of the way. Both scenarios are familiar territories for me.
But ‘Enlightened’, tonally and thematically, is just a different kind of show, with a completely different intent to most television shows – even on cable. Mike White (who also plays Amy’s co-worker/side-kick Tyler) wanted to write a different kind of story about a woman – rather than “a dating show”, he wanted to create a simple storyline that would allow a deeper, slower exploration of a character, without a focus on her sexual relationships (like ‘Girls’often has). He also wanted to draw on his own experiences of having had a breakdown and then finding what can loosely be described as “spirituality” (Buddhism, plus the self-help genre) useful in his recovery. White understands and depicts the problems that can accompany being reduced to ground zero, and the pure unfiltered joy of finding a new way of being in one’s own head. It is a sacred, intoxicating, and extremely vulnerable space to be in, one I know very well, but one challenging to sustain amidst the perpetual shit fight that is the ‘real world’ of human relationships. Moreover, it looks crazy to anyone on the outside of it (even more so when the individual experiencing it was crazy to begin with). This “comedy of alienation” (White’s words) satirizes both evangelical, optimistic New-Agey freaks, and the cowardly aspects of corporate work culture. In the process, it delivers one of the most genuinely complex yet consistent portrayals of a woman – indeed, a person – I have seen on television.
Amy is a recovering rager, a scarily self-absorbed, emotionally demanding friend, but with a naivety that borders on airheadedness (I just invented a word!). At the same time, she is genuinely compassionate, affectionate, desires real and deep connection with other people, and is earnestly trying to change the world around her for the better. The problem is, she is going about it in completely the wrong way – thanks to a lack of understanding of other people’s perceptions of her, and an embarrassing lack of self-awareness. She doesn’t recognise her own anger. She doesn’t understand how inappropriate it is to unload her volatile emotions on others. She doesn’t recognise when she is making people uncomfortable. She doesn’t anticipate people’s reactions to her words and actions even though they are pretty predictable. She fills her head with self-help jargon and doggedly believes she can affect the world exactly as she imagines she could in her mind, with fairly egotistical fantasies about becoming some sort of New Age environmentalist hero in her workplace – a lousy corporate citizen called Abbadon (Hebrew term for destruction). Amy has had a glimpse of “enlightenment” – but she is still a human being. Her ego – and the cold hard realities of life – are getting in the way of her do-gooder ambitions.
Because of this, the moments that I find most stunning and moving in the first season, are when Amy (embodied brilliantly by Dern) hits walls in her interactions with other people and finally SEES herself – her own blind spots. In contrast to her more frequent self-righteous moods, these are moments in the story of genuine “spiritual” breakthrough – when she realises that she needs to change on the inside (her perspective and personal behaviour) before she can pontificate to other people about how they should be living their lives. Other moments that truly move me are when Amy momentarily relinquishes her more egoic fantasies and ambitions about what an “enlightened change-agent” should be doing to ‘save the world’, and recognises the good she can do in her own little corner of the world, every day. Episodes 3 and 5 exemplify this, beautifully. In addition, her ongoing relationship (friendship) with her ex husband tests her capacity to forgive, let go, and accept him with all his flaws (episode 4 is gorgeous in this regard… loved this poignant episode). Amy’s relationship with her mother, who has difficulty showing her love, tests her similarly. And her tense, passive aggressive relationship with her former assistant provokes some of the most unpleasant aspects of Amy’s character – not to mention some truly uncomfortable moments in the story.
But, even as she accumulates these breakthrough insights, she unfortunately persists in trying to affect big change in her environment, and big drama results – Amy cannot seem to help but stir shit up. It is a trait that she is well known for at Abbadon. When we meet Amy in the first episode, she is in the throes of a workplace break down, pre-“enlightenment” (her first words in the series are to a co-worker: “Fuck off, Cheryl. Back-stabbing cunt!”). Following her very public break down, she checks herself into a new-agey treatment centre in Hawaii to recover. Afterwards, she returns home feeling completely changed, eager to resume her old job and affect change in the lives of all she knows, Abaddon, and the world. Just how much she has changed, however, can only be ascertained by watching how Amy reacts to all the things that used to stress her out and set her off: her ex-husband Levi’s drug problems (convincingly portrayed by Luke Wilson), the hostility and politics in her workplace, her relationship with her cold mother (played wonderfully by Laura Dern’s real life mum Dianne Ladd), her tense relationship with her former assistant/fake friend Krista (nuanced performance from Sarah Burns), and her enemy status with former co-worker/adulterous lover Damon (Charles Esten).
In addition, Amy is broke, heavily in debt (because of the treatment centre bill), has to live with her mother, and is given a data processing job as a legal concession in the basement of Abaddon, working alongside what she initially perceives as a “bunch of carnival freaks”. Her former position further up in the corporate hierarchy has been filled, she keeps getting into trouble with HR, and Krista is now an Account Manager occupying Amy’s former office and brown-nosing Damon. The workplace is full of rage-triggers… someone as fiery and oblivious as Amy was always bound to make waves, one way or another. The waves this woman makes, and the ridiculous schemes she comes up with, are among the many reasons I kept watching, and why I am so keen to check out season two. After the meandering and perceptive introspection of the first season, ‘Enlightened’ takes a turn, with a tighter plot focus, propelled by Amy’s desire to uncover corporate malfeasance at Abbadon, whilst maintaining, I’ve heard, some of the contemplative aspects, philosophical nuance and poetic monologues that marked season one. As well as it’s inherent compassion for its characters. The contrast between Amy’s genuinely good intentions (revealed in those contemplative moments) and her actions in the world, highlight how difficult it can be to translate right thought into right action, when you are a flawed human in a flawed world. But Amy – bless her batshit heart – never stops trying.
I wish so hard this series could have continued. Considering people like me, a couple of AV Club writers, and reviewers are its only fans, it was never going to be a success. But I’m happy Mike White got a shot to do it. He called it his “Cinderella moment”.
Leaving you with two personal anthems: first song ends episode 3 of Girls (‘Dancing on my own’); the second sublimely overlays the last scene in episode 1 of ‘Enlightened’ (Regina Spektor’s ‘Human of the Year’).
Always happily surprised when a TV show plays a song I actually know 🙂 Rare.