I’ve never seen a show quite like Enlightened. It defies simple description. Probably the most succinct description would be “dramedy about a woman’s struggle to find meaning in life while working at a soul-sucking corporation.” Sounds fun, right?
In its two seasons — just eighteen half hour episodes — Enlightened tracks Amy Jellicoe (a bewilderingly wonderful Laura Dern) as she builds herself back up following a breakdown at work in the pilot.
In the pilot, Amy’s affair with a member of upper management at Abaddon goes sour, and she has a breakdown in the middle of the office. She throws a very public tantrum in the middle of her office building.
Flash forward a few weeks — she’s in the middle of a life-changing stay at a mental clinic in Hawaii.
Flash forward a few more weeks — she’s returning home, newly “enlightened” from her stay in at the clinic. She has a new inner peace and moral drive. She decides to move back in with her mother and try to get her job back at Abaddon.
The first season of the show deals with her attempt to reconcile her newfound moral compass with the life she left behind. This includes her job at Abaddon, her substance-abusing ex-husband, her emotionally closed-off mother, and various relationships at work.
The second, stronger season is slightly more plot-driven, as Amy undertakes a quest to be a whistleblower and take down Abaddon.
Enlightened generally works better for its light drama and its thoughtful ruminations than its comedy, which is largely driven by Amy’s cringe-inducing zealousness and misunderstanding (or willful ignorance) of the social cues around her. Amy Jellicoe can be a tough character to watch and enjoy.
And yet you can’t help but love her. She’s spirited and positive and enthusiastic. Sometimes you wish you could jump into the TV set and talk some sense into her for the embarrassment she’s causing. Yet you can’t help but wish there were a few more Amy Jellicoes in the world.
Enlightened is an example of what’s sometimes called “auteur television” — it’s written and occasionally directed by Mike White, who also plays a major role in the show as Amy’s coworker Tyler. He (and, to a lesser extent, Dern) are the sole creative voices of the show. He has a very distinct tone which is difficult to describe: 60% thoughtful, 30% satirical, 10% meandering.
But what makes Enlightened so special is the way it considers the ethics of ordinary lives. The moral compass of most TV shows is pretty simple: selfless = good, valuing ends above means = bad. And the shows that dig deeper than that usually have to do with situations normal people never find themselves in, like cooking meth, narcing on drug rings, or battling snow zombies.
My favorite episode might be “The Ghost is Seen” from the second season, the only episode shot from Tyler’s experience. Here are the opening and closing segments from the episode (minor spoilers). Just look how haunting and moving these segments are:
There were times I didn’t love Enlightened — Amy’s relationship with former assistant was rarely a compelling thread, and I got tired of ex-husband Levi by the end of the first season — but the product as a whole is one of the most fascinating, unusual shows I’ve seen. (Too bad HBO canceled it at its peak critical acclaim, one season before the ending White had written.)
The second half of the second season, in particular, is aces. If you have a taste for thoughtful TV, a tolerance for grating TV characters, and an ear for philosophical dialogue, I think you’ll dig Enlightened.