Spoilers abound, so beware.
10 episodes, HBO (October - December 2011)
Enlightened is one of those rare shows that literally moves me on a deeper level. I sometimes uncomfortably identify with so much of what the show depicts that it almost becomes a parody of my own existence. At its heart is the concept of positivity, and having to dispense of your own personal anger in the face of so much moral degradation. I myself struggle a lot with thinking positively, sometimes allowing my own inner anger at the world to spill over into reality. As much as I know that it's wrong and no matter how much I hate myself for it, it's just incredibly hard to not allow certain feelings to overcome you, especially when you're constantly barraged by people who are rude, nasty and unsympathetic. We live in a world that's becoming rapidly meaner and more aggressive, the years of internet anonymity crumbling away but the dawn of an era of arrogant, exposed cruelty right around the corner.
It was something that immediately struck me with Laura Dern's Amy Jellicoe, a woman who at one point allowed the anger to entirely consume her being, winding up alienating everybody around her and losing the job she had worked so hard to get. But after a stint at a spiritual retreat, Amy's mindset is radically altered, and she slips back into her old workplace with a new perspective on everything from her own life, to the environment, corporate corruption and human compassion itself.
Tonally, the series constantly reminded me of Lisa Kudrow's phenomenally ahead-of-its-time HBO series The Comeback, another show about a flawed, positive-minded woman trapped in a world of harsh, calculating individuals. Like Kudrow's Valerie Cherish, Amy is sometimes over-bearingly kind-hearted, someone who is trying to do the right thing but repeatedly struggles to put it across in a way that suits others. She's flighty and occasionally self-absorbed, but Laura Dern imbues her with a true sense of warmth, somebody so desperate to make the world a better place but completely naive to the latent hostility that her goodness unfortunately provokes in others. She's sometimes inappropriate, out of her depth and almost delusional in her positivity, but she's so heart-breakingly real that you can't help but absolutely adore spending time with her.
People familiar with Mike White will instantly recognize the peaceful, melancholic themes that permeate most of his work, and Enlightened breezes past in thirty-minute blocks, creating some of the finest character work I've seen in years. A lot of Enlightened is about the hidden qualities to regular people, sometimes positive and other times underwhelming. It's a show in which Amy naturally assumes her boss gives a damn about the environment because she's a lesbian: "she's gay, so she's got to be liberal and compassionate, right?" But she's not. She's just as indifferent as all of us unfortunately are. Then there are her co-workers. There's the girl Amy sees as spineless for allowing casual sexism to wash over her, only to discover that she's somebody with true feelings who decides to protest in a far quieter way. There's the bosses who allow her to promote her beliefs, but refuse to actually act on any of the messages she was trying to get through to them. Then there's her romanticized belief that her ex-husband Levi will get over his drug problems and get back together with her. They spend a perfect night together and she truly begins to believe that it'll all work out, only to wake up in the middle of the night to discover Levi is paying off a dealer outside their motel room. It's that heightened perspective on what life could be, only for it to inevitably lead to little disappointments, or alternatively small surprises that illuminate uncomfortable parts of yourself.
The truest depiction of that tone was when Amy is visited by a friend she met on her spiritual retreat. The way she describes this woman, played wonderfully by Robin Wright, and places her on this enormous pedestal as this inspiring, fulfilled goddess is so overblown, but Amy truly believes that she's special and worthy of attention. But when she visits, all those expectations come crashing down, this lady turning out to be sort of flaky and selfish, and nowhere near as emotionally involved in Amy as Amy is of her.
But the way the season ended, with Amy presumably about to unleash a hurricane of whistleblower-style information that could potentially bring down the inhuman corporation she works for, is all about the small victories. The beauty of it is that Amy's 'victory' probably won't cause any damage in the long-run, but it's an inspiring commentary on the merits of at least fighting for something, of following some kind of drive, that made Enlightened so overwhelmingly powerful.
This was the surprise of the year for me, a deep, complicated and ridiculously honest comedy-drama that ached with realism and seriously cut deep into me. A+
Favorite Episode Lonely Ghosts (1.7), in which we see Amy's manipulative qualities as she sets up one of her co-workers with a hideous douche-bag for her own personal benefit, before realizing just how horrible she's being -- creating another grand epiphany for her. It's an episode that also highlights how Amy's positivity can be misread, her only real friend ending up broken and disappointed when his romantic advances towards her are rejected.