Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Enlightened: Pilot (1.1)

Have you ever wanted to just scream at the top of your lungs and say "fuck it!"? It's the most exhilarating thing imaginable, especially when you're stuck in a dead-end job or getting constantly screwed over by the individuals wielding greater power than you. But it's also something that usually only exists within a specific moment. Nobody can realistically become entirely outspoken and brutally honest long-term, because most of us have enough integrity and self-awareness that doing so would be pretty ugly. Laura Dern's Amy Jellicoe is one of those people, a woman who flew so close to public insanity that all she could do to get her life back on track was remove the negativity that had once totally consumed her and left her this perpetually edgy shell of a person. So she became enlightened, making a moment of madness the instigator for an entirely different existence.

The hook here is in Amy's return to normality after a summer of self-help books and time spent at a spiritual retreat, time in which she's learned the importance of self-belief and meditation. Like she repeatedly says: "You can change". And because she's just so happy about these changes in her life, she believes it only right to offer that message of change to everybody she knows. In theory, that's something pretty sweet. But Mike White's acid-tongued pilot script quickly exposes how much of Amy's eagerness to spread peace is bound by her own insecurities. While she did at one point experience this aggressive breakdown, Amy's conscious enough to recognize how humiliating it was, wearing her newfound spirituality as a protective shield more than anything else.

It's a storytelling choice that immediately prevents obvious problems. Clearly, self-help, new age-y babble is crazily annoying, usually turning grand and troubling challenges into minor problems that can be easily overcome with a breezy mantra (the line "flow through your rage" is featured prominently here), but White is sure to make Amy as much a victim of self-belief as she is someone empowered by it. There's a brittle, obsessive quality to the character, her inability to let things drop still festering inside of her despite her outward positivity. Desperate to resolve things with her boss and one-time lover Damon, she ends up frantically calling him throughout the day to arrange a meeting, finally driving to his home and forcing a reconciliation. It's inevitably sour, and she again gets angry and violent. So it's this constant push-and-pull mentality, Amy spreading this joy while secretly trying so hard to save face.

It doesn't help, either, that Amy's entire world is so defined by severed ties. She's something of a lonely individual, with a mother who finds her overbearing, an ex-husband exhausted by her persistent presence in his life, and friends at work that don't value her friendship nearly as much as she does there's. Even Amy's bosses at the pharmaceutical conglomerate Abaddonn only re-hire her to avoid a wrongful termination suit. So there's this futile quality to everything, but it only makes Amy that much more endearing. She's so determined and sweetly relentless, even in the face of people that don't seem to actually like her very much.

With that in mind, she's a perfect cable TV lead. There are certainly parts of her that are unlikable and frustrating, but Laura Dern embues her with such goofy charm and open-armed enthusiasm that you can't help but root for her, even if you know her 'mission' probably won't work out in the long run. But that's what Enlightened is most about -- the personalities we dress ourselves up in, and how much of it is truly genuine. And Amy so desperately wants to change. She's got the bohemian curls and the baggy shirts and the hippie jewelry, but there's still so much work to be done, Amy linking her own sense of being to the entire world itself, confronting everything corrupt and wrong but projecting it through this tunnel of positive thinking and general enlightenment. It's so easy to roll your eyes, but you're compelled to follow her on that journey. A

Mike White Story Mike White, Laura Dern Director Mike White

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