Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Enlightened: Now or Never (1.2)

One of Mike White's greatest strengths is his ability to expose the hidden vulnerabilities that make us who we are, and how we only really express them in secret. It's something that kept reappearing throughout this second episode, which opened with Amy fantasizing about a conversation with her management, one full of environmentally-friendly buzz words ('sustainable', 'renewable', 'compostable') and 'up with people' enthusiasm, culminating in her message having a real effect, not only on Abaddonn itself but her bosses as people, too. Only the really important word there is 'fantasizing', because it's one of those things that just wouldn't happen. It's the next big journey for Amy, slowly realizing that her dreams and ambitions aren't going to be fulfilled overnight.

Instead, she's dumped in the Abaddonn basement, working alongside an array of socially challenged individuals (her new boss greets her with a deadpan "damn, girl -- you're tall as shit!") and forced to operate an anonymous computer program designed to monitor productivity. In effect, a woman who worked so aggressively at the very top of the food-chain has now been reduced to nothing but a collection of tabs and clicks of the Enter key. But what works so well in Now and Never is the exploration into Amy's ugliness, which so easily resonates with those of us at home who have done similar things. Hitting that basement is something Amy considers incredibly beneath her. She never directly says it, but she wears her arrogance on her sleeve as she dismisses a programming job as impersonal and lacking, while immediately distancing herself from her new co-workers -- people who sneeze a lot and can't at all tell an interesting life-story. Laura Dern dares to make her character horrible here, wearing this perpetually contrived smile and her eyes darting back and forth looking for the nearest exit. She doesn't even work, instead reading a self-help book at her desk.

But it's that harshness that is making Amy so complex a character. Aren't we all like that, though, expressing arrogance or behaving as if a certain job or a certain lifestyle is for 'other people', and not at all for people like us. It's incredibly perceptive writing. Sure, it's hard to entirely love Amy at this point (or, honestly, at any point this season), but its Mike White channeling reality in a way that is sometimes freakishly uncomfortable.

Your empathy remains intact, though, particularly with the greater emphasis placed on Amy's 'upstairs' colleagues. Amy believes Krista is her closest friend at Abaddonn, but Krista spends a lot of her time sniping about Amy with her own BFF Janice (played by Michaela Watkins, an actress who plays a heartless crone like no other). They both look terrified whenever Amy is near, sure she's about to launch into another insane meltdown. It's horrible to watch unfold, Amy unaware of how much irreparable damage she has caused to her reputation, while her former co-workers walk around her on egg-shells.

She's also insisting on making her ex-husband Levi her latest project, presumably because it's far easier to change his life than change the environment. Luke Wilson is great as these emotionally-stunted man-children, and fits the character like a glove. He and Dern bounce off each other well, conveying a ton of co-dependent longing, as well as the general frustration and animosity that any separated couple would feel towards each other.

Enlightened is definitely drifting in one sense of the word, in that we're following this woman's journey but still unaware of where exactly everything is going -- but the world Mike White has created so far is so brutally honest and darkly comedic that it's really, really difficult to not get swept up in it. You root for Amy, you can't stand her, and she makes a ridiculously absorbing protagonist. A

Mike White Director Miguel Arteta

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