By: Andrew Markoff
I finally saw Enlightened. It took me a while after hearing an interview about it on NPR’s ‘Fresh Air’ with Terry Gross. I’ve also just recently caught up on a few other cable TV series that I had been looking forward to after hearing all the hype, but I had been entirely disappointed with a number of them, including Orange is the New Black. That one had also sounded great when featured on ‘Fresh Air.’
The central character of Orange is also a female facing convulsively changed circumstances, but rather than passively interacting with random plot lines and the only very occasionally interesting characters I had found in Orange, the lead in Enlightened is anything but passive. Laura Dern’s ‘Amy Jellico’ is on a perpetual mission towards making the world around her meet her often warped though well-meaning expectations.
Amy confronts the consequences of her self-absorbed choices while remaining oblivious to how she emotionally abuses the self doubts and emotional vulnerabilities of everyone around her. It’s quite fun to watch what she does and how everyone else reacts, but while a story about crazed, narcissistic devotion to emotional self indulgence may easy sell for a viewer like me, it apparently did not sell well enough for the masses. HBO couldn’t or wouldn’t get the costs to meet the benefits and the show was cancelled after its second season.
That’s too bad because the entire effort turned out to be magnificently entertaining and a terrific opportunity for funny performances and exceptional writing. Enlightened was so amazing that I watched its two seasons of episodes in two marathons- one episode right after the other.
The writing by Mike White, who has written some of my favorite material, including The Good Girl and co-writing of School of Rock, is beautiful, funny and brilliant. He also co-stars in the series, although he’s credited in each episode as a guest star.
Laura Dern co-created the series with White after she had recruited him into the project. This is the third cable series that I’ve totally loved about total narcissists. The others are Episodes starring Matt Leblanc playing a fictional version of himself and Hung, about a school teacher who becomes a gigolo to make ends meet and encounters a couple of total narcissists along the way- one who’s neurotically self-obsessed and another who’s fabulously self-obsessed.
I was born and raised in Los Angeles amongst a very “Hollywood” crowd, and both Enlightened and Episodes take place in L.A. Hung took place in Detroit, but one of its funniest characters had a very L.A. personality. Perhaps there’s not a particularly strong audience for L.A.-style character depictions, but I had found Episodes and Hung to be delightfully funny and engaging, although only the first season of Hung had fully succeeded with its concept.
Enlightened doesn’t take place in the Hollywood-influenced parts of Los Angeles but is instead focused mostly outside of Los Angeles County in the city of Riverside. Its depiction of white collar working folk in the business center of Riverside is acute in that most working folk of any stripe in America today mostly feel like cogs in a machine that has little to do with them beyond achieving a car, a house or apartment and perhaps a few good weekend dates at a chain restaurant.
Amy Jelicoe is a less than worldly while trying to overcome her recent past. While she’s intent on changing the world for the better after an emotional breakdown, she perceives the world only through her own limited experience. Amy had tumbled into an affair with a married co-executive at a major company before absolutely freaking out on him in the middle of the office. That emotional breakdown had involved a mascara-drenched scream at her former lover while strenuously forcing elevator doors open somewhat like the biblical Samson as her victim had attempted to escape her wrath.
After mental rehabilitation at a very expensive Hawaii resort treatment center and then moving in with her elderly mother, Dern’s character manipulates her way back into the company by threatening to take legal action based on her diagnosis of major depression and her efforts to complete a mental health recovery program. The company does find a place for her in order to avoid a legal wrangle, but not in her prior position as a buyer in the executive offices.
Instead, Amy is placed down in the basement amongst computers with flashing green lights and stark white walls and desks occupied with what was obviously a wonderful casting opportunity for oddballs, geeks other creatures with major personality afflictions evidences by the perpetually troubled looks in their eyes as well as hilarious efforts by wardrobe and hair.
The story lines go well beyond Amy and her self-obsession at the total expense of the company she works for as well as her co-workers. Also featured is a fascinating and expertly accomplished performance by Luke Wilson as Amy’s ex-husband, Levi, who also later ends up in the same Hawaii treatment facility for his alcohol and drug abuse.
An entire episode focuses on Levi’s experience in rehab, and the writing and acting are just breathtaking. The experiences at the facility involve another set of amazing actors, and Wilson has the opportunity to narrate a letter his character writes to Amy about his frustration with rehab. That narration evidences both Luke Wilson’s acting expertise and Mike White’s writing talent that floats gently amongst human self doubt and a very modern touch of cynicism.
Mike White is an amazing writer, but unfortunately, despite some critical acclaim, the TV industry and the tiny audience never provided the series and its writers, producers, directors and actors the accolades it’s entitled to. Dern had received Golden Globe nominations, but there is talent in this series that should have received much wider notice by the industry.
The story line does wrap up by the end of the second season, but an on-going expansion of the consequences of Amy’s obsessed, erratic and often annoying actions taken in her efforts to find meaning and purpose in her circumstances could have continued if HBO hadn’t cancelled the series. It’s tragic, because Enlightened is thoroughly brilliant and hilarious, and I could have gone for another marathon session of watching every episode of another season back-to-back.
Laura Dern’s mother, Diane Ladd, plays Amy’s mother in the show. Ladd exhibits a wonderful ability to play a consistently cold and rather hardened mother of a relentlessly over-enthusiastic, recently enlightened and ‘new age’ daughter who reacts to everyone and every situation with an exuberant phoniness that only she is unable to perceive. Amy’s intentions are always good, but her methods are cloying and obnoxious.
The reactions by the characters around her provide opportunities for hilarious acting, especially by Amy’s brooding, spastic and entirely inappropriate boss played by Timm Sharp and her prior executive assistant played by Sarah Burns, who took over Amy’s job after her breakdown and who never knows quite how to react to Amy’s relentless narcissism and passive aggressive behavior.
But besides any hilarity and kooky new age nuttiness, Mike White’s writing is also exquisitely lovely and exploratory of human behaviors and a psychic searching for answers that can probably never be found- except by those narcissistic enough to believe that they themselves have found them. I loved this series. I wish it could have gone on.
The problem with Enlightened is probably that it starred an actress who’s beyond the age of youthful sexiness that more immediately draws in enough of the viewers that networks customarily seek. TV and movie audiences can enjoy neurotic female characters, but not in the numbers needed to sustain a TV series without just the right kind of promotion.
By the end of its second and final season, I don’t think that Amy was enlightened by her own searching efforts and by the way circumstances ultimately unfolded in the wake of her relentless narcissism. Those around Amy did open their eyes to possibilities that they hadn’t anticipated, however, and that was all the result of Amy’s messy and neurotic determination to effect changes in everything and anything she encountered.
Mike White’s performance is remarkable as Amy’s desk neighbor down in the basement of their corporate behemoth employer. White’s reactions to Amy are precise and emotionally open even while his character is afraid of most every emotion that confronts him.
Directing of the series had been shared by White and others, including Nicole Holofcener, who recently directed the fabulous movie Enough Said, starring Julia Louise-Dreyfus and the late James Gandolfini. Mark Mothersbaugh of Devo fame has been writing scores for film and television for years, and his efforts for Enlightened are gorgeous. The sets and the photography for the series are also an added joy.
While all the efforts for “Enlightened” were amazing, it’s Mike White’s writing that’s especially impressive. I was a fan of writer and performer Mike White before. Now, however, I am absolutely devoted.