That Dern Cat, or "Enlightened"

I’ve found myself really enjoying the new HBO series Enlightened, starring Laura Dern and written by Mike White (Dern and White share co-creator credit, but White writes every episode). It’s not a big hit, and from the description, you wouldn’t expect it to be: it’s a half-hour show where [fill in name of actress in her 40s] has [fill in serious problem] and both comedy and drama ensues. It’s lucky to be on HBO, which is more patient with shows it likes than Showtime, but it is, at first glance, doing a type of show that Showtime already used up. Also, descriptions of the show – including White’s descriptions in interviews – often make it sound like a New Age-y show about a person learning to get in touch with her spiritual side. But the actual show is a lot more interesting than that makes it sound.


The setup of the show is that a high-powered female executive finally snaps, recovers from her nervous breakdown at a New Age centre in Hawaii, and returns to her old life determined to give everything – her life and everyone else’s – a makeover. This includes trying to communicate more with her mom (played by Diane Ladd, of course) and raise consciousness at the evil corporation she works for. Of course most people don’t want their lives forcibly improved, and the people at an evil corporation don’t want to be handed a bunch of printouts about all the evil their bosses are doing. Self-fulfilment and self-realization are often the point where a story reaches a happy ending; this show demonstrates what happens after that, including the massive costs of going to a New Age treatment centre (costs that actually keep Dern’s character trapped at the evil corporation, since a more fulfilling job wouldn’t pay enough to discharge the debt). In terms of imagery, the show is on the side of spirituality, of believing in something beyond yourself, but in terms of the practical realities of the world, spirituality isn’t very useful. Part of the interest of the show is watching her try to rebuild her life in little and big ways at the same time, how she can’t fulfil her grand ambitions until she starts by becoming a better person on an everyday, local level.

The second episode also introduced an element that wasn’t in the pilot, an office-comedy element. This sure seemed like a retool, especially with the addition of a new bunch of regulars (including the always-welcome Timm Sharp). White has claimed that he planned the whole first season out as a unit, so maybe he always intended to save that stuff for the second episode; one way or another, though, that element really kicked things up a notch after the pilot. The story is a familiar one: Dern’s evil corporation can’t fire her, so she’s banished to a department with wacky co-workers. The reason this works is partly due to a good job of production design and photography: the department Dern works in looks like a barren futuristic wasteland, a complete visual contrast to the bustling office where her former assistant (now doing her old job) works, and where most cable office shows take place. It’s not even a somewhat realistic depressing office like the one on The Office; it’s a stylized purgatory, the sort of place that is made to crush people’s spirits. And just the existence of that set, and the fact that Dern has to stay there, makes for a better commentary on current economic realities than most shows. A lot of shows are struggling to deal with the recession, still, and they mostly do it by mentioning that times is hard, and then moving on to something else. Enlightened just takes it all for granted: jobs that pay anything are scarce, job security is so nonexistent that people don’t want to go home when they’re sick (even if they proceed to get everyone else sick), and the ones who stay at a soul-crushing office job in a hell-like office are the lucky ones.

I also like something about the show that may be holding it back with some viewers: Dern’s character, Amy, is a remarkably irritating person. The fact is that many lead characters on many shows are remarkably irritating people, filled with a sense of entitlement. But many shows seem either unaware of how irritating their leads are, or they go to the other extreme and make them complete dysfunctional freaks. After she recovers from her breakdown, Amy is not a freak; she’s not even that much of an anti-hero. But she has a sense of entitlement that is very realistic considering that she is a person used to getting her way: she assumes that people will want to share in her causes and go along with her. It’s real, and therefore funny, to see someone who thinks that because she has taken up good causes, everyone and everything should change to accommodate her. Her unselfish causes tend to result in her acting even more selfish in day-to-day life. The fact that her old co-workers have good reason to avoid her also gives some extra dimension to the show: they treat her badly, and we feel sorry for her when she’s treated badly or blown off by them, but on the other hand most of them are not monsters.

It’s not a perfect show; the slow pace some have complained about it not a problem (it’s actually not that slow, in my opinion; the scenes are paced pretty briskly – but there isn’t a lot of plot, and episodes sometimes re-state information that has been provided before; that may account for the impression of slowness). But it can be a bit heavy-handed, and you can almost set your watch by the voice-over that sums up the theme, or the brief moment of uplift toward the end of the episode. But it’s a very enjoyable show, with the simple and tasteful camerawork one expects from an HBO show (their house style is one of the least frantic in the business, which I am still grateful for after all these years of shaky cameras on other networks). And I appreciate the fact that it lacks a spectacular gimmick; Dern is playing one of the more realistic leads in the cable TV universe, and the arc of the character is small and relevant: she feels a call to fix the world, and to fix her own life, and the question of which comes first – or even if the two are separable, since people keep telling her she can’t do the former until she’s done the latter – is one a lot of people have to deal with.

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