Enlightened premiered on HBO back in 2011 and was canceled after two seasons. The only time I’ve ever heard about it was when Laura Dern won the Golden Globe for her performance in 2012. Thanks to Amazon Prime, I got to see both season one and two, and, wow.
Unlike HBO’s slate of female-driven shows, Enlightened is not a Sex and the City, nor a Veep, though it’s certainly closer to the latter, if you take away all the parts about power. More specifically, Enlightened has a female protagonist who is not an admirable hot mess like her female television counterparts–she’s simply just a mess.
At its heart, Enlightened is actually an ode to the little people, and that ode materializes in the form of Amy Jellicoe (Laura Dern), a character that is so original, cathartic, and nuanced. She’s the kind of female character that we don’t usually see in television or the movies because she’s as insignificant and foolish as she is audacious–a refreshing departure from the usual stereotypes.
We first meet Amy as a middle manager at Abbaddon Industries, a corporate wasteland in suburban Riverside, California, that sells cleaning products, and she’s having a nervous breakdown as she berates her boss and ex-lover for screwing her over. Soon, Amy enters rehab in Hawaii, and returns a new woman, but only for so long, as the old Amy sort of re-emerges in Abbaddon for a lower-level data entry job in the company basement, in a department called Cogentiva.
As Amy is relegated to a crap position at Cogentiva, she feels compelled to be a corporate whistleblower, requesting the help of her fellow co-workers to join in on her mission. Surely enough, Amy’s act of revenge becomes something of the truth.
Dern’s Amy is a gift of a character, in the sense that she doesn’t fit into whatever box that female characters are so often forced into. Yes, Amy is socially awkward, but she’s not socially awkward in a cute, cloying way; in fact, we feel embarrassed for her most of the time. We see everyone in the room react in repulsion, and it makes us wonder–would we defend her, or would we want to step away from her as well?
And yes, Amy is also naive and idealistic, but instead of the show forcing us to view those qualities as good or bad, they are simply qualities that make her human. And yes, she’s messed up, and she’s messed up in a way that’s not overtly endearing, but she’s also not short of our sympathy either.
Because Amy is also relatable. She’s often rejected by the people she loves, and lobbies pretty damn hard for the love and respect of anyone at all. Amy is both victim and bitch, woman and girl. Both Dern and Mike White (co-creator with Dern, and oftentimes, writer and director) love and care about Amy, and wants us to do so too, flaws and all. Thus, Dern is spectacular at conveying everything Amy is, and could be.
Enlightened boasts a strong supporting cast: Diane Ladd (Dern’s real-life mother) as Amy’s mother, Helen; Luke Wilson as Amy’s coke-addict ex-husband, Levi; Mike White as Amy’s socially awkward co-worker, Tyler; Sarah Burns as Krista, Amy’s ex-assistant; and Timm Sharp, as Dougie, the VP of Cogentiva.
There are some wonderful guest stars as well, including Robin Wright, as Amy’s best friend from rehab in season one; Molly Shannon as the CEO of Abbaddon’s assistant in season two; and Dermot Mulroney as an L.A. Times journalist who helps Amy blow the whistle on Abbaddon, also in season two.
The show is anchored by not only Dern’s performance, but notably Wilson’s as well. Wilson, who has made a career out of playing that generic rom-com boyfriend, has conjured up all his dramatic acting chops that haven’t been seriously called upon since his performance in My Dog Skip, to play Amy’s ex-husband, a character that is sometimes lovable, sometimes heartbreaking, and sometimes repulsive–a perfect counterpart to Amy’s ridiculous antics. Dern and Wilson have a lot of unexpected chemistry, and their scenes together are warm, moving, and bittersweet.
Same goes to Ladd, who is wonderful as Amy’s mother. Ladd is sharp-tongued and no-nonsense, but also cares about her daughter’s plight, and acknowledges that her daughter is as much a victim as she is an architect of her own rabbit hole.
While Enlightened’s second season felt plot-heavy and abbreviated compared to its near-perfect first season, the entire show is a truly a giant of female-driven shows. I don’t know if we’re ever going see another show that is so expertly crafted, funny, warm, moving, and sad, with a female character that is complex enough to provoke feelings that go beyond like and dislike. Amy Jellicoe is not a hero or villain, but a daughter, ex-wife, co-worker, friend, and, well, dreamer.