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Watching a series like Enlightened makes you happy there’s a home for shows that don’t fit the mold — places like HBO (in this case), Showtime, FX, AMC, etc. With its offbeat sense of humor and unwillingness to be just funny when there are so many other emotions to explore, Enlightened feels like it was pitched as a comedy then tapped into those little, personal and private moments people have when they don’t fit in — or even feel like they have a purpose — then got shot and directed like an indie film.
So credit HBO for taking a concept from Mike White (Chuck & Buck, The School of Rock, Freaks and Geeks) and Laura Dern (who has starred in a slew of TV movies, including HBO’s Recount, and guested on such shows as The West Wing and Ellen) and letting them make something that has a whole lot of unexpected moving parts. And, by the way, the slowly unfolding story of Enlightened probably couldn’t live anywhere else but pay cable.
On the surface, Enlightened is about Amy (Dern), a self-destructive woman at an enormous company who has a spectacular meltdown at the office (the kind you can’t really recover from) then goes to Hawaii for three months of rehab and a personal journey to find herself. She swims with the turtles and comes home a changed person, talking about inner peace, positivity and all the self-help speak you can imagine.
Naturally, nobody wants to hear it, particularly her mother, Helen (Diane Ladd, in a wonderful bit of casting), who thinks it’s all nonsense; nor Levi (Luke Wilson), Amy’s ex-husband, who uses “a Mexican pharmacy” of drugs (cocaine, pot, pills, beer) to keep himself happy. He doesn’t want to be changed or saved by Amy.
Things are worse at Amy’s old company, where she was a buyer in the health and beauty department, had an affair with her married boss and got transferred out of her dream job before exploding in rage. Now that she’s back, Amy wants the conglomerate (which is, hilariously, a pox on the world) to get a lot greener, maybe give something back to the community. It’s a job she wants, which doesn’t exist. Plus, they think she’s still crazy.
Amy doesn’t get that job — the first of many disappointments that challenge her newfound Zen qualities and desire to be “an agent of change.” She’s given a job in the basement (a great joke: The floor is “H” on the elevator buttons — for hell, probably, and nobody else knows the floor exists). There, she meets a motley collection of losers and oddballs doing mundane data processing. White, who wrote all 10 episodes and directed two, plays a sympathetic co-worker, and Timm Sharp is Dougie, Amy’s ridiculously ill-equipped boss who swears a lot and says politically incorrect things.
Clearly, a mistake has been made — Amy’s positivity, feel-good vibes and meditation haven’t fixed her life. But what makes Enlightened so intriguing is that it never stays in that one gear, workplace comedy of bitterness and remorse (though it’s very funny when it does, primarily because Dern can hilariously and instantly turn from New Age goddess to screaming, swearing maniac — her ability to be foulmouthed is impressive to witness).
Of course, some viewers might want Enlightened to stick with that formula. But White has a real knack for connecting to the sadness in Dern’s character, for dissecting how hard it is to live with your mother or deal with your ex — and how a miscarriage and failed dreams can make Amy’s attempt at reinvention and renewal, at 40, painful as well as funny. It’s when Enlightened zags instead of zigs that you understand there’s more at work here and the boundaries of what good writers, actors and directors can do in 30 minutes — almost turning the episodes into short stories cobbled together for an indie film meant to be purposely vague but emotionally resonant.
Dern, Wilson, Ladd, White and Sharp are excellent in this strange little vehicle. They have the range to make it more than what it appears, and nowhere is that more clear than in the fourth episode (which White directed wonderfully), when humor and sadness collide and it never once feels like a traditional comedy or drama but a complex vignette — a story more than a plot — which HBO is letting play out in all its unexpected wonder.
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