HBO’s Enlightened starts off in dramatic fashion as Amy Jellicoe (Laura Dern) has just been fired and is in the midst of a full on breakdown. From that very intense opening scene, the show quickly cuts to her on a beach in a treatment center in Hawaii. She returns from Hawaii fully immersed in self-help books and meditation techniques, and living back at home with her mother (played by Dern’s real life mother, Diane Ladd).
Upon her return, Amy attempts to get rehired at Abbadonn in a position comparable to the one she previously had. However, she is instead hired as part of Cogentiva, which is essentially a data entry job she feels overqualified for and continually blows off. Almost every episode is bookended by Amy’s thoughts and reflections. They are often incisive and well articulated, contrasting noticeably with her day-to-day actions.
By placing Amy in a position so beneath her previous job as a buyer for the Health and Beauty department of Abbadonn, she is forced to interact with people she never did before. Additionally, she is forced to do the kind of unchallenging, tedious work that makes it easy for her to justify not taking it seriously. It’s only when Amy finally understands just what her department is responsible for that she feels motivated to do something, however misguided it may be.
Amy vacillates between moments of serene calm and completely manic episodes. Her attempts to find peace and meaning in her life are often thwarted by her own tendencies to erupt in anger and sadness. While she does have some instances of clarity in which she makes some very astute observations about herself and those around her, her regular behavior is closer to unstable. Dern plays Amy’s two sides very well, but the shifts can sometimes be a bit jarring and by extension, Amy often comes off as almost schizophrenic.
Whatever tonal issues the series may have with Amy’s character, Enlightened excels in its casting. It includes writer and co-creator, Mike White as Tyler, one of Amy’s beaten down Cogentiva coworkers; Luke Wilson as Levi, Amy’s damaged ex-husband; Timm Sharp as Dougie, Amy’s highly inappropriate new boss; and Sarah Burns as Krista, Amy’s former assistant. White in particular is a highlight. He plays Tyler’s loneliness and crush on Amy with perfect restraint that stands as a wonderful contrast to Dern’s bigger performance.
Apart from the rest of the terrific supporting cast, Ladd is excellent as Amy’s mother, Helen. One of the season’s best episodes focuses almost entirely on Helen, as she gets lost in memories of her marriage and her husband’s tragic death. In addition, Levi confronts her and in dealing with his anger and blame; Helen is further fleshed out as more than Amy’s stubborn and critical mother. Ladd shines in the episode, showcasing both Helen’s fragility and strength.
By the season’s fourth episode, a great deal becomes clear as some backstory is given for Amy and Levi’s marriage and their subsequent divorce. It’s an important episode in understanding how Amy got to the point she was in at the start of the pilot. Levi’s own problems with drugs and alcohol are also given context, while their complicated current relationship makes more sense in light of their past.
While Amy’s relationships with her mother and ex-husband are understandably complex, even her dealings with almost all her co-workers lead to some conflict. In addition, Amy’s attempts to show how much she’s grown are often doubted by those around her, especially by her former assistant, Krista. Krista’s simultaneous fear of and sympathy for Amy lead her to mostly avoid or discourage, making Amy try even harder (and fail more spectacularly) to show how much better she is after her time in Hawaii.
Enlightened has a great deal of potential. The premise leaves the series open to go in any number of directions, especially with its great cast. However, the fact that Amy tends to either be calm and composed or clueless and petty makes for a character that can be difficult to get a handle on. Overall, the series is well written, and the episodes are smart and funny, setting up Enlightened to be another one of HBO’s great shows.
The DVD release contains several bonus features, including commentaries and “Inside the Episodes” featurettes for each of the season’s ten episodes.