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'Enlightened' Was Smartly Written and Often Beautifully Executed

Enlightened was the kind of series that took time to fully invest in, partly because Amy could be such a difficult character.

Enlightened: The Complete Second Season

Distributor: HBO
Cast: Laura Dern, Mike White, Luke Wilson, Timm Sharp, Diane Ladd, Sarah Burns, Dermot Mulroney, Molly Shannon
Network: HBO
Release date: 2013-08-13

The second season of HBO’s Enlightened picks up soon after the events of the season one finalé. Amy (Laura Dern) continues her quest to bring down Abbaddon by enlisting the help of her sweet but put-upon coworker, Tyler (Mike White), and contacting Jeff Flender (Dermot Mulroney), a reporter for the LA Times. Throughout the short season, Amy gathers more incriminating information and gets more allies on her side, but she's still dealing with the fallout of her complicated relationship with her ex-husband, Levi (Luke Wilson), who is now in the same treatment center Amy went to.

When Amy first meets Jeff she comes off as paranoid and almost desperate. Her enthusiasm and predisposition to acting without thinking makes her seem somewhat off and possibly unreliable. It

s only because Jeff already suspects corruption at the highest level at Cogentiva that he indulges her. It's readily apparent that any credence that Jeff lends to Amy’s claims only serves to increase her hero fantasies. She even engages in elaborate fantasies that place her in the role of savior, lauded by all those around her.

An integral part of Amy’s character is how quick she is to attach great meaning to the smallest events and most inconsequential interactions in her life. Her ego and narcissism can be used for good, but coupled with Amy’s self-destructive tendencies it’s difficult to see any outcome other than complete and utter failure. But she still finds a way to turn things around and she often equates less than desirable outcomes to some warped sense of success. Her cringe-worthy interactions with former assistant, Krista (Sarah Burns), are a perfect example of her inability to read people and situations accurately, frequently making her look strange and even rude, while Amy continues to view herself as selfless and caring.

Tyler continues to help Amy, but it quickly becomes apparent that they can’t pull off the high level hacking necessary, and surprisingly they enlist their boss, Dougie (Timm Sharp), to help them. By playing to Dougie’s own insecurities and rage at eventually losing his job, he enthusiastically joins Amy’s effort to bring down the company. The addition of Dougie to their team is a nice twist and relieves the show from having to find ways around management all the time, as Amy and Tyler’s unsubtle work conversations would have continued to call attention to their plans.

Apart from Amy’s work drama, she still has some unresolved issues with Levi. It isn’t until the third episode that Levi makes his first appearance and it is instantly a standout episode. He is at the same treatment center in Hawaii that Amy went to after her nervous breakdown, but his experience is the polar opposite of Amy’s, at least initially. Where she found meaning and strength, Levi only sees trite platitudes and weakness. It is only after he suffers a setback there that he has a change in perspective and starts participating more fully in the process. He may not buy into everything he’s being told, but he’s genuinely trying and it’s obvious that he’s doing so for Amy.

Levi’s return from treatment complicates matters for Amy, as she is seeing now Jeff. Because of her complex and often painful history with Levi, his return understandably confuses Amy and calls much of plans for the future into question. In fact, it is in these romantic relationships that Amy has her rare moments of welcome vulnerability. Dern plays Amy’s indecision with real feeling and it is to her credit that her uncertainty comes through so clearly.

Tyler’s personal life also gets more focus this season, as Eileen (Molly Shannon) is introduced as a potential love interest. She is in a key position as the assistant to Cogentiva’s president, Charles Sziden (James Rebhorn), and Amy pushes for him to use her to gain access to high level information. Tyler’s crush on her predates Amy’s scheme, so when they hit it off Tyler is reluctant to involve her. White and Shannon are longtime friends and their natural rapport shines through. Their obvious affection for each other makes even their most awkward moments endearing.

The episodes in which Amy takes a backseat to characters like Tyler and Levi are often better for it because they are more even keeled and therefore come off as more relatable. They are able to connect in a way that Amy does not, simply because of her extreme personality and behavior. In some ways Eileen is similar to Amy in that she’s awkward and not always aware of social cues, even overly blunt at times, but Shannon portrayal makes her more sympathetic and feel like a more fleshed out character, albeit a quirky one.

The second season of Enlightened, and sadly its last as it was cancelled, showed improvement over the first season in spreading out some of the character focus and story away from Amy. Certainly, it’s all tied together, but the series was better for having other characters step up to the spotlight, independent of Amy. Unfortunately, Diane Ladd as her mother, did not have as large a role this season and she was missed, although her interactions with Amy were always a pleasure to watch.

Enlightened was the kind of series that took time to fully invest in, partly because Amy could be such a difficult character, but regardless of that time, it was always smartly written, and often beautifully executed. Dern may get the bulk of the attention for the show, but it’s White who deserves the real recognition. As writer, director, and actor he seamlessly plays all roles, and it's Tyler who brings much needed humanity to the series.

The DVD release contains the same kinds of extras as the first season set, “Inside the Episode” featurettes, as well as three commentaries.


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