In Defense of HBO’s ‘Enlightened’

A couple years after its demise, it's time to look back at how brilliant and confusing Mike White and Laura Dern's series really was.

My favorite art makes me feel like shit. Confused. Angry. Sad. Uncomfortable. Frustrated. Choose any one of those words and you wouldn’t be wrong. Life’s best moments don’t come as a result of something easy or something predictable. They come when we least expect them. They come in the form of a rainbow painting the sky mere minutes after the storms ruin the picnic. The best memories aren’t given; they’re earned. That’s why they are the best. That’s why they matter. 

Movies? I love it just as much when I walk away moved to tears as I do when I leave wondering what the hell just happened. Music? Having played the drums my entire life, I feel just as excited seeing someone perform a simplistic, groovy back-beat as I do when I know I’ll never be able to replicate what I just saw. Television? While I love me some Fresh Prince-like sitcoms, my heart and mind lies almost entirely with something like The Wire, a series I had to consume twice before I even began to appreciate everything that was going on. 

About a month ago, I watched the last episode of the last season of the ill-fated HBO series, Enlightened. I was a couple years late, yes, but a friend whose recommendations I wholeheartedly trust said the series was must-see TV. Combine that with a trusty new username and password for HBO Go on my ever-reliable Roku, and my first stop on the app was the Laura Dern-starring short-lived dramedy. Or comeda. Or … 

… Or, well, I don’t quite know how to accurately describe it. Because even as I sit and write these words, weeks after having time to digest the story in its entirety, I still can’t make heads or tails of what it was I saw. Was it supposed to be funny? Because it was. Was it supposed to meditate on Grand Ideas through the prism of a middle-aged woman trying to do right in such a wrong corporate world? Because it did. Was it supposed to illicit weird, unnerving emotions that force us to reconsider the repressed complex feelings we rarely take the time to internally examine? Because that’s the effect it had on me. 

Lasting for a far-too-short two seasons (the latter of which was cut to eight episodes), Enlightened is the most confusing television series I have ever watched. And that includes The Wire or Mad Men or Breaking Bad or any of the other brainiac-obsessed, slow-moving, deeper-than-the-ocean TV series that have only grown in popularity over the last decade or so. Its heroine, Dern’s Amy Jellicoe, was so layered that I still don’t know if we were supposed to root for her, dismiss her, love her, hate her, be annoyed by her, or beg her to just shut up about all this self-help, meditative, agent-of-change nonsense. 

All this time later, hindsight tells me that if I had to guess, I might have loved it. And as it goes, I’m not the only one: 

Enlightened is a show that trusts itself to make small gestures and spend time on quiet observation,” The Huffington Post’s Maureen Ryan wrote in January 2013, “and it ultimately succeeds at one of the hardest but most important things any story should do: It brings you inside in the emotional state of the people at the heart of the tale. With its spare visual style and its meditative aesthetic, Enlightened evokes a feeling of not-quite-resigned aspiration, a lyrical, guarded sense of possibility. The show is suffused with the sense that what you want is just out of reach and that the dream could be yours if you just wanted it a little more intensely.” (“‘Enlightened’ Review: A Brilliant, Must-See Return For The HBO Gem”)

“When television approaches art — and the best cable series often are just that — there are going to be pieces of it that are incredibly respected but just don’t translate,” The Hollywood Reporter‘s Tim Goodman wrote after news broke that HBO canceled the series in March 2013. “I think that’s what Enlightened was in season one. And then it was the weird piece in the museum that people start chattering about in season two, and word of mouth starts to create bigger packs of people standing in front of it, gazing with open eyes and minds.” (“Despite Cancellation, ‘Enlightened’ Was a Win for HBO and Viewers (Analysis)”)

That’s exactly what the series was: The weird piece at the museum. It wasn’t obviously anything. In fact, the beauty of the Enlightened was the illusion that it never really found its footing. Just when you thought it was going to end up one place, it jerked itself into a left turn that drove you to a completely different neighborhood. The moment we began thinking that things were even the slightest bit clearer, a cloud of fog would roll in to distort whatever view we thought we had. 

Yet what made the series so brilliant was how it accomplished these things, how it accomplished that sense of confusion. None of it was overt. None of it had anything to do with tricky plot turns or blatantly conspicuous story lines. Any perceived change in character or any potential development of narrative was all left up to the viewer. Either you saw it or you didn’t. Dern, along with co-creator Mike White, had no interest in holding anybody’s hand to get to where they needed to be, and for that, Enlightened was far more tricky to comprehend than any possible first or second glance could detect. 

The best example of such comes in the first season’s ninth episode, “Consider Helen”, which, for my money, is one of the five best half-hour episodes of a television series I’ve ever seen. In it, we see the story of Helen, Amy’s mother (played by Dern’s real-life mother, Diane Ladd) who, until that point, was a one-note, no-nonsense character with very little patience for life itself, and an even shorter fuse for her daughter. Written by White, the episode is a tour de force through why the elder Jelecoe’s life is where it’s at, all illustrated by flashbacks and one captivatingly long conversation she shares in a grocery store with the wife of an old family friend.

You can’t look away. You just can’t. It’s one of the true-to-life small-screen depictions of any conversation, ever. No matter age, no matter gender. Better yet is how the whole thing is shot, occasionally at a longer-than-normal distance, giving viewers the impression they are peaking in on an intensely personal and extremely awkward organic moment. Within those handful of minutes alone, the character of Helen expands her presence into depths rarely seen from a bit player in the first season of a (sadly) unpopular television series. TV bravery has rarely felt so complete. 

The moment is indicative of what Enlightened was all about: The honest messiness of the human condition. Be it White’s Tyler, Amy’s friend whose monologues regarding how “only hope hurts” are damn sad and damn common among all of our own conversations with ourselves. Be it Timm Sharp’s Dougie, whose wildly abrasive demeanor is nothing more than a shield guarding his very apparent and very fragile limited sense of self-worth. Be it Amy’s ex-husband Levi, whose life was shattered through addiction and a decidedly life-altering (read: crushing) development he shared with the series’ lead role. No matter the story, no matter the pain, this was a show that confronted life’s complexities as well or better than any other series in the modern day. 

If nothing else, Enlightened was an entity that clearly needed time to grow, it clearly needed time to blossom and find its audience. This was never designed to be a series that could be digested instantly. Right from the opening minutes of season 1, episode 1, when Dern’s Amy reasserts the tried and tested adage that hell does indeed hath no fury like a woman scorned, you know this is something you’ve never seen before. Similar productions? Maybe. But nothing that meets the intensity and the ambition of what might be formulating behind those fire-red teary eyes of hers. 

It’s a feeling of freshness that almost instantly makes you a believer, something that says, This will be different. This will be hard. Stick around if you want. But you’ve been warned. 

“Mike White’s show is a more radical creation, in part because Amy… is a heroine,” The New Yorker‘s Emily Nussbaum wrote in March 2013, after the series ended. “This is true despite the fact that she makes viewers, and everyone who meets her, wildly uncomfortable: Amy’s inner vision of herself as a chill New Age seeker is rarely matched by her outward appearance. She’s needy, she’s manipulative, she’s passive-aggressive. Yet despite her flaws, her heart is pure. Her idealism is real. When she becomes a corporate whistle-blower, it’s apparent that Amy’s most agitating qualities are inseparable from her capacity to be a crusader, however clumsy and unformed. In Sunday’s finale, when she barrels into the repercussions of her own actions, watching Enlightened feels something like hearing a blast of cymbals, a wake-up call.” (“The Hummingbird theory”)

A wake-up call, indeed. Yet precisely what that revelation is supposed to impl … well, at this point, I’m still not quite sure. Is it an indictment on ourselves, a proposed war waged against the common apathy that plagues most of our souls far more than we would prefer? Is it self-reverential, a reminder that the only people to blame for where our lives are — satisfied or unsatisfied, happy or sad — are ultimately ourselves? Is it hopeful that goals can be achieved and change is truly obtainable? Or, is it cynical, a mere illustration of how powerful the corporate machine can be, from the top floor, where mean former assistants reside, all the way down to the bottom level, where the processing geeks lurk under fluorescent lighting?

I don’t know. But that’s OK. Because as Enlightened proved with just18 episodes of television, sometimes actually obtaining such a thing is far more predicated on how much we don’t know than what we do. With this series, we saw Amy Jellicoe learn that the hard way. Though if anything is to be concluded from her journey through the corporate landscape, marital separations, unkind best friends, obnoxious men and a family life that was far from ideal, it’s that there’s nothing easy about life’s hardest things. 

My favorite kind of art, indeed.