Enlighten Me

HBO's comedy series Enlightened is full of philosophy, disappointment, and quietly crazy characters — a lot like real life.


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I began watching the HBO series Enlightened at 3 a.m. in the midst of a severe bout of insomnia. This turned out to be a good way to get initiated into the show. The first five episodes (half of the first season), each a little under 27 minutes in length, brought me to dawn, which, for an insomniac, is where you want to be. I have since completed the first season, am up to date on the second, and am a fan. I find this the most compelling and original TV series since The Wire.

Nothing could be further in style and subject matter from that earlier much-acclaimed series. Enlightened is modest in its scope and stylized in its representation of its protagonist’s life. It relies heavily on stereotypical elements whereas The Wire is grittily realistic. Yet Enlightened has a dramatic vigor that sticks in the way The Wire did. I am entranced by its quirky humor, its intensity of feeling, and its sheer narrative drive.

The story summarized is liable to seem trite and unrewarding. Laura Dern plays Amy Jellicoe, a 40-year old divorced woman who has a breakdown in the first episode, following a messy affair with a married co-worker and a transfer to a lesser department within the large IT company where she has been working for 15 years. To recover, she goes to a holistic retreat in Hawaii and comes back “enlightened” — full of New Age ideas and a more amorphous determination to become a better person in ways that are both inspiring and ridiculous. She returns to her old company, where she has been re-located to a date-crunching department in the basement, populated by an assembly of misfits.

One is tempted to think at first that this will be Eat, Pray, Love without the travel and food, and will impart an anti-capitalist message of a predictable sort. But it doesn’t exactly go in that direction. It spouts New Age doctrine, but ridicules it in the process; it critiques the soulless corporation from the protagonist’s perspective but makes clear that she is a borderline lunatic. The show also deviates from standard practice in supplying no lovable characters. Indeed, there is no one in the show whom we can fully like. On the other hand, there is no one — with the exception of a few minor characters (and I’m not sure that they won’t change) — whom we can consistently dislike. This seems to me rather like life.

The dynamic of the show involves setting up the protagonist’s expectations, then foiling them, and then recalibrating them in a way that makes them meaningful in disappointment. All the characters are, quite frankly, pathetic, but all are also, for all their stereotypical depiction, human. It is a tour de force of writing and acting, a balancing of contradictory elements through an unusual creative deftness.

Amy has some of the faux zest of Carrie Bradshaw of Sex and the City and the treacly Zen aphorisms of Elizabeth Gilbert of Eat, Pray, Love, but these things are deconstructed in the course of each short episode. Each ends with a voice-over that is not chirpily Carrie-like or soul-searching a la Gilbert, but wearily philosophical — a tone, I should note, that is a balm to the insomniac, the depressive, the anxiety-ridden, or, for that matter, anyone who happens to be caught in the net of the human condition. Whoever writes the epilogues to the episodes has harnessed the modest truths of everyday life in the service of profound thought.

Part of the strength of the series is the cinematography. It captures the brightness of the Southern California landscape, the orderliness of the middle-class suburban street, and the cleanly intimidating monolith of the industrial park. The latter, in particular, is masterfully done — not just the sparkling glass and chrome buildings but the parking lots, conference rooms, cubicles and offices (graded for hierarchy), outdoor eating areas, and grand but sterile walkways. The Office parsed the absurdities of the corporate workplace, but Enlightened is less a comic send-up than an existential exploration of the postmodern condition, of which work and its environment are a central part of a larger problematic whole.

What the imagery of Enlightened most puts me in mind of is an Alfred Hitchcock film of the late 60s and 70s. Amy is an ordinary sort of person determined to be something more — to tear open the world in which she lives and expose its seams. Hitchcock’s everyman is, usually unwillingly, thrust into plots in which this happens. The Hitchcock inflection, I realize, may come from my knowing that Laura Dern is the daughter of Bruce Dern, who appeared in Hitch’s last film, Family Plot. Still, I can’t help but feel that some of the shots of Southern California — both the quality of the light and the menacing but mundane images of Abaddon, the company Amy works for (a Hitchcockian name, if there ever was one) — are reminiscent of landscapes in films like North by Northwest, Psycho, Torn CurtainTopaz, and Family Plot. These films also use institutions as covers for greed and wrongdoing as well as sites of paranoia and misplaced suspicion. Dern’s appearance in the series puts me in mind of a Hitchcock blonde, grown longer in the tooth and more askew (Tippi Hedren 15 years after The Birds?) Her face is splendid — full of sharp angles and grimacing expression, and yet oddly alluring, and always with that perfect blond hair. Her clothes hover between a stylish, quasi-affluent J.Crew look favored by Michelle Obama (Dern also has the First Lady’s well-toned arms) and something sillier and a bit inappropriate, too young for her age. The outfits perfectly fit the complicated mix of ingénue and loon that the character projects throughout.

The site of most of Amy’s workday, now that she has been demoted, could be compared to a circle in Dante’s hell. In TV-parlance, this means that it is inhabited by the full range of sitcom losers: the wild-haired Indian, the poker-faced church-lady, the lascivious, infantile boss, the quietly desperate middle-aged man, and the young-ish uber-nerd whose twitching silences scream repressed desire. This last is Tyler, who becomes Amy’s unwilling co-conspirator. He is played by Mike White, who also writes, directs, and is the show’s co-creator and co-executive producer with Dern — a feat of versatility, especially given the negligible persona he projects, that might deserve a series in its own right. A-bit-too-buff-looking Luke Wilson plays Amy’s drug- and sex-addicted ex-husband, Levi, and Dern’s real-life mother, Diane Ladd, plays her mother, Helen, with whom she is living until she can get back on her feet. Helen is one of those mothers whose stubbornly un-giving nature must cover a deep well of fear, vulnerability, and loss.

Enlightened is unique in that it doesn’t fall into either of the two kinds of existing television series: the conventional sitcom or drama, where people play stereotypical roles and remain in them to make plotting easy and give viewers comfort; or the more artful shows that break from stereotypes in order to be cutting edge and original. In the best cases of the latter, like The Wire and Girls, this makes us feel that the characters are real; in other cases, like Mad Men and Dexter, this seems done for effect and results in characters who are surprising but un-integrated and unreal.

But a series like Enlightened uses stereotypes and then slowly shifts its lens so that they are briefly and subtly seen through. This is, in fact, the way we actually deal with people in everyday life. We see them in outline, put them into categories, and, only gradually or fleetingly, see them as fuller human beings. The shortness of each episode of Enlightened lends itself well to this kind of seeing. Change and insight don’t happen in great revelatory bursts; we peak around the image that has been drawn, then pull back. Nothing especially important is seen, certainly not at first, but there is a statement of apparent truth here, a flicker of something genuine there; a bit of the real, glimpsed behind the generalized or farcical façade, gradually turns the cartoon into the human. Those glimpses of life are what give modest hope that more of value may lie in wait.

Most interesting is the way we are made to see Amy in this series. We can’t help but suspect that she is crazy — someone we would, if we met her at work, keep at a distance. One of the truest moments in the series is when Amy overhears others talking about her — when she catches a remark that is dismissive or involves outright ridicule. We can understand why others would say such things while also suspecting that we have been spoken about this way ourselves, out of earshot, by those who don’t know us well, and even by those who do. Amy is “other,” but she is also us.

Because the show circulates among a few simple locales — the home where she lives with her mother; her workplace in the company basement with her motley colleagues; the apartment of her ex, where she is erratically drawn to visit; the outdoor eating area where she lunches with her sad-sack co-worker and sees her former colleagues sitting together and excluding her — these locales become stations of the cross. We see Amy’s life as tragic but full of untapped potential. The second season promises to wander further afield and be more intensely dramatic — but these sites are likely to remain touchstones, the places where fundamental meaning gets made.

Amy’s desire to be great — to make the world great, to feel deeply and to live profoundly — is communicated in this series. I can’t wait to see her fail in another enlightened way as she blunders toward the life she wants. 23 January 2013


Paula Marantz Cohen is Distinguished Professor of English and Dean of the Pennoni Honors College at Drexel University in Philadelphia. She is the author of 12 books, including six scholarly/nonfiction works on literature and film, and six novels, some spin-offs on Jane Austen and Shakespeare, and a thriller involving the James family and Jack the Ripper. She is a frequent contributor to The Wall Street Journal, The Times Literary Supplement, The Yale Review, and The American Scholar, a co-editor of jml: Journal of Modern Literature, and the host of the nationally distributed television interview show, The Civil Discourse (formerly The Drexel InterView). Her book, Talking Cure: An Essay on the Civilizing Power of Conversation will be published by Princeton UP in February.