An Ode to Enlightened: The Best Show You Aren’t Watching

This Sunday is the season finale of HBO show Enlightened, starring Laura Dern as Amy Jellicoe, a woman who has a nervous breakdown after her self-destructive tendencies cause her life to implode. Like the show’s creators, I’m afraid this may be the last-ever episode of Enlightened.  I’m not sure I can describe how fantastic Enlightened is and convince you to tune in for the final show, but I’ll try my best.

Enlightened is a darkly comedic look at California new age pseudo-spirituality, corporate culture, and misguided activism. It’s also a serious look at addiction in a multitude of ways—from substance abuse to Amy’s own reliance on her newfound spirituality to temper her rage and justify her terrible behaviors.

Paired with Girls on Sunday nights, Enlightened follows Amy as she ends up at Open Air, a new wave pseudo-hippie rehab center, and returns to her life a “new” woman armed with an arsenal of self-help books and meditatio. Rather broke, she has to move in with her mother. 

Created by Mike White and Laura Dern, Enlightened is a fascinating portrait of a woman who so desperately wants to be an agent of change in all aspects of her own life, her co-workers lives and her ex-husband’s life. Amy also wants to change the world through her own misguided yet still genuine attempts at activism. But Amy’s self-destructive behaviors continually get in the way of her goals.

Even though Amy’s bullshit is apparent, you never stop rooting for her. Partly this comes from the tremendous performance of Laura Dern. I’m not really sure why Dern isn’t in absolutely everything but this woman is a national treasure. Dern’s ability to keep Amy grounded yet go from rage to serenity within a single flinch is incredible. And Dern’s cry face is unparalled except for maybe Claire Danes.  

 While the first season served more as a quiet character study, Enlightened’s second season features Amy as a corporate whistleblower after she became privy to information that could bring her company down. Amy is a complex character—one that many viewers have an automatic aversion to because she’s flawed.  In a recent interview with television critic Maureen Ryan of The Huffington Post, writer Mike White commented on those critiques.

I’ve written a lot of female leads. I just think there are certain men who feel like engaging in a story told from a female point of view is somehow a feminizing experience. And that itself is something that they’re almost supposed to not want to engage.

So take out just the fact that she could be annoying or [take out] the New Age part – [it’s] just the fact that it’s a female-centered show and that the subjectivity is from a female perspective and it is about compassion. She’s not an action hero. She’s embracing her female side and that’s what the show, in a sense, is about. It’s about relationships. It’s about her as a woman in the workplace and all those things.

You see how that kind of art sometimes is even marginalized from the get-go. And I don’t necessarily understand it. But it feels like, unless there’s a sort of normative male voice or a normative male centerpiece to a show –- even if the guy’s a murderer or whatever –- [a show is] taken a little less taken seriously.

When you couple White’s nuanced thoughts about female characters with directors such as Nicole Holofcener, Miguel Arteta, and one of my all-time favorite directors Todd Haynes, you have a combination that purely becomes art.

Enlightened is a complex cinematic gem of a show at its core is about a woman who just wants a bigger life. Isn’t that worth watching?

You can watch all of Enlightened on HBO GO right now—there are only 17 episodes. The second season finale airs Sunday (3/3) at 9:30pm on HBO.

by Kerensa Cadenas
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2 Comments Have Been Posted

Completely agree!

I have loved this show from the very start and am disappointed that so few people have been watching. I really hope that it gets a 3rd season because it's fantastic. Laura Dern is incredible. Thank you for taking the time to write about this underrated gem!

I have never heard of this

I have never heard of this show. Being a Brit I think it is even more unlikely that I would have ever heard of this show if I hadn't read this. But I will definitely take a look at it now. It make a nice change to hear something about women on TV without it being Lena Dunham and Girls!

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