Most great TV shows are powerfully compelling in the way they make you sympathize with the endeavors of their protagonist, whether they be moral or not, and others go a far longer route: they endear you to a character who frustrates you more than anything. Every action they pursue makes complete sense to them, but to everyone around them (the audience included) it’s entirely clear how deluded they are in their own righteousness. HBO’s Enlightened blends both of those approaches into one through the character of nervous breakdown survivor Amy Jellico (Laura Dern) who returns to work at the corporate workplace where she flipped out, only to discover things can never be the same again. The show’s efficacy lies entirely upon Dern’s shoulders, a load she’s more than capable of bearing, and it quickly makes the show enthralling and, if you connect with it, one of the most anxiety-inducing programs to come along in a long time.
Fifteen years spent in the corporate environment of Health and Beauty took its toll on Amy Jellico, and after an affair with a co-worker unraveled, so did she. Her very public and loud exit from the company preceded her trip to a rehab facility which changed her outlook on life. When she returns to her life, she finds her new outlook challenged from every side, including her distant mother (Diane Ladd) and drug-using ex-husband (Luke Wilson). The greatest challenge to her new optimistic worldview, however, comes from her re-introduction to the same company she left after a threat of lawsuit forces them to cram her into a technical computer job deep in the company’s bowels next to the company’s rejects like Tyler (Mike White), far away from the Health and Beauty job she desperately wants back. Her attempts to escape the job sink her into deeper and deeper trouble (and levels of desperation) with endless pitches to become the head of a new environmental responsibility taskforce and conflicts with her new boss (Timm Sharp).
While it’s interesting, and quite fun, to watch Ladd, Wilson, and the rest play perpetual pessimistic obstacles to Dern’s optimistic Amy (or to see series co-creator and director Mike White play his usual timid self) , nothing makes Enlightened more worth a try than Dern herself. She gives herself over to the character so completely that it’s hard to tell where the character ends and the actress begins. Dern gives Amy so much energy and hope that it’s actually quite frustrating to see her keep banging her head against a wall her naiveté just can’t see (and that she desperately wants to believe isn’t there). The tone walks a fine line between making Amy seem fragile due to her recent rehabilitation which might crack should the corporate world keep kicking her down and reminding us that in spirit her ambitions are essentially good even if unpalatable in a cynical corporate world. Consequently, we see Amy disillusioned with each new disappointment until she realizes that puppy dogs sunshine aren’t going to save the world without a little ass-kicking to get the message across. To get to that point though is an emotional rollercoaster that the audience can’t help but be moved by.
The season finale hints at the new direction for the next season and suggests that Amy will finally find a better formula of good intentions and decisive action. It’s a tremendous first season with promises of an equally spellbinding season on the way.
Blu-ray Bonus Features
The only extras are some interesting audio commentaries and behind-the-scenes featurettes.
"Enlightened: The Complete First Season" is on sale January 8, 2013 and is not rated. Drama. Directed by Miguel Arteta, Mike White. Written by Laura Dern, Mike White. Starring Diane Ladd, Laura Dern, Luke Wilson, Mike White.