It’s not entirely clear who didn’t realize what HBO had on its hands with Enlightened: HBO or viewers. Officially canceled before its time after only two seasons, Enlightened featured one of television’s most eccentric female leads in the capable hands of Laura Dern as Amy Jellicoe, a corporate executive who suffers a very public mental breakdown while at work and seeks refuge in a rehab clinic from whence she comes away with a whole new outlook on life. Unfortunately for her, her new philosophy of civic responsibility and good stewardship doesn’t really gel with the business plan of a major corporation, pushing her into an inevitable conflict with her employers as she stews in her new pity position hidden away in the company’s tech support bowels. Enlightened’s second season picks up the pace from the first season immensely as Amy sets into motion her plan to take down her company, even as it becomes clear she’s not really aware of the consequences her actions will bring.
The first season ended with Amy fully committed to taking down Abaddonn Industries, and it seemed that she has a completely willing accomplice in the form of her co-worker Tyler (Mike White), a meek 40-something programmer who has the tech skills she needs for her plan to work but who isn’t quite as convinced of the company’s villainy or Amy’s selflessness. Tyler’s doubts take backseat, however, as he and Amy move forward with the plan and uncover damning information about the company and its plans for their project, Cognetiva, which quickly earns them a third ally in their supervisor Dougie (Timm Sharp). The three of them plot to expose the company by stealing information and e-mails off the company servers and giving it to Los Angeles Times journalist Jeff Flender (Dermot Mulroney), who specializes in exposing corporate scandals. As the plan moves further and further along, Tyler discovers a purpose outside of work and begins regretting his decision to betray his company, while Amy commits herself to it more and more as she becomes increasingly convinced of her own righteousness, even when it comes at the expense of other people’s happiness or essentially dooms her chances of ever having a job ever again.
The sped up pace of the second season makes Enlightened more involving than the first season, but that can also be credited to the second season also having a clearer direction right from the start whereas the first season kind of floated about as we came to appreciate Amy’s self-destructive tendency towards righteousness. So many of Amy’s mistakes the audience will see coming from a mile away (like the conflict of interest of a journalist dating his source of information), but it’s that she’s blinded to them by her own conviction that what she’s doing is the absolute right thing that makes Enlightened such an excellent story. We know that what she’s aspiring to is theoretically good: corporate greed and malpractice should be exposed and penalized. But we also know from even the most cursory glance at her actions that her reasons for wanting them rarely ever come from the right place.
Her desire to be a whistleblower derives from an almost covetous stance of the title because of what she thinks it represents (civic justice) and not from an actual desire to do the right thing. It’s a fascinating duality that makes Amy Jellicoe one of the more unexpected drama protagonists and it also makes her simultaneously sympathetic and condemnable. More than anything, though, it makes watching her struggle towards self-aggrandizing justice impossibly awkward and uncomfortable at moments. Few television shows make it so we cheer on a character even as we bemoan their thoughtless, harmful actions in pursuit of a singular goal that they’re certain is an absolute moral right.
Enlightened is fascinating, and it’s as much due to the characterization inherent in Mike White and Laura Dern’s writing as it is to their acting, especially Dern’s. If you never watched Enlightened, now’s the time to pick up both seasons and binge your way through two painfully excellent seasons of television.
DVD Bonus Features
Audio commentaries and brief introductions to what Mike White likes most about each given episode are the set’s only extras.
"Enlightened: The Complete Second Season" is on sale August 13, 2013 and is not rated. Comedy, Drama. Directed by Miguel Arteta, Mike White. Written by Laura Dern, Mike White. Starring Diane Ladd, Laura Dern, Luke Wilson, Mike White, Timm Sharp.