There’s a lot of good that can be said of HBO’s Enlightened. Filled with a ton of awkwardly played comedic performances and plenty of gut-wrenchingly awful individuals, the series is not for the faint-hearted, but Mike White, Laura Dern and their team of talented writers’ have created a world that is clever, bold, and impactful, one that will stick with audiences for days after an episode has been watched.
It’s a good thing that episodes of Enlightened run for only a half-hour apiece. By the ten-minute mark, the show has generally asked us to sit through aggressive moments with a multitude of characters that show them in all sorts of lights ranging from almost agreeable to utterly horrific. Unlike Seinfeld or Eastbound & Down, two shows that put somewhat selfish people into impossible situations for loud laughs, Enlightened also uses flawed characters as its protagonists, but looks less aggressively for the joke. Consequently, our characters are often people for whom wild speeches and outlandish retorts are common, and who make it easy for the audience to dislike them, at least before getting to know and understand them.
Laura Dern is a standout as Amy Jellicoe, a beautiful and destructive woman who returns to work after an intense professional breakdown—one we get to see in the first episode. After a stint in rehab, Jellicoe returns home and blackmails her way back into work, where she is given a position in less prestigious office. Amy’s disdain for the oddballs in her new office and her new hatred for corporations put her on a warpath for change. She is aided throughout her various selfish shenanigans by her desk partner, Tyler (White), a lonely, quiet worker who is originally besotted with Amy, although he doesn't always put up with her bullshit.
An unlikeable person often has some likeable characteristics, although it may take a little longer to bring those characteristics closer to the surface. Enlightened, like its characters, take a long while to fully invest in. Season 1 starts out as a series with too much cringing and not enough payout, but the writing is so deft that by the end of the season Amy and the motley crew of people involved in her life have become worthwhile, and in some cases, almost endearing. This pivotal change occurs in the last couple of episodes and really hits home in a moment when Jellicoe’s ex-husband, Levi (Luke Wilson), discusses the positive changes in Amy’s behavior since she’s returned from rehab. It’s easy to forget that we didn’t really see her at her worst and that she really is on a warpath to self-realization and self-betterment, despite her totally lack of understanding concerning how she comes across to the people around her.
The penultimate episode is told from the perspective of Diane Ladd’s motherly character, Helen, and is one of the saddest, most poignant moments of television I’ve ever had the pleasure of being privy to. It is only when we get out of Amy’s selfish head that we can see her mother and her drug addict ex-husband as real people, and not just unfortunate souls caught up in Amy’s net.
HBO’s Enlightened: The Complete Season One is a fairly simple DVD set featuring all ten episodes from the first run of the series, as well as a “season index” for those wanting to look into a specific episode. Additionally, a few bonus features have been added to the disc. The audio commentaries are pretty extensive, and both White and Dern are really invested in them, which makes sense, as the two co-creators have thrown themselves fully into HBO’s series, taking on executive producing credits and writing credits, as well as the acting. Unfortunately, there isn’t commentary for every episode, but the commentary that is there is worth watching.
Unlike the commentary, an “Inside the Episode” segment is available for every episode. These are short segments with Mike White that explain the writing perspective for each episode. They are kind of a play by play of what happens during the episode and clips from the episode are used, so I wouldn’t suggest watching these until after each of the episodes are watched.
I’m not sure exactly what I expected when I first sat down to watch Season 1 of Enlightened, but it wasn’t what I got. I’ve rarely, if ever, had such a visceral reaction to a television program, often raging and bemoaning my way through the first few episodes before ultimately coming around. If you give Enlightened a shot, please stick with it until the end of the season. I can almost guarantee you’ll be rewarded.
Length: 300 minutes
Distributor: HBO Studios
Release Date: 01/08/2013
Starring: Laura Dern, Mike White, Luke Wilson
Directed by: Mike White, Miguel Arteta
Created by: Mike White, Laura Dern