HBO’s new half-hour dramedy, Enlightened, begins with a spectacular nervous breakdown. As the peaceful, white title card of the show’s intro dissolves, we see a close-up of Amy Jellicoe (Laura Dern) sitting on a toilet, seething with rage, enveloped in despair, with a face covered in tears and mascara. As she flies out of the restroom like a Tasmanian devil and co-workers futilely attempt to calm her down, we learn she’s just been demoted from her job at a large corporation called Abaddon Industries as a result of an ill-advised affair with her married boss. In the last shot of this sequence, Amy, whose running mascara now reads as war paint, pries open a set of elevator doors and vows revenge.
Like its prologue, Enlightened is a bipolar series—oscillating actively between comedy and drama, tranquility and anger, humanism and satire—held together, for every frame of every episode, by the virtuosic rampaging of its star. After the elevator doors finally shut on that frenzied opening sequence, the camera cuts to a lilting montage of Amy snorkeling, laughing, and sitting around a campfire at a luxe rehab center. As we learn over the course of the premiere, Amy’s stint in the treatment facility proves to be a life-changing experience, teaching her meditation skills, imbuing her with a concern for the environment, and filling her suitcase with well-bookmarked, New Age self-help manuals. By the end of the montage, however, Amy’s back home and apparently surprised to learn that, while she was away achieving transcendence, the rest of the world kept going without her, and all the same things that drove her crazy in the first place are waiting patiently to drive her crazy all over again.
Amy Jellicoe’s quixotic quest to live an “enlightened” life in a cold, mean, and profoundly unenlightened world is the guiding premise of the series, and it largely works as a compelling and oddly propulsive narrative structure. Amy has plenty of stressors—personal and institutional—and each episode is built around her alternately comedic and tragic attempts to reconcile the frustrating elements of that world with her new self. Among these irritants are her withholding, mumu-clad mother (Diane Ladd, playing the role with a mixture of parental bewilderment and concern); her drug-addled ex-husband (Luke Wilson, doing soulful and damaged the way only a Wilson brother can); and the rag-tag group of lonely cast-offs working in Abaddon’s data-processing wing, where a post-meltdown Amy has been relegated—most notably Tyler, a pasty, pitiful screw-up played by the Laurence Olivier of pasty, pitiful screw-ups, Mike White.
White is also the show’s writer and co-creator. In his previous work, he’s shown a remarkable affinity for women on—or perhaps over—the edge of collapse. We have White to thank, for instance, for Busy Phillips’s flailing teenager on Freaks and Geeks, Jennifer Aniston’s sole successful dramatic turn as a rock-bottom cashier in The Good Girl, and Joan Cusack’s repressed grade-school principal in School of Rock. On Enlightened, Dern also benefits from White’s detailed attention to the ingrained social and psychological factors that affect modern women. The only nagging question, and it’s one that remains unresolved after four episodes, is whether we’re meant to sympathize with or laugh at Amy. From her first moment of hysterical—in both senses of the term—unraveling, the viewer feels pulled in opposite directions. Should we be laughing at this crying woman’s pain? More importantly, why are we being asked to?
Despite these lingering concerns, Enlightened seems earnest in its representation of Amy, and, through a series of lovingly composed, transcendently awkward scenes in which she confronts her past, we end up as willing converts on our her mission. As she transitions from spurned psycho to overzealous new-age evangelist, White certainly satirizes both Amy’s downfall and the clichéd coping mechanisms she uses to combat her depression, but even as these things are pilloried (along with the vestigial corporate jealousy and callousness that occasionally rear their heads from beneath Amy’s hippie-dippie new persona) the series never attacks the woman, or the soul, at its center. Expressed in occasionally sentimental, but always straight-faced narration, Amy, we’re constantly reminded, is a person worthy of the love, acceptance, and success that she has such a hard time securing.
Helping to sell this sincerity is Dern herself, whose performance deftly encapsulates every facet of Amy’s sadness, anger, and buffoonishness. Premium cable has recently given underappreciated, underused film actors like Mary Louise Parker, Laura Linney, and Toni Collette room to spread their wings, and Enlightened marks an extraordinary opportunity for Dern to access her full range as both a comedic and dramatic actor. Her take on the loopy speech patterns and faddish utopianism of post-rehab Amy is fluent and dagger-sharp, but in a quickly squinted eye or a brief slackening of her goofily optimistic smile, she shows us her character’s fundamental disappointment in her world and herself. That disappointment, and the full-hearted yet misguided ways Amy imagines she might transcend it, are the real subjects of the series, and Dern and White have both seemingly spent long careers in preparation for a project exactly as ambivalent, humane, and beautifully contradictory as this.