By Christian Blauvelt
Updated October 10, 2011 at 12:00 PM EDT
Credit: Prashant Gupta/HBO

Not quite getting your fill of feel-bad TV? Well, here’s the show for you!

Enlightened, the new comedic drama starring Laura Dern (who’s also credited as co-writer and co-creator, along with former Freaks & Geeks producer Mike White), debuted tonight on HBO. You’ll notice I call it a comedy drama, as opposed to a dramedy, though perhaps the latter, more wishy-washy term better describes the tonal inconsistency of Ms. Dern’s latest effort. This is either the blackest comedy to hit TV in a while, or the most pointlessly histrionic drama. At first it seems to be a devastating satire of America’s feel-good, self-help culture in the Era of Oprah and Phil, but by the end, with it’s relentlessly serene images—a sea turtle floating in tranquil, azure waters; a bonfire on a beach; ooh…a sunset—it seems, unmistakably, a loving embrace of it.

Enlightened’s premiere episode opens with an image of grief at its most grotesque. Laura Dern’s Los Angeles health-and-beauty executive, Amy Jellicoe, has just found out that her boss, Damon, with whom she’s been carrying on an affair, has transferred her out of her department. Tears streak down her mascara-stained face, her mouth agape, as she sobs uncontrollably in a bathroom stall. Despair turns to rage when she overhears a couple of catty colleagues gossiping about her. She storms out, determined to confront Damon about his betrayal. She pursues him to an elevator, and pries open its doors like a jilted T-1000 stalking its prey. This sounds like Fatal Attraction, right?

So needless to say it’s a bit jarring when Amy the Harpy becomes suddenly blissed out. Okay…. she takes a three-month sabbatical, goes to Hawaii, and joins a serenity retreat. A retreat that apparently assigns the latest self-help texts for the reading pleasure of its guests, when they’re not swimming with cuddly sea creatures, roasting marshmallows ‘round bonfires, and feeling the sand between their toes. Two minutes of Malick-worthy beauty later, we’re hit with a shot of Smog City’s perpetual traffic jams. Contrast! Amy has returned to LA and is looking to get her job back. She’s fresh-faced and frizzy-haired—because we all know the amount of frizz in one’s hair is directly proportional to that person’s level of enlightenment.

At this point, what is this show going to be? An ‘80s-style workplace comedy a la Working Girl or Baby Boom? A middle-aged New Girl? Amy’s moving back in with her mom, so maybe Retired At 35 plus two X-chromosomes? Somehow it becomes a combination of all of these.

Amy weasels her way back into her job at Abaddonn. Yes, Abaddonn is the name of her company. If you know your Torah — or at least watched Lost — you should know that Abaddonn is Hebrew for “hell.” Subtlety! Amy finds that Abaddonn is living up to its name upon her return. Her old assistant Krista can’t help but act hopelessly awkward around her, and Damon hides in his office. Amy’s meeting with Abaddonn’s HR reps is fruitless until she threatens them with a potential lawsuit for terminating her employment due to her mental health issues. She meets with her ex-husband (Luke Wilson), gives him a self-help book (Flow Through Your Rage), and leaves in disgust when she sees him snorting coke. That means she starts obsessing about Damon again, proving that she’s still driven by her same old obsessions, though now giving them a sunnier spin. Finally, Amy shows up in Damon’s neighborhood and parks her car in front of his house. Damon is not amused, and sprints out of his abode to set her straight, lest his wife should get wind of his fling’s existence. Amy drives off in a huff, but not before plowing into the rear fender of Damon’s car — psychological torment played out with bumper cars! Original!

Despite these setbacks, Amy dons her sunniest yellow summer dress — all the better for a telephoto shot of her walking in slow motion down a crowded Los Angeles sidewalk — and embraces her inner Zen for the new beginning of her work-life at Abaddonn. Even better, “Hallelujah” plays as she imagines seeing her beloved Hawaiian sea turtle again. And…scene.

Maybe with a true visionary at the helm like David Lynch, Enlightened could work. The starkly binary worldview that Dern and White project — it’s either chaos or tranquility — would be right up the alley of the man who launched her career. At times, Enlightened’s glossy images, such as of the plastic swans floating in the pool at Amy’s house, even evoke the offbeat, primary-colored transcendentalism of Blue Velvet or Lost Highway. In Inland Empire, Dern gave a towering performance as a Hollywood movie star drawn into Tinseltown’s darkest, dankest corners, until she finds herself a Sunset Boulevard streetwalker with a screwdriver stabbed in her gut. Like Enlightened, Inland Empire also showed the brutality that lies beneath our neatly ordered existence. But just after the first 30 minutes of this series’ planned 10-episode run, it’s apparent that no such vision is at work.

Dern seems uncertain whether to play Amy as the series’ heroine or just another crazy woman. That kind of ambiguity wouldn’t normally be a problem, but the series is clearly designed with the intent of you rooting for her. Which means there’s nothing new to learn here. So, corporate America can be soul-crushing. Self-help regimens are shallow. Alienation from your parents can be painful. Mental instability is rarely tolerated. Second chances are hard to come by. Men can be philandering swine. Enlightening indeed! I think this bit of Wayne Dyer/Phil McGraw-inflected voiceover Amy spouts at the beginning reveals Enlightened’s true, underlying touchy-feely agenda: “You can wake up to your higher self. And when you do, the world is full of possibility. Of wonder and deep connection.”

Walt Whitman famously said, “I am large. I contain multitudes.” The tagline for Enlightened should be, “I am bloated. I contain platitudes.”

Did any of you catch Enlightened tonight? If so, what were your thoughts?

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