There’s a general feeling among cable TV fans that television needs to be dark in order to be taken seriously. And I get that. Most of my all-time favorite shows are about meth dealers and undertakers and stylishly dressed alcoholics. So there’s something pretty brave about a show that’s not cynical or sarcastic or defeatist, one that’s not set on a street corner in Baltimore or inside Al Qaeda’s torture barracks, and still manages to be absolutely heartbreaking. HBO’s Enlightened is the most genuinely moving TV show that’s debuted this fall. And none of the characters get cancer.
Don’t worry, that doesn’t mean it’s all kindness and light and Kumbaya singalongs. In fact, the pilot was pretty bleak: the very first scene shows Amy Jellicoe (Laura Dern) on an ugly-crying jag in a bathroom stall, hurling the C-word at the ladies who are gossiping about her outside, and screeching in full-blown smeared-mascara hysteria at the married boss who slept with her and then quickly demoted her. Amy ends up getting shipped off for some New Age anger management rehab in Hawaii. When a sea turtle swims by her, filling her with awe, she has an epiphany. Returning to the office feeling spiritually rejuvenated, she’s ready to change the world.
There’s just one small problem. When she returns, her company, Abaddon, demotes her again, to some data processing center for misfit employees. (It’s fitting that, in Greek mythology, Abaddon is an underworld for lost souls; in Enlightened, the data processing center is located on the sub-basement floor “H,” possibly for Hell.) Plus, Amy’s still a few rage-aholic meltdowns away from achieving oneness with humanity.
Perhaps it’s a hard sell to get viewers to come home from a hard day at work and watch… a show about trying to rise above another hard day at work. The ratings for the pilot were pretty dismal, and they haven’t gotten much better since then. But I wish people would pay attention, because the more maniacal Amy’s antics, the funnier and more poignant Enlightened gets. Watching her swing erratically between total half-lotus serenity and unconstrained rage is a big part of what makes Enlightened so fun to watch: I laughed out loud when Amy drove to her boss’s house, ostensibly to make amends, and ended up crashing repeatedly into his car.
Some of the best jokes come from Amy trying, and failing, and trying again to be a good person, one who really, truly connects with others. In one episode, she returns home to her mother (Diane Ladd), full of compassion. “It’s good to see you, Mom,” she says. “Why?” her mother asks, totally deadpan. In another episode, Amy visits her drug-addict ex-husband Levi (Luke Wilson), gushing about how great it is that they can reconnect in such a meaningful way without cocaine. “Yeah,” he says, smiling. And then he leans over and snorts a massive line.
Still, it’s to the credit of the show’s creator, the talented Chuck and Buck scribe and Amazing Race competitor Mike White, that when Amy does become unhinged, it’s never just an easy punch line. (White also appears in the show as Amy’s painfully awkward coworker, Tyler.) Maybe that’s because White actually understands what Amy’s going through: Back in 2004, he checked into a psychiatric hospital after suffering a nervous breakdown. (Ironically, he was working on a TV show called Cracked Up at the time.) “In a way it was kind of Buddhist,” he told the New York Times of the breakdown. “It was the worst thing that could have happened. I embarrassed myself in front of all these important people, I proved myself to not be strong enough to figure this out. I felt weak and lost, like a screw-up, and at the same time, coming out of it, I felt like I’d been given a huge gift.”
On Enlightened, that’s how Amy feels, too. And one reason why her behavior will make you cringe is that it’s so easy to relate to her. Who doesn’t understand just how difficult it is, every single day, to refrain from repeatedly crashing into someone’s car?
Watching Amy work so hard to become a better human being is wrenching, especially since one of the show’s messages is that it should be very easy if you stop struggling to align the world’s chakras with a rose quartz crystal and just learn to think small. The season’s phenomenal third episode, “Someone Else’s Life,” begins with Amy thinking about the secret lives of the people she works with. “I imagine the love that they’re getting,” Amy says in the opening voiceover, “and the relief that comes from being really known, the private pleasures they share, the friends they have, and the pressures they don’t. Their sense of importance, the satisfaction of their work … ” But by the end of the episode, after making a simple gesture of kindness to a coworker (I won’t spoil what happens), she looks at things a little differently. “I realize how much I have,” she says, again in voiceover, “and how much I have to give.”
Now, those words might sound like something from Dr. Phil’s Life Script when you’re reading them on the computer. But when I saw that episode, I cried. And when I watched it a second time, to write down those words so that I could quote them here, I cried again. And I’m not the only one. Recently, a friend of mine admitted that his sister called right after the episode aired, and he was so choked up, he couldn’t talk to her. I’ll ask you this: when was the last time you were so moved by a voiceover?
And while we’re at it, when was the last time you really cared about the characters in a dark comedy in a totally unironic way? Much credit goes to the cast, which is uniformly fantastic. As Amy’s former assistant Krista, Sarah Burns is a truly sublime face-actor, her expressions switching from pity to annoyance to extreme mortification whenever Amy stops by to “chat” during Krista’s lunches with much cooler coworkers. Timm Sharp, who you might recognize from Undeclared, is a master of subtle comedy as Amy’s wannabe-homeboy boss, Dougie: the more tragic he becomes — losing control of the office even as he’s shouting, “Let’s be professional, aiiight?” — the funnier he is (and the funnier he is, the more tragic he becomes). Diane Ladd, who happens to be Laura Dern’s mom in real life, brings an almost uncomfortable level of authenticity to her role as Amy’s cold mother who reluctantly tolerates her daughter. As Tyler, the pale, deep-blue-eyed, man-boy who eats lunch at his desk by himself, Mike White embodies loneliness better than anyone who’s currently on TV.
And then there’s the deeply absorbing performance of Laura Dern, who’s irritating and self-serving and hopeless — that is, when she’s not full of earnest goodwill. Initially, you might be so annoyed by her character that you no longer want to watch. But very quickly, you come to love her, both for her sense of wonder (which is amazingly undaunted by her cubicle-drone life) and for her belief in the basic goodness of everyone, even the disrespectful skateboarder who swears at her while she waits for her bus, in the rain, on the worst day ever. Judging Amy is all too easy. But, as the critic Robert Lloyd has pointed out, withholding judgment — a challenge that Amy’s still struggling with, right along with you, the viewer — may be the real theme of this show.
So c’mon. Set your preconceptions aside and watch it. The sea turtles are counting on you.