Plenty of great shows have low ratings. Enlightened barely even had ratings. In its just-completed second season, the show was averaging in the neighborhood of 200 thousand viewers, which is a number that barely even looks impressive on YouTube now. It almost certainly had more people watching — and as a post-network network, HBO keeps an eye on all the myriad ways we consume TV shows, DVR and OnDemand and HBO GO. Fans of the show could hope that HBO would keep it around for the critical acclaim. (Yeesh, look how many seasons they gave Tremé.) But sometimes, no ratings really is no ratings; yesterday, HBO announced that it would not be bringing the series back for a third season.
The show made an undeniably weird fit on what HBO has become. A decade after the network inaugurated a new golden era for TV drama with The Sopranos and The Wire and Deadwood, there’s a sense that we have arrived at the point where the template for Great Television has been set in stone. Great TV is bleak and violent; it’s masculine and epic; it wrestles with the big issues, mixing in sex or violence or sexy violence; and bonus points if the protagonist has a double life. Enlightened was something else. Co-created by Mike White and star Laura Dern, it was a workplace sitcom written like an Arthur Miller play and filmed like a fairy tale.
With a relatively small cast of characters in this era of massive-ensemble shows, Enlightened grappled with a galaxy of Big Modern Themes: It imagined the modern corporation as a kind of post-national fiefdom; it viewed the advances of the social-media age skeptically, but with excitement; it argued that we are all alone, and then made a desperate and inspiring plea for genuine human connection. It did this in just eighteen episodes — come to think of it, the same number of chapters in Ulysses.
Enlightened began with a personal apocalypse: Dern’s Amy Jellicoe, a tightly wound careerist executive, suffers a full-scale emotional breakdown. Then she goes to a heavenly treatment center in Hawaii, and returns a new woman, excited to live a better life and become an agent of change for the world. The show trafficked in a familiar brand of West Coast New-Age narcissism — Amy wanted to change the world, but she also wanted the world to know that she was changing it. But the show took her seriously, too. Enlightened was often a dark comedy, but it was also anti-cynicism medication. If you watched one episode, you’d ask: Why does this broad care so much? If you watched three, you’d ask: Jesus, why don’t I care more?
The series became more ambitious as it went along, simultaneously going more internal with short-film standalone episodes and more kinetic with a corporate-espionage plot. (One episode in its second season focused entirely on Eli, Amy’s dissolute ex-husband played by Luke Wilson — it’s the best thing Wilson has ever done, erasing in one fell swoop a whole era of AT&T ads.) The show had a ridiculously high-powered lineup of directors: Jonathan Demme, Nicole Holofcener, Miguel Arteta, David Michôd, and Todd Haynes all directed a half-hour here or there.
But it was primarily a legit auteurist work by White — the sui generis writer (and two-time Amazing Race contestant) behind Chuck & Buck, Orange County, School of Rock, and freaking Nacho Libre — and a great showcase for Dern, who turned Amy into a weird and wonderful everywoman who seemed crazy until you realized the whole goddamned world was crazy. In this Kickstarter moment, some Enlightened fans are probably already launching a third-season campaign. (Showtime? Netflix? Vine?) But if it never comes to pass, at least White and Dern got to give us some kind of closure. Amy did become an agent of change — anyone who watched Enlightened will never really be the same.
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