HBO might’ve dug an early grave for its short-lived-but-beloved 2011 dramedy Enlightened, but co-creator and star Laura Dern feels the show still lives on, especially as the nation grapples with a divisive presidential administration.
According to the Star Wars: The Last Jedi actress during a Film Society of Lincoln Center discussion Thursday night in New York, the idea for the show brewed on the set of the 2008 political drama Recount, about the 2000 U.S. presidential election, in which Democratic nominee Al Gore won the popular vote, but lost the electoral college to Republican candidate George W. Bush. Dern played Florida’s Secretary of State, Katherine Harris, in a role that would eventually win her a Golden Globe.
“We were all considering the 2000 election, you know, the old days when they could steal an election. So, we learned a lot from that,” she said sarcastically, alluding to Donald Trump’s 2016 victory over Hillary Clinton. “Good thing we made a movie so we would never repeat it.”
A series of pitch meetings with HBO followed, during which Dern looked to everything ranging from 1950s sitcoms to Sidney Lumet’s 1976 film Network as a means to develop a fresh TV show with filmmaker Mike White, one that would follow a liberal, spiritually floundering woman, Amy Jellicoe, as she sought to piece her life back together — and make her voice heard through various socio-political and professional causes — after a nervous breakdown.
“Where is everyone? Why aren’t we marching in the streets? If we feel they stole an election, where is everybody? It was a very frustrating time for all of us, and I said, you know, what if we could do something with that rage. I’d love to comment on a character whose rage makes a s—t show of her life, but in fact she would be the one person who might [end up as] the whistleblower,” Dern remembered of laying the groundwork for the show, which would last two seasons before its cancelation in 2013. “Generously, they were interested in this idea. I pitched it to them like, ‘What if Lucille Ball became Norma Rae?’ They looked at me like I was insane, but then they let us explore.”
And thus Enlightened was born, though Dern feels Jellicoe’s journey from down-and-out executive to low-rung grunt worker and eventual corporate whistleblower was ahead of its time — especially as Americans grow increasingly frustrated with the current political climate.
“The amazing thing about it was we did it at a time when this character felt so flawed. To people watching it, they were a bit appalled by her, and the reaction was shocking,” she recalled. “I feel like, now, most of us are Amy Jellicoe, so I’m so grateful to have played a character that, now, I see everywhere I look.”
That, Dern said, gives her hope that perhaps a third season could find a home sometime in the near future.
“Getting into the minutia of the new model of television, it was still a time when Nielsen ratings were still defining television, even though people weren’t watching live television anymore. So, we were competing with numbers and streaming,” she finished. “We missed a moment [but] it became this beloved thing that people caught up with, and that’s beautiful. We’re only sad because we imagined one more season of the arc. To us, it was maybe one more. So, perhaps Amy Jellicoe will live again. We’ll see!”