There’s a lot on TV tonight — the Golden Globes, new episodes of The Good Wife and Downton Abbey, the season premiere of Girls — but let me urge you to try and catch the second-season premiere of HBO’s Enlightened. This half-hour co-created by co-stars Laura Dern and Mike White is extraordinarily good: funny and moving and constantly surprising.
Last season, Dern’s Amy Jellicoe was a fragile figure, recently returned from a post-breakdown retreat during which she latched onto the idea that she, like every other human, had the opportunity to “make a difference,” to do meaningful work in the world. But her spiritual quest was constantly challenged by the soul-crushing nature of her job at the gigantic corporation Abaddonn, for which she worked inputting data in a grim basement office.
I can understand why Enlightened didn’t become a big, instant hit. To many viewers, the show was a downer, and one was left confused in many scenes as to whether one was supposed to laugh at Amy, feel sorry for her, or be moved by her plight. I, along with the rest of the show’s cult following, laughed and was moved, and never felt sorry for her for a moment. Dern fleshed out Amy so that she became a plucky fighter, even when she was fighting against her own best interests.
If you gave up on Enlightened because of its tone, by all means give it another try, because this season, Amy has a new, invigorating mission that permits her to step outside of her hemmed-in self-absorption. She wants to do nothing less than bring down the Abeddonn corporation. A Norma Rae with crinkly hair and a stork’s gait, Amy enlists her office ally Tyler (White) in hacking the company system and contacting a Los Angeles Times reporter played by Dermot Mulroney to try and help use the information to create a blockbuster expose.
The central question of the season is: Is Amy really onto something? Everything flows from this. “Maybe I am chosen for something,” she tells herself. In these new episodes, Amy becomes a public agent of change, not a private nurturer of dreams. She’s still fueled by the self-realization therapy she received at the recovery center to which she was sent last year, but now she’s putting her sometimes-brave, sometimes-silly, often-confused mishmash of high-minded spirituality and real-world philosophy to use.
Mike White has written all of the episodes, and directs many of these half-hours, and the way he shoots the chilled atmosphere of Amy’s workplace, and her eerily serene California surroundings, sets up very pleasing tension. His own performance as Tyler, a lonely man who only wants to connect with someone in a meaningful way, is in keeping with the flat, affectless background against which Amy, with her bright (if often mis-matched) outfits and determinedly sunny disposition, reacts. The look and feel of Enlightened is lovely, dream-like.
This season, Molly Shannon joins the show a few episodes in for a marvelous turn as Tyler’s object of affection, and Amy and Tyler’s loose-cannon supervisor, Dougie (the sharp, energetic Timm Sharp) undergoes his own surprising transformation.
HBO has placed Enlightened to air after Girls, a nice gesture of support. Perhaps the network reasons that following one show with a female lead with another might help Enlightened gain viewers after a comparatively low-rated first season. The mood of Enlightened is very different, and its protagonist is significantly older than the girls on Girls, but I’d think those are two reasons to stick around and watch — for a change of pace, and for the opportunity to become enlightened about the, yes, profound questions raised by Dern and White over the course of this unique series.
“Let’s do something, not just be dying,” says Amy at one point this evening. “I’m so sick of dying.” There’s a manifesto around which to build a great comedy-drama. Give Enlightened a shot, won’t you?