Feb 27, 2013

Why ‘Enlightened’ is the Best Show You’re Not Watching

You Need to Watch Enlightened
There are a lot of shows that I have loved that have been canceled too soon: Pushing Daisies, Arrested Development, Sports Night, and Firefly, to name a few. Recently The Hour was canceled after a terrific second season on BBC, and it seems more and more likely that the world is conspiring against me.

However, no show on television right now is quite as good as Enlightened, the HBO series from creators Mike White and Laura Dern, and I refuse to consider that it may soon join the pile of 'Gone-But-Not-Forgotten' shows of yesteryear. The show ends its almost perfect season on Sunday, and it's crazy to think that this may be the last time that viewers will get the chance to see Amy Jellicoe and her many attempts to right wrongs and quell her inner demons.

The show follows Amy (played brilliantly by Laura Dern), a woman who, after a nervous breakdown (above), attempts to get her life back together and enact change in the lives of people around her. The only problems are that she's maybe not that different than she used to be AND nobody really takes her well-meaning nagging coaching to heart. With a drug addict ex-husband, a mother who can't seem to bridge the emotional gap between herself and her daughter, a coworker who's love for her develops into a complicated friendship, and a bevy of comedians doing solidly emotional work, Amy's world is filled with unique and challenging characters. Thus, she attempts to pull everyone in new and different directions with her (often cloying) meditational wisdom.

After the end of the first season, I wrote that Enlightened was "awkward, depressing, lonely… obviously one of the best new shows on TV." The first season was contemplative, allowing viewers really soak in the sadness of the characters. This season it's been all about narrative propulsion, which took the characters (who had developed over 10 1st season episodes) and put them in situations that made them grow and change.

With the finale just a few days away, it's more important than ever that viewers tune in to the show. To help make that decision easier, I've outlined some of the many ways in which Enlightened is just so much better than anything else on television right now:

Interesting Characters – With Enlightened, there are no simple 'bad' or 'good' people – it's all about the shades of gray. Amy might be the protagonist, but she's far from a perfect person. She has anger issues, and more than that she tends to abandon people who don't fit into her perfect vision of the world or she works too hard to fit them into it. Similarly, the villains of the show (Amy's past coworkers, the CEO of the company she works for) are given moments to show their humanity, the cracks in their evil façades.

Luke Wilson – Luke Wilson has long-been the more under-served of the two Wilson brothers (I know there's a third, but let's not dwell on facts), and it's good that he finally has the chance to put his lackadaisical charm to good use.

Business Satire – Oh, the inner workings of the American workplace, brought to you with incredible wit and quite a bit of irony. The business that Amy works for, Abaddon, is a perfect symbol of corporate greed and the American way.  The workers are looking for the bottom line, the department she works in is devoted to humans inputting data into a computer system until it no longer needs the people and can function on its own, and her former coworkers laugh at her from across the patio, like they're characters straight out of some Mean Girls cafeteria. Mike White is never afraid to show that, no matter how old we get, the social awkwardness and greed of childhood is forever. Speaking of...

Mike White – The show was co-created by Dern and White, and White writes most of the episodes of the show. Proving that the can be a triple threat, White also plays Amy's long-suffering office-mate Tyler. No one conveys sadness like White, who has made awkward longing into an art form.

Mother and Daughter Relationships – Laura Dern and her real-life mother Diane Ladd play mother and daughter on the show, and their complicated relationship is one of the strongest elements of the series. Torn apart by the death of Amy's father, they haven't really built their relationship back up, and their attempts to do so are infuriating and honest and terrifying. Season 1 focused more heavily on this relationship, but that's not to say that this season hasn't brought a few brilliant moments.

A Hero(in)e’s Journey – This season, Amy has been fully committed to bringing down Abaddon, and it's been great to see her sink her teeth completely into her mission. What's even better is the introduction of journalist Jeff Flender (Dermot Mulroney), who has the same commitment to taking down dirty corporations as Amy. However, he's a prize-winning journalist whose dogged search for truth is seen as a strength rather than a weakness. He's just as driven and as shallow and as flawed as Amy, and he has the added bonus of being a little bit cruel, yet he gets through life without the hindrances that are constantly plaguing Amy. It's an interesting look at gender politics, and it's handled extremely well.

Molly Shannon – Shannon joined the cast in season 2, and she’s glorious.

The Funny – God, this show is hilarious, which is a delightful change of pace from HBO's not-really-a-comedy Girls. From Amy's clueless behavior to the bitchiness of Michaela Watkins, this show is as funny as it is insightful.

Laura Dern – No discussion of the show would be complete without mentioning Dern's performance, which is brave and raw (an adjective that I'm using more and more often, unfortunately). Dern has made a career of taking interesting parts and playing interesting characters. Her sincerity and awesomeness always find a way to shine through. She's funny, self-assured, and plays every note of her performance with an effervescent front that barely hides a core of self-centeredness and depression.

I may not be able to convince the world to change their dials on Sunday night, but I highly encourage you to give it a chance. Sure, at times it can be a little pompous, but it's mostly so honest about human emotions and hidden truths that the pomposity wears away. It's just a great show. Watch it, or…

all GIFs borrowed from Enlightened GIFs.
I guess I just laid your Sunday night plans out for you.
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