5 Things That Make Enlightened Just About The Best Show On TV

Enlightened5 5 Things That Make Enlightened Just About The Best Show On TV

The HBO show getting scores of attention on Sunday nights is Girls, but following it in airtime and gaining ground in terms of critical attention is Enlightened. This strange and strangely beautiful comedy is brought to us by Laura Dern and writer Mike White, most famous for writing School of Rock. Like many others, I arrived at the show late, not picking up on it until the first season had completed. I think I was bitter that HBO cut Hung and How to Make It in America and, most of all, Bored to Death before its two new Sunday night shows began. I’m sure this is why I resented Enlightened in particular, since it received little attention initially.

Needless to say, it has won me over in a big way. And not just me; critics on Twitter have started loudly proclaiming the virtues of this unique show in hopes that HBO will renew it for a third season, as its viewership is a fraction of the size Girls draws for them. Season 2 especially has shown a marked improvement for Enlightened, with each episode airing these past few weeks introducing exciting new elements involving the overarching thrust of the primary story and also in some neat little departures in form and focus. With just one episode in the season remaining, to air this Sunday, it has quietly become one of the best shows on TV, certainly of those airing currently, and possibly among all that have aired in the past few years.

It’s safe to assume most people aren’t watching this show, so here are 5 reasons why you should be.

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1) Amy Jellicoe must remind you of someone

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The show’s protagonist, played by Laura Dern, is yet another female lead on television that is much needed and also kind of crazy, but so very compelling. Her thing is that she was fired from her corporate job, went on a (non-violent) rampage in the office, was sent to this rehabilitation retreat place where she had an epiphany, and came back all new-age spiritual hippie-dippie. She gets to work for her old company again, but in the basement doing data-processing, so she’s determined to try to get her old life back again. It doesn’t prove to be as easy as she deludes herself into thinking it will be.

Her narcissistic delusions make her unbearable and strangely familiar. We see most of the show exclusively from her perspective, but get glimpses of how other people see her. There are some cringeworthy moments when she tries to reconnect with her old work friends and, while she can’t, you can read from their body language that they want nothing to do with her. You know that friend who you wish wasn’t your friend but they just won’t leave you alone? This is a show about that person. However, she’s also strangely sympathetic. You hear in her (overly poetic, because she takes herself seriously) voiceover just how sincere and earnest she is about wanting to make her company and the world better. If the show was exclusively about her character it would be pretty remarkable.

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2) Tyler provides a perfect balance to the Amy character

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Creator Mike White plays Amy’s co-worker and friend Tyler. Tyler is the opposite of Amy. While Amy suffers from a deluded self-image and a complete lack of self-awareness, Tyler is cripplingly self-conscious. Amy is offended that she is being forced to work in the basement despite having years of experience in sales, and makes it her mission to get back upstairs. Tyler used to do technical support, but is content where he is. He is the type of character, the type of person who has had the ambition beaten out of him by life and circumstance.

In a lot of instances, this results in Tyler being easily manipulated by Amy, because he’s attracted to her and that’s usually the way these types of relationships go. The second season propels their friendship to new levels when they plot (well, when Amy does) to expose the company for wrongdoings and they form a kind of conspiratorial alliance. The character really comes to fruition in an episode told from Tyler’s perspective. We usually hear Amy’s voiceover, but in Tyler’s episode, we hear him in his own words, which are more direct and less poetic and flighty than Amy’s, but equally, possibly even more emotionally resonant.

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3) Mike White has really hit his stride as a writer

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For years I remember hearing about the brilliant Mike White, and all I had really seen from him was School of Rock, which I enjoyed but didn’t consider earth-shattering by any means. I was aware of Orange County and The Good Girl but still have yet to see them since I hadn’t heard anything that screamed I needed to. I’ve only recently learned of Chuck & Buck for which a lot of his acclaim stemmed. And on and on.

So really I wasn’t expecting huge things from Enlightened when I heard he was the creator and sole writer. Now though, it almost feels like he’s something of a kindred spirit: very observational, introspective, hypersensitive, all qualities he writes into the show, in different forms. It seems like a medium he’s well suited for. He has the time to slowly and deliberately tease out all the details of this odd and unique character, carefully crafting scenarios where we’re able to learn more about her and her motivations, priorities, and values.

We are fed information through her own voice, her own idealistic thoughts on things, and then we’re presented information more objectively visually, often revealing some severe contradictions and highlighting her delusions. The master stroke he makes though is really making Amy a sympathetic person. She’s hard to take but there’s no doubt that she really genuinely wants to do good things; she just has a skewed perspective on what that is, and how to achieve them.

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4) It’s meditative without being moralistic

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The show has a persona that takes after its main character, deliberately so. Most episodes begin with some kind of poetic-sounding voiceover, probably reminiscent of Grey’s Anatomy or other shows I’ve caught bits and pieces of that use a character to tease out the main themes of a particular episode. Here, we have the main character stating how she views things, in a soothing and self-assured tone, with holistic language. Then we see her do something embarrassing and witness the awkwardness that ensues.

That’s not to say the meditative stuff is completely disregarded, though. In fact, it drives the aesthetic of the entire show, from the fades to white, the bright color palette, and the melodic soundtrack accompaniment. It’s a perspective that sees the darkness in the world around us, but makes a deliberate choice to focus on the positive, the silver linings if you will. There’s something beautiful about this view, even though it inherently teeters on the edge of utter delusion.

The pacing of the show is also one that takes its time, allowing the images and words to sink in, which is rare for a TV show. And at the same time, it’s not trying to preach anything. We’re not meant to adopt Amy’s philosophy obviously, because while it sounds nice when spoken in a soft-rock radio voice, we see her apply it and fail pretty miserably. Perhaps the only value it advocates is one of openness, refraining from hasty judgments, such as dismissing a person like Amy without getting to know what motivates them deep down.

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5) It’s constantly surprising

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The show operates largely on the unexpected. I won’t deny that I’m easy to fool, but this show surprises me in terms of plot and its formal elements. We think we have Amy pegged from the beginning, first that she’s this professional woman who will handle her situation like a professional–ah, nope, that didn’t happen. Then we think when she goes away to rehab she’ll blow the whole thing off–wrong again. Then it seems like her “enlightened” act is just a ploy to get her old gig back, but she actually seems to believe her own BS. And maybe it’s actually not BS. And maybe it could lead to her actually producing something positive, even if it’s out of spite toward the company that spurned her.

Then there’s directions the show takes in its style that are unexpected and ballsy. You can sort of measure a show’s confidence based on the risks it takes, and Enlightened ventures into rough waters pretty often. It will devote entire episodes to supporting characters because it is confident they are interesting enough to learn more about. It sets up devices that don’t pay off for several episodes, some not coming to full fruition until the next season. Each character is developed well enough to have several sides, and as you learn more about them more sides are revealed, each one fairly surprising. This is what a good show does.

Count me among the swath of people hoping Enlightened doesn’t go the way of the aforementioned HBO cuts. If you’re not currently watching it, you’re missing out on something really great.

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