The Bottom Line
- Stars Laura Dern, Diane Ladd, Luke Wilson, Sarah Burns, Timm Sharp, Amy Hill
- Created by Mike White and Laura Dern
- Premieres October 10, 2011, at 9:30 p.m. EST on HBO
Laura Dern plays this show’s version of the modern malcontent, a former corporate middle manager named Amy Jellicoe. After 15 years of working for a soulless company that pollutes the environment, mistreats workers and engages in all sorts of evil-corporation behavior, she finally snaps. Following an ill-advised affair with her married boss, she has a bit of a workplace meltdown, and she heads off to a New Age-type treatment center in Hawaii to get herself together. Returned from her retreat, Amy is a different person, or at least she seems to be: Serene, balanced and in touch with both her emotions and her environment, Amy is determined to share the good vibes with her former co-workers, her distant, disapproving mother Helen (played by Dern’s real-life mother, Diane Ladd) and her drug-addicted loser ex-husband Levi (Luke Wilson).
The problem is that nobody has any interest in listening to Amy spout off about the interconnectedness of the world or the ways in which their employer is destroying the environment. Thanks to a threatened lawsuit, Amy gets re-hired at her old company, but not in the cushy management position she used to hold. Instead she’s exiled to a basement data-processing center, where all the other troubled employees who can’t be fired are gathered, working on seemingly meaningless menial computer tasks. The contrast between Amy’s ambitions and her reality could be a good source of comedy, but it mostly just comes off as pathetic, and the show can’t seem to decide whether to laugh at Amy’s cluelessness or sympathize with her frustration.
Because despite her apparent good intentions, Amy is still kind of unstable, prone to outbursts of anger and even violence when her positivity is met with indifference or hostility. She’s a tough character to like, but her sad little life isn’t really funny, either. The show does better when it stops trying to be funny, and the direction in the first four episodes (from both series co-creator Mike White and his frequent collaborator Miguel Arteta) is often beautifully cinematic, especially as Amy ponders the existential mysteries of life in dreamy voiceovers.
But most of Enlightened is like a drawn-out twee indie movie, and the supporting characters are too broadly drawn to be engaging. The best of the first four episodes takes Amy out of her work environment entirely, as she and Levi go on a kayaking trip to try to recapture some of the pleasant memories of their marriage and end up instead learning how different they are from each other and from the people they used to be. White (who wrote all 10 of the first season’s episodes) has done a good job of balancing comedy and drama on films like The Good Girl and Year of the Dog, but sustaining that tone over the course of a TV series is more difficult, and Enlightened hasn’t quite got the hang of it yet.