If you're the sort of person who pays attention to the obsessive ramblings and scribblings of TV critics, you may have noticed a particular drumbeat gaining tempo and volume over the past two months. The drumbeat has been heralding the glory of HBO's Enlightened, a metaphysical, half-hour tragicomedy that is in danger of disappearing once its second season concludes on Sunday night. In the interest of lending support to the "save this show" cause, I too will weigh in on what is, in many ways, the finest and loveliest thing to appear on television in many years. Yes, it's that good.
And yet I've remained mostly silent about it in my professional capacity as television critic. My best guess as to why that is is that Enlightened speaks such a personal language, its wounded philosophy and awed/dismayed view of life and the world resonates in a way that feels very specific to me. I've wanted to keep it all for myself, I guess. I doubt I'm the only person who feels that way; it's how the show is constructed. Created by the writer Mike White and the actress Laura Dern, Enlightened tells the story of a woman on the mend. Or at least a woman who wants to be on the mend.
Dern's Amy Jellicoe used to work some breezy high-level job at a massive conglomerate until she had a nervous breakdown, triggered by an ill-advised affair with a colleague coming to an ugly end. Scared of her own anger and needing to hide away for awhile, Amy headed to Hawaii to a spiritual rehab kind of a place where she shed her rage and anxiety and was reborn an optimist, a do-gooder deeply concerned for the world. Or so she thought; season one chronicles the sad story of Amy's disillusionment, the fissures in her zen-like facade releasing bursts of anger and despair. Season two has followed Amy's embittered attempts to tear down her company from within — she has wrapped the mission up in a flag of righteousness, but really she is embarrassed and angry, relegated to a basement keyboard monkey job with a bunch of other castoffs. Will she succeed? And if she does, will she finally feel the agency and importance that she's so spiritually and emotionally hungry for? Well, you'll find out on Sunday. (I already know, tee hee.)
A very few others of you will find out on Sunday. Like so many brilliant, and I do mean brilliant, shows before it, Enlightened has struggled to find an audience. Those who do watch it are all thoroughly invested, obsessed even, but the numbers are small. I suspect the show has put some people off because they can't quite determine what it is. Is it a comedy? A drama? Corporate satire, or self-help spoof? The thing is, it's all of that. Enlightened is that extremely rare show that simply is what it is. There are no genre trappings, no rules or forms to follow. When White wants to write an episode that follows Amy's mother, played by Dern's real-life mother Diane Ladd, for a day, he does. When he's interested in exploring the perspective of Amy's ex-husband Levi (a never-better Luke Wilson) he gives him an episode, same for White's own character, a sadsack coworker of Amy's who has had a lovely little arc this season. White and his cast — who are all excellent, top to bottom, all brimming with real, tangible humanity — are miraculously free to explore the world he has created for them. Some people might be put-off by the Mike White factor, scared that this is another of his painful looks at the dumpy and banal anguish of a bunch of losers, but know that this is a far more humane effort than, say, The Good Girl. There's something deeply kind and soulful about Enlightened, which is why I suspect it touches its fans so deeply and directly.
Nowhere else on television except for maybe on The Sopranos has the elemental world been so richly addressed and mulled over. Enlightened understands the particular loneliness of a sunny day, the melancholy of a pretty place. All the interiors are perfectly realized, homes both comfortable and dangerously thick with the residue of living. The wonderful thing is that White wants you to think in these existential terms. He has crafted opening and closing monologues for most episodes that are achingly gorgeous works of art; introspective and sad, rueful and wise. White dares to have Amy consider truly Big things about the nature of existence, about who we are in these bodies and these minds. I cannot think of another television show, and really only a few scattered movies, that goes so bravely and truthfully to the heart of human matter like Enlightened does. It's startling when you first connect with it, as if someone finally responded to a signal that you've been sending out into space for years and years. I know that probably sounds a bit melodramatic, but Enlightened provokes that depth of feeling. I would hug the show if I could, even though it is often so sad, even though the world it depicts is not necessarily a friendly one. It's our world nonetheless, and I'm grateful to the show for engaging with it with such graceful and delicate honesty.
In case you're beginning to think that this is some weird mind-altering show that you should stay away from lest you start talking like a crazy person, as I have above, also know that Enlightened can be staggeringly funny and even suspenseful, especially in this season of corporate espionage. Again, Enlightened isn't any one thing, in some ways it's all things, it's life in all its oddities, intricacies, and idiosyncrasies presented in half-hour installments each week. Its premise may initially seem small, but once you start plunging into the show, the whole world suddenly presents itself. Watching the show has, for me at least, been a vital experience, something I can't quite articulate except in the floweriest of ways, as I've just done. Just watch it already, won't you?
You don't have to catch up right now so you can watch the season finale (possible series finale!) with everyone on Sunday. You can take your time with it. In some ways I envy those who haven't yet gotten to know Amy and the Jellicoe gang. What a world of wonder awaits you! While those of us who have already taken the plunge — whether at the very beginning or later on, like I did — wait anxiously to hear news of a third season. (It's not looking good, though the campaign has marshaled some big names like Patton Oswalt to rally on its behalf.) But don't worry about a third season if you haven't watched the show at all yet. Just enjoy and take it for what it is: one of the most beautifully realized, impeccably observed, and genuinely moving pieces of television in recent and even not-recent memory. Amy Jellicoe might spend most of her time floundering in the dark, but it's hard to walk away from watching the show feeling anything less than, well, blissfully enlightened.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.
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