Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (January 7, 2013)
After keeping a relatively low profile over the last few years, Laura Dern took on the lead in a 2011 HBO series entitled Enlightened. The Blu-ray set spreads all of Season One’s 10 episodes across two discs. The plot synopses come straight from the Blu-ray menus.
Pilot: “Following an on-the-job breakdown, corporate buyer Amy Jellicote (Laura Dern) returns home after an extended stay at a holistic treatment center. Amy movies in with her mom Helen (Diane Ladd) while making overtures with Adaddonn Industries to get her job back. After reciting her new mantra – “I will change, and I will be an agent of change” – Amy returns to her office to start a new chapter in her life. But will Abaddonn take her back?”
Other HBO comedy series like Eastbound & Down came out of the gate with all guns blazing, but that’s not quite the case with Enlightened. Clearly not a broad comedy like Eastbound, this one takes a much more subtle approach and will probably need a few shows to evolve much of its humor.
This doesn’t make “Pilot” a bad show, but I can’t claim it launches the series with a bang. I didn’t expect it to be as “in your face” as Eastbound, of course, but I must admit “Pilot” creates a fairly bland intro to the series. While it doesn’t turn me off, it doesn’t create a lot of intrigue about where the show will go. Hopefully subsequent shows will offer a bit more.
Now or Never: “Amy’s hopes to land a dream job take a hit when she’s demoted to the basement of Abaddonn, working in data entry amongst a group of social misfits. The job has its perks, however, as Amy uncovers a litany of corporate improprieties while surfing the net in her downtime. Meanwhile, Amy’s attempts to improve the lives of her ex-husband Levi (Luke Wilson) and mom Helen fall on deaf ears.”
Enlightened works harder to explore its comedic potential here. While it seems clear it’ll never be a fall-down-funny series, it shows more evidence of its own quirky, low-key personality than we saw in the fairly dramatic “Pilot”. This creates a fairly good show, and one that creates decent intrigue.
Someone Else’s Life: “Jealous of Krista’s (Sarah Burns) good fortune and fed up with her humiliation at Abaddonn, Amy considers leaving the company for a socially responsible job at a homeless shelter. But the low pay combined with a huge unpaid bill from the treatment center end up giving her pause.”
Enlightened walks a fine line between character drama and quirky comedy, and it’s often not especially clear that the series knows which way it wants to go. I suppose I should applaud its refusal to fall into easy categories, but the problem is that its inability to favor one side over the other can cause it to flow awkwardly.
The two sides butt up against each other here. When we see the way Amy envies Krista’s life, the show veers into real emotion, but then it quickly steers into Office-style comedy. At least this keeps us off-guard, and despite some of the awkwardness, “Life” manages to produce an often enjoyable show.
The Weekend: “Wary that she may revert to her old, hard-partying ways on her first weekend back at home, Amy talks Levi into taking a rafting excursion to the Kern River, which they used to frequent during happier times when they were married. The idyllic trip takes a downturn when Amy discovers that her mission to implement change in Levi may be more difficult than she realized.”
Though not devoid of amusement, “Weekend” definitely follows the more dramatic character side of things. It borders on pathos at times and tends to avoid some of the quirkier comedic elements. Since I view Levi as one of the show’s weaker links and he plays a major role here, that makes “Weekend” something of a drag.
Not Enough Good Mothers: “After learning on TV about the deportation woes of a Mexican-born mother, Amy tries to motivate her co-workers to join her at a lunchtime rally for the family. Later, with the support of Tyler, Amy decides to organize a women’s group at Abaddonn, and looks to enlist Judy, head of Human Resources, by taking her out to dinner.”
Enlightened rebounds well here. I prefer the show when it avoids the melodrama of “Weekend” and embraces its slightly skewed comedic attitude, and that prospers here. “Mothers” always stays understated and it delivers one of the better programs to date.
Sandy: “Amy is thrilled when Sandy (Robin Wright), whom she’d met in Hawaii during group therapy, comes to visit her for a couple of days. The kindred relationship between the two starts eroding when Helen refuses to put up with Sandy for another night, forcing Amy to drop her off with Levi. When Sandy fails to show up to teach a lunchtime yoga session at Abaddonn, Amy’s baser instincts get the better of her.”
While “Sandy” lacks the quirkiness of the last episode, it also doesn’t suffer from the mushy dramatics of “Weekend”. It leans a little more toward the latter than I might like, but it still stays on the right side of that line and helps open up the Amy character well.
Lonely Ghosts: “A disturbing dream leads Amy to confront the emptiness in her life – and her lingering feelings for Levi. At work, after Dougie gets a promotion, Amy looks to get into his good graces by setting him up with Harper, a pretty co-worker of Krista’s who had attended the yoga session. The incident brings her closer to Tyler, who has his own issues of loneliness.”
At times, “Ghosts” threatens to become maudlin as it bemoans the plight of the lost ‘n’ lonely. Still, it throws in some mild comedy – mostly via the ever-obnoxious Dougie – and turns into a decent to good episode.
Comrades Unite!: “Friction increases between Amy, Dougie and the staff when she finds herself reported to HR for job deficiencies. Desperate to move out of the department, Amy tries to get Krista to get her a meeting with Damon, with predictable results.”
While most episodes concentrate on Amy’s personal life, “Unite!” largely sticks with her world at work. That creates a refreshing take. It’s not a wild change of pace, but it comes with some interesting story elements and manages to broaden the series’ horizons.
Consider Helen: “Amy goes off to work, leaving Helen alone with her thoughts and memories – including those of her late husband Jim. At the grocery store, she runs into old friend Carol, whose husband used to work with Jim, and endures the prerequisite show-off pictures of children and grandkids. Later, Levi stops by to drop off a photo album – and ends up venting about Helen’s role in his breakup with Amy.”
Up to now, Enlightened has barely made any use of Diane Ladd, but that changes here, as “Consider” focuses almost entirely on Helen. That’s a daring choice – and a successful one. It means the show proves to be much more dramatic than usual, but it works, as it brings real depth to Helen’s role.
Burn It Down: “After Levi goes ballistic in the middle of the night, Amy convinces him to follow in her footsteps and get treatment at Open Air. At work, a reinvigorated Amy talks Damon into letting her present her research findings to his group. The problem is that Dougie, who no longer talks to Amy without a ‘witness’, won’t let her leave the office. Bristling but still battling, Amy turns to Tyler for the key to forcing change, finally, at Abaddonn.”
We finish the series’ first season with a cliffhanger of sorts, as we see Amy’s decision to enact change but we won’t know the results until S2. That’s fine, as “Burn” still manages to advance the characters and narrative in a concise manner.
I must admit that Enlightened left me cold at first, probably at least partially because it wasn’t what I expected. Based on promos, I thought it’d be a broad satire about a hippie-dippy sort but that’s not really the case; some of Amy’s New Age-ness influences the show, but not as much as anticipated.
Once I was able to adjust expectations, though, the series became more appealing. It still tended to be inconsistent and unsure of itself, but it got on steadier ground as the season went, so I find myself looking forward to S2.