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Because it loves nothing more than it loves a challenge, HBO's newest show Enlightened takes on the complicated world of self-help and recovery. So, what did we make of Laura Dern and screenwriter Mike White's character study?
Brian Moylan: I was excited to see Enlightened if only to see the underutilized (and incredibly well-preserved) Laura Dern do something interesting, especially along with quirky writer director Mike White (of School of Rock, The Good Girl, and Chuck and Buck) but this isn't quite what I expected when I was sold a skewering of the born-again, New Age stuff that is constantly burbling up in American culture. Don't get me wrong, Dern's Amy Jellicoe is a horrible person who the audience will loathe. After a huge meltdown at the beauty supply company where she works—brought on by a demotion and the end of an affair with a coworker—she goes off to recovery for some vague reason. It can't be drugs because she's drinking wine after getting back and she vaguely mentions issues with "depression" but it seems to be like one of those celebrity trips to rehab for rage issues. Anyway, Amy gets back ostensibly a changed person who wants to improve her life, but she's still such a vapid, self-obsessed, passive-aggressive pain in the ass that she can't make it happen. Dern is amazing and fully inhabits the role, but I just don't want to watch a show about Amy, a person who, if I came across her in real life, I would do everything in my power to avoid.
Richard Lawson: Yeah, I hear you Brian. Mike White traffics in that kind of punishing, Todd Solondz-with-a-smile American meanness and despair that can be pretty bleak and exhausting. Not necessarily that his characters are mean — really he creates comedies of manners about people trying to be good and decent despite a variety of mundane injustices — but that he can come across as being incredibly mean to his own creations. I'm thinking of his directorial debut Year of the Dog, in which he took poor wounded, brittle (his favorite kind of woman) Molly Shannon and pushed her in the mud for two hours. That technique can encourage good performances (Shannon was criminally overlooked that year), but at what cost? I'm not ready to throw up my hands and walk away from Enlightened just yet, mostly because wooftie is Laura Dern something. She's long been one of the secret best actresses of her generation, so minutely expressive and able to change her temperature from warm to frigid with breathtaking speed and agility. Perhaps that's why she has done so well with scripts by Mike White (she played Shannon's perkily callous sister in Year of the Dog) and Alexander Payne (Citizen Ruth), another American auteur who revels in watching people try to suffer indignity with grace. She communicates that inner itchiness with such elan; you can tell she's having fun acting, despite her characters' various states of disrepair. And that's great to watch. But I can't help but think that this show is mostly going to be about witnessing this poor woman fail over and over again. And I'm not sure I'm in the mood for that these days.
Brian: I'm with you, I'm not ready to give up just yet, but the show needs to have something more than this awful walking bruise of a woman. The show it reminds me of the most is HBO's brilliant The Comeback where Lisa Kudrow, another overlooked actress, fully inhabited the role of a faded sitcom star trying to make it big on reality TV. Valerie Cherish was also awful and selfish, but there was comedy in her struggle. You laughed at the outrageousness of the situations she put herself in even as you cringed. Amy is nothing but a set of cringes and there's no comedy to be had, possibly because she's all too real. Yes, there is an Amy in every office and being able to recognize her type so easily somehow robs this show if its fun. So far we haven't seen much from the supporting players, Amy's mother (played by Dern's real mother Diane Ladd) and her druggie ex-husband (a Luke Wilson who hasn't aged nearly as well as Ms. Dern). Maybe they are what's going to save the show, to drag out some lost nugget of humanity in Amy or some bit of farce about her self-help grasping at perfection that focuses more on the self than on the help.
Richard: The Comeback comparison is a good one. That show was really abrasive to a lot of people and look where that got it. Cruelly canceled after one measly season. I fear that Enlightened might suffer the same fate — as you pointed out there wasn't that much straight-up comedy in the pilot, so what then is a viewer to make of it? It's a half-hour... show. I like that HBO and Showtime have been experimenting with the half-hour dramedy (ugh) genre, and I think Enlightened is a quietly bold attempt at something a little artsy or metaphysical, but I worry that it won't find a toehold and will quickly disappear. And it may be asking too much of us to wade through this bramble only to come out on the other side and potentially be unsatisfied when the show gets the ax. I really like that HBO made a show about abstract feelings and ideas, and that they've shown a clear investment in the sensibilities of both White and Dern, but I'm not quite sure this hits enough of the mark. But who knows! Maybe my philosophy will change next week. Someone find me a sea turtle.