Can people truly change?
How does the world change?
“Enlightened” is a TV series that explores these fundamental questions in tragic, funny, and entertaining ways. It was co-created by Mike White and Laura Dern.
Similar to Battlestar Galactica, the show offers enduring value and timeless insights.
Amy Jellicoe (Dern) is having a midlife crisis.
Episode 1 opens with a meltdown at work.
Afterwards, she flees to a tropical recovery center.
There she finds a glimmer of hope and possibility: A new life of grace, ease, and mindfulness.
The series explores conflicting extremes :
Full-blown tantrums and peaceful serenity.
It pokes fun at new-age feelgoodery and "wellness culture". And offers a rare portrayal of meditation on TV - the quiet mind, and the petty mental chatter.
It works for three main reasons :
- Great writing
- Strong acting + characters
- Quality production design
Mike White's storytelling style is patient and effective.
Elements of the plot were actually based (loosely) on his personal experience.
I was just overworked and had gone through a period of years where I was burning the candle at both ends…
I realized I had to mellow out a little bit and try not to be such a workaholic and I realized that I didn’t know how to do that.
When Laura [Dern] and I started talking about doing a show together, I liked the idea of somebody who had come to the edge and wanted to come back and get over themselves.
Let’s address the #1 criticism of the show:
Amy is an unlikeable protagonist
Many people strongly dislike Dern's character.
When I recommend the show, people often say :
She's annoying, naive, and hard to root for."
This is true. These are all fair points.
Amy makes grand, embarrassing speeches. She lectures people with vapid self-help jargon. She’s cringe-y, oblivious, and self-involved.
I completely agree.
Yet I'll argue here that Amy Jellicoe is totally loveable. She's capable of reflection, and sincerely seeks to learn and change.
She is earnest and determined.
Never once becoming cynical.
This lack of cynicism is why the show works IMO.
Season 1 begins as Amy returns from Hawaii and moves back in with her Mom.
She’s not in crisis anymore, but her mental health remains precarious.
Context: She's been unfairly demoted by a company she’s worked at for 15+ years. She's lonely, and in debt, struggling with an alcoholic ex-husband and an emotionally distant mother.
Amid this chaos, can she maintain her new-found calm?
“You don’t have to run away from life,
your whole life.”
In one scene, she sits crying in her parked car. A driver starts honking, impatiently trying to take the spot. Interrupted, Amy lashes out and angrily speeds away.
It's the perfect metaphor :
There's no room to grieve.
Just keep moving.
In season 1, Amy tries to make change at work from within.
In season 2, she turns corporate whistleblower.
Along the way, she grows increasingly reckless and bold.
It turns out that she may actually have more power than she thought.
How strange is this life - to be born into a body. To certain uncertain parents. In this beautiful, upsetting world. It’s so bizarre.
Am I my higher self? Or am I in the mud?
Am I an agent of change? Or a creator of chaos?
Am I the fool? The goat? The witch?
Or am I enlightened?”
"Enlightened" is a tragedy in that a hero endures great self-inflicted suffering. And part heroic comedy because she eventually bumbles towards something better.
The adversity never turns her heart cold.
There is only one life. There’s so much I don’t understand. This I know.
You can wake up to your higher self. You can be patient. You can be kind. You can be wise. And almost whole. You can walk out of hell into the light.”
Three great episodes peek into other people’s lives:
- In season 1, we get a glimpse into Helen’s world.
- In season 2, we watch Tyler float through his ghost-like existence. And we join Levi in Hawaii as he attempts rehab.
Once we see their details up-close, they each become three-dimensional.
They're all just searching for meaning and acceptance.
Ultimately, the show explores the slow, elusive process of incremental growth. I recognize parts of the characters in myself and in people I know.
I appreciate the honest portrayal of tragic well-meaningness.
2. Acting + Characters
Enlightened features a talented acting ensemble and a rotating mix of directors.
Directors include: Jonathan Demme, Nicole Holofcener, Miguel Arteta, Todd Haynes, and others (in addition to White himself).
Each one adds a unique color.
Acting-wise, we get solid supporting performances from Robin Wright, Jason Mantzoukas, Amy Hill, Sarah Burns, and James Rebhorn (among many others).
Here are some of my personal favs:
Laura Dern is the show's emotional anchor.
She expertly balances competing forces:
- The resentment and idealism
- The optimism and delusion
Amy tries to save others, but struggles to change herself. She feels "old", but knows there's still so much time left.
Vivid character, excellent performance.
Mike White plays Amy's co-worker, Tyler.
Amy describes him as a “miserable, terrified mole”.
Tyler floats through life - shy, passive, and disconnected.
Amy offers risk and adventure, and helps crack open Tyler's shell. He (reluctantly) assists her search for damning company documents.
Of course, he ends up regretting it all later.
Tyler is funny, scared. and risk-averse.
He's the perfect foil to Amy’s manic chaos.
Levi (Luke Wilson) is Amy’s ex-husband.
He was briefly a pro baseball player whose career was cut short by addiction. Their marriage imploded from heartbreak and infidelity. The pain is obviously still fresh.
Levi is perceptive, funny, and honest - Wilson gives him depth and believability. He's stuck in a tragic series of repeating cycles.
“No one is more disappointed in me than me.”
Levi and Amy both know each other well.
At one point, she asks him, "Am I crazy?"
Levi responds :
“No, you’re just full of hope.
You have more hope than most people.
It’s a beautiful thing to have a little hope for the world.”
Wilson’s scenes with his mother-in-law (Helen) are also great. They make for an entertainingly combustible duo.
At first, I didn't realize Diane Ladd was Laura Dern’s actual mom (!).
Helen is guarded and skeptical. She's estranged from Amy’s sister, and haunted by her late husband’s suicide. She lives a solitary routine: Talking to the dog, growing flowers etc.
Helen is brave, stubborn, protective, and fierce - just like her daughter.
When Amy has a panic attack - Helen finally relents and shows some softness.
Ladd is amazingly adept in her movement choices and subtle facial expressions.
Timm Sharp plays Dougie - Amy and Tyler’s creepy, oblivious bro-boss.
A self-described “cool guy”, Dougie is clueless and full of insecurity. He locks horns with Amy after she humiliates him and publicly questions his intelligence. The conflict spirals into a messy HR dispute. Later, they become unlikely allies.
Sharp’s comedy provides a nice relief valve to the show's preciousness, and Dougie's horribleness grows somewhat endearing and more forgivable over time.
Molly Shannon's presence in Season 2 adds a vital, positive energy.
Eileen is a sweet, brave, loyal assistant to the CEO.
She has buried herself in work for many years. She's blunt, wary, and shy.
Amy uses Eileen to get to a private email server, while Tyler and Eileen fall genuinely (and clumsily) in love. Shannon nails the role. Perfect casting.
3. Production Design
Two visual aspects stand out:
Sets/locations and lighting.
First, every location has a personality.
Hawaii represents a fictional Eden. Amy's stand-in for the aspirational life - breezy beaches, magic sea turtles, and ease.
By contrast, Riverside is full of office parks and painful memories. It’s also where Levi and Amy first met (“sacred land”).
Helen’s home there adds character and realism.
The design choices (carpets, food, blankets, photos, wallpaper) all feel spot-on.
In her backyard, giant flowers reach up to the blinding CA sun.
Sunlight is a recurring theme.
Levi's apartment is dark, and closed.
Helen's house paint dappled scenes of domestic still life.
The offices, by contrast, are towering castles of glass and concrete.
The underground data center / department feels like a florescent dungeon.
Lobbies and hallways at work are lined with stock art and plastic plants.
Skyscrapers reflect sunlight like mirrors, baking down on rows of parked cars.
Two final notes:
- Mark Mothersbaugh's score is good
- Amy's wardrobe details are superb (and hilarious!)
What would have happened had Enlightened not been canceled?
We can only speculate.
Still, both seasons continue to stand firmly on their own.
What did YOU think?
Send me your thoughts!