Can people change? How does the world change?
“Enlightened” is a TV series that explores these timeless questions in tragic, funny, and surprising ways.
The show was co-created by (and stars) Mike White and Laura Dern. It ran 2011-2013 before cancellation. Like Battlestar Galactica, I think Enlightened contains enduring value and underrated insights.
⚠️ Spoilers ⚠️
Amy Jellicoe (Dern) is having a midlife crisis.
Episode 1 opens with her breakdown at work...
… She flees to a new-agey recovery center, where she finds a glimmer of possibility: A new life of grace, ease, and mindfulness.
The show explores both extremes - tantrums and serenity. It pokes fun at new-age feelgoodery and "wellness culture". And it offers a rare portrayal of meditation on TV - the quiet mind, and the petty mental chatter.
"Enlightened" has three main strengths:
- Great writing
- Strong acting + characters
- Quality production design
Mike White's storytelling style is patient and effective. Elements of the plot were apparently based (loosely) on 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.
Season 1 begins as Amy moves back in with her Mom. She’s not in crisis anymore, but her mental health remains precarious. Can she maintain this new-found calm?
“You don’t have to run away from life,
your whole life.”
Returning to work, Amy gets reassigned to a secret basement department, doing mindless data entry alongside a (great) cast of other corporate misfits.
Let’s directly address the main criticism:
"Amy is an unlikeable protagonist"
People claim that Amy is annoying, naive, and hard to root for.
This is all true. Her character makes grand, embarrassing speeches, and lectures people with self-help jargon. She’s cringe-y, polarizing, and self-involved.
Yet Amy Jellicoe is also totally loveable. She's capable of reflection, and sincerely seeks to change. She is earnest and determined. Never cynical.
Plus, it’s understandable that she might be angry. She's struggling with an alcoholic ex-husband (Luke Wilson), and an emotionally distant mother (Diane Ladd).
Amy is also lonely, and in debt. She's has been demoted (unfairly) by the company she’s worked at loyally for 15+ years.
In one scene, she sits crying in a parked car. A driver starts honking, impatiently trying to take the spot. Interrupted, Amy lashes out and speeds away. It's the perfect metaphor.
In season 1, Amy tries to make change at work from within. In season 2, she turns whistleblower. Along the way, she grows increasingly reckless and influential. She has 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?”
The show is part tragedy because the hero endures great self-inflicted suffering. And part heroic comedy because she 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 key 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 all become three-dimensional. They're just searching for their own meaning and acceptance.
“Everything is a gift.
Even the horrible stuff.”
Ultimately, the show is about the slow, elusive process of incremental growth. I recognize parts of the characters in myself and in people I know. And I appreciate the honest, entertaining portrayal of tragic well-meaningness.
2. Acting + Characters
- A talented ensemble
- A rotating mix of Directors
Directors: Jonathan Demme, Nicole Holofcener, Todd Haynes, Miguel Arteta, and others (in addition to White himself). Each adds a unique color to the writing and performances.
Actors: We get timely supporting performances from Robin Wright, Jason Mantzoukas, Amy Hill, Sarah Burns, and James Rebhorn (among many others).
Laura Dern is the show's emotional anchor.
Dern expertly balances:
- The resentment and the idealism
- The optimism and the 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. A “miserable, terrified mole”.
Tyler floats through life - shy and disconnected.
Amy offers risk and adventure, and helps crack open Tyler's shell. He (reluctantly) assists her search for damning company documents. And eventually falls for Molly Shannon’s character.
He's witty, risk-averse, and sardonic. The perfect foil to Amy’s chaos.
Levi (Luke Wilson) plays Amy’s ex-husband.
Levi was briefly a pro baseball player whose career was cut short by addiction. His marriage imploded (recently) from heartbreak, resentment, and infidelity. The pain is still fresh.
Levi is smart, perceptive, 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 know each other well.
She asks him, "Am I crazy?"
“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.
Initially, I didn't realize Dianne 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 in her garden etc. Helen is brave, protective, and fierce - just like her daughter.
When Amy has a panic attack - Helen finally shows softness.
Ladd is an experienced performer, adept in her movement choices and subtle facial expressions.
Timm Sharp plays Dougie Daniels - Amy and Tyler’s creepy, oblivious boss.
Dougie is a self-described “cool guy”, full of bro-y insecurity. He locks horns with Amy after she questions his intelligence and humiliates him in front of a woman he's trying to impress. Their conflict spirals into a messy HR dispute. Later, they become unlikely allies. Sharp’s clueless comedy provides a nice relief valve to the show's preciousness, and Dougie grows 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 years. She's blunt, wary, and shy. Amy uses Eileen to get to the private server, and Tyler and Eileen fall genuinely (and clumsily) in love. Perfect casting.
3. Production Design
Two visual aspects stand out:
Sets/locations and lighting.
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 faceless office parks and painful memories. It’s where Levi and Amy first met (“sacred land”).
Helen’s home there adds character and realism - the design choices (carpets, food, blankets, photos, wallpaper) are all spot-on.
In her backyard, giant flowers reach up to the blinding CA sun.
Sunlight is a common theme: Levi's apartment is dark, and closed. Helen's house is full of dappled scenes of domestic still life.
The offices, by contrast, are towering castles of glass and concrete. The underground software department feels like a florescent dungeon.
Lobbies and hallways at work are lined with stock art and plastic plants. Outside, skyscrapers reflect light like mirrors, baking down on rows of parked cars.
- Mark Mothersbaugh's score is good
- The 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?
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