The rule in the US seems to be that shows made for the main networks (ABC, CBS and NBC) are about people you generally like, while if they’re on cable, they’re about assholes. It’s not quite as clear-cut as that, but it sometimes seems like it. Enlightened is another part of the move towards shows about characters where you’re never 100% sure if they’re endearing or insufferable.
Amy (Laura Dern) works for a large conglomerate but when we first see her she’s not having a good day. She’s mid-breakdown, swearing at her co-workers and blaming all her woes on the man she’s been sleeping with (but who has a wife and kid). We next cut to her six months later, after Amy’s spent time in Hawaii dealing with her issues. She’s arrives back with a bit of a hippy spirit, determined to make herself a better person and improve the world around her.
Her old company seems less impressed by this though. They realise they can’t fire her in case she sues over her breakdown, so instead she’s shoved into the wilderness of a tech area where only nerdy misfits work.
A lot of shows with that set-up would be all about how Amy is now a better person and in each episode manages to overcome the obstacles around her and make the world a tiny bit better. However Enlightened is smarter than that. Amy’s time in Hawaii hasn’t really changed her that much – although she thinks it has. What it’s really done is given her an inflated idea of who she wants to be. However the reality of everyday life, the repercussions of her previous actions as well as the fact that underneath her self-help book obsessed exterior she’s still neurotic and prone to fury, mean what she wants out of life may not be something she could ever achieve.
Laura Dern won a Golden Globe for playing Amy. She is very good, but a lot of credit has to go to the screenwriters, who’ve created a piercingly observed character, full of the sort of self-delusion, transference, rationalising and neuroses we often see in real life but which are rarely shown on screen.
There is perhaps a reason for that, which is that Amy’s lack of knowledge of herself, unconscious self-centredness and unpleasant side often put her on the verge of being so unlikeable that you wonder why you want to watch a show about her. However it’s saved by how sharply observed it is, as well as the fact that while she’s rather deluded and irrational, Amy’s heart is in the right place. Even when she’s being rude, passive-aggressive and somewhat nasty, she’s convinced she’s in the right and it’s other people who are problem. All she consciously wants is to be a better person and make the world a nicer place.
There’s a wonderful moment a few episodes in where she applies to work at a homeless shelter, convinced that this is the way she can make things better. She then breaks down when she’s told the pay is only $26,000 a year. She’s torn between the fantasy of the person she thinks she wants to be and the fact she doesn’t want it to impact on the niceties of her life – even if she doesn’t want to admit that to herself.
It’s a fascinating series, which constantly pull its characters in different directions, testing their limits and uncovering both their strengths and weaknesses. This may occasionally make you think Amy is a bit of a self-deluding hypocrite, but if you keep watching something soon comes along that pulls you back in.
Admittedly the first few episodes do feel like the makers are trying things out, with some episodes leaning heavily on comedy while others are pretty straightforward drama. Many of the supporting characters also get prodded and altered to find out how they best fit into the show. That’s natural with the first series of a show and although it makes the tone of the first few episodes slightly uneven, the writing shines through and the final episodes find their groove as it further explores Amy’s journey.
Overall Verdict: Amy may be a difficult character who it’s easy to love and hate in equal measure, but she’s piercingly observed and has her heart in the right place, ensuring Enlightened is a sharp journey into the difficulties of life that many of us will recognise.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac