Amongst current HBO programming, Enlightened is somewhat of a stealth agent. Of all their original shows, it's the least talked about, the least celebrated. I really only started to hear about it when star and co-creator Laura Dern began earning acting accolades during awards season. Deserved accolades, as it turns out, as her unique performance serves as Enlightened's center, even as her character, Amy Jellicoe, seeks to find her own.
Part of the problem is maybe that Enlightened is a difficult program to sum up. In my review of Justified: The Complete Third Season, I wrote how a series needs to get its feet firmly planted in three episodes if it wants to keep viewers. Little did I know I'd watch Enlightened: The Complete First Season immediately after, a show that tests that theory all the way to the limits. I had no idea what I was really watching until the end of episode three, when we also discover that all three shows have really taken place over a similar number of days, comprising Amy's first week returning back to work. Really, they would have worked better as one 90-minute pilot, that's how connected they are.
In short, as we first meet Amy, she's melting down. She is a head buyer in the health and beauty department at a "clean medicine" company who stupidly slept with her married supervisor (Charles Esten). Now that the affair is over, she is being shuffled to another department, and she is convinced the vindictive boss is behind it. After a spectacular flameout in the office, Amy goes to a rehab center in Hawaii, cleans out her system, and tries to get her head straight. She returns as a more serene person, determined to get back to work, but finding life is not as easy to resume as she thought. Her old assistant, Krista (Sarah Burns), has taken over her office, and Amy is exiled to the basement with the misfits and screw-ups and assigned to some kind of data processing hell. Amy must try to figure out a way to get herself a better role in the company while also still managing to be a better person.
Her first true better-person moment comes at the end of episode 3, when she finally acts as a friend to one of her co-workers, a shy, nerdy guy named Tyler (Mike White, writer of School of Rock and director of Year of the Dog, who created the show with Dern and who writes and directs a good portion of the first season). It's the real crossroads for Amy. Will she finally manage to be human by treating others as if they were human, too? The answer is yes and no. Dern and White have created a complex character, one that straddles the line between awkward comedy and genuine sentiment. You never know whether Enlightened would be better served by a laugh track or a mawkish orchestral score. The truth is probably neither/nor, and again, that's why this show is so strange. We laugh a little and cry a little and are mostly confounded by Amy's lack of self-awareness on her quest for self-awareness. She means well, but her selfish impulses and propensity for grand folly get the better of her.
This is where Laura Dern's skills as an actor--seen in films like Wild at Heart, Rambling Rose, and most recently, a memorable cameo in The Master--become of central importance. She portrays Amy as a true dichotomy. The woman is an airhead who we are not surprised would be susceptible to the hippy-dippy lifestyle and easy answers of new age-style religious hucksterism, but she is also a sharp business woman who clearly earned her way with her smarts. It's all there in the first episode. In one breath, she's talking about seeing god in the form of a giant sea turtle; in the next, she's bullying her human resources manager into giving her back her job, possibly fibbing about the lawsuit that could follow. Dern slips from one mood to the other without it seeming abrupt or calculated.
Once we're past that first week, Enlightened achieves a certain comfort, and that's when White and his team (which includes directors Miguel Arteta (Youth in Revolt), Jonathan Demme (Rachel Getting Married, Silence of the Lambs) and Nicole Holofcener (Please Give)) can start to explore other terrain. Episode 4, "The Weekend," shows Amy's first weekend off, and we leave the city for the country after she convinces her ex-husband, Levi (Luke Wilson), a pill-popping boozer, to go away with her on a rafting trip. This failure for them to really reconnect, but to maybe teach Amy a little about acceptance of others, is made up for in episode 5, wherein Amy starts to look at the role of mothers, including that of her own mom, Helen (Dern's real-life mother, Diane Ladd), whom she has moved back in with following the breakdown. Attending Krista's baby shower; following the news story about a Mexican mother being deported and separated from her children, who are naturalized American citizens; and considering why Helen might have a hard time changing her ways or talking about her daughter's problems with her--these are all acts that require empathy, a trait Amy is only just starting to develop.
The variety helps the back half of Enlightened: The Complete First Season continue to be entertaining, but rather than endearing her to us, Amy's continued failure to rise above her own well-honed sense of self-preservation actually ends up being off-putting. Even eight episodes in, I was still unsure how I was supposed to feel about her. Am I meant to be laughing at, pitying, or reviling her? The spiritually shallow voiceover doesn't help. Amy isn't really getting anywhere, and she grows less interesting as a result. The extent to which I was not invested in her travails becomes abundantly clear in episode 9, when Amy is only in the beginning and the end, and instead we spend the whole show following her mother. Here, Mike White sheds any defensive shields and gets raw, following the older woman on her day, through the memories that linger in her house and awkward encounters with a former friend and her ex-son-in-law (Wilson is great when he's angry, he needs less chill/passive roles). Diane Ladd works with silence and expression to convey Helen's loneliness and pain, communicating it as a mood rather than as a declaration, and the way the whole episode is constructed, I felt like I was a part of her life, like I'd been let behind a very private wall to see hidden truths--in other words, everything we're denied in Amy's story. ("Consider Helen" was helmed by Junebug-director Phil Morrison.)
The season finale begins to point the way to what is coming next, and actually suggests real action and real change enough for me to be curious to see what the second year is going to have to offer. At the same time, I feel like Enlightened is really going to have to hit the ground running with the next premiere to keep me watching. There is an element to how the first cycle ends that suggests they could be hitting a reset button on a lot of the story elements, but the problem is less the setting and more the main character. The basic principles are all there, and Enlightened certainly has a lead actress more than capable of delivering what is required, but right now, she's operating above the material, and the scripts need to catch up to her and find the focus to make this a show that genuinely has legs.
Ten episodes are spread over two discs for HBO's Enlightened: The Complete First Season set. All the shows are shown in 16:9 widescreen, and for the most part, the presentation is solid. Colors are good, and there is no pixilation or blocking. I did see occasional hints of soft edges, but this problem popped up rarely.
Episodes can be chosen individually or watched in a row via a "play all" function. All shows also have an optional "previously on" refresher and a "next on" preview.
The original English language track is mixed in 5.1 Dolby (alongside a French 5.1 and a Spsanish 2.0 track). The audio quality is very good, with a smart balance of music and dialogue. Everything sounds clear as a bell, no distortion.
Subtitle options include English, French, Latin-based Spanish, and Chinese (complex). Captions for the deaf and hearing impaired are also provided.
HBO has packaged Enlightened: The Complete First Season in a handsome foldable booklet with paper trays and an outer slipcover.
Every episode has a short "Inside the Episode" promo to go with it: essentially a talking-heads piece with Mike White discussing that particular show amidst clips that illustrate his points. White also appears on most of the few audio commentaries here. For DVD 1, he and Dern share a chat on episode one by themselves, and they are both joined by cinematographer Xavier Perez Grobet for episode four--which makes sense, since it's the crucial "The Weekend" episode and one of the only ones to be shot outdoors for most of the show. Disc 2 shakes it up. On the ninth episode, the one focusing on Amy's mother, actual mother and daughter Laura Dern and Diane Ladd have an engaging back-and-forth about the show; for the finale, it's White alone with fellow director and producer Miguel Arteta.
Recommended. Enlightened: The Complete First Season is easy to digest thanks to some great writing and some even better acting, but ultimately, the show needs more focus if it's going to remain watchable for another season. There are some brilliant individual moments, as well as lots of cumulative greatness, all of which will make you more than willing to get through this first collection, but the audience shouldn't be left so out on a limb at the end of season one that we're still wondering what the devil is going on. A lot of promise, needs improvement.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent projects include the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat; Archer Coe and the Thousand Natural Shocks, a loopy crime tale drawn by Dan Christensen; and the horror miniseries Madame Frankenstein, a collaboration with Megan Levens. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.