October 11, 2011

THE SKED REVIEW: “Enlightened”

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Written by: Mitch Salem
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ENLIGHTENED – Mondays 9:30PM on HBO – If Nothing Else Is On…
As a writer, Mike White is drawn to stories of delusion.  Even though their tones (and commerciality) are widely divergent, his screenplays from Chuck & Buck to The School of Rock, The Good Girl to Nacho Libre share protagonists who are firmly and irretrievably locked into their own head-space, insensible to the real world around them, and often unaware of the chaos they cause.  They’re outsiders, fantasists, dislocated from the consequences of their actions.  When White isn’t in his full-Hollywood aspirational mode (aka when Jack Black isn’t the star), they’re often quite uncomfortable to watch.  

Which brings us to ENLIGHTENED, White’s new series for HBO.  Co-created with star Laura Dern, the pilot was written and directed by White (he’ll also be a regular cast member on the series, although his character doesn’t appear in the pilot).  Its main character is Amy Jellicoe (Dern), an office worker with a bad marriage (to Luke Wilson, as a cynical cokehead) behind her and a disastrous affair with her married boss Damon (Charles Esten) in her present.  When she finds out she’s being transferred/demoted, Amy has a very loud and public breakdown in the office.  She heads to a healing center in Hawaii for several months, and when she returns, she’s adopted the jargon, countenance and gimcracks of the self-helped.  She proclaims her inner peace to anyone who’ll listen–and many who won’t–but she’s still a very angry woman underneath (rather than try to start a new life for herself, she insists on going back to her old job and seeking “closure” with both of her exes and her mother–who’s played by Diane Ladd, Dern’s real-life mother–whether they like it or not).
Enlightened feels like it’s a few years off the zeitgeist.  Spiritual renewal and its accoutrements aren’t exactly a central issue for most in this era of blasted economy and Tea Party politics, and although Dern’s emotionally complicated, hugely empathetic performance carries the pilot, it’s going to be hard not to become impatient with Amy’s stubborn refusal to recognize reality and her blissful memories of feeling God as she swam with sea turtles in Hawaii.  Whether the show accepts or ridicules her–and the suggestion in the pilot is that it will do both–it’s going to have its work cut out just making us care.
Enlightened threatens to resemble White’s film Year of the Dog, which starred Molly Shannon (and featured Dern in a supporting role) as a lonely woman whose commitment to animal rights, after the death of her dog, becomes such an obsession that it ultimately drives her away from her life and everyone she knows.  That movie was supposed to be a comedy, but it was so off-putting that it never found an audience beyond a few sympathetic critics.  Enlightened is, so far, less extreme, and it has the advantage of Dern in the leading role, but it will be difficult to watch over time if Amy becomes unceasingly pathetic.

We don’t really know what Enlightened is yet; as noted, several of the regular characters haven’t even appeared, and Amy’s character won’t find out until the next episode what her new job at the company will be.  HBO is legendarily patient with its new shows, so the series will have a chance to become what it intends to be.   Combined with the stoner/hipsterfest Bored To Death, HBO’s Monday 9PM hour is one of the strangest on TV (but Bored has Ted Danson and Zach Galifianakis, at least, to liven things up), and like Amy, we’ll come to terms with her life–or not–over time.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."