March 4, 2013



I speak–clearly–not as a fan:  ENLIGHTENED was less unbearable in its second season than it was in its first.

The show does have its fans, meager in number (fewer than 300,000 viewers watched the initial airings of recent episodes, and only around 100,000 of those were under 50–no doubt those numbers go up when reruns and other platforms are added, but they still can’t get very high) but passionate; this season’s episodic directors, who certainly weren’t in it for the money, included such luminaries as Jonathan Demme and Nicole Holofcener.

To its credit, in Season 2 Enlightened didn’t just sing to its own choir.  Series auteur Mike White (he co-created the show with its star Laura Dern) cut back on the almost feral self-absorption and delusion of protagonist Amy Jellicoe (Dern) after her return from a post-nervous breakdown stay in rehab last year.  There was less of her forcing herself into the lives of people who despised her, as well as, mercifully, less focus on her New Age spiritual awakening and recovery-speak.  The monstrousness of her mother Helen (Dern’s real-life mom Diane Ladd) was also dialed down.  The show concentrated instead on Amy’s workplace, and what became her crusade, via a Los Angeles Times reporter (Dermot Mulroney) to expose the corruption at Abaddon.  This resulted in an expanded role for Amy’s reluctant partner in whistleblowing, Tyler (White, delicately effective), as well as their supervisor Doubie (the amusing Timm Sharp), and also brought in Molly Shannon, marvelously restrained as the Abaddon boss’s secretary Eileen who became Tyler’s girlfriend and unwitting source.  (Shannon teams well with White and Dern:  she was also very good in their Year of the Dog.)

The season finale, written and directed by White, even provided some semblance of happy ending, as Eileen forgave Tyler for hacking into her computer to get material for the story, and the LA Times, in an unlikely move, ran its Abaddon piece not as an expose but as a celebration of Amy’s courage.  Amy even had a moment of serenity with dissolute ex-husband Levi (Luke Wilson).  When we last see her, Amy is walking down the street without job or home, but looking sort of hip for the first time, presumably, in her life.

Despite the improvements, and Dern’s reliable excellence in her role, Enlightened remains a fuzzy, vaguely plotted, not terribly interesting show.  It’s notable that the best episodes this season were the ones that had least to do with Amy, one telling the story of Tyler and Eileen’s halting romance, and the other almost entirely concerned with Levi’s first weeks in rehab.  Amy is often the weakest part of her own show, and while the mixed feelings one has about her and her struggles are certainly deliberate on White and Dern’s part, for some of us she’ll never be a particularly heroic or fascinating figure to watch.

It’s impossible to know whether HBO will bring Enlightened back for a third season, because even though its ratings are abysmal, they’re not horribly worse than they were in Season 1.  The network’s decision will likely be based on how much attachment they feel subscribers have to the show, and for that matter the program executives’ own affection for it in light of their other projects.  At least this time if the decision is made to renew the series, one’s first instinct won’t be to groan.


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."