January 14, 2013



ENLIGHTENED:  Sunday 9:30PM on HBO

HBO’s decision to renew Mike White and Laura Dern’s ENLIGHTENED for a second season was one of the least ratings-driven calls in memory.  The show barely registered with viewers, usually drawing a 0.1 in 18-49s and a grand total (on initial airing) of perhaps a quarter of a million people.  (That number, it should be said, was apparently disproportionately made up of writers, some of whom praised the show fulsomely.)  The network’s decision not only to bring the series back but to pair it with phenom sophomore Girls suggests that it’s a show HBO really wants to see work.

Viewers of Enlightened tend to separate between those who consider it a unique and even profound creation (see, for example, here), and detractors who find it grating and smug.  As a member of the latter camp, I can report that the Season 2 premiere, written by White and directed by Nicole Holofcener, is somewhat less unbearable than last season mostly was.  Amy Jellicoe (Dern) spent Season 1 on a post-nervous breakdown spiritual quest, so buried in her own head (to put it politely) that she had no idea how pathetic and annoying her manipulative lack of boundaries was to everyone around her.  She was victimized by a monstrously callous mother (Dern’s real-life mom Diane Ladd) and a worthless, uncaring ex (Luke Wilson), and even though the faceless conglomerate that employed Amy was a blandly distasteful entity, one almost rooted for the company to get rid of her.

This time, Amy’s embraced a more concrete, although probably just as deluded goal.  She’s out to slay her employer for its unethical and illegal acts, and with the help of recessive co-worker Tyler (White), she has access to in-house e-mails that she believes to be a smoking gun.  She contacts a crusading LA Times reporter (Dermot Mulroney)–perhaps the most surreal aspect of the show is the idea that the LA Times has crusading reporters–and in typical Amy style, is outraged not to be on the next day’s front page.  One imagines that it will turn out that her quest is a doomed one, but at least it’s not out-and-out insane.

Perhaps the season premiere is misleading, but for one episode, at least, it’s a pleasure not to be in the grip of Amy’s mother’s smothering hostility toward her daughter, or Amy’s misguided belief that she has a future with her ex, or her blind attempts to have “friendships” with co-workers who despise and ridicule her.  Since the company does seem to be an awful place, for once it seems like Amy is at least heading into battle against a target that deserves her.

None of this raises Enlightened to a level where it’s particularly worth watching.  The show’s slightly dreamy, glass-walled depiction of soulless corporate drudgery is familiar from many other movies, especially in the Sundance/indie genre, and the characters who aren’t hateful are blurry.  Dern, of course, is eloquent and fully committed as always, but last season that wasn’t enough to justify spending extended time with Amy.  With Girls as its lead-in, though, the series will certainly get more eyeballs than tuned in when Bored to Death was the preceding show, so Enlightened will have the chance to captivate whoever feels a kinship with its very particular charms.

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."