"It's more dramatic than our dramas."
February 27, 2013 10:13 AM   Subscribe

Enlightened is TV’s best show right now—and it needs more viewers. Written by Mike White (School of Rock and Freaks and Geeks, among others) and starring Laura Dern (also the show's co-creator, Luke Wilson, Diane Ladd, and Timm Sharp (aka Marshall from Undeclared), the show has also seen an impressive line-up of guest directors, including Jonathan Demme (The Silence of the Lambs), Phil Morrison (Junebug), James Bobin (Flight of the Conchords), and Todd Haynes (I'm Not There). The show's range is astonishing – it depicts its main character as cringeworthily oblivious, yet also lets her deliver monologues which are unusually sincere for a comedy; some of its characters are ridiculous and absurd, while others are capable of deep melancholy. Mike White talks to Interview Magazine about creating Enlightened before its premiere; a year later, he talks to Indiewire about why people have such a hard time sympathizing with Amy.
posted by Rory Marinich (42 comments total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
I'm really interested in checking this out. It also comes highly recommended from Maura Johnston, who was speculating that it gets a fraction of the attention and ratings that its lead-in Girls gets at least partly due to the relative age of the protagonists (yay demographics).
posted by naju at 10:19 AM on February 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

The premise does sound intriguing, and I do recall my parents(!) talking about liking it when we went to see Young Adult together(!!)*, but it falls into that category of "HBO shows I have almost no means of catching up with legall...oh, look, it's on Amazon Instant." Hmm.

*Hi, my name is psoas, I am in my mid-30s, and over Christmas 2011 I learned I am turning into my parents at a much more rapid clip than I could imagine.
posted by psoas at 10:26 AM on February 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

Between the middle of S1 and the beginning of (current) S2, "Enlightened" went from a show I enjoyed watching to the one show I greedily await all week long.

I knew I'd love watching Laura Dern, who is incredibly expressive as Amy Jellicoe, but every role has been thoughtfully, intelligently cast; every character is distinctive and complex and catches my empathy and irritation; the plot is easy to follow but the underlying themes are really complex for those who want to delve into them. It really is my favorite show right now.
posted by Elsa at 10:28 AM on February 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

Would it still make sense / be enjoyable if I started with S2 without seeing any of S1?
posted by shortfuse at 10:29 AM on February 27, 2013

As someone who tried watching it, I completely understand its low viewership. And peoples' lack of sympathy toward Amy. Just my opinion, of course.
posted by still_wears_a_hat at 10:31 AM on February 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

Mike White had an interesting interview on WTF with Marc Maron this week as well. I haven't seen the show yet, but it definitely sparked my interest.
posted by gabey at 10:31 AM on February 27, 2013

Count me among the admirers of Enlightened. One factor that I would suggest contributes to lowish ratings is that it is often just a hard watch. My wife and I both love the show, and are in awe at the sheer quality. But we will often procrastinate watching an episode on our DVR until we feel we're braced for it. If either or both of us has had a rough day, we would rather watch something less emotionally trying. Even when we feel ready for it, we often plan to follow it up with something lighter as a chaser.

However, I am totally unable to connect with Girls in any way, despite the fact that I've lived in Manhattan since I was a young adult. But I'm male, so I should be less likely to relate in a literal way with either show. Agewise, I'm inbetween Laura Dern and Lena Dunham, so that can't be the sole factor either. I guess what I'm saying is that I don't believe age and gender aren't as reliable predictors for these shows' audiences as TV marketers and critics might like to think.
posted by TheDorkReport at 10:31 AM on February 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

A friend and I just did a shotgun-marathon of the whole show yesterday. Laura Dern's performance in it is truly remarkable – she's one of the greatest actresses alive, and she manages to be both loathsome and sympathetic at the same time, rather than veering towards too likable or too appalling of a person.

What's kind of fascinating about the show is how few of its characters possess any sense of humor. There are next to zero quips in the show, even fewer than there are in Girls or in Louie. Most scenes play out completely straight, meaning it's up to you whether you find something funny or take it at face value; the people I was watching with would often laugh at much different things than I was.

I'll also say that while the show has many vignette episodes, it goes to more stylistic extremes than any other shows I know. It doesn't pull a Community and just switch genre on you – all the episodes are pretty similar visually – but rather the pacing within the thirty minutes will feel completely different episode by episode. One episode from the first season follows the protagonist's mother, and it's very slow and melancholy, with lots of dialogue-free scenes, but then you get Luke Wilson off at a retreat and the pace feels much faster than your average episode, more wild and rambunctious.

And on preview, I agree with elsa: season 1 was beautiful and poignant but not an especially tight-plotted show, while season 2 abruptly turns into a show about corporate intrigue and hacking and suchlike and every episode really powers along.

shortfuse: My roommate started watching along with us at season 2 and loved it. Probably you miss some character nuance from the first season, but nothing that makes the show hard to watch.
posted by Rory Marinich at 10:32 AM on February 27, 2013 [4 favorites]

While Mike White is making the interview rounds*, there seems to be a movement to save the show from cancellation among TV reviewers.

* He sounds a bit resigned: "I'm being totally honest because I'm in this anxious place, but I'm afraid this will be the best thing I ever do. I think it will be. That it might be over is sad."
posted by Doktor Zed at 10:39 AM on February 27, 2013

I just started watching it because Emily Nussbaum's been talking about it, and it is hard to watch. I can tell it's good: the writing is good, the acting is good, it's thoughtful. But sometimes I want a character who is -- I don't know the term. She's not unlikable.

I'm likely to finish watching it, but 4 episodes in, I'm not in love.
posted by jeather at 10:40 AM on February 27, 2013

Maybe the post should have a cursory mention of what the show is about?
posted by Legomancer at 10:41 AM on February 27, 2013 [5 favorites]

And on preview, I agree with elsa: season 1 was beautiful and poignant but not an especially tight-plotted show, while season 2 abruptly turns into a show about corporate intrigue and hacking and suchlike and every episode really powers along.

And just in the last pair of episodes, I suddenly understood that Amy's current sense of mission --- her obsession --- is also functioning as an emotional replacement for her earlier chemical dependency. And suddenly [mild SPOILER of a sort] that all-consuming mission is barreling toward its conclusion and Amy is going to be left unfettered, free-floating with her crushing need for something to fill that void unsatisfied. I am desperate to know what happens then... but if HBO doesn't renew it, I never will.
posted by Elsa at 10:41 AM on February 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

Greg, I found that the way the second and third episodes built off the pilot really convinced me something interesting was going on, but they're still fairly ordinary episodes. I'd recommend one of the episodes with Luke Wilson – either s1e4, which involves him and Laura Dern rafting, or even maybe s2e3, which doesn't have Laura Dern in it at all and which is just him off on a solo retreat.
posted by Rory Marinich at 10:47 AM on February 27, 2013

Legomancer: “Maybe the post should have a cursory mention of what the show is about?”

Simple version: Laura Dern plays a woman returning to her old job after coming home from rehab.

I haven't watched much yet, but it seems pretty darned good so far.
posted by koeselitz at 10:53 AM on February 27, 2013

Maybe the post should have a cursory mention of what the show is about?

That brings up an issue: it's a surprisingly hard show to describe --- or rather, it's easy to describe in a way that utterly fails to capture its nuances. In the A.V. Club article linked in the FPP (first link), Todd VanDerWerff says:
I find it hard to imagine myself loving anything quite as much as I’ve loved the second season of Enlightened, HBO’s weird little comedy about a woman who sets out to enact positive change around her and ends up facing off against the corporation she works for.
That's the description in a nutshell: Amy works for a corporation, early in S1 she goes to rehab, and returns (to a demoted position) filled with a burning desire To Do Good, whatever that might mean and certainly at great cost to the company and to those around her. It sounds dreary, doesn't it? But, as VanDerWerff also says:
Part of the problem may be how hard it is to describe Enlightened. Even the brief logline I offered above only encapsulates a tiny sliver of what the program has to offer. It’s described as a comedy by HBO, and while it has terrifically funny scenes—particularly when Timm Sharp’s loathsome Dougie is around—it’s not a fall-off-your-seat-in-laughter kind of show. More often than not, it’s trying to provoke a cringing laughter from forcing viewers to sympathize with the incredibly socially awkward Amy Jellicoe, the kind of person we all know and the kind of person we’ve all been at one time or another. Amy’s a terrifically self-centered, irritating person to be around, but she’s also not exactly wrong about the things she’s mad about, from corporate greed to environmental destruction, something that throws everybody around her off their games because they’re just not used to seeing someone who seems to feel everything this deeply. The show opens with her having a nervous breakdown and going to a rehabilitation center in Hawaii, where she has an epiphany, but the more we learn about Amy pre-rehab, the more we realize she’s always been this way, and her mother and ex-husband have frequently had to pick up pieces behind her.
I watched the pilot, and it was fine, but nothing that really grabbed me; is there a different episode that would make a good point of entry?

Greg, I picked it up halfway through the (short) first season, and by S2, ep2, it had become the one show I don't want to miss. I feel like it really catches fire in S2, but it's good to see the relationships build in S1, even if it's just the second half. (I still haven't backed up to watch the first half of S1, though I will soon, but I don't feel like I'm missing any subtext.)

[disclosure: my husband freelances for the AV Club, is not Todd VanDerWerff, has no connection to this article.]
posted by Elsa at 10:55 AM on February 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

I heard about how unlikable or unsympathetic the main character is, so I avoided the show. I'm really tired of shows about unlikable people. But then I kept hearing things about it, and a friend described it as a reaction AGAINST cynical characters and that the characters on the show are the most human he's seen.

I'm about halfway through the first season and I'm loving it. Maybe because I went into it with low expectations. I honestly don't see the characters as unsympathetic AT ALL. Especially when compared to a show like Breaking Bad, where the whole point is that the main character is turning into a monster.

Also, the actors on the show are amazing. Dern, Diane Ladd, Mike White, Luke Wilson. Each plays their character perfectly.
posted by mokin at 10:57 AM on February 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

Also, for some reason I couldn't get the Interview link to work correctly (it was showing only the first few paragraphs), but hitting the print link got me the full article.
posted by mokin at 11:00 AM on February 27, 2013

I honestly don't see the characters as unsympathetic AT ALL. Especially when compared to a show like Breaking Bad, where the whole point is that the main character is turning into a monster.

In some ways Amy Jellicoe is the anti-Walter White. Walter's great because he's brilliant, and because he's so damn good at keeping himself alive as he slowly transforms into a monster. Amy's on the verge of outright cluelessness – she has just enough of a layer of cunningness that she survives her own awful mistakes – yet at all times she comes off desperately as somebody who wants to do the right thing, in a world which was designed to prevent her from doing it.

I would hate myself if I ever became anything like Amy and I would hate Amy if I was forced to work with her, but at the same time I wish there were more Amys in the world. Which is a weird, but also nice, feeling.

Also seconding (thirding?) how insanely good the cast is. This is an era of TV with countless brilliant, memorable casts, but Enlightened's ensemble is unusually good even among them.
posted by Rory Marinich at 11:04 AM on February 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

You bastard. Get back to work!
posted by Potomac Avenue at 11:26 AM on February 27, 2013

I love this show. The recent episode "The Ghost is Seen" was amazing. Subtle and so well written.
posted by mothershock at 11:28 AM on February 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

This one has kind of grown on me. It isn't the grand spectacle of some of the other HBO shows, but it quietly captures something in this corpocratic cultural moment that hits close to home for me.
posted by Mister_A at 11:32 AM on February 27, 2013

Yeah but is it better than Girls?
posted by ReeMonster at 11:39 AM on February 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

I admire this show to no end, and think the two episodes I saw -- S01E04 (The Weekend - where Amy and Levi go on the rafting trip) and S02E13 (Higher Power - where Levi goes into rehab) -- to be excellent television. However, I don't like the show, hence seeing only two episodes. I cannot explain it; I have all of the episodes sitting on my DVR, but never get around to watching them. Normally that reaction is saved for embarrassment humor, see Larry Davis, but that is not the case here.
posted by rtimmel at 11:40 AM on February 27, 2013

The premise does sound intriguing, and I do recall my parents(!) talking about liking it when we went to see Young Adult together(!!)*

Since someone mentioned Young Adult in a thread about something written by Mike White, I feel it's probably worth pointing out that Young Adult is kind of a ripoff of Mike White's Chuck & Buck.
posted by Sys Rq at 11:43 AM on February 27, 2013

I absolutely love this show. I watched it when it was on Sky Atlantic over here, I bought the DVD of the first series and I've been watching season 2 online. It's beautifully photographed, the cast is superb and every week Amy can't help but keep on messing up, despite her best efforts and usually with the most sincere of intentions. Mike White's Tyler is such a great character. The sight of his sterile little apartment almost made me weep.
posted by essexjan at 11:54 AM on February 27, 2013

ReeMonster, I am beginning to think I enjoy it more than Girls.
posted by Mister_A at 12:02 PM on February 27, 2013

Did somebody say Laura Dern? I think there were some words after that, and maybe before it, but I can't be sure.
posted by cmoj at 12:07 PM on February 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

The WTF with White was a good one, though it was interesting how it ended- Marc asking White about his personal situation/happiness in a relaxed way, White seemingly exhausted by the process of answering it (though it wasn't prying and White wasn't shy about his background), and then out.

I'm intrigued to see this but I don't know how without Sky Atlantic.
posted by C.A.S. at 12:21 PM on February 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

Does anybody know the legality of the premise as presented in the pilot of the company having to give her a job when she returns because she had a pre-existing medical condition when she left?
posted by dogwalker at 12:47 PM on February 27, 2013

I've had a lot of people recommend this show. I've watched most of it, and I really have to say that I don't understand what people see in it. I've read a bunch of articles and reviews, trying to figure out why people like it, but nothing rings true. The AV Club article calls it a scathing corporate satire, but nothing about the office hijinks seem more scathing than something you'd see on The Office or Better Off Ted.

The voiceover meditations that open and close every episode really characterize the show, I think. Each episode, we get five minutes of Amy making a hippy-dippy Statement of the Week while slow-motion shots of friends and flowers are shown. Are these meant to be parodic? Are we supposed to laugh at Amy's thoughts? I don't think so---they're not very sharp or funny, and they're played totally straight. But they are vapid and interminable, and not very revealing.

That kinda characterizes the while show. The characters are writ unrealistically large, as if they were comic characters, and we see things through their eyes... but it's not satirical or funny enough to be a comedy. Watching the anti-social nerds at the office got to feel like watching The Big Bang Theory without the laugh track and without any jokes.

I don't have the best sense of Amy as a character, because the show vacillates between making Amy a parody of a silly hippy and between making her more well-rounded. Exactly how stupid is she? She seems comically, unrealistically dumb most of the time. But at times it seems more like a savvy con, like in the pilot when she casually mentions being able to sue the hiring board if they don't hire her back. Was she aware of what she was doing in this scene? If so, then I think she's really inconsistently written, but if not, she might as well be a character in Clueless.

I think the show's trying to be something like Nurse Jackie, but I think that show was a lot more successful.
posted by painquale at 12:58 PM on February 27, 2013

Rory Marinich: “I would hate myself if I ever became anything like Amy and I would hate Amy if I was forced to work with her, but at the same time I wish there were more Amys in the world. Which is a weird, but also nice, feeling.”

I just sat through Amy's speech at Krista's shower in s01e05, and I was cringing so hard, like "ugh I can't watch another second of this," but this is totally right. It's really hard to do this, I think – Amy can capture just the most incredibly uncomfortable moments I've ever had with coworkers, with other human beings in general, but she's never actually pushed into the role of the villain, it's always a relationship that retains its complexity. She's still the center of the show, and you kind of feel like her inner life somehow justifies who she is even if you wouldn't actually want to spend a lot of time with her. And the fact that pissed-off Krista can hit on something so insightful about Amy's character – that Amy is angry all the time – that's really – well, the characters here seem really well fleshed-out. It's really interesting.

It's also an interesting document of what California is all about. I mean, good god, this is California people in so many ways. Wow.
posted by koeselitz at 2:20 PM on February 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

The voiceover meditations that open and close every episode really characterize the show, I think. Each episode, we get five minutes of Amy making a hippy-dippy Statement of the Week while slow-motion shots of friends and flowers are shown. Are these meant to be parodic? Are we supposed to laugh at Amy's thoughts? I don't think so---they're not very sharp or funny, and they're played totally straight.

Obviously tastes differ, and so do perceptions. I definitely read those voice-overs as a strange mix of satirical and earnest, which is a weird and affecting mix. Amy's voice --- and her whole character --- is an incredible balance of commitment to an ideal mixed with a vacuous self-centered selfishness that makes me gape and holler.

Amy is deeply and (so far) unshakably convinced of her own rightness --- her own righteousness --- that she feels entitled to follow and to impose on others, no matter the cost. She needs this drive to structure her life, to give her life meaning. I laugh at her even as I ache for her. She's a cloak of certainty wrapped around a howling emptiness.

I particularly liked seeing the tables get turned on her the most recent episode, "No Doubt," when her complicit co-worker Tyler (played by co-creator Mike White) flips the dynamic on her: Tyler delivers a scheme to Amy with exactly the same bright-eyed, unlistening blankness that she has used on him over and over, and he absolutely refuses to hear her demurrals and refusals. She says things like (I'm paraphrasing here) "That's not going to work" and "I don't think so," and he plows right ahead as if she's said "Super!" and "I'd love to!" It's exactly the way she treated him; he learned it from her and it works.

I think the show is absolutely a knowing, empathetic send-up of the certainty that fuels so many people, whether their would-be activists like Amy or religious/political/social crusaders or advocates of a particular parenting style or avid hobbiers of any stripe.

And I think there's value in that: in presenting these characters satirically but somewhat sympathetically. Watching Amy Jellicoe's fierce certainty makes me poke around inside myself to investigate my own terrible certainties, looking to see where I might be as wrong, as stubborn, and as unyielding as Amy Jellicoe is. It's powerful stuff.
posted by Elsa at 3:17 PM on February 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

Yeah, this, wow. I saw an episode on an airplane, starting at about the five-minute mark, not knowing what it was, and I couldn't believe that something this good could be on TV without my knowing it. It certainly dominates any episode of Louie or The Wire or Breaking Bad I've ever seen.

On the other hand, I've never made any attempt to watch any more of it. I guess I figured the rest of it couldn't possibly be as good and I wanted to maintain my admiration at its current high pitch.
posted by escabeche at 3:19 PM on February 27, 2013

I loved season 1 but couldn't get myself to watch season 2 this year. I think it's because the show takes you to a place that is very real and very uncomfortable and I find myself drained from rooting for Dern's character so often that it hurts. It should also be noted that Mike White is responsible for writing one of the very best Freaks & Geeks episodes.
posted by cazoo at 4:14 PM on February 27, 2013

I love this show. It's definitely uncomfortable but so different than anything else on TV right now. I thought scenes like Krista's shower were just perfect.. not only Amy's awkward speech toward the end, but the way they set it up in the first place before any of that happens. All these young women in this perfect suburban home where everything is so tasteful, and they're wearing pretty much the exact same type of tasteful preppy pastel dress and perfect hair and makeup and are all sooooo excited that it's Krista's big day all about her! Amy can be pretty awful but I appreciate how.. it plays up those moments where everyone else in the room seems to naturally figure out how to be totally conformist and you feel like you are on another planet.
posted by citron at 7:29 PM on February 27, 2013

I tried to start watching Enlightenment two months or so ago, and really must not have been in the mood for it. I watched about ten minutes of the first episode.

With what folks are saying here about it rewarding patience makes me think I should give it another try. Knowing the main character is maybe deliberately unlikeable is kind of interesting, too.
posted by Mister Moofoo at 10:53 PM on February 27, 2013

Enlightened is one of my favourite shows on tv at the moment. I've always loved Laura Dern's acting and had been wondering, up until this show started, what she was going to do next. Her character, Amy, is flawed but she is trying so hard to be a good person and that's what makes her so appealing to me.

In fact, all of the characters seem so real and true in that no-one's perfect. What could be truer than that?

I'm really looking forward to more.
posted by h00py at 2:23 AM on February 28, 2013

I'm really looking forward to more.

Then let HBO know you want more! "Enlightened" hasn't yet been renewed for a third season, and there's only one episode left in the current season.

As it stands now, the one remaining episode could be the end of the series.
posted by Elsa at 11:32 AM on February 28, 2013

Is there some sort of petition to save the show? I couldn't find anything online.
posted by grumblebee at 12:39 PM on February 28, 2013

grumblebee, "Enlightened" writer/co-creator/actor Mike White (here on Twitter) has been encouraging people to tweet @HBO or otherwise let HBO know that viewers hope for third season. To their credit, HBO appears to be giving the series a lot of promotion and encouragement. I do hope it gets another season instead of being one of those legendary "gone too soon" critical darlings that people discover after it ends.

This thread encouraged me to start watching S1 from the beginning, backing up to see the handful of opening episodes I missed, and I have to say I was wrong above about not missing any subtext. For one thing, evidently I made a bad assumption about Amy's rehab visit: it looks like her rehab is in the aftermath of a nervous breakdown, not a chemical dependency. (I mistakenly extrapolated that from her reaction to another character's drug use.) Also, the first minute or two sets up a big piece of the dynamic between Amy and a little-seen boss...

... which only cements for me how good the writing is, that I could miss out on these pieces and still feel so much of the power behind this character. Also, just five minutes into the pilot, I found myself anxious and sweaty and laughing out loud, all at the same time.

My zeal in encouraging others to watch and support the underdog show feels queasily similar to Amy Jellicoe's hazy, unfocused drive to Do Good no matter how self-serving it may be. I'll try to back away from this thread.
posted by Elsa at 1:24 PM on February 28, 2013 [4 favorites]

Can we talk about how that final episode was one of the best things ever aired on TV ever? I was genuinely astonished at how much it pulled off in such little space. Puts the other shows I watch on TV to shame.
posted by Rory Marinich at 10:33 PM on March 4, 2013 [2 favorites]

I'm not really as in love with this show as a lot of people are, but it does fit more into a ~30minute episode than most hour long dramas. A whole lot more.

I'm just not terribly interested in Amy as a character. My favorite episodes were the ones that flipped the narrative over to the viewpoints of Tyler, Levi, and her mother.

But yeah, that season 2 finale was a barn-burner man. I hope they get some sort of season 3, but if not I feel like they are in a place with the story that Mike White could just write and produce a movie that picks up with these characters and it would feel natural.
posted by dogwalker at 1:16 AM on March 6, 2013

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