For 2013’s best-of-TV list, The A.V. Club
’s TV writers got together to discuss the shows that got us talking the most over the past 12 months. Our gold-medal winner for the best TV of 2013 is Enlightened.
Amy Jellicoe doesn’t operate a drug empire that ultimately spans two hemispheres. She doesn’t live in a bygone decade or a fantasy kingdom. She doesn’t go to prison or chase down the criminals who should be there. She’s not particularly cool or easy to take or even all that funny.
Yet she does good.
She’s ordinary. She lives with her mother in Riverside, California, a town that rises out of the desert like a mirage of empty promises. She lost her husband and her job. She feels betrayed by the woman she once counted as a friend who now sits in the chair she used to occupy. She is driven less by noble purpose or feelings of importance than by her own petty resentments and bitterness—the sense that she’s owed something by a universe that stubbornly refuses to pay out. She uses people and hurts people and annoys people, and she crosses so many lines that polite society demands stay uncrossed.
Yet she does good.
She may be beaten down at every turn, but she gets back up. That persistence, in fact, is a little annoying. She’s the person you might try to avoid when you see her approaching your cubicle, a character you might speed past with the “channel up” button when Laura Dern’s visage graces your TV screen. But she’s a hero, maybe even moreso than anybody else on TV this year, because of how unlikely that heroism is. Amy Jellicoe has every excuse to be swallowed up by cynicism and bitterness. Nearly everyone she knows has screwed her over in one way or another. Nearly everyone she knows has found her tiresome or irritating. She has no reason to keep pushing against the systems weighted against her.
Yet she does good.
Define Amy not by what she is, though. Define her by what she is not. She fails spectacularly. She isn’t a very good friend, and she’s very often a lousy daughter. She can’t be the rock her ex-husband needs her to be if he’s ever going to get sober (not that anyone could). She gets completely innocent people fired, and she puts the job of the one person who would do anything for her at risk multiple times, because she decides her own goals override what anyone else wants. She invades the hospital room of a mother who’s just given birth to angrily yell at her for fucking Amy over, even though said mother had nothing to do with what happened. She is not a particularly good person.
Yet she does good.
Enlightened drives so many viewers away because of who Amy is. The popular read on this is that she’s so difficult to take that she pushes the audience to a point where it starts wondering what else is on. And maybe that’s the case, as the show’s ratings weren’t improved by a better lead-in and a new night, which ultimately led HBO to cancel it.
But I would look elsewhere, away from how we might want to define ourselves in opposition to Amy and more in terms of how we’re all like her. We are all the sum totals of our failures, the times that our hearts broke or our lives crumbled or our worlds fell apart. We look at other people with envy and bitterness. We want what we don’t have and when we get it, we want something else. We’re often not very nice to the people who most count on us to be so, and we sometimes don’t understand just how much we hurt those around us. Just like people scatter from Amy, there are those who simply don’t want to be around us, who run when they see us coming. What Enlightened got right, particularly in its second season, when it was the best show on TV, was that the act of simply being alive, of sitting in your home or standing on a street corner or driving through the night, can hurt so much. Every second is another opportunity to feel alone or useless or washed up. Every day is a new chance to wash up on the island of your own lost opportunities.
Yet Amy Jellicoe does good.
Enlightened is full of people lost in their own regret. There’s Tyler (played by series creator Mike White), an office drone whose life was all but closed off from feeling before the series began. There’s Dougie (Timm Sharp), the kind of loathsome middle manager that everyone in corporate America knows intimately, who’s stuck in a career rut and doesn’t realize it yet. There’s Helen (Diane Ladd), Amy’s mother, so trapped in her own past that she sometimes seems to be playing a game of freeze tag with herself. There’s Levi, Amy’s boozy ex-husband, who heads off to rehab in Hawaii to get clean, to try to find the connection to something beyond this plane that she did while she was there. He doesn’t find it, but he finds something else to believe in: Amy.
Amy Jellicoe does good. And because of that, all of these people do, too. And they begin to flower.
Does it matter when the good she does—when the good we do—is driven by selfish impulses? Does it matter that she blows the whistle on the unethical practices of her company because she’s driven by her own frustrations more than any authentic desire to make the world a better place? There’s an episode late in season two when Amy accompanies the reporter who’s helping her uncover her company’s dirt to a speech given by a woman who’s almost held up as a paragon of the kind of good humans can do in the world when they really set their minds to it. Does Amy match up to her? Not really.
But maybe she could someday.
Television has spent the last however many years teaching us that evil is a muscle we can exercise like any other. We can build it up and make it stronger by actively indulging it, and, what’s more, giving in to those impulses can feel fun. It can feel good. We are all driven by lizard brains that want to take and take and take. Altruism and niceness and politeness are harder to exercise, because they take time. They take patience. They take making the active choice to step back from the brink and be the better person. And that’s simply not as satisfying.
I don’t want to say that shows about doing the wrong thing are inherently worse than shows about doing the right thing, but I find it undeniable that in 2013, those sorts of shows—as marked by new entrants like Ray Donovan or Low Winter Sun—increasingly felt hollow and unnecessary. Maybe some of that was because our number two show, Breaking Bad, stood out as sort of the ne plus ultra of the genre, the final destination of what these shows look like in their most brutal and efficient forms.
But maybe some of it was because we started this year with Enlightened, a show about beauty and wonder and, yes, goodness, a show that dared to suggest that grace, too, was a muscle one could learn to flex.
And Enlightened… Enlightened was perfect.