Enlightened is TV’s best show right now—and it needs more viewers

Enlightened is TV’s best show right now—and it needs more viewers

Admittedly, it’s early. Mad Men, one of my favorite shows ever made, has yet to debut new episodes. Game Of Thrones is adapting one of the best books in the series this season. The Americans, Justified, Archer, and Girls are all in the middle of pretty terrific seasons (at least so far), and on the network side, New Girl and Bob’s Burgers have done much the same. And, of course, the big one, the final eight episodes of Breaking Bad, will land this summer.

But when I look at the TV landscape of what’s coming and what’s already aired, when I imagine whatever theoretical top 10 list I cobble together in December, 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. I felt this way about Mad Men’s fifth season, I felt it about Louie’s second, and I felt it about Breaking Bad’s third, and in all cases, I ended up ranking that show first when the year was said and done. Sometimes, a series finds another gear and just seems to play at a different level from everything else on TV. In 2013, that’s Enlightened, and watching everything it does come together in its second season has been thrilling.

Yet the show is largely ignored. It gets maybe a hundredth of the press coverage of any of the shows listed in that first paragraph (and maybe a millionth of the coverage afforded to Girls, with which it shares a Sunday-night hour, a rough sensibility, and not a lot else). There are still plenty of critics resistant to its particular charms. It seems unlikely to win any Emmys, even for its lead, Laura Dern, who’s giving what might be TV’s best performance. Its ratings absolutely stink, and even though HBO has been known to renew critical causes celebrés just because it can, a third season of the show is far from certain, to the point where creator Mike White (who writes every episode and has directed many this season as well, in addition to playing an important supporting character) is running something of a stealth “save this show” campaign on Twitter, something rarely heard of for an HBO show.

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.

Yet this isn’t just a show about Amy, either. It’s a scathing corporate satire. It’s a subtle attempt to wake its audience up to the really awful things going on in the world around it. It’s a show about a marriage that fell apart, and a mother and daughter who have never been able to pull their relationship together after a tragedy in their past. It’s a keenly observed relationship drama. It’s a show about how much harder women have to work to make their voices heard. It’s a subtle commentary on privilege, class, and race in modern America, told almost entirely from the point of view of people who are privileged, but not as privileged as some. It’s a story that seems to act almost as a corrective to decades of corporate misrule of the American body politic. Oh, and it’s occasionally a daringly experimental tone poem, bordering almost on an art film.

It’s also capable of moments of astonishing emotional acuity, like this, from the first season’s “The Weekend.”

What’s amazing about Enlightened is that it extends that emotional acuity to everybody in its ensemble, no matter how small the part. Though we’re almost always forced into Amy’s subjective point of view (outside of three episodes that break from that format to follow one of the other characters around), it’s always clear from the show’s tone, writing, and direction just what Amy thinks of the people she’s talking to, and just what we’re to think of them. The show doesn’t let people off the hook. The CEO of Amy’s company, Abaddonn, whom she’s trying to bring down, really is that much of a crook. But he’s also a thinking, feeling human being, who believes what he’s doing is tremendously important. He overestimates his own importance in the grand scheme of things, but the point of Enlightened is often that many of us do, that those of us who take on and adopt causes are often pitching at windmills or reliving past resentments. The show believes in Amy’s quest—it believes that her corporation really is causing problems throughout the world and government—but it’s also remarkably clear-headed about the fact that she’s doing this because of a series of personal slights suffered in season one, no matter how altruistic she tries to paint herself.

In her voiceovers, Amy gets to release, just a little bit, gets to learn how to accept the others around her for who they are, instead of trying to force them into her narrow vision of the world. The show could be emotionally overwhelming without them, really. In this season’s fifth episode, for instance, the point of view leaves Amy behind to spend time with Tyler, her dorky officemate played by White. Established in the first season as having a bit of a crush on Amy, Tyler’s computer-hacking skills have become vital to Amy’s plan to bring down Abaddonn, and the two have struck up an unlikely friendship. 

Over the course of the fifth episode, though, Tyler begins an unlikely romantic coupling with the assistant to Abaddonn’s CEO, a woman named Eileen (played by Molly Shannon). He’s so clearly unsure how to proceed, but she sees in him a sweetness and softness that will run in contrast to her previous relationships. In no way, she thinks, will he hurt her, even as the audience knows that Amy and Dougie see in Tyler’s new relationship a fantastic way to get at the CEO’s private emails, which Amy can send back to her Los Angeles Times contact. It essentially forces Amy into the role of a villain, as the connection between Tyler and Eileen is so poignant and beautiful, but Amy’s actions will mean its end, sooner or later, when Eileen quite rightly realizes she was used. Yet Tyler’s closing voiceover—in which he expresses a kind of fearful joy at what has happened—makes clear that these events, no matter how crushing they might become, have been like a new flowering for him, a new growth over previously barren soil. (Notice, also, how the episode uses recurring floral motifs, a frequent visual symbol on the series.) It’s the emotional release that allows a kind of catharsis at the end of 20-some minutes of building apprehension and occasional laughs, and it’s an emotional catharsis no other show on TV delivers as well.

That emotional acuity isn’t new to the show, of course. It was present throughout the slower-moving, more ruminative first season. What’s been so remarkable about the second season, though, is that it’s roped in a serialized plot about Amy, Tyler, and Dougie’s corporate skullduggery that ends up being as involving as the plot on any serialized drama, even as it plays out largely in the background of the characters’ emotional adventures. Central to this has been Jeff, the aforementioned Times reporter, played by Dermot Mulroney. At first, Jeff seems like a weird interloper on the show, taking time from other characters who are remembered fondly from season one (particularly Amy’s mother, Helen, played by Dern’s real-life mother, Diane Ladd). But as time goes by, it becomes clear that he’s Amy, only slightly more put-together and male. And, what’s more, he’s celebrated for his commitment to the kinds of issues that Amy is written off for. Indeed, it’s not hard to imagine a TV show about a crusading journalist, writing wrongs and putting things back together again. 

But Enlightened isn’t that show, and it’s not interested in being that show. At all times, Jeff is in the background, except when his actions directly impact Amy’s emotional journey or attempts to bring down her company. Jeff starts out representing a way for Amy to get across all of the information she wants to use to bring down Abaddonn, but he very quickly becomes something else entirely, a way for Amy to imagine a different life for herself, or a world where people could take her actions and thoughts seriously, if she could get out of her own way every once in a while. Yet Jeff has trouble getting out of his way, too, but he’s praised for his brash investigative reporting, for his confidence. The show quietly lays out all of the double standards that hold Amy in place, but it never bothers underlining them. Its security in its audience’s ability to pull apart these layers is remarkable.

Throughout, Amy’s quest echoes the more spiritual and quieter season one. In the first season, Amy gets wrapped up in the proposed deportation of a Mexican mother of two; in the second season, her actions lead to a legal immigrant being fired from his job. (He, not realizing what she’s done, rails at her about how this country will never accept him.) Amy’s blissful journey through rehab in the series’ pilot is echoed in the more down-to-earth rehab journey of her ex-husband Levi (Luke Wilson, whose laconic nature is used perfectly), who goes looking for the meaning Amy found and is unable to achieve it, and instead chooses to trust in the reflections of that meaning he sees in her. And—without spoiling—Amy’s rampage that opened the series is mirrored in several small moments in Sunday’s second-season finale.

That finale is a perfect capper to a nearly perfect season of television. It brings Amy to a point where she gets to enact a little symbolic revenge for all the corporate stiffs whose livelihoods have been chewed up by the economic downturn of the last several years, but it also reminds her that her actions have consequences, that what she does will ruin people’s lives, and it reminds her of this forcefully. It’s the kind of episode that would stand very well as a series finale, should it come to that.

Yet I hope it doesn’t have to stand as such. In many weird ways, the previous HBO series Enlightened reminds me most of is The Wire. They’re both shows that are utterly unlike anything else on TV and seem to have arrived sui generis, fully formed. They’re both shows about the ways that people are crushed and ground up by the systems put in place to protect them or give them meaningful work. They’re both incredibly low-rated, relying on critics’ support and intense fan bases to get them to multiple seasons. And like The Wire, Enlightened strikes me as something people will keep discovering years from now, as they mainline the series after finding it on an out-of-the-way corner of HBO Go, then wonder why they didn’t hear about how good it was. Yet even as the second-season finale seems like a nice enough stopping point, I hope more than anything that HBO will give the show several more seasons, perhaps five, to mirror its earlier, more dramatic cousin.

Because in many ways, Enlightened is the necessary antidote to The Wire. This is not to say that the earlier show isn’t important or groundbreaking or fantastic, just that it looked up at the institutions we humans had built and offered a weary sigh of resignation. The most frequent question leveled about Enlightened by people only tangentially familiar with it is “How is that a comedy?” when it seems to have so few obvious laughs. And while that’s certainly the case, I would say Enlightened is a comedy in the traditional sense, a story where things don’t necessarily end well, but end with tiny glimmers of hope for the future. In the second season, a character tells Amy that she hopes so much that it can scare people, and that’s almost the show’s point. It is not worth it to lose yourself to despair. It is not worth it to give up hope entirely. It is not worth it to believe the system will defeat you forever. Things change. Systems are worn down. But people endure. If the characters on The Wire might offer up those weary sighs when asked how to effect change, Amy Jellicoe might pull you aside and say (in the most irritating way possible) to relax. To breathe. To let it go.

There is time. There is so much time.

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