by Jared Reise
An earnest Twitter campaign couldn’t bring back one of the best current television shows for a third season. The economics of HBO’s “Enlightened” had more cons than pros, but quality doesn’t always equal quantity.
“Me so sad. Me going to cry. Or stick it to the man.”
It would be weird and arrogant to equate the end of HBO’s Enlightened to a death in the family, but maybe it’s more in line to Adrian Peterson’s comment that he felt like he’d been “…kicked in the stomach. Several times!!!” when the Minnesota Vikings traded teammate Percy Harvin to the Seattle Seahawks for draft picks recently. It doesn’t change the fact that a third season would have made for a wonderful trilogy to round out the saga of Amy Jellico (star and executive producer Laura Dern). A surprising cancellation, given that it brought out the best in this author’s quipping during a Twitter campaign:
Or this darling:
But, alas. The favorites and retweets probably never reached the executive eyes that were necessary to push it into possibility. The network powers-that-be had to hold on to the purse strings and see viewership numbers to make their inevitable decision. Could the series be reborn elsewhere? Not impossible, but improbable. HBO has always given off-kilter series a chance to flourish (particularly comedies like Bored to Death and Veep), despite questionable ratings. Even the enigmatic Girls (drawing both critical lauding and chiding) is on its way back into the program lineup. So, as any good friend would say to another after a breakup,” Hey, Enlightened, it’s not you. It’s them”. Either way, it’s history. And it’s unfortunate. This was my special little show. Here’s why:
Long story short: Amy Jellico has a melt-down at her corporate workplace. She enters a Hawaiian rehab facility, and emerges free and easy. When she returns to get her job back, she discovers that her assistant has replaced her, and the best that the company can do is relegate her to the basement in order to work on a bullshit database project. It is here that she learns about some of the heinous things that the company does, and thus begins her fight for her own brand of justice.
Dern plays Amy with such a wonderful dichotomy of character. On one hand she exhibits the ever-loving hippy-dippy “let’s give peace a chance” serenity that falls flat with most everyone she comes into contact with. Those that are more familiar with her get the other side of Amy; a bitter, depressed and frustrated woman who wants the best for everyone but keeps hitting a wall and getting in her own way. The audience senses when she’s about ready to sink in deeper, making these scenes wonderfully cringe-worthy.
The supporting cast fares just as well. In fact, each one has an episode devoted to their life and perspective. Show co-creator Mike White plays shy coworker and reluctant ally Tyler. He carries a quiet desperation of a lonely man with no outward ambition, but with all the longing of some sort of human connection. In a stroke of casting genius, Dern’s real-life mom Diane Ladd plays Amy’s mother Helen. Her no-nonsense demeanor and incredulity at Amy’s antics is especially fun to witness knowing that background is in play. She just wants Amy to get it together, and it’s quite apparent that Amy’s failures are a reflection of her own. Ex-husband Levi (Luke Wilson) is a drug addict and committed to working things out for himself. “Don’t try to save me, Amy” he says, even though he may want her to.
Most episodes, under the writing guidance of White, take place at the allegedly evil Abaddonn (a Google search revealed that Abaddonn is the Hebrew word for “hell”). Episode Four makes its first deviation from this locale entirely. Titled “The Weekend”, Amy takes Levi on a spontaneous weekend canoe and camping trip, led by a former TV writer (and Larry Brody clone) who claims he came up with the Kojak line “Who loves ya Baby?” and that he ”did the whole Hollywood thing. That’s a special layer of hell, down there. Some really sick shit. So, uh, I’m a poet of the river now.”
In any case, Levi ruins Amy’s trip by various means. They end up in a motel room while Levi snorts coke and reminisces about the family dog and camping trips of yore. The scene is executed with such nuance and careful sadness that has stuck with me a year and half later, helping to make it my favorite episode of any series in recent memory. Amy’s thought process and memories flash across her face without a word; so real and revealing. Well done, Ms. Dern. And Mr. Wilson. And Mr. White for writing it. Thank you.
So. Time to say goodbye. The series ended on a good and hopeful note. White and Dern prepared for this in finishing Season Two, giving a sense of closure, but with a glimpse of the future and possible ramifications still dangling out there. If anything, I took away from this fine Sunday night surprise something to shoot for with my own endeavors. A serialized show can deviate from the norm, and buck convention with voiceover and well-placed episodic deviations. A flawed leading female character can carry on and succeed in her own right without being irrelevant or sink into a characterization.
I loved it. I’ll miss it. But we’ll always have Abaddonn…
See? There’s gold in them Hollywood Hills!