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It’s very hard to be a good person. That’s the wonky existential axis on which turns Enlightened, the brilliant and compelling Mike White-penned vehicle for the brilliant and compelling Laura Dern that HBO canceled after two seasons in early 2013. As an unflinching examination of that thesis, the things that made Enlightened truly great are probably also the things that drove viewers away in discomfort. But you should watch it, and watch all of it, because even though that seems counterintuitive, by the end you will feel just a little bit more hopeful about life. I promise.
Dern’s character, Amy Jellicoe, is that rare bird—a truly well-drawn female version of the onscreen antihero. Surrounded by an ensemble cast of equally complicated people, she’s not often successful, or likable, or even watchable. And importantly, in the tiny epic that is her life, the challenges she faces are ordinary enough to feel genuinely relatable, and to an uncomfortable extent.
Amy Jellicoe isn’t working in extreme circumstances. She hasn’t found herself king-pinning a drug empire or ruling over a mob dynasty, situations that bring out extreme versions of who you are. She’s just an aimless, middle-aged person with a stalled career, an imperfect mom, a complicated relationship with her overgrown-adolescent ex (played by a broody Luke Wilson) and a voice in her head asking questions: Why aren’t people nicer to her? When will her life’s special meaning reveal itself? Why are things so hard?
These are boring, selfish questions that everybody occasionally finds themselves consumed by, and we feel boring and selfish when that happens. But it’s the human condition, and it’s why the kicker to Enlightened isn’t intrigue or the high stakes—though there do wind up being some of both. Instead, it’s the dull universality of how complicated it is to be a decent human being, and how depressing it is that you can make one triumph, only to have it slowly fade with the pedestrian challenges of every new day. And Amy Jellicoe mostly fails at those. She’s annoying, embarrassing, and selfish to an epic degree. She’s tone-deaf to almost everyone around her, putting people who care about her in jeopardy and being way too generous with people who don’t. When she chooses to try and do some good (and she does do considerable good, it turns out) it’s not for the best reasons. It’s maddening how often Amy Jellicoe gets close to what looks like some kind of redemption, and how she backslides again, pretty much every time.
Laura Dern’s physical presence is a tremendous part of why she’s so mesmerizing in the role. As much as Amy’s behavior is often hard to look at—did she really burst into a hospital delivery room to accuse the new mom of screwing her over?—her actual face and body can be more so. She’s an ugly crier, red, swollen, snuffling and contorted, and she cries a lot. She yells a lot. When her face and body transform, to the startling extent that they’re able to, she’s taut, electrified, threatening, like a big, scary, snapping rubber band. When the questions and wants overcome dissatisfied Amy—embodied by the full span of Dern’s considerable length and breadth— it’s a little bit scary. The way she inhabits the character alone is worth the price of admission.
But more so are the moments of grace that Amy manages to win. When the show begins, she’s achieved one, though we soon find out that the mess of day-to-day life continues being, well, messy. When the show ends, we’re basically in the same place. But still, those tiny triumphs of hers are what get us, because they promise that no matter how much we fuck up—and we will—they’re still possible for us all.
Listen to Mike White talk about Enlightened on NPR.