One of the lowest rated programs on HBO's 2011 roster, "Enlightened" (created by stars Mike White and Laura Dern) was both fascinatingly unpredictable and practically impossible to describe succinctly. It's closest cousins are probably the Showtime line-up of wacky female-centric comedies--such as Nurse Jackie, The Big C, Weeds, and United States of Tara. But that comparison is mostly about tone and viewpoint as "Enlightened" has a distinctly unique voice that is unlike anything else on the TV landscape. Some episodes play rather seriously, others highlight slapstick mayhem, while others are incisive and filled with awkward humor. Is it a comedy? Certainly. Is it dramatic? You bet. Is it one of the most pointed character studies on TV? Absolutely, and this, more than anything else, is "Enlightened" strongest asset. Spiritual enlightenment and striving to create a more perfect world are usually topics handled with a startling lack of subtlety in comedy. They are almost always the punchline to a more cynical type of humor. And yet, while Laura Dern's Amy is a frustratingly flawed protagonist, her search for meaning is amazingly sensitive and real.
Credit for the show's success sits squarely on its screenplays and its performances. Therefore, writers and stars Laura Dern and Mike White really must be given accolades for the show's impressive creative arc. I've been a fan of White's since the bizarrely intriguing "Chuck and Buck" (I, also, might be the only person on the planet that laments the early death of his before-its-time nighttime soap opera "Pasadena"). He's found a real collaborator and muse in Dern, who turns in one of the season's most underrated performances as the complex central character. The ten episode season begins as Dern experiences a break-down at work, and after a retreat, attempts to rebuild her life into something much more meaningful. However, it's hard to remain Zen as the career she knew no longer has a place for her. Struggling in a new department (with co-worker White) Dern is also trying to rebuild her difficult relationship with her mother (Dern's real life mom Diane Ladd) and reform her troubled ex-husband (Luke Wilson). She yearns to really make a difference, both on those she cares for and on the world in general. But she can be so single-minded and so selfish, the struggle to enlightenment and goodness never runs smoothly.
The primary source of "Enlightened" comedy is that Dern truly is an appalling employee. She is such a mess, seemingly without realizing her shortcomings, because she's always looking at the bigger picture. Part of the show's genius is that it allows Dern to come off as thoroughly unlikable (or flat out wrong) in many instances. But it also makes you understand her quest and constant struggle. Truly memorable moments of the series include Dern going on a job interview (spectacularly written!) only to realize it doesn't pay enough to live on and an episode dedicated to Ladd's character. Dern is a revelation, White is dead-pan perfection, and Ladd and Wilson offer exemplary support. I was never less than fascinated to see where "Enlightened" would go. I presumed it would conclude after one season due to the low ratings, but when the show picked up Golden Globe nods for Best comedy and Best Actress--HBO greenlit a second season. The show has also featured prominently in many year-end "Best of Television" critics' lists.
"Enlightened," in the long run, may not be a show for everyone. You really have to appreciate it as a character study as much as a comedy. If you're expecting big laughs, the show may not always meet your needs. It can be painfully funny, but it can also be painfully real. I hope more people pick up on the show, it deserves a wider audience. About 4 1/2 stars. KGHarris, 12/11.