WARNING: Some mild spoilers.
Between being really busy and not having internet or HBO at home, there are a lot of TV shows that I’ve completely missed out on this past season. But then, a blessing in disguise: I got sick! So all I’ve been able to do is lay around and catch up on all of the TV shows that I’ve been wanting to watch. And the first show I decided to watch was Enlightened.
I had a weird concept of what the show would be, based on what I’d heard about it – that it was about a woman who was trying to make her life better and failing at every turn. It didn’t sound very compelling, but I really like Mike White and I really like Laura Dern, so I thought I’d give it a shot. As I watched, I realized that I’ve never really seen a TV show like this before, ever. Every episode plays like a meditation on life, and on Laura Dern’s character, Amy. At the beginning of the series, Amy has a complete nervous breakdown at work, so she goes to a treatment center in Hawaii and comes back a changed woman. Well, kind of. Everyday she tries so hard to be a different person, but her past keeps coming back to haunt her, and she fights that uphill battle of trying to change. The show is really about the process of changing and growing, and how hard and frustrating that process can be when everything, everyday, feels like an obstacle. I came at the show from a personal place, because over the past year I’ve been having personal problems, and I’ve been trying to change, too. When you try to change, though, everyday is a struggle. It’s hard to go against everything you’ve ever known or thought about yourself. The show really captures that.
Like I said, the show itself is just so different from anything I’ve ever seen, from the characters to the pacing and the choices for stories. The first couple of episodes feel like they’re moving at a glacial pace, only covering something like two days in Amy’s life, but everything feels like a deliberate choice. Every episode, we slowly peel away another layer, and see another part of Amy that we’ve never seen before. but it’s never in an expected way. Each episode meditates on a different theme, whether it’s love, or friendship, or family, or growing older, and the way the show does this is so beautiful. The episode that has stuck with me the most is “Weekend,” where Amy and her ex-husband Levi go on a weekend trip to the canyons in Kern. It is so strangely beautiful and moving, and one of the best moments is when the group is kayaking down the river, and Amy thinks about how wonderful life can be, and how we’re all connected, flowing down this river together. Almost every episode features a really lovely, strangely wise voiceover from Amy, illustrating her thoughts, and one of the best parts of this voiceover is how it contrasts with Amy’s outward behavior.
I like how Amy is neither a wholly good nor wholly bad person. She’s so well drawn, so fully characterized, that you can see her from every angle and understand her. It can be so frustrating, because you can see her good intentions, and you can see how she thwarts herself at every turn because she can be self-centered and selfish. One of the overarching plots of the show is that Amy is trying to bring more environmental and social awareness to the big, faceless corporation she works for, Abaddon, but the way Amy goes about this is so frustrating, because you can see why she’s failing. She’s hopelessly naive and thinks that a few printed articles she Googled will affect some kind of change at Abaddon. She fails to see how her former coworkers laugh at her and think she’s a joke. And, ultimately, it’s Amy looking for happiness in the wrong places – missing the point of what happiness is. She doesn’t understand that she should try to be happy with her circumstances, and be content with her life. She just sees everything she’s lacking, and thinks that attaining these things will somehow make her happier. Amy completely lacks any self-awareness, but that doesn’t necessarily make her a bad person, just a complicated one. She’s written so beautifully by Mike White, and played so beautifully by Laura Dern, that you can’t stop watching her, even when she’s making a complete fool out of herself.
But the side characters also add so much to the show, and I love how Amy’s relationships with these people defy any kind of easy characterization. First of all, I think Luke Wilson is amazing as Levi, and I love Amy and Levi’s strange, complicated relationship. I think I can safely say that I’ve never seen a relationship like this on TV before. Even though they’re divorced, it’s obvious that they still love each other, but at the same time, you can see why they can’t be together. They brought out the worst impulses in each other, and were co-dependent in a weird, unhealthy way. One of the most painful scenes in the show is in “Weekend,” where Amy goes with Levi to score some coke and watches him get high, even though she hates what this does to him. She feels powerless to stop it, and all she wants is to be there for him. At the same time, you can see that Levi hates himself so much partially because he knows how much he’s hurting and disappointing Amy, but he tries to numb himself with drugs, and traps himself in a destructive cycle. When Levi decides at the end that he needs to get help, it’s Amy he comes to.
Amy’s relationship with her mother is also so well drawn. Even though it’s the more conventional child-feeling-unloved-by-parent sort of storyline, the show draws it in such a specific, complex way. There’s a great episode toward the end of the season called “Consider Helen,” where we get an episode from Helen’s point of view. It’s an unusual move from a show that’s so squarely in one character’s head, but it brings so much more depth to Helen’s character, and you understand so much more about her relationship with Amy and why she can be so distant. The episode also features an amazing scene that really illustrates what’s so great about the show. Helen goes grocery shopping and runs into an old acquaintance, and they have a conversation. It sounds so simple, but it brings a lot to light – we can see how Helen feels about Amy, we find out that Amy actually has a sister somewhere, and we see that there’s some bad history with Helen’s late husband. I feel like most TV shows would forgo a simple, honest conversation between two senior citizens, thinking that’s it not entertaining enough, or trying to play it for laughs. But Enlightened brings things to the screen that would otherwise go unnoticed – small details, small moments that build an entire life.
I also enjoy Amy’s coworkers at Abbadon, especially Tyler, Mike White’s character. Tyler is one of those nerdy goobers who sits in the background and tries not to bring attention to himself, but he brings such a sad, goofy charm to the show. There’s a great episode, “Lonely Ghosts,” that explores Amy’s feelings for Levi and, in conjunction, her feelings of loneliness. At the same time, in a heartbreaking moment, Tyler tries to express feelings for Amy and is rejected. Later, after going to a club to celebrate their boss’s promotion, Tyler and Amy have a conversation in Tyler’s car, where Amy tries to apologize for what happens, and says that ultimately everyone is alone. “Some of us are more alone,” Tyler replies. Tyler embodies that kind of numbing loneliness, yet Amy can’t see how lucky she is in comparison. Another Tyler highlight: when he explains what “cock-blocking” is to Amy. Amazing.
Enlightened is so sad and amazing and empathetic and just, really, unusual and unique. I think everyone can see a piece of themselves in this show, in the struggle to change and become better. At the end of the season, Amy decides to take things into her own hands, instead of letting circumstances control her. It’s a huge game changer, and I’m so excited to see what happens.