Enlightened is an HBO comedy-drama series that stars Laura Dern and Mike White, who also serves as co-creator and showrunner. Premiering in 2011, the series ran for two seasons before being canceled due to low ratings despite receiving critical acclaim from critics and fans alike. The show remains one of HBO’s most underrated and underappreciated shows to date. It never received a solid fanbase or mainstream attention and was overlooked by the Emmys and frequent viewers of HBO shows. If asked, many would admit they have never heard of the show.
The show centers around Amy Jellicoe (Dern), a health and beauty executive at Abaddon Industries in Riverside, California, who suffers a mental breakdown after being demoted by her boss, Damon (Charles Esten), as a way to cover up their affair. Amy also deals with heavy drinking issues following a miscarriage and her divorce from her ex-husband, Levi (Luke Wilson), who suffers from drug and alcohol addiction. After a two-month stay at a treatment facility in Hawaii, Amy returns to Abaddon, working in the basement as a data processor, a position she finds unfulfilling. Upon returning to work and moving back in with her mother, Helen (Diane Ladd, Laura Dern’s real-life mother), Amy approaches life from a new perspective, devoting herself to self-help and deeming herself an ‘agent of change.’
Amy Jellicoe is one of the most complex and interesting female characters of recent times, and that is all due to Dern’s tremendous acting, as well as White’s humanistic writing. On the surface, Amy comes across as uptight, naive, irritating, selfish, and downright annoying. She is so obsessed with becoming a new and healed version of herself that she comes across as self-obsessed and utterly oblivious to those around her. Amy has difficulty taking hints from her former co-workers, who, after her demotion, want nothing to do with her, even her former assistant and friend, Krista (Sarah Burns), who now has Amy’s old job.
While Amy has a long list of less-than-desirable qualities, she genuinely means well. Her naivety is often used to excuse her optimistic and idealistic ideas and personality. Even when everyone, including her own mother, has doubts and hesitations about her and her abilities, Amy never backs down. Few people seem to see this. The few who do include Tyler (Mike White), a shy and lonely IT employee who works alongside Amy in the banal and lifeless data processing department.
As a part of her decision to turn over a new leaf, Amy wants to make a difference in the company, despite lacking a voice due to her recent demotion. She wants Abaddon to go greener. When she starts digging into Abaddon’s background, she discovers secrets and unethical business practices the CEO and top-level executives have been sweeping under the rug. Amy and her co-worker Tyler start a journey to expose Abaddon to create real change with the help of Los Angeles Times reporter Jeff Flender (Dermot Mulroney).
While it’s clear from the start that Amy’s new life of positivity and desire for change isn’t improving her life the way she thinks it is, it’s easy to sympathize with her and her efforts to transform her life despite her circumstances. Amy is a forty-year-old divorced woman living with her mother, who was recently demoted, has an estranged relationship with her sister, and has few close friends that haven’t cut her off completely.
It would be easy for anyone in Amy’s situation to fall into a deep depression, especially when working for the knife of a corporate conglomerate. White does a tremendous job showcasing different aspects of Dern’s multi-dimensional character, ranging from overbearing and socially unaware to brave and sympathetic. This helps the audience resonate with her even when she’s frustrating to watch.
While Enlightened never received high viewership and fell below the radar compared to other HBO shows, and while Mike White has now gained acclaim for his work on another HBO series, The White Lotus, Enlightened remains one of Laura Dern’s most human performances, compared to her materialistic and petty performance as Renata Klein in Big Little Lies, as well as the most memorable and optimistic shows about the power of hope and possibility.
Feature image courtesy of HBO