This fall, we’ve got so many writers who’ve seen these pilots that we thought getting two takes on each show would be helpful to you. The first review is the “official” TV Club review, and the grade applies to it. But we’ve also found another reviewer to offer their own take on the program. Today, Erik Adams, who’ll review the show week to week, and Meredith Blake talk about Enlightened.
Enlightened debuts tonight at 9:30 p.m. Eastern on HBO.
Meredith: So I thought I’d dive right in and say that, so far at least, I am loving Enlightened. The series is performing a really delicate balancing act, and a huge amount of the credit for that goes to Laura Dern. You never doubt that her character, Amy, is genuinely trying to get to a better place in her life and to channel her rage in a more productive manner, yet you can also see what a manipulative and irrational person she is. Somehow, these two sides to her personality come together cohesively. I’m hardly the first person to point out how fantastic Laura Dern is, but so be it: I was blown away by how Dern is able to keep Amy on this knife’s edge between maniacal optimism and seething anger, and there’s no telling which direction she might go at any moment. It’s exhilarating to watch.
I’m also impressed with how respectfully Amy is treated. So often in movies and TV shows with a satirical edge, there’s a kind of disdain for the characters, but I don’t see evidence of that here. Enlightened could easily have played Amy’s new hippie-dippy outlook for laughs, but it doesn’t. There were a few moments when I thought the show might veer in this direction—particularly in the scene when Amy returns to her office for the first time after her stint at a Hawaiian treatment center—but it didn’t. The brief, economical sequence during which we see Amy during her treatment does, in fact, seem idyllic, tranquil. You don’t blame Amy for wanting to get back to that place, literally or metaphorically. It’s so easy to make fun of all the New Age-y stuff, and Enlightened handles it with humor and self-awareness, but also with a measure of respect.
I guess you could say I like it. How about you?
Erik: You’re coming to Enlightened as a fan of Laura Dern; I’m here as a supporter of the series’ co-creator, Mike White. White has a spotty filmography, but his work in television (he wrote and produced for Dawson’s Creek and Freaks And Geeks and created the acclaimed, but short-lived, soap Pasadena) has been consistently good. White’s in his wheelhouse when he’s writing for square pegs and characters in the midst of existential crises—and Amy is both of those things. White and Dern sketch a nearly complete picture of Amy by the end of the pilot, a difficult feat for 30 minutes of television. Given the fact that they share a creator credit on Enlightened, it’s fair to assume they had much about the character worked out before White even began work on the script. In that way, she’s The Bride to White and Dern’s Tarantino-Thurman pairing—only I suspect Amy’s path to getting what she wants will be considerably less bloody than that renegade assassin. (As evidenced by the pilot, some Bride-like roaring and rampaging certainly aren’t out of the question, however.)
I prefer White when he’s working a little broader, but Enlightened comes close to hitting the sweet spot between maudlin dramedy and cutting satire. Helping achieve this is the framing device introduced in the pilot, where Amy states and restates the theme of the episode through, say, the teachings of her pricy stay at Open Air or a personal philosophy cobbled together from her library of self-help books. It’s one of the more mawkish elements of the series, but the repetition gives these moments of voiceover narration a mantra-like quality which gibes with Enlightened’s meditative qualities. It’s interesting that you chose to use the term “exhilarating” in reference to Dern’s performance, Meredith—the show is so deliberately paced in the three episodes I’ve watched so far that little about the show makes me want to describe it in such lively terms. Of course, this type of low-key, slow-simmering plotting is a distinctive feature of White’s work, so it comes with the territory.
Amy’s non-traditional methods of healing are put in constant contrast with the work of her employer, Abaddon Industries, a massive conglomerate that has its hands in “health and beauty” and also runs its own chain of pharmacies. (Religious scholars and anyone who knows how to work Wikipedia will note that the biblical Abaddon is both “a place of destruction” and a physical manifestation of that destruction—so there’s a clue as to the company’s true nature.) The company gives me pleasant flashbacks to the appreciably more cartoonish corporation at the center of Better Off Ted (in its frighteningly wide influence, utter facelessness, and cutthroat corporate culture), but it also represents the other well-developed aspect of the pilot. In the world of Enlightened, just like our own, people seek out any number of solutions to solve what is wrong (or what they perceive is wrong) with their bodies, minds, and souls. Amy’s methods have been previously mentioned; her mother, meanwhile, spends hours in her garden in an attempt to deal with the death of her husband and her utter disappointment with Amy. In one of the sparsely dealt laughs of the pilot, it’s revealed that Amy’s ex-husband (Luke Wilson) casually dulls the pain with a few lines of cocaine. It’s a resonant theme, and it’s looking to be the series’ main source of momentum going forward, as Amy seeks to heal herself and the world around her—with varying levels of success and failure.
Meredith, you sound pleased with what you’ve seen from Enlightened so far—anything that’s making you less-than-pleased? One element that’s not inspiring any enthusiasm in me is the pace. I can see it scaring some viewers away, even if they’re accustomed to the slow-and-steady nature of other HBO series.
Meredith: As much as I like Enlightened, there are a few things that give me pause. I don’t mind the languid pace, but I do wonder how the series will go about sustaining interest in Amy’s extremely gradual personal evolution. I tend to like shows where the dramatic stakes are relatively low, as they are in Enlightened (in an instance from a later episode, Amy’s decision to go to lunch with one of her new colleagues, rather than her former assistant, qualifies as a major development), but I do worry about the long-term viability of this formula. Can a show with such a limited narrative arc remain compelling? I think so, but one thing Enlightened may have to do is open up Amy’s world a little bit. It’s interesting you say that by the end of the pilot, we’ve gotten a pretty complete portrait of Amy. Didn’t you want to know more about her? Right now, she doesn’t seem to have any friends outside the office (or in it, for that matter), and we know almost nothing about her life pre-meltdown. Some more information about Amy’s past, her previous relationships, her affair with Damon—all of these things would make her into a more fully realized character, which I think will be a key factor in the show’s success.
Amy’s earnest attempt to live a “more meaningful life” is thwarted at every turn; the roadblocks become more consistent and seemingly insurmountable as the series moves forward. As out-there as Amy is in many ways, her frustration and feelings of powerlessness are entirely understandable. At some point, though, she’s going to have to catch a break, however small it might be. There’s a fine line between realistic and sadistic.
Another slight concern I have is with the tone of the series. As you put it, Enlightened is somewhere between mawkish dramedy and cutting satire, which is a tricky feat to pull off. It also means it’s hard to know exactly what we’re supposed to think of Amy: Is she hopelessly naïve? Cunning? Flaky? All of the above? Of course, this uncertainty with regard to Amy is part of what’s so enjoyable about Enlightened—but there’s a danger that this characterization will veer into incoherence.
Your biggest concern is with the show’s “deliberate” pace. What do you think Dern and White could/ought be doing to address this issue? Is there a way to make such small-scale, personal drama more compelling?
Erik: While the measured way in which the pilot and subsequent episodes move forward makes me hesitant about Enlightened, I’m not sure I’d want that aspect of the show to change. It sets the series apart from nearly everything else premièring this fall, and it’s very much in line with its themes and subject matter. Change rarely comes about quickly, and Enlightened deals with that fact honestly and realistically. The more I’ve sat with the series, the more that choice makes sense.
That said, for those of you tuning in for tonight’s première: Don’t expect a lot to happen, and expect the episode to end before you’re ready for it to end. Despite what HBO’s advertising campaign may have you believe, Enlightened is not a show about Laura Dern opening elevator doors in recurring fits of hysterical strength. It’s much more about the comedown from that moment, on how Amy and everyone around her re-calibrates and moves on. And those type of adjustments take time. Around 10 episodes, if the order for Enlightened’s first season is any indication.
If anything, Dern and White have done themselves a favor by setting the bulk of the action (a term used very loosely here) at Abaddon. Nothing makes personal drama feel larger than it actually is like a workplace setting, where the tiniest pettiness can be treated as an event with far-reaching implications. Part of Amy’s recovery hinges on her recognizing how little the goings-on at Abaddon matter in the grand scheme of things, but nobody’s let Enlightened in on that secret. So long as the series continues to give such weight to the workplace material, its low stakes will feel like high stakes.
With Enlightened, Dern and White bring something new and potentially, ahem, enlightening to the television sphere: a patient character study that ruminates on the nature of change. The series has all the potential to be the dull disaster that description implies, but that’s what makes it fascinating. Like Amy, the co-creators are taking a big leap, and it remains to be seen if they’ll land on their feet or fall flat on their asses. Either way, they have a lot more personal revelations, moments of low-key humor, and ambiguous platitudes to get through before we can determine the outcome.
Meredith’s grade: A-
Erik’s grade: B-