Two episodes in, and it remains difficult to know what exactly to make of Enlightened. (I’ve watched one episode beyond “Now Or Never,” and I still feel that way.) At the very least, the second episode helps the series find its comedic footing—its drier-than-dry comedic footing. Enlightened was never going to be the funniest show on TV, but it manages some well-earned chuckles here and there, most arising from a tragic lack of self-awareness on the part of Laura Dern’s Amy.
Make no mistake: At this early juncture, Dern is totally holding up Enlightened. “Now Or Never” expands the world of the series incrementally, but even after the introduction of her new coworkers, this is still squarely “The Amy Show.” That suits the introverted premise of the series just fine, but it’s also a byproduct of its “acclaimed actress comes to premium cable” setup. Dern’s the star attraction here, so it’s a good thing she can so convincingly play a character on the verge of breaking through or breaking down. Not to belabor the points made by Meredith Blake in our Crosstalk about the show’s première, but the most obvious thing about Enlightened so far is that its star is a shoo-in for an Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series nomination at next year’s Primetime Emmys—though that means she has to bump an equally deserving actress from a more clearly defined comedy series to do so. (It’s going to be Gillian Jacobs, isn’t it?)
The comedic side of Enlightened begins to show throughout “Now Or Never,” particularly as Amy is introduced to her new Abaddon cohort on Level H. Hermetically sealed off from the rest of the company via not one, not two, but three restricted-access doors, Mike White’s script makes it clear that Amy’s new, fluorescent-lit work environment is where Abaddon keeps its most undesirable elements—even before Amy Hill’s Judy can come out and say that outright. Those undesirable elements include the gregarious, foul-mouthed supervisor, Dougie (Timm Sharp), and his meek polar opposite, Tyler (Mike White, in what can be most accurately described as “the Mike White role”). If Enlightened were the type of series to grasp at its jokes, it might ride out the rest of its first season pitching Level H as The Island Of Misfit Toys and setting up any number of scenarios for Amy to realize that she too is a misfit—scenarios where she would blissfully ignore all of these signs. But that series would just be a non-mockumentary-style version of The Office, told from the perspective of David Brent or Michael Scott. In “Now Or Never,” at least, Amy mostly plays a passive observer to the goings-on in this brave new world, too wrapped up in the circumstances that brought her to the basement to acknowledge the much-too-detailed dispatches from Dougie’s romantic life or notice the fact that Jason Mantzoukas’ Omar keeps sneezing on all of his coworkers. Abaddon is “sick,” but these aren’t the types of sickness that concern Amy at this point.
Because while David Brent and Michael Scott were quite content with their stations in life, Amy is a misfit with the drive to better herself—a drive that helps her deny the less-admirable aspects of her personality. Her time at Open Air inspired Amy to change the world around her, but she hasn’t done the necessary work on herself yet. She’s still petty (she takes grave offense at the fact that Krista not only has her old job, but her old office as well), judgmental (a quick look around Level H convinces her that she doesn’t belong there), and manipulative (she makes dinner for Levi before delivering a lecture on his lifestyle and sliding him an Open Air brochure). Enlightened never plays these qualities to exclusively comedic or dramatic ends—Amy’s increasing beef with Krista provides “Now Or Never” with one of its funniest moments (her exchange with a confused Level H coworker at lunch) and one of its most tense scenes (her blow-up at Krista over the job and office). Whether this ends up making the series more complex or more complicated remains to be seen.
It certainly doesn’t add a sense of urgency to Enlightened’s storytelling process. While it certainly requires some narrative momentum to deliver Amy from unemployed and unstable to employed and on-her-way-to-stability, “Now Or Never” finds its greatest achievement in Amy’s personal quest when Tyler asks Amy to borrow a book. This is a series about change that’s characterized by stasis, and in all likelihood, the more Amy pushes for change, the more the status quo is going to push her back. By hiding Amy deep in the bowels of Abaddon, the series is setting her up to change things from the inside (the deep, deep inside)—but the altered world that Amy is forever envisioning is a million, tiny steps away. Those imperceptible alterations will propel Enlightened ever so slightly forward, while Amy’s inability to notice them will provide the series with its main sources of humor and drama. So long as Dern continues to deliver the goods, there’s reason to keep watching—even if the series continues to turn on events as slight as one character borrowing a book from another.
- It’s good to see Timm Sharp bouncing back from his exile to the outer banks of meta-TV. More than 10 years after Undeclared, he remains likeably dopey, though I hope his Dougie doesn’t just lapse into a series of gross-out stories and dunderheaded-management schtick.
- Amy and her perturbed coworker discuss Dougie: “He cusses all the time.” “Oh, I don’t care about that shit”
- A talk about personal fulfillment reveals a bitter truth about Amy’s relationship with her mother: “I never liked my job.” “What job? You were a stay-at-home mom.”
- Levi’s reply to Amy’s fridge-raiding—“You can’t just waltz in here and throw away my best mayonnaise—anymore”—feels like a flubbed line-reading from Luke Wilson that magically transformed into an understated punchline.