There’s nothing else on TV quite like HBO’s Enlightened, a unique blend of comedy and drama that could easily slip through the cracks when compared to its more flashy basic and premium cable peers. It’s not the easiest show to categorize, and its 10-episode first season lets its scenarios unfold slowly. The half-hour show doesn’t conform to typical sitcom or drama structures, often eschewing overt conflict altogether, and while it has undeniable affection for its lead character, it’s not afraid to focus on her extremely frustrating characteristics either. In short, this is a show that could only survive on HBO. One hopes its currently airing second season won’t be its last.
Co-creator Laura Dern stars as Amy Jellicoe, an executive for a health & beauty company who loses her job in a humiliating public meltdown. She rehabs at a spiritual-healing retreat in Hawaii and returns to her life positive, centered, and determined to make the world a better place, armed with an arsenal of New Age knowledge. She’s ready to get her old job back, reconnect with her mother (Dern’s actual mom, Diane Ladd) and help out her addict ex-husband (Luke Wilson). This isn’t exactly what happens, and shades of hypocrisy, overbearing interest in others and an utter lack of self-awareness begin to crack through Amy’s positive exterior.
This is an exceptionally tricky role to play, and Dern does it beautifully, creating a woman who clearly means well, but possesses a wide range of cringe-inducing behaviors. She is deeply flawed, but Dern’s performance isn’t condescending or cynical, and neither is the show’s tone. Co-created by Mike White, Enlightened is probably the most auteurist piece of television this side of Louie. White and Dern balance a warmly humanistic outlook with an unflinching look at the way we fool ourselves when it comes to interpersonal relationships.
White, who’s credited with every script in season one, is a superb writer, crafting scenes and dialogue that feel absolutely authentic. When Amy’s quest to get her old job back fails, she settles for a lowly data entry position at the same company, convincing herself she can make a trickle-up difference. Her coworkers could have been just another motley group of misfits, but White finds the humanity in these people, from Amy’s douchebag boss, Dougie (Timm Sharp), to shy seatmate Tyler (White himself).
Even better are the scenes between Amy and her mom, Helen, and ex, Levi. Unsurprisingly, Dern has great on-screen chemistry with her mother and Wilson, but White doesn’t just depend on the actors’ strengths to sell these moments, nor does he depend on heavy exposition to inform us of these characters’ past. Instantly, we understand there are complicated histories here, and White lets us naturally discover nuances, both earth-shattering and not, as the series moves along.
It also doesn’t hurt that Enlightened is gorgeously shot by a number of extremely talented directors (Jonathan Demme, Phil Morrison, Nicole Holofcener, and Miguel Arteta all contribute, along with White). The compositions often depend heavily on natural light, and the entire series looks great on the 1080p, 1.78:1 Blu-ray transfers. Clarity is extremely strong, colors are vibrant and fine detail is abundant. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is fairly low-key, as one would expect from a dialogue-heavy show like this, but there are some nicely immersive moments, and Mark Mothersbaugh’s scores sound perfect.
Extras include brief interviews with White that accompany every episode and commentary tracks for four episodes featuring White, Dern and a couple additional guests.