Where Do Broken Hearts Go? The Periphery Gets Centralized in Enlightened
In the freakishly astute situation comedy Enlightened (Sunday nights at 9:30 pm on HBO), tall and stately Laura Dern plays Amy Jellicoe, a great big loser beyond compare. Amy’s whole life has gone into a black hole she seems hell-bent on reinventing as a “transition,” but she can’t get anything right, except the eagerness to do something “positive.” She has zealousness and earnestness down pat, and in her strident need to make herself a better person she comes off somehow grotesquely more than human, like an android that needs to be reprogrammed. As performed by Dern, though, the android qualities get melted into a performance that allows us to both recoil in embarrassment and rejoice in the beautiful bracing honesty of it all.
Blonde and statuesque, with a sharp-featured face that can’t really hide emotion as much as trumpet its excesses, Dern’s Amy is a hot mess, but she isn’t stupid, and she isn’t to be made fun of: she’s to be watched and somehow revered. Enlightened is a TV show that transcends the lackluster momentum and easygoing plots, as well as the mean-spirited, often lame-brained satire, of most sitcoms. Amy is one of those characters that on other shows would be consigned to the background, brought forth to be ridiculed by the main characters, and then consigned to the background again until she’s needed for more cheap laughs.
Enlightened is starting its sophomore season this week. The show debuted in 2011 and nobody really watched it. But Dern won a Golden Globe in 2012 for her portrayal and thankfully HBO executives have allowed an encore. I watched the first season last week, and the ten episodes, most all of them scripted by Mike White, gel into a narrative of shame and pity, without a counter narrative of triumph, giving Enlightened a brisk, sweet breakaway quality, as if the creators want you to see Amy as a one-note joke that somehow blossoms into Madame Bovary crossed with Norma Rae, with a little Erin Brockovich thrown in there for good measure. The whole endeavor is iconic-sharp, better than most of the movies I saw in 2012. Unpretentiously serious with a penchant for belly laughs and sight gags, while also meditating on what it means to be an American in the 21st Century, Enlightened is kind of perfect, in its own way.
White is a screenwriter responsible for other depictions of freaks that get centralized and become if not heroes at least masters of their own fucked-up fate. He penned episodes of the blissful 1999 series Freaks and Geeks, as well as screenplays for Chuck and Buck, The Good Girl, and School of Rock, all little movies that pull the periphery smack-dab into the center, forcing us to connect to people normally shut out of the narrative arc, given second-class status as “interesting” sidebars, losers that need to be in the picture only as foils to show how cool everybody else is.
The pilot episode of Enlightened starts off with a bang. The first image of our heroine is smeared-mascara and sobbing inside a company toilet. Then Amy embarks on interoffice revenge, unleashing her rage and frustration at her boss at Abbadon Industries, a pharmaceutical conglomerate. She’s been having an affair with him, as well as indulging in a lot of drugging and drinking. The boss tries to escape via the elevator, and Amy pulls the doors open to tell him: “Fuck you.”
Then she’s off to Hawaii for a “holistic therapeutic” retreat, shown to us in a beatific montage of Kumbaya-singing by camp-fire, reading self-help books, and swimming with turtles in the deep blue sea. She’s back after two months, refreshed, enlightened, rehabilitated and ready to take on the world in a sort of yoga-master/evangelical flourish of selflessness merged with total self-involvement. She doesn’t seem to understand that everything she did prior to the breakdown at the office won’t be whisked away by her good intentions and all the great insights she acquired in holistic therapy. She lobbies to get her job back (threatening HR with a law suit), and HR responds by saying they will find her a position. They do, in the basement, doing data-entry. She is the biggest loser now in a corporate world that likes to cut its losses ASAP. All the executives she used to schmooze with upstairs now avoid her like the plague, and yet Amy, all starry-eyed and “healed,” does not seem to ever get it.
Enlightened perfects the comedy of humiliation in scenes in which Amy’s innocent need to be forgiven is confronted by the blank stares of co-workers in power suits who just want her to go away. To her credit, and to her detriment, she does not seem to have the capability of understanding their disinterest and disdain. She simply plows on. Watching Dern play Amy in these scenes is a revelation. It’s Type-A arrogance melded with an intensely nostalgic urge to be what she once was. She is trapped by her own desire, and at times Dern’s expression mimics a barking poodle’s inside a parked car, hyped-up yearning and animal stubbornness in the face of consternation and ridicule. Your sympathies split, and in that fork in the road is where Enlightened enlightens. You don’t ever want to meet a real Amy, but you also understand how close she is to being you. There’s a no-judgment clause built into Enlightened’s contract. You can’t scoff at Amy’s freakishness; you can only understand it.
Flannery O’Connor writes in her book of essays on writing, Mysteries and Manners, “It is only when the freak can be sensed as a figure for our essential displacement that he attains some depth in literature.” Change the “he” to “she,” and “literature” to “pop culture), and you get why Enlightened is so monumentally great. White and Dern turn the tables on what “likeability” means. That nebulous word is always bandied about in movie and TV criticism, as a metric for what works and what doesn’t. In allowing an on-the-surface unlikeable shrew to be the central character in a mainstream dramedy, White and Dern seem hell-bent on never letting us off the hook. We follow Amy’s story through ten episodes, and not one of them ever apologizes for her annoying and horrible behavior, ostensibly because, I think, they want us to understand that Amy is us, and we are Army. That “essential displacement” allows Enlightened to make a lot of beautiful dramatic moves most TV shows, and culturally highbrow movies and novels even, can’t or won’t make.
Case in point: Episode 9, entitled “Consider Helen.” Part of Amy’s decline is that she has to move back in with her mother, Helen, played by Dern’s real life mom Diane Ladd. Helen is a stone-cold, repressed nobody, loveless to the point that she can’t even look her daughter in the eye, not to mention let her borrow her car. Ladd plays Helen with finesse and without any irony at all. Her facial expression never melts, but her eyes are pools of regret and longing. “Consider Helen” takes the point-of-view away from Amy, and gives it over to her mother. In doing so, we have access to a character almost as pathetic and sad and alive as Amy herself.
The episode is directed by Phi Morrison, who in 2006 oversaw Junebug, a little independent movie that found oceans of meaning inside a curio-cabinet. Junebug told the story of a sweet pregnant girl from North Carolina named Ashley, played by Amy Adams, juxtaposed with the story of an outsider artist played by Frank Hoyt Taylor. While the movie had a conventional story to tell, the way Morrison filmed it was anything but. Long, lingering pans and close-ups of blank summer back yards and the anonymous furniture inside a ranch-style house yielded a sort of meditative state.
In Junebug, Morrison uses the background as the foreground to create meaning and resolve. He does the same magic in “Consider Helen.” Amy’s mother’s bungalow-style home in Southern California becomes a back-lit miniature cathedral of sorrow, as Helen walks through each room remembering her life and what went wrong. The silence in these scenes is given a sort of language to speak by the textures and shadows of the furniture. At the end of this episode, and truly throughout all of Enlightened, we realize how we can’t escape what Helen can’t escape: the past moves into us through the present, and every little shadow counts.