I started watching Enlightened purely because of the people involved. Laura Dern is one of my favorite actresses, and I’ve had a crush on the adorkable Mike White ever since his disturbing comedy Chuck and Buck. And—full disclosure—I totally watched him on that one season of the Amazing Race. Such is my devotion. After a few episodes, I found myself enjoying it, to the point where it is now one of my favorite shows of the year. It was also after this realization I found out I was one of the few that did.
My friends over at Entertainment Weekly (I can call them my friends because I read their magazine religiously, right?) offered a plea for people to watch it. It was voted as the most hated new show of the season. And for the life of me I couldn’t understand why. Enlightened is one of the most honest portrayals of a life in flux I’ve seen in a long time. It has an emotional rawness that I connect with. So why don’t people want to watch it?
After some deep thought—not exactly the meditation that Dern’s character, Amy, is so fond of—I think I figured out why people hate the show: it’s too honest, too unflinching. While there are some happy scenes, there are far more uncomfortable and cringe-worthy moments.
The overall premise is this: Laura Dern’s character has a breakdown. An ugly, crying, mascara-running, swearing (so many satisfying swears), yelling, angry motherfucking breakdown.
|Such a gratifying scene. Go watch it now!|
After that, she goes to a holistic hippy-dippy recovery retreat in Hawaii. When she comes back newly refreshed with an obnoxiously positive attitude, she finds her job is gone, her relationships are forever broken, and she’s been relegated to an out-of-the-way data entry section of the corporation she used to help run. Her sole friend in the department is Tyler, played with a darling awkwardness by Mike White. Oh, and she lives with her mom, played by Dern’s real life mother, the wonderful Diane Ladd.
Maybe why people have such a hard time with this show is how it shines a mirror at our own lives. The heartbreak that comes with a relationship’s end. The longing to remain part of a group, even though you don’t fit in anymore, and deep down you know it. The untapped rage at someone unqualified and untalented getting ahead.
|Krista. What a cunt. (No offense, Sarah Burns! You rock!)|
The resentment and anguish that comes when you realize you can’t fix someone—in Amy’s case it’s her druggie ex, Levi, played by a strung out and sexy Luke Wilson (seriously, how is he so sexy all of a sudden?). These things are all familiar, because they happen to us all the time.
|Seriously. I'd hit that. All. Night. Long. Call me!|
Is it a funny show? At its heart, Enlightened is a comedy, but it’s Mike White’s vision (for the most part, Dern is the show’s co-creator), and if you’ve seen Chuck and Buck or Year of the Dog, you know that his writing is never a straightforward path. It’s true, as much as I love Amy, I just want her to stop. The speech she gives at Krista’s baby shower is one of the most grueling scenes I've struggled through in recent memory. But another part of me wants her to succeed, I want her to overcome. I want her to fix Levi, I want her to stand up against her asshole former co-workers. I want her to triumph because she’s us, whether we want to admit it or not. We should root for her, laugh with her, cry with her. It’s uncomfortable, sure, but when is life completely comfortable? I implore you to watch the episode where Amy and Levi go on a kayaking retreat, and I challenge you to not feel something. I challenge you to not be moved by Amy’s realization, and not have it resonate with your own existence.
|Amy's narration in this episode is beautiful.|
So, last thoughts: fucking watch this funny, sad, and incredibly thoughtful show. And Mike, Laura...keep shining that uncomfortable mirror.