When words fail, sometimes only a GIF works. And no GIF has been more useful during the past decade than this one from the HBO classic Enlightened.
"I'm just a woman who's over it" — how much of the last year, the last two years, the last forever does that short phrase describe? It's hard not to feel entirely over a lot of things these days, given the "garbage fire" vibe of current events. And yet, if we give up — as individuals or as a society — what catastrophes will follow?
It's that push-pull between rage and acceptance, between optimism and resignation, that animates Enlightened, which is without a doubt one of the finest programs of the past decade.
The show ran for only two seasons — a mere 18 episodes, which weren't nearly enough. In that short span, co-creators and stars Mike White and Laura Dern and the rest of the show's exceptional cast brought to life a set of deeply specific, tragic, and hilarious characters. Foremost among them is Amy Jellicoe, the kind of polarizing role that only the great Dern could pull off.
Everyone in Amy's orbit is mystified by her, impressed by her, and frustrated by her, sometimes all in the same scene. Her mother, Helen (Diane Ladd), worries about her daughter's financial setbacks and emotional extremes; her best friend, Tyler (White), is both energized by Amy and frightened of her boundless energy; her former protégée, Krista (Sarah Burns), dreads Amy's pop-in visits to her office and yet recognizes the sweetness at Amy's core; and her ex-husband, Levi (Luke Wilson), can't resist hanging out with Amy, even though he wants her to stop trying to save him from himself. All these actors did among the best work of their career in Enlightened, which took the hopes and fears of their characters seriously, even as it compassionately — and often amusingly — laid bare their flaws and faults.
A recent re-watch proved that Enlightened doesn't just hold up, it comes off as a show that is more relevant than it was a decade ago. Enlightened was a half-hour that was as serious as it was funny, a shift that staged a takeover of the half-hour realm a year or two after the HBO gem was canceled in 2013. Like many of the smartest and most entertaining shows of the past decade, it revolved around a complicated, flawed woman who was given brilliant depth and nuance by an actress at the top of her game.
Enlightened also asked us to think hard about the ways in which our society is systematically rigged on behalf of the rich and connected, and to ponder what citizens can (and can't) do to fight back. Amy's obsession with finding ways to #resist corporate greed and the cynical manipulations of the powerful, and her quest to ignite change on social media and in real life, made Enlightened a precursor to the last few years of marches, protests, whistleblowers, and anti-billionaire critiques.
On the creative front, Enlightened featured a who's who of film directors (Jonathan Demme, Nicole Holofcener, Miguel Arteta, Todd Haynes, as well as White) before that kind of thing became common in the upper tiers of TV. It also provided an accurate examination of white-lady fragility: Amy is often bad at reading a room, respecting boundaries, and listening to other people.
I will not assert that the show kicked off the Dern-aissance, because Laura Dern has never really gone away, and for this we should give eternal thanks. That said, if you're a Big Little Lies fan looking for a show that allows you to feel deeply for a Dern character while reveling in her ability to have a cathartic rage meltdowns, Enlightened is the show for you! Speaking of programs that are popular right now, here's another pitch for Enlightened: Think of it as what would happen to Big Little Lies' Renata Klein if she went wore much cheaper clothes as she went through the metaphysical wringer on The Good Place.
Like that sterling NBC comedy, Enlightened is obsessed with the idea of whether people and institutions are capable of sustained positive change. Of course, the same could be said of a lot of ambitious shows, but Enlightened found a host of subversive and lyrical ways to come at that question.
The pilot finds Amy fresh out of the rehab facility that helped her deal with the anger issues and other (alleged) transgressions that got her into trouble at the frighteningly named Abaddonn Industries. When she returns from rehab, she's demoted, and one of the joys of Enlightened is watching Dern expertly navigate Amy's jealousy, desire for revenge, anger, insecurity, and fear. Amy's motives for causing havoc at Abaddonn aren't purely altruistic, but she's not wrong to feel wronged; the married boss with whom she had an affair, after all, finds his career prospering.
Many of Amy's co-workers regard her as Too Much — and they're not always wrong — but one of the best things about Enlightened is that it doesn't mock or disdain Amy's rage. The way our culture punishes women for being ambitious — let alone infuriated — still feels highly relevant, as does Abaddonn's use of H.R. to sweep problems under the rug rather than eliminate them.
In her personal and professional lives, Amy offers living proof that change doesn't come without discomfort. She's willing to live with — and create — a lot of awkwardness for herself and others in order to get what she wants, but she's also capable of doubt and regret. There are moments in which Dern can absolutely slay you with the depth of Amy's pain. And yet Amy keeps going — always.
"You got more hope than most people," Levi tells Amy at one point; it's clear in that moment that he regards her ability to embrace the future as a good thing. But there are times when her optimism feels like a curse, to those around her and even to her.
But isn't Amy's belief in the nobility of her goals something that any reformer needs in order to have any effect on her surroundings? Or does that implacable need to change the world — sometimes in ways that hurt other people — make her insufferable? Enlightened never issues a final ruling on those difficult questions. Across 18 concise, subtle episodes, it ping-pongs among possible answers as Amy builds — and fractures — alliances at work and at home.
Amy's best and worst selves could have been exhausting, if not for a series of brilliant choices by the creative team. The show is suffused with a bittersweet atmosphere that expertly mixes hope and disappointment; the visual motif of a swimming turtle not only provides a symbolic through-line, it almost literally makes the show buoyant. Few shows have used silence and shots of the sky and sea more effectively; you can actually feel the narrative breathing.
The narration that often opens and closes most episodes is never overwrought and often poetic, and the show's directors somehow manage to give humdrum Riverside, California, and the sleek black towers of Abaddonn Industries the qualities of a dream — or a nightmare. Way down in Abaddonn's basement, Dougie (Timm Sharp) presides over a highly suspect worker-surveillance system, one designed to replace human beings with algorithms. That sleek, black-and-white workspace is a creative and non-traditional version of hell: It's what you'd get if Apple designers interpreted Dante's Inferno.
There are those who would say that, given the tidy wrap-up of the show's overall plot at the end of the second season, it's fine that Enlightened ended when it did. Those people are wrong. As proof, I offer not just the performances of Dern, Ladd, White, and Wilson; not just the show's perceptive critique of capitalism; and not just its prescient depiction of oblivious blowhards like Dougie (who declared himself sick of having to go to H.R. about all that "he said, she said stuff").
No, my proof that Enlightened had more life left rests in a series of quietly stunning episodes that revolved around supporting characters. In the first season, "Consider Helen," which focused on the disappointments and tragedies accumulated by Amy's mother, is one of the greatest TV episodes of our time, in part due to the sensational range and skill of Ladd. The second season had "Higher Power" and "The Ghost Is Seen," two stellar installments that revolve around Levi and Tyler, respectively. Wilson, in particular, is heartbreaking in that episode and in the program as a whole. All three half-hours represent episodic storytelling at its most intimate, vulnerable, and masterful.
Sure, an Enlightened reboot is unlikely, but this creative team was so unfailingly focused on what worked about the show that I would welcome a revival. I'd love to find out where Levi, Tyler, Dougie, Krista, Helen, and Amy are on their quests to be seen, heard, and heeded. Is Amy a Bernie stan? Has Tyler found a measure of happiness — and even boldness? Is Levi still sabotaging himself every time he tries to come to terms with his faults?
I don't know, but a decade later, I wonder about these people. And like Amy, I unexpectedly have hope that their lives — however difficult they have been — have evolved for the better.