HBO’s Enlightened is your friend. It gives a nice pat on the back when your life gets messed up because you just had to go through with the crazy, you know? It splashes cold water on your face when you’ve had a few too many; it’s a summer night’s breeze at twilight, when your brain has finally settled on a truth.
I always notice writing. If a show has terrible writing, I can’t get down with it. I don’t care if it’s cute, kitschy, suspenseful, and edgy–bad writing just takes me out of the moment. I can’t take the rest of it seriously, and I can’t respect it. (I also feel the same about shitty lyrics in an otherwise good song.)
What is bad writing? Just turn on your television and it’ll jump out at you. (Oh, that’s just me?) It can be predictable, formulaic plotting. It can be the use of too many tropes and obvious TV standbys, like the meet-cute or characters as plot device. It can be one-dimensional, stereotypical characterization. If you don’t think about it, writing isn’t such a big deal. If you do, it’s everything.
The creators of Enlightened chose a premise (the personal crisis of Laura Dern’s Amy Jellicoe and the immediate aftereffects) that, in less capable hands, could have gone one of two ways–it could have been so concerned with emotional breakdown as a concept that it lapped away gently at the shores of boring internal exploration with no engrossing story arc for a whole two seasons (phew)…or it could have spiraled into Crazyville, taking logic and depth down with it.
Fortunately, its co-creator Mike White, who infuses believability, dimension, and train-wreck hilarity into every scene, writes Enlightened. Amy Jellicoe is an easy character to dislike: all lunatic rages and the kind of earnest do-goodery that makes you want to do EXACTLY THE OPPOSITE. She is also contradictory and aggressively selfish in her quest for inner peace. In fact, in her single-mindedness, Amy rampantly tramples over social boundaries…even simple common decency. It’s a constant cringe-fest, yet somehow she still has charm. You know she just means it, and in a way, you admire her for not laying down and playing dead like most people with lesser wills would.
She is an intense manifestation of the classic battle we all struggle with: the one between our basic desires and our higher ideals. Maybe you don’t take each slight as personally, treat each positive thought as a major revelation, or expect so much from people; but you sympathize when she does because we have all been there, just maybe not on the same level. She is difficult to be friends with–always pleading, cajoling, and otherwise swaying others to her agenda. She is a right pain in the ass. And she is complicated; Amy herself doesn’t even seem to know if her mission to take down Abbadon is for the greater good or her desire to exact sweet revenge on the employer that fucked her over. To bring it back to the excellent writing, we are shown these things from Amy’s interactions with other characters, and through Dern’s exaggerated facial expressions and ability to just sit in a car, say nothing, and still somehow convey an entire thought process.
Speaking of other characters, while Amy’s antics nearly always dominate the plot, certain episodes put the brakes on her constant introspection and give us a glimpse into the minds of the people she surrounds herself with. Amy’s mother Helen (Diane Ladd, Laura Dern’s IRL mother), coworker Tyler (Mike White), and ex-husband Levi (Luke Wilson, who absolutely kills it) all get their turn. Helen’s sad gaze is explained; Tyler’s instant cleaving to Amy is more fully understood; Levi, always vacillating between anger and gentleness towards Amy, is shown as her long-suffering yet admiring emotional anchor. In a way, these are the more affecting episodes. They gently steer the viewer toward what Amy is also trying to learn. How to take yourself out of the equation, how to empathize, how rich and nuanced the lives of other people are. In this way, we (the viewers, natch) are Amy’s stand-ins, and though her story is hyperbolic (but is it really?) it takes us on a simulated journey of introspection and self-renewal. Three cheers for television as therapy stand-in!
Also, the show is hilarious. Maybe that’s a better endorsement. And maybe it will inspire you to be your own agent of change.