Enlightened - The Complete Second Season
When the Emmy Awards are given out in a few weeks, there's one nominee I am rooting for: Laura Dern for her performance as the peculiarly sympathetic do-gooder on HBO's "Enlightened." Dern, co-creator of the series with co-star Mike White, plays Amy Jellicoe, managing to do the near impossible: make an irritating individual someone you root for.
In the first season, Dern played a mid-level exec at a SoCal corp (called Abaddonn) that has a breakdown, recovers at a Hawaiian holistic facility and returns to her workplace to find her position downgraded to one in data processing. Undaunted, Amy decides to make the best of her situation, as well as reconnecting with her Mom (Dern's real-life mother Diane Ladd) and ex-husband (Luke Wilson).
Amy's self-absorption, social awkwardness and embrace of New Age jargon leads to numerous embarrassing situations, but there's something about the manner Dern approaches the character that makes her empathetic. Add to that the fine writing (largely by White, who also directed most of the episodes), which gave this little-seen show a resonance. (The sad news is that few people watched, and the show was cancelled, despite being critically acclaimed.)
An Emmy nom for Best Comedy for its second season (now out on DVD) might have helped. Even stronger than the first, these episodes (eight in total) follow Amy's whistle-blowing of ethical practices at Abaddonn and her romantic relationship with a muckraking journalist (Dermot Mulroney).
What makes the show so special is the way it allows its audience to embrace Amy, who in Dern's capable hands is a marvel of contradictions. She's pushy and arrogant, but also deeply committed to the causes she believes in. It's this nuanced approach that makes "Enlightened" both a satire of corporate America and New Age beliefs and a deeply touching character study of a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
The DVD release's special features include three audio commentaries by the principals (Laura Dern, Luke Wilson, Mike White, Molly Shannon and Dermot Mulroney), as well as with the show's film editor Dody Dorn.
The series ended on such a conclusive note that both seasons can be viewed as a complete season - the first, a deft satire; the second, a suspenseful corporate thriller. What holds them together is Dern's jejune performance - her inability to fit in (despite her best intentions) give "Enlightened" an emotional texture that few shows achieve. If you didn't catch it, watch the DVDs. You'll be rooting for Dern on Emmy night.