Ugly face of a self-help monster


Enlightened (MA). Creators: Mike White, Laura Dern. Starring: Laura Dern, Diane Ladd, Sarah Burns, Luke Wilson, Mike White. 20 episodes, 30 minutes

In the opening scene of this gloriously squirmy HBO comedy, health and beauty executive Amy Jellicoe (Dern) undergoes a humiliating emotional breakdown on the open floor of her company's luxurious corporate offices. Flash forward, and she has just returned from a stint at a new-age treatment clinic called Open Air. She is a changed woman. The extent to which this change amounts to a transformation is an open question.

Enlightened explores Amy's attempts to integrate back into her old life, with her newly acquired positivity intact. Her resolve is tested by her emotionally distant mother, Helen (Ladd); by her employers who don't want anything to do with her, and shunt her off to a tedious data-entry job in the basement; and by her drug-and-alcohol abusing ex-husband Levi (Wilson), with whom she shares a painful past.

The series fits the oeuvre of 'comedy of discomfort' (e.g. The Office) in which the humour stems from characters' lack of self-awareness, and elicits a response that sits agonisingly between laughter and pity. It parodies the self-focused philosophies of the cult of self-help and reveals how they can turn a person like Amy into a monster. Amy's obliviousness to the complexity and hidden pains of others is at the heart of Enlightened's discomforts.

Dern's performance is a tour-de-force. Her ingratiating, girlish mannerisms reveal her 'recovery' as something more like a regression. Everything from her flirty manipulation of her sweetly geeky colleague Tyler (played by the show's co-creator and head writer White) to the looks of excruciating pity she throws at those who are not lucky enough to be as enlightened as she is reflect the character's utter self-absorption.

At times Amy's naivety is comical. She joins Twitter, gleefully types 'this is my first twit!', then stares glumly at the unmoving '0' that designates the number of people following her. But it also manifests itself as awful delusions of grandeur. Series two concerns her attempts to turn whistleblower against her unethical employers. She sees herself as a moral crusader and is seemingly unaware of the extent to which she is motivated by revenge.

She compares this task — with utmost sincerity, and to a pregnant colleague no less — to childbirth. The recipient of this inanity is Krista (Burns), Amy's former assistant who is now making her own way up the ladder. Krista is the victim of Amy's most severe emotional abuse (just watch Amy use the word 'friend' as a weapon). Here even Krista's natal complications are reduced to an allegory designed to sustain Amy's ego.

Amy is the star of the show, yet two of the best episodes barely feature her. During the early episodes of season one we are given reason to sympathise with Amy's sense of Helen as a toxic influence. But in the episode 'Consider Helen' we see Helen as a virtual recluse who spends her days with the ghosts of the past. The episode highlights the extent to which Amy's 'enlightenment' misses the depth of the lives of those around her.

The season two episode 'Higher Power' portrays Levi's own treatment experience at Open Air, which he attends on Amy's insistence. He has an illicit 'big night out' with two younger residents, whose behaviour reflects his own, and alerts him to the ripple effect of consequences his actions have. This, along with a simple act of grace and self-effacement from another resident, cracks his cynicism more neatly than Amy's affected positivity could.

Tim Kroenert headshotTim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street. Enlightend: Season 2 is screening now on Showcase. Enlightened: Season 1 is available on DVD, or download from the iTunes store.

Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, Englightened, self-help, Laura Dern, Luke Wilson



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Existing comments

This was very interesting. I've only seen season 1, but I was disturbed by the lack of personal responsibility David took for Amy's condition. As with most similar situations in real life, the man has escaped his own abuse of power without consequence, whereas Amy is shamed and left to suffer alone. I had a degree of sympathy with Amy, and while I felt I understood Krista, I don't perceive she is shown in a good light either. There was a lack of love in almost all of the relationships. The only one I found 'loving' was between Amy and her ex-husband, however dysfunctional it was.

Moira Byrne | 14 February 2013  

Thanks Moira - you are right, the relationship between Amy and Levi is complex and beautiful despite the superficial ugliness. And Damon is infuriating and intolerable. I enjoy the contrast between Krista's responses to Amy and those of her other friend Janice, who makes no effort to hide her strong dislike of Amy. Which is preferable, Janice's honest contempt, or Krista's affected niceness, born out of (what - pity? fear? both?) ... I have to say I probably respect Janice more.

Tim | 15 February 2013  

I agree - while I understood Krista's contempt for Amy given the situation, I found her behaviour quite artificial and lacking any sense of authenticity or kindness. I prefer Janice's approach too.

Moira Byrne | 17 February 2013  

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