Monday, October 31, 2011

HBO's "Enlightened" makes me cringe almost nonstop, but I'm still watching (or at least recording) it


by Ken

The first episode of the new Mike White-Laura Dern HBO series Enlightened left me with a sort of positive feeling, but I noticed that it took me awhile to make myself watch the DVR-stored second and third episodes, and finally managed it only toward the end of a "relapse" weekend when I didn't do much of anything except attack the DVR pile-up. And while I still have a certain respectfully positive-ish feeling about the show, I'm wondering how long I'll be willing to subject myself to a weekly 27 minutes of cringing.

Here's the blurb on the HBO website:
Enlightened is the new offbeat HBO series written by Mike White and starring Laura Dern as Amy, a self-destructive health and beauty executive who has a very public workplace meltdown. After three months of contemplation and meditation at a treatment center in Hawaii, Amy returns rested and ready to pick up the pieces of her old life and reshape the world she left behind. That includes delivering well-meaning, but generally unwanted advice to her mother Helen (Diane Ladd), with whom Amy is now living; her slacker ex-husband Levi (Luke Wilson) whose only solace comes from recreational drugs; and the crew of awkward co-workers Amy finds herself reassigned to. The series follows Amy as she navigates an unconventional path between who she is, who she wants to be . . . and what everyone is willing to tolerate from her.

What this blurb leaves out is painful extent of Amy's own maladjustment, and utter cluelessness about that maladjustment, even in the face of the unquestioned healing she managed at Open Sky, the treatment center in question. We get enough flashbacks to see just how whacked out she was when she flipped out all too publicly after being dumped by the (married) corporate superior with whom she had a long affair. And it's not hard to get behind the injustice of all the doodoo falling on the woman.

Amy in fact has all sorts of rightnesses on her side -- in her personal as well as professional relationships, and also in her vision of a better world, where people can be fulfilled in their jobs, and those jobs have the possibility of making the world a better place rather than an ever more stinking cesspool. But for me at least there's no escaping that bedrock cluelessness she has in all her relationships and goals. Well, "cluelessness" may be misleading if not actually wrong.

This is hard to explain. Amy does have a factual grasp that, and even why, her former coworkers in her corporation's Health and Beauty division, where she was a buyer, and clearly a person of considerable rank, with an assistant even -- an assistant she groomed and saw promoted, and who now occupies her old office. She has, again, a factual grasp that, and even why, her mother considers her a hopeless screw-up. But in all her interactions she seems to have no grasp of how she's actually perceived or received, and so far the near-invariable result is that she is always, always surprised -- no, astonished -- by the results, which nearly always range from bad to disastrous, which is one of the reasons I find myself cringing virtually from start to finish of every episode.

I mean, can a person really be so clueless as to imagine that her corporate superiors will welcome stacks of online research, clearly gathered on company time, showing what bad citizens the company is, and its possible corporate partners as well? Can she really be surprised that her substance-abusing ex-husband, about the only person she can turn to for companionship and, yes, sex, rejects and resents her diagnosis of his reality-denial problems? It doesn't matter how correct that diagnosis is. Even Amy's vision of Open Sky, the treatment center, as earthly paradise, takes a hit when we learn, in the third episode that despite her having paid half the tab, she still owes $25,000 for her "enlightenment."

Every bit as clueless is Amy's relationship with her mother. Helen has clearly worked out her own bargain-with-the-devil version of reality -- a version that by the way doesn't mesh well with having this persistently self-destructive daughter move back in with her, and it might be mentioned that Amy simply turned up in her mother's driveway, not only without asking but without warning. What reaction does Amy expect when she tells her mother that, in effect, the life Helen has arranged for herself is empty?

I suppose we should take note of the fact that Amy's mother is played by Laura Dern's real-life mother, Diane Ladd. I think this is just fine. Ladd is a sensational actress, and is doing sensational work on the show. While I wonder sometimes whether a different actress might have made Amy less offputting, I can't imagine anyone doing a better job with Helen, and I don't doubt that the real-life relationship adds to the reality for both actresses.

I suppose I shouldn't, by the way, have spoken of Amy's "former coworkers," as technically they're once again her coworkers. Although the corporation's HR department had no intention of allowing her to return to work there, her rather offhand mention of having consulted a lawyer eventually produces a "position" for her, but a ghastly one: doing data entry in a remote division sequestered in the basement (or sub-basement?), seemingly designed as a dumping ground for misfits the company is for whatever reasons obliged to employ -- a dispiriting band that to me suggests adult versions of young Brick Heck's maladjusted "social group" on The Middle, with a supervisor who's either a borderline or across-the-border sociopath.

While I'm venting, I would add that the spacey, fake-hopey music adds to my discomfort. And let me stress that making the viewer, or at least this viewer (I get the impression that other viewers have been simply enchanted by the show, which puzzles the heck out of me), this uncomfortable doesn't make it a bad show. Forcing people out of their complacency surely isn't necessarily a bad thing. But this isn't necessarily -- how shall I put this? -- something that viewers with free will will want to return to week after week. I guess I'm sticking with the show, more or less, because there's so little I can disagree with in its diagnosis of the World's Ills.

However, again at least for me, the effect of Amy's defiantly wrong-headed and surely doomed plan for surmounting those ills, is to suggest that resistance really is futile.

Enlightened airs Monday nights at 9:30pm -- and/or whenever HBO sticks it in the schedule.

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At 7:09 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

So far it looks like Amy seeks a higher purpose, but for the time being she would settle with getting back to just an office job with an assistant, and an expense account. Either way this show has me hooked. It’s amazing what could happen in a corporate workplace. Laura Dern does fit the role of Amy’s character perfectly. You see I just found out about this show yesterday at DISHOnline, it’s a place I can go to find new entertainment. As a DISH Network customer and employee I have access to a ton of entertainment that I can access anywhere I’m connected online. As far as Enlightened goes, I really like it. I think the ambiguity is perfect, actually.


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