Enlightened: HBO cans the laughter
It’s probably a good idea to preface any discussion of Enlightened, a strangely wonderful new comedy that is currently debuting on M-Net Series, with a warning. Don’t get too attached to this show because it gets cancelled.
Enlightened was originally produced by HBO in the United States, which likes to cultivate niche audiences and is relatively tolerant of low ratings. But even on that channel, Enlightened was simply too odd to attract enough viewers. After two seasons, the executives lost patience and pulled the plug.
Still, we ended up with two seasons of Enlightened, which is better than none. And viewers who are willing to invest their time in this doomed series will be treated to something that is utterly unlike any other show on television. Indeed, it’s a testament to the risk-taking propensities of modern cable television that a series like this was produced at all.
The central figure of Enlightened is Amy Jellicoe (Laura Dern), a 40-year-old corporate executive who has an ill-fated affair with her boss. He responds by peevishly taking her job away, which causes her to have a very public meltdown.
As a result, everyone else in the company becomes convinced that she is crazy.
In the aftermath of this personal and professional implosion, Amy travels to a New Agey rehabilitation centre.
When she gets back, she is completely transformed. The former corporate career-climber is now a practitioner of meditation and yoga. She reads self-help books and declares her intention to be an “agent of change” in the world.
Unfortunately, the more “enlightened” Amy becomes, the less other people can stand to be around her. Her sincerity is her tragic flaw. She has a desperate, earnest need to connect with others and make the world a better place — and this, paradoxically, drives people away from her.
When Amy returns to work, she is transferred to a subsidiary that operates out of the office basement, and is seemingly a dumping ground for all the freaks and reprobates the company can’t figure out how to get rid of.
This is the standard formula for office comedy, where the humour comes from throwing together a group of oddballs and forcing them to interact within the artificial social constraints of the workplace. And there are times when Enlightened does come across like a darker, weirder version of The Office.
But Enlightened is so much more than that. It’s about Amy’s relationship with her emotionally stunted mother. It’s about her drug-addicted ex-husband, who alternates between being hilarious and pathetic. And it’s about all the other characters in this story, who are all fully rounded human beings rather than stereotyped cut-outs.
The series is also a surprisingly effective feminist statement, the more so because Amy herself is an intrinsically flawed heroine. She is not immediately likeable, and her New Age philosophy is mostly vacuous. But you end up rooting for her anyway, because the injustice and humiliation she suffers at the hands of her bosses is so very egregious.
Enlightened is a series that deals in the full range of human emotions. It advertises itself as a comedy, but much of the time it veers towards awkwardness and sadness. At other turns, the series is unironically hopeful.
Phrased in these terms, it’s easy to see why Enlightened was cancelled: many viewers are too jaded to process real optimism and most don’t want to watch a “comedy” series that makes them feel sad.
For the small minority who is attracted to its charms, however, Enlightened will seem like a revelation. If that sounds like you, my advice is to savour this series while it’s here — and mourn it when it’s gone.
Enlightened is shown on Saturdays at 20:30 on M-Net Series