It’s not getting any buzz—like, none—but HBO’s Enlightened is one of the best shows on TV. Here are just a few reasons to watch and love it:
* Like so many other current comedies, its lead character is intensely flawed, yet also weirdly endearing. (Girls, Louie, Veep, and everything on Showtime come to mind.) But the special twist on Enlightened is that our heroine Amy Jellicoe is trying to be the best person ever and thinks she’s succeeding. She’s the kind of person who will make every conversation about her, but she’ll use these New Age-y phrases that make it seem like she’s being a great friend or spiritual coach.
The awesome comedy Portlandia skewers new-age/hipster self-importance in a similar way, but where that show is constantly winking at the audience to let us know its in on the joke, Enlightened lets Amy’s assholery just sit there. We get to see her bask in her own perceived radiance while other characters back away, but the tone remains restrained enough to make it truly uncomfortable. The result is a hilarious and accurate depiction of what it’s like to be around a deluded jerk.
* However, this is endearing because of Laura Dern’s performance as Amy and the incredible writing by openly gay writer/director/actor Mike White.
Dern is spectacular. You can see this desperate anxiety juuuuuust under Amy’s surface, but it’s also obvious that she cares about people and justice and kindness. Dern lets us see how much Amy wants to be enlightened—how genuinely she wants to be someone who is loved and loving—so it’s easy to chuckle at her ignorance and narcissism.
Plus, Mike White—who also co-stars as Amy’s co-worker in the corporate office of an Origins-esque lifestyle company—has a gift for writing that seems utterly naturalistic at first, but is actually filled with poetry. The first episode of this season, for instance, ends with the camera moving slowly up the sky until suddenly, the sky turns to ocean. A giant sea turtle swims lazily by, and we get this remarkable suggestion of peace and elegance. But since we’re underneath it, we’re also reminded that it’s just out of Amy’s reach.
White also wrote School of Rock and Chuck and Buck, and I’m so glad HBO is letting him have such creative control here. His vision, blended with Dern’s performance, makes Enlightened more than a collection of jokes about how awkward things can be. It uses that awkwardness, that striving for a higher purpose, as a tool for unearthing surprising beauty. For a great example, watch the first season episode “Consider Helen,” which follows a day in the life of Amy’s sad-but-surviving mother. It’s a masterpiece of painful,gorgeous storytelling. Just watch this scene, which is basically a short film all on its own.
* This season, they’ve added this hilarious and interesting storyline about Amy’s attempts to take down her company. There’s all this bumbling intrigue as she tries to hack emails and contact journalists, and it fits perfectly with the show. We get to see Amy convince herself that she’s taking down the company because they aren’t fair to people, but it’s SO obvious that she really just wants to feel bad-ass. That’s why she imagines herself surrounded by a group of intimidating FBI agents as she kicks down the corporate door.
I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface of what makes this show great, but trust me. Go find out for yourself. You could even start with Season 2, which has only aired two episodes. You won’t be sorry!
Mark Blankenship wants Laura Dern and Mike White to win seven awards for this show, each one shinier than the last. He tweets as @IAmBlankenship.