‘Enlightened’ Pilot Recap: “You Look Like a Hippie”

Any new HBO series is always cause to take notice. Not every show the network airs winds up working out, but they’re usually interesting on some level. This week, the network premiered its new half-hour… I guess “dramedy” would be the word for it… series ‘Enlightened’, starring Laura Dern as a woman going through a mid-life crisis and trying really hard to come out the other side.

Dern plays Amy, a middle-aged woman who works for a gigantic P&G-like multi-national corporation. Amy has issues. Anger issues. No, rage issues. Really serious rage issues. When her affair with a superior (comedian Chip Esten) goes sour and he arranges for her to be transferred from the position she likes, Amy goes batshit in the office and makes a huge freak-out scene in front of important clients. This is not a good career move.

Amy spends a couple months at a treatment program in Hawaii, where she has a huge breakthrough. She has discovered her spirituality and found her bliss. She has a totally new outlook and now sees the world through fresh, hopeful eyes. At least, she wants to. She really wants to, so very badly. Wouldn’t you know it, though, but the world doesn’t seem quite ready to give her the fresh start that she feels she deserves.

Almost naïvely, Amy goes back to the office expecting her job to be waiting for her and her friends to welcome her back. Of course, it’s not, and she never actually had any friends there. All of her co-workers hate her. By passive-aggressively implying a lawsuit (her lawyer tells her that the company can’t fire her for a mental health condition), she scares the HR lackeys into taking her back in some capacity.

Naturally, everyone is skeptical of Amy’s newfound enlightenment – not least of all her mother (Dern’s actual mother Diane Ladd), who has little patience for Amy’s touchy-feely malarkey. The one person she feels “gets” her is her ex-boyfriend Levi (a very pudgy Luke Wilson), and he turns out to be a cokehead, which pisses Amy off enormously. She then makes the mistake of trying to get closure with jerkwad Damon (Esten’s character), and that doesn’t go very well at all.

The ‘Pilot’ episode strikes a strange tone. What’s kind of interesting about it is that the show doesn’t mock Amy, even though it would be very easy to. It actually takes her desire and her quest to become a better person seriously, yet still manages to find humor in the absurdity of her instant spiritual breakthrough. The more the world pushes back against her, the more Amy has to fight tooth-and-nail to stay positive and upbeat at all costs, dammit. It’s not a battle she can always win. When things don’t go her way, bits of the old rage pop out again, which can be really funny. Few actresses alive can do crazy as well as Laura Dern. When she loses it, she really goes berserk. Some of the shifts between calm and collected Amy, and psycho she-bitch Amy, are sudden and hilarious. Even better is watching her struggle to maintain composure as the demon inside chips away at the outer smiling façade.

The episode isn’t a home run. This is a series that probably needs some time to find its footing. The show was created by Mike White (‘Chuck & Buck’, ‘The School of Rock’), who I think is a fairly interesting guy, and the character is a good showcase for Dern (who helped develop the concept). I’m intrigued enough to continue watching and see where this goes.

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