The Importance of Being Enlightened
“You don’t have to run away from life your whole life. You can really live. You can change. And you can be an agent of change.”
Just a few minutes into the pilot of HBO’s brilliant Enlightened, we hear the calming voiceover of Amy Jellicoe—played ferociously by Laura Dern—announce what could be the mission statement of the show. She has hope. She can change. People can change. We can change.
If you’re lucky, you have at least one friend who has recommended this show to you. Like Girls, Enlightened is polarizing. Its main character Amy is a hard pill to swallow. She is a post-nervous breakdown do-gooder who, after a summer spent in spiritual rebirth, has reentered the same workforce that caused her trauma, only to be demoted from a top-floor, high-level “health and beauty” buyer to a basement data entry robot. She is self-involved and selfish, and her interactions with other humans are uncomfortable to watch, but her heart is almost where it should be and her intentions almost good.
After one wildly unpopular (but gold to those who watched) season, HBO decided to give it another shot. And now here we are at the finish of season two, one episode away from what could be the end of the show entirely. While last season laid the groundwork for its characters, season two finds Amy on the verge of exposing the wrongdoings of her company, Abaddonn Industries. With no word from HBO on renewal, Enlightened fans should be sending all the light bulbs they own to the titan television network demanding a third season. It is imperative, almost urgent the show stays on the air.
“I’m speaking in my true voice now, without bitterness or fear. And I’m here to tell you, you can walk out of hell and into the light.”
Amy’s basement office is cold and the duties of her position are unclear but definitely have something to do with numbers and crunching them. She is surrounded by what look like 1980s super computers that fill entire rooms with wires and buttons, and cartoonishly so. Her coworkers, who include writer and co-creator Mike White, are bland and defenseless. Meanwhile Amy strolls in each day clad in hippie-chic and delivers vibrant greetings. Her new work environment mirrors her internal struggle, the starting over from the bottom. The new Amy is looking to shed the shell of her former self.
But not all at once. These things take time. You’re allowed to dance in limbo for a bit. In an interview on Fresh Air, Terry Gross discusses how Mike White has the great advantage of working in the television medium. Where a movie gives you two hours and a song just a few minutes, a television show can give you one or two, and hopefully three or more seasons of time to take a character on a truly metamorphic adventure. Breaking Bad’s Walter White comes to mind almost immediately. It’s amazing how the simple addition of a pork pie hat can have such a frightening impact. And with Amy, her changes are slight but deep: the encouragement she gives to her coworkers, the extra breath she takes before she speaks.
“You can be patient and you can be kind. And you can be wise, and almost whole.”
Enlightened is the rare type of television show that lingers for all the right reasons. While Breaking Bad has me questioning morality and Girls has me questioning the validity of my generation, Enlightened has me analyzing my humanity, or more accurately, my humanness. What it means to be empathetic, to live in a world where even the smallest amount of change takes a huge amount of effort.
In the best episode of the second season, Amy joins Twitter, insisting to everyone she meets that they follow her, meanwhile she is connecting to the likes of PETA, Amnesty International and Mia Farrow. It is the world of new media, a place where a nobody with a laptop in Starbucks can become a somebody with a laptop at a TED Conference. It is yet another outlet for Amy to make a difference in her life, to be an agent of change.
“You can wake up to your higher self. And when you do, the world is suddenly full of possibility. Of wonder and deep connection.”
When I wake up in the morning, I make tea and check my email, my Facebook and Instagram. I need to be outside running instead. We all need to be running. The characters of Enlightened are all moving at a steady pace. They are on the verge of really bursting out into that sprint and uncovering what’s there to uncover but just need more time to do it. And most of all there’s Amy Jellicoe, whose setbacks are inevitable but whose conviction is inspiring.
If there’s hope for Amy, then there just might be hope for the rest of us.