Tuesday, November 29, 2011
Speaking of problems with reviewing television episodically, when a work really capitalizes on the television form, serializing an exploration as long and deep as a good, um, presidential administration, while breaking that work into unified links in a chain, perfect little circles in themselves that nevertheless drive toward something bigger, immediate reaction is about as valuable as snarkily recapping Plato’s puppet show. Enlightened is certainly not the first form-breaker, but it took me at least four episodes to reach all the way around it and get a feel for what it is, and even that was just a first impression. That’s not least because it announces itself with the subtlety of true confidence and the premiere is something of a prologue, focusing on Amy Jellicoe’s relationship with the world’s most lifelike MacGuffin, a higher-up named Damon (played by The Office’s duplicitous Charles Esten, and if you think that’s an accident, Diane Ladd plays Laura Dern’s mother) instead of characters and relationships that would become much more significant to the overall story of the first season.
But in hindsight, that inciting incident establishes Enlightened so fully it’s like one of those vignettes that opens each season of The Wire. We meet the plot—Amy’s getting demoted for, she says, sleeping with her boss—and the setting—this hellscape of an office space lit with natural light, fake smiles, and blown-up pictures of leaves mistaken for art—and most significantly, the humanism that soaks up honesty and delusion both without so much as a wince. Amy’s right: “We fucked, so what?” she asks, and it's depressing that being the only one to say it upfront makes her the crazy one, but even she must know that’s probably not why she’s being transferred.
Seven episodes and one extended enlightenment retreat later, it’s clear this is a pattern of behavior. In last week’s “Lonely Ghosts,” Amy is warned that she’s on the chopping block, so instead of buckling down and turning in A+ work for the first time since she flirted with her College Algebra TA sophomore year, she spends all day concocting some way to keep her job without fulfilling its duties. Her job, by the way, has to do with analyzing productivity, which we know from the get-go but is just an ironic grace note until a haunting montage in Episode 8. And here’s the kicker: she goes to bed soothing herself with New Age hilarity that we are all the same yet she is different. From the hybrid personality to the logical contortions, Amy may as well be a real, live sphinx. And for someone who’s made a career in the Iraq years of debasing herself, from Inland Empire’s ugly chic to Year of the Dog’s coldness to Recount’s grotesquerie, Dern fucking immolates herself. Amy isn’t even like those other characters; she’s an entirely new expression of Dern’s physicality, whose banshee “I will kill you, motherfucker!” freeze-frame is heartfelt, funny, and sad all at once, whose dance club crimp is unwittingly absurd, whose calm reflection bridges the gap from The Stepford Wives to the self-help section. Character study strikes me as not art but practice, and it’s rarely justified by the kinds of static shows that try it (ahem, Nurse Jackie, which, to be fair, is also aiming for an off-Broadway thing like a far less successful version of Bored to Death’s short fiction come to life), but the way Dern keeps surprising us, burrowing into this persona like Manny Farber’s prize termite, would be enough to animate the entire corpse.
But there’s more to it than that. Trapped in Dern, we go crazy, but somehow it still feels like hope exists, like change is possible, like connection is real, or can be, anyway. Time will tell if Amy does find some capacity for genuine self-discovery, but at the very least the illusion is there, and that might be all that matters. Despite the similar use of psychology-speak as justification, Enlightened isn’t The Sopranos in a skyscraper. It certainly has room for irony—I mean, get a load of that title—but it’s far too humane to revel in Amy’s self-sabotage like Showtime’s female freakshows, the exception being Web Therapy, wherein Lisa Kudrow plays an Amy-like narcissist whose bullshit sieve works perfectly on everyone but herself. There is no such thing as Emmy justice (outside of TV on the Internet), but Laura Dern and Lisa Kudrow are the Gloria Swanson and Bette Davis of the year, both sure to lose to someone not fit to wear Anne Baxter’s pearls.
Injustice is a recurring theme, but it speaks to how unified Enlightened is that it looks like nothing more than a plot function to distract Amy. But it’s also key to the show’s exploration of isolation. The casting is about perfect—you worry Luke Wilson is exactly like that in real life—but lonely Mike White is the standout, his quiet background journey living in the heart of the show. I don’t mean just the pathos, though he sure has a knack for that, but the very being of Enlightened. He likes Amy, or maybe he just likes their connection, and maybe that’s just an exchange of services, and maybe that’s a rip-off besides, but he also sees her for who she is. Amy’s ex-assistant who ends up on the winning side of this reversal of fortune, at least career-wise, sparks similar questions of relationship but without the understanding. There is openness and care in the relationship between Amy and Tyler, but it reaks of selfishness and skepticism when it comes to Krista. Or maybe that's just Amy's perspective.
The mystery of contradiction and ambiguity drives the show in much subtler ways than, say, Mad Men or The Good Wife. How much of Amy’s behavior is driven by delusion and how much by knowing manipulation is thrilling to explore, not to mention how aware she is of her own cunning. In “Comrades Unite!” Amy brings up an off-site drunken romantic encounter with her boss Dougie in order to save her job, and she plays it smoother than a Harvard lawyer, not bringing this up to accuse anyone, just informing you that this is why he’s trying to fire me, oh, my goodness, does this mean you’re going to investigate Dougie now instead of me? Turns out she genuinely doesn’t think this will save her—that’s how closed she is to communication that doesn’t emanate from her own gullet—so she gets off on not so temporary insanity. And even if she was wrong in motive—not genuinely concerned about Dougie and having no reason to suspect he might behave that way at work—she was right to bring it up, because a pattern of harassment had been discovered (not to mention the impossibility of Amy’s groping not having some effect on their working relationship). But then it turns out that the pattern had at least been partially fabricated out of the office Christian’s ulterior motives.
Much more than a character study, the show is concerned with all these questions of modern connection and development. A whole system of forces, from the corporation to politics to self-help, are designed to be simultaneously isolating and uniting, internal and external, chaotic and organized. There’s no reconciliation. We live in that flux. Amy may be the bright, shining ball of fire at the center, but Enlightened wants to understand the whole solar system.