The second age of Enlightenment

Enlightened is about to wrap up its second season (its season finale will air on March 3). Unless HBO decides it likes the show a lot, there isn’t likely to be any more: the first season got almost no viewers and, worse for HBO, very little buzz. They were able to get a Golden Globe for Laura Dern, but they couldn’t get people talking about it the way people talk about Girls (a show that doesn’t have a whole lot of viewers, but is constantly in the news and may drive some subscribers HBO’s way). It didn’t have a clear selling point the way Girls does; that show is almost as much about the behind-the-scenes story of a new talent and a new generational perspective in TV as it is about what happens on the screen. Enlightened is a half-hour comedy-drama conceived as a vehicle for an actress who’s been in the business a long time, and both HBO and Showtime have had so many of those shows that it’s hard for one more to stand out. Today’s shows almost need a compelling promotional hook as much as they need a compelling story, just because there are so many shows fighting it out for our limited time.

I don’t think the second season has been quite as overwhelming as the first, though that still leaves it as one of the most interesting shows on TV. Mike White, who created the show, acts in it, and writes every episode, made some subtle changes to try and get a slightly bigger audience, as outlined in this New York Times article. In keeping with convention, he added more of a serialized story to the season, reducing the first season’s sense of floating in space, of not quite knowing what you’re going to get from episode to episode. That has still left plenty of room for digressions and for a spotlight episode unrelated to the main plot (“Higher Power,” almost like an episode of a completely separate show, though it’s related to the theme that the ideas Amy advocates are more helpful than they seem to be). But still, most of the show is about Laura Dern’s attempt to expose wrongdoing at the company she works for, shifting most of the action to the office and away from her home life. The most problematic part of that is that this leaves Dern’s mother, played by her real-life mother Diane Ladd, without much to do. Her character was maybe the best part of the first season, and the focus of the best episode (“Consider Helen”). So seeing her screen time go to a younger new character, the investigative reporter played by Dermot Mulroney, is a bit of a downer.

But the main purpose of the new story is to make it clear that Laura Dern’s Amy is not the totally unlikable person that a lot of viewers seemed to think she was in the first season. The premise of the show, and its unique tone, is pitched between making fun of her and suggesting that she’s right: her “enlightened” ideas about self-actualization, the need for a more fulfilling life, and the corruption of corporate America are basically right, but she’s completely tone-deaf as to how they play out in the real world and about the fact that other people have lives and needs and desires of their own. When we get an episode from another character’s point of view, we get a sense of the things that are important to them and drive them; because Amy has trouble empathizing with other people, she doesn’t get that, and doesn’t get what’s stopping everyone from agreeing with her and going along with her plans. Like many self-deluded television characters, she’s built up a scenario in her mind about how things will go for her, and it often doesn’t occur to her that people will react to what she tells them in ways that don’t fit into that scenario.

The second season’s overarching plot, where Amy tries to give Mulroney’s character incriminating information about her company, is supposed to change that in two ways, while still providing plenty of room for her to be awkward and deluded. Most importantly, she’s shown to be working for good: teaming up with an investigative old-media journalist, still one of the most heroic figures show business can imagine, to expose genuine wrongdoing at an evil and heartless corporation. Of course the show is not simplistic about this; Mulroney isn’t entirely noble and heroic, and Amy is still annoying and tone-deaf. But she’s been given a purpose that the audience can really approve of. And second, in the course of carrying out this plan, Amy is forced to actually put herself in the shoes of other people and learn to empathize a little more. Pulling Mike White’s Tyler into her zany scheme wasn’t so hard, since he’s the sort of schlub who’s dazzled by the fact that a beautiful blonde woman would even talk to him – though this is something that changes over the course of the season, as White gives himself some of the most development. But enlisting her boss (Timm Sharp) actually requires a certain amount of ability to sell her point of view to another person and understand what makes him tick. The fact that she can do this demonstrates that she is not only right but that she can prove she’s right – if she can do that, then she’s not so bad at judging how other people will react.

What makes the second season’s story a little less powerful than the first is that it is, by design, a little more simplistic. One possible reading of the show that was open to us was that Amy’s crusade to clean up her corporation was a form of missing the forest for the trees: unable to change the system (since no individual can do that), she fixates on one small cog in the system. But it’s clear by now that that reading is no longer open to us: her fictional corporation isn’t a surreal stand-in for the corporate world, it’s an outright crooked corporation, and taking it down could actually make a difference. Which is a very traditional Hollywood way of looking at things, where particular corporations or politicians are so bad that we can feel good about seeing a character fight against them.

This does succeed in making Amy more sympathetic, but it also paradoxically makes it harder to see ourselves in her. The poignancy of the character, her redeeming quality, was that she has good ideas, has genuinely awakened to what’s wrong with the world, but can’t really do anything about it for the reasons that the average person can’t do anything about it – she needs to keep her job and earn a living, and there’s nothing one person can do anyway. This season has provided her with an out: the company is planning to shut down her department, mostly eliminating the concern about job security, and a handsome investigative reporter assures her that she can become a heroine by exposing genuine criminal corruption (whereas what seemed really horrifying about the futuristic-looking office setting was that it was so oppressive and stifling in a legal way). That makes her less of a stand-in for the average person who wants to be a hero but has no way of achieving it. Now she’s a bit more like your average TV or film character who may be annoying, but gets results.

But only a bit more. Amy remains one of the more unique creations in modern television, even though on paper she sounds like just another character with no social skills. And part of her uniqueness comes from the fact that she can’t be dismissed as an idiot or an immature person: she really has achieved enlightenment. She’s right that there’s something messed up about the corporate world, right that the New Age-y ideas people make fun of can actually work, right that the life she was leading before was too limited and that she needs to be involved in something bigger than herself. The special quality of the show comes from the fact that Mike White is simultaneously making brutal fun of her beliefs and making them seem inspiring. Like the season 2 episode where Amy is turned on to Twitter, falling in love with the idea of reaching a vast network of people and going around the corporate gatekeepers to bring them the truth. Is it making fun of the people who believe they can change the world by posting 140-character banalities, or is it an inspiring portrait of the power of new media to make people feel connected? Both, really. The second season may have tipped a bit too far in the inspirational direction, but there’s still no other character in TV history who better sums up the contradictions of a person trying to lead a better life: she’s deluded but she’s also right, she’s inconsiderate of other people but really does want something better for them as well as herself. If this is the last season, I’ll miss Amy when she’s gone. If it’s not, I’ll be interested to see how she deals with the consequences of the decisions she’s made this season, even as I hope the show can shift back to her home life a bit.

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