“Enlightened” begins with its lead, Amy Jellicoe, at her worst — a sobbing, hysterical and expletive-spewing mess, tearing through her office and threatening to kill the married co-worker she had an affair with. And in those few minutes, she’s instantly relatable. Maybe we haven’t done the same, but most have us have at least thought about engaging in a spectacular office freakout. But Amy finds help, and redemption, and this is when the sharp and funny “Enlightened” truly shines. Written by Mike White, who also stars in later episodes, it’s the anti-Office Space, a look at a woman trying to be her better self and “an agent of change.” She’s not hypnotized; she’s meditating. Amy, played by the endearing Laura Dern, is continuing her life journey by not giving up and by trying to stay positive. She can’t always keep it up, but she at least tries. And that’s the point.
Crying in a bathroom stall at her office, Amy, a health and beauty buyer, has just been transferred out of her department. She overhears co-workers talking about her at the sinks, criticizing Amy for her affair, and that breaks her. With mascara running down her face, she sets off through the office to find her former lover, Damon (Charles Esten), cussing out bystanders along the way. Damon claims he had nothing to do with her demotion, but he can’t blow her off, even by getting on the elevator. She pries the doors open, screaming, “I will kill you, motherfucker!” Next we see her, however, she’s at peace in a Hawaiian treatment center, meditating on the beach, doing yoga, sharing in group sessions and snorkeling with turtles. “I’m speaking with my true voice now, without bitterness or fear,” she says via voiceover. “And I’m here to tell you you can walk out of hell and into the light. You can wake up to your higher self. And when you do, the world is suddenly full of possibility, of wonder and deep connection. You can be patient, and you can be kind, and you can be wise and almost whole. You don’t have to run away from life your whole life. You can really live.”
The average American scoffs at such self-help talk, and back on the mainland, the transformed and hippie-looking Amy is greeted with confusion and wariness by those who knew her old self. But for the most part, she isn’t completely dismissed. How do you push away a woman who has battled with depression and had to seek treatment? Her former employers legally can’t, as Amy points out to the HR representatives when she returns to the office to get her job back. As they scramble to find a new job for her (her old buyer position is filled), Amy tries to connect with her mother, Helen (Diane Ladd, Dern’s real-life mother), with whom she is living, and her loserish ex husband, Levi (Luke Wilson), to whom she lends the book “Flow Through Your Rage.” Amy immediately stumbles on her path toward closure, however, showing up at Damon’s house after he ducks her phone calls and office visits. His harsh dismissal of Amy — calling not only their affair a mistake, but her a mistake — ignites her anger, but after she accidentally rams his car with hers, twice, she calms down and offers her insurance card. Yes, rage can be destructive.
There’s a sweetness to Amy, a genuine desire to be a better person, and Dern plays her perfectly. She could be incredibly annoying, but her energy and positivity generally make others want to help her, not hurt her. Dern has been sparing in her acting choices; most viewers probably see her as the doctor from Jurassic Park, or the woman who helped Ellen DeGeneres come out of the closet on “Ellen,” or the poet Toby Ziegler had a crush on in “The West Wing.” In “Enlightened,” she reminds us she is an actress with incredible depth who isn’t afraid to look like a fool. She’s lovable, and so is Amy. Amy will surely go too far and be too cloying in her quest for enlightenment; what makes sense at a treatment center can seem absurd in the harsher real world, where Amy won’t be in as complete control of her life as she’d like. (Previews for future episodes reveal she’ll be stuck in monotonous computer data job, where she’ll work with White, not the most suitable outlet for her talents.) She’ll have to find a balance between the two worlds, staying both positive and realistic. But it’s a journey worth taking.
“Enlightened” airs Mondays at 9:30 p.m. ET on HBO.
Sarah Carlson has a front-row seat to the decline of the newspaper industry and lives in Alabama.