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« Interview: 'Tanna' Directors Martin Butler and Bentley Dean on Australian Cinema, Oscar Season and Movies They Love | Main | Mia Wasikowska is "Piercing" »
Friday
Feb102017

Laura Dern Week: "Enlightened" (2011-2013)

Manuel here capping off Laura Dern Week on her 50th birthday.

Enlightened’s Amy Jellicoe is one of the most indelible television characters of the 21st century. And while that sounds like hyperbole, it may very well be an understatement. Pitched as a show “about a woman on the verge of a nervous breakthrough” (gotta love that wordplay) Mike White’s two-season wonder of a show was a quiet meditation on low-key Cali self-empowerment in the age of bitter cynicism. The HBO production was also a great performance showcase for co-creator Laura Dern who rightly won a Golden Globe for her portrayal of Amy, a woman whom we first meet while having a full-on breakdown at work. And it’s a thing of beauty...

Tears are streaming down and strewing mascara all over her face. She’s locked herself in a bathroom stall cry her eyes out, but even as we get our first full look at Amy Jellicoe, employee of Abbadon industries, you can tell there’s something more to those tears. They’re not filled with mere regret or sadness or frustration over what we learn is her imminent firing given that she slept with her boss (who’s now expecting a child with his wife, oops!). There’s an incandescent self-righteous anger. As you see her finally let loose on her colleagues and her former lover, who cautiously tries to steer clear of her as if afraid he’ll be tainted by her hysterics, you see that anger consume her. As her well-meaning assistant tells her, “Amy, you look insane.” She really does look deranged, especially once you see her railing less against the indignity of having everyone know about the affair and more about the way it’s infringing on the small world she’d created for herself in the Health & Beauty department at Abbadon. By the time White gives us the now iconic image of Amy keeping an elevator door open wide enough to yell “I will kill you motherfucker!” you just know you’re in for a treat.

When the episode (and the show itself) switches into its more calming mood, with Amy having found peace while on a program of sorts in Hawaii, we’re encouraged to follow along her path towards becoming a better person and help make the world a better place. “I'm speaking with my true voice now,” she tells us, “without bitterness or fear 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 the possibility of wonder and deep connection.”

White’s show is pitch-perfect when it comes to pitting Amy’s decision to live up to her higher self against the horrid world around her which almost begs her to stoop to its level. And Dern matches him in her ability to juggle these two opposing forces. Look at that moment in the pilot where she’s being summarily fired upon her return and, while keeping her earnest smile in place, she basically retaliates with threats of legal action (as she’d learnt before being sent off, her mental breakdown basically protected her from being dismissed as it would amount to discrimination). And while she doesn’t get her way—a social program that would help offset some of the damage Abbadon does to the environment—she does get to stay employed. She’s banished to the basement where she becomes a lowly data processor.

With her Cali accent and oppressively sunny disposition, Dern’s Amy Jellicoe refuses to be discouraged and every episode where we see more of Amy’s journey (and learn more about what led her to that breakdown in the office) is a masterclass in acting. Whether suppressing an angry tirade or dreaming up yet another way to stay positive, Dern is just wonderful as Amy, an anti-heroine that makes earnestness as powerful a tool as you’re bound to find in this day and age.

Bonus: the show is as interested in checking her own privilege as it is in dismantling the very system that gifts it to her.

Bonus (2): the show is a godsend for us GIF-loving gays.

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Reader Comments (15)

I loved ENLIGHTENED. Never have I been so embarrassed for and made so uncomfortable by a character, yet I still really liked Amy and wanted to things to look up for her. It's always a pleasure to see Laura act with her mother, but the casting of Diane Ladd is especially effective here because their lived in relationship really drives home how far Amy has fallen and it makes the regression she's experienced from her breakdown and its fallout all the more believable.

My favorite Laura Dern performance (just above WILD AT HEART and CITIZEN RUTH).

That scene where she thinks she and her ex (played by Luke Wilson) are finally experiencing a moment of real connection and understanding and then he pulls out the tray of cocaine and does a line to her horror is one of the most shockingly funny filmed moments I've ever seen! HAHAHA...

February 10, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterRyan Crowe

Cruel HBO canceled it in season two. Especially when the writing became stronger. There's a scene where Amy is at a fancy dinner and one of the servers approaches her and is basically Amy and she brushes him off like anyone would do her because she felt superior to this person.

February 10, 2017 | Unregistered Commenter/3rtful

One of the greatest shows ever on cable. Laura Dern is so heartbreaking even while making you double over with laughter. Now I need to watch both seasons again.

February 10, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

HBO is not cruel ... I have only reading this blog site for a couple of months now . I find your comments usually negative or self-congratulatory.

Everyone else, for the most part, is positive.. If they do not like something, they do not go for the words "hate" "cruel", etc.

When you watch Kidman in Big Little Lies you will probably LOVE LOVE LOVE HBO!

Get hold of yourself and go with the flow. This is for /3rtful

February 10, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterMax

Fuck off freak and ignore me like the others do. Unless of course I write something they happen to agree with.

@Max

February 10, 2017 | Unregistered Commenter/3rtful

I agree....Enlightened was just hitting its stride when it got cancelled. Would love to see more.

And, as brilliant as Laura Dern is in the show....I have to give a special shout out to the Molly Shannon episode in season 2. One of my favorite 30 mins of television ever. Whenever I need a good cry, I watch it.

February 10, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterCorey

I can't decide which was more wonderful/mindblowing: the show, her character or her performance. On the strengths of this and Inland Empire alone, I've no doubt she belongs on any list of great actresses of the century

February 10, 2017 | Unregistered Commentergoran

One of the best series ever on television.

February 11, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterCinesnatch

I think ENLIGHTENED ended at a really great spot considering the storyline had run its course. But, of course, the show was so good and Dern was so good on it that I definitely would not have said no to more. In fact, White and Dern should considering doing a third season maybe in a year or so mid-T****. Like Manuel says, the show is a gift of GIF lovers, and there are so many to use to illustrate tweets. Their words are so on point now more than they were before.

February 11, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn Dunks

Why do people attack /3rtful when he doesn't say anything horrible? Like guys, just wait two or three comments from now when he crosses the line and you have cause to be annoyed. Sheesh.

February 11, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterHenry

@Henry. He is new to me but I am learning!

February 11, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterMax

Great series, I wish it had run longer. One of the best shows of the last five years.

February 11, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterDoctor Strange

Thank you for defending me. I know I say disagreeable things in a harsh manner. But I don't randomly attack members here unless provoked.

@Henry

February 11, 2017 | Unregistered Commenter/3rtful

I love this how and I think Laura rocks with all her manic scenes!

February 11, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJans

I love this show so much. Not only is it dark and hilarious but it also has moments of true beauty. Dern is such a treasure. I'm so glad it dropped the storyline about her ex/co-worker and opened up her world in such an interesting way.

February 14, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterDJDeeJay

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