End of Season Report: Season 1 of Enlightened

25 Mar

Amy Jellicoe

I reviewed Enlightened when it first aired, and I wasn’t that impressed.  There may have been a number of reasons I decided not to come back for a second episode, but far and away the main one was that I couldn’t stand the main character, Amy Jellicoe, portrayed by Laura Dern.  Not merely that I hated her; I’ve loved several shows where I’ve disliked the main character with various degrees of intensity.  Rather, I found her incredibly annoying.  Some of this was due to the British comedy type of awkwardness, but it was more than that, because, even though I’m as uncomfortable with the awkwardness as anyone else, I’ve become pretty good at getting through it.  More than that, I didn’t like watching her, and I didn’t feel like I gained enough from putting up with her irritating personality.

However, I’ve been wrong before and I’ll be wrong again, and when the internet and friends both combined to tell me that Enlightened was worth watching, I decided to head on over to HBO on demand to give the show another shot.  With so much praise from all quarters, I decided to go in whole hog, marathoning the entire (admittedly short) first  season over a weekend, and I’m glad I did.  The problem with watching it in a compressed period of time is not the length, the episodes are only a half hour long and there aren’t that many of them; it’s that it’s extremely depressing.

Main character Amy Jellicoe is a former corporate executive for a huge faceless company who suffered a nervous breakdown, attended an island rehab center which focused on the power of positive thinking, and then came back to work, determined to change both herself and her work life.  She’s now focus on things that really matter like the environment rather than the corporate bullshit she strove towards for the past fifteen years when she was only driven to climb the career ladder.  However, when she comes back to work, she’s only given a job because of legal reasons, and is demoted to a particularly meaningless job in the basement on a secret program designed to measure worker productivity and figure out who to lay off.

On one hand, Amy is extremely irritating, naive, has no sense of decorum, and kind of had this coming.  She was the one who broke down, while everyone else seems to manage to just shut up and do their work, and even when she has opportunities, she just doesn’t know when to talk and when to listen, and when to bide her time for even just a short while.  That said, as we peer deeper into her life through later episodes, it’s hard also not to feel for her at least somewhat.  She has no good friends, and her only close relations are her depressed and repressed mother and her depressed and drug-addled ex-husband.  And we can also understand or empathize with what it’s like to be crushed in corporate America, doing work that is not merely useless busy work, but actually hurting other regular people while lining the pockets of the one percenters at the top.  This is all magnified by her boss, a tech savant who wrote the program her group is working on, who acts like a cool boss, but is an immature douche at heart who is given free reign by his superiors to pretty much treat the workers however he wants because it’s his program.

One of the best episodes of the season explored the point of view of Amy’s mother, Helen (played by Laura Dern’s real life mom, Diane Ladd), who is even more depressing than Amy.  While Amy at least shoots for the stars, only to get knocked down time and again, Helen has given in to life and has largely stopped trying.  We see some of the background behind how Helen became negative and anti-social, and one particularly sad scene showed her running into a perky high-energy grandmother she was acquainted with in a grocery store, and having to listen to stories about kids and grand kids, while seeming desperately uncomfortable having to explain that her only daughter is back living at home.

I don’t think I’d want to spend more than a couple minutes with Amy, and I didn’t think I wanted to watch her either, but there was a lot more to Enlightened than met the eye, and I improbably still found myself rooting for her by the end of the season to at least move up and regain some minimal amount of control of her life.  We can also understand her feeling of resignation when, after pursuing a job that will fulfill her personally at a homeless shelter, she realizes she’ll never be able to pay down her debt with the salary they offer.  Everyone deserves better than this.  Even irritating Amy Jellicoe doesn’t deserve be trampled on by the world over and over.

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