Saturday, March 23, 2013

Enlightened [television review]

Season one now available on DVD and Blu-ray; season two concluded on March 3rd and is currently re-airing on HBO and HBO Canada

Well, another great underappreciated TV show bites the dust. Almost two months ago, it was 30 Rock (which I reviewed here) and now HBO's Enlightened falls victim to viewer apathy, as the announcement came earlier this week that the comedy-drama would not be renewed for a third season after its now-final show aired on March 3rd, for a total of just 18 episodes. The announcement shouldn't have come as a surprise - Enlightened's premiere in October 2011 attracted just 210,000 U.S. viewers and the March 3rd finale just 220,000 viewers, numbers which are very low by HBO standards. By comparison, the buzz-heavy Girls on the network drew 632,000 viewers for its season two finale this past Sunday and even those numbers are considered poor for HBO. Keep in mind that all of these numbers only reflect the premiere airing of those episodes and not the additional viewership from repeat airings and online viewing. As Enlightened's co-creator/writer/director/executive producer/co-star Mike White told before the cancellation, "Girls has so much buzz and not great numbers. We have less buzz and less numbers. It actually hurts us. In a way, Girls is the show that they go, 'Well, even if the ratings aren't great...'. If Girls was doing huge numbers and we were still doing bad numbers, then we could be more the pro bono case. But Girls is like the pro bono case." 

The show stars (sorry, starred...I'm still working through the denial process after Enlightened's passing) Laura Dern as Amy Jellicoe, a forty-something corporate executive at the fictional Abadonn Industries whose self-destructive tendencies lead to a meltdown at work, necessitating a 30 day stay at a holistic rehab centre in Hawaii. Returning spiritually awakened and eager to be "an agent of change" in the world, Amy's optimistic attitude is tested by her financially forced living arrangement with her difficult mother (played by Diane Ladd, Dern's real-life mother), the fast-paced and often-times mean world, a contentious relationship with her troubled ex-husband Levi (played by Luke Wilson), and a humiliating demotion at Abadonn to their Cogentiva subsidiary, where Amy finds herself working in the bowels of the company's building doing a soul-sucking data entry job for a horrid boss named Dougie (played by Timm Sharp). Season two's main plot found Amy enlisting the computer expertise of mousy co-worker Tyler (played by White) to help her blow the whistle on the corporate malfeasance of Abadonn that she stumbles across. 

It's not too difficult to see why Enlightened didn't connect with HBO subscribers. Dern's Amy is naive, overearnest, self-absorbed, abrasive, and just plain flaky - that's a tough sell for a protagonist in a 30 minute show. The show's understated New Age-y affectations probably didn't help, either. But as insufferable as Amy could be, she was also completely fascinating to watch, a character of extreme contradictions whose newly found big ideals of peace, love, and righting injustices clashed with an innate impulse to rage at the world and, more often than not, alienate those close to her. Dern, who created the show with White and also serves as an executive producer, is outstanding in the role and it's a crying shame the character's arc will be such a truncated one. The surrounding cast is top-notch as well: White's uncomfortable-in-his-own-skin loner character delivers many sweet and poignant moments, Ladd's nosy and rightfully worried mother adds just the right amount of headaches for her daughter, Tripp's douchey Dougie provides some welcome comic relief, Wilson's addiction-embattled Levi serves up enough bitter cynicism to counter Amy's rose-coloured aspirations, and the addition of a surprisingly impressive Molly Shannon this season only strengthened an already exceptional cast. Even Dermot Mulroney, who I normally absolutely hate in anything he appears in, turns out to be quite good as both the journalist conduit for Amy's whistleblowing plan and her romantic interest. 

White, knowing the show was likely doomed, brought things to as satisfying a conclusion as could be hoped for, especially when he had only eight episodes to work with in a shortened season two. Hopefully, the darkly funny, contemplative, and gone-too-soon Enlightened finds a cult audience in the years to come. 

Rating: A

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