Girls is going to dominate the discussion of television tomorrow, Golden Globes be damned, but a small but loyal band of people like myself are not looking forward so much to the return of Girls as we are to the same of Enlightened. HBO is trying to boost Enlightened’s anemic ratings by pairing it with Girls (whose ratings are better, if not as stratospheric as one might expect given the breathless coverage), and please God let us hope it works. Enlightened is one of the few strokes of real, original storytelling left in prestige television right now, which is clogged with high-minded but philosophically empty, spectacle-bloat vanity projects like Boardwalk Empire, Game of Thrones and, yes, even Mad Men’s later seasons. Also, for the leftists in us, it has a nice anti-corporate bent as a bonus prize.
Enlightened, for the uninitiated, stars Laura Dern as Amy Jellicoe, a woman who, in short, cracked up at the beginning of the first season over a workplace affair. She sent herself off to Hawaii to recover, returning with a new, Buddhist-inflected attitude about life, and a $25,000 treatment bill. So she has little choice but to return to the scene of the crime, and through a well-timed threat of a harassment suit, manages to force the company to give her a position. But she’s relegated to a new department, a basement in which the company is developing a kind of productivity software that will allow bosses to hound employees over every dilatory second of the day. In the first season, Amy became a sort of frog willing to jump out of this pot of hot water. Her motives are both self-serving (she would like a better job) and not (she has become convinced that the company’s business model). Season two is to trace her life as a corporate whistleblower.
The show is the creation of Mike White, a writer who isn’t yet a household name but whose style—as both a writer and an actor—is impossible to confuse with anyone else’s. Watch his movies Chuck & Buck or Year of the Dog and you will see, instantly, what I mean. The comedy of it, to the extent it even is a comedy, exists in moments of discomfort. That makes White sound like a British comedian, but he’s more full-hearted than someone like, say, Ricky Gervais. White’s style suggests a cynic who is not sure he should be a cynic, but also an idealist who doesn’t know he’s an idealist. In other words, there’s always this tension in the heart of what he’s doing, something that is not so much self-doubt as it is self-questioning. Even the title is meant to convey that: Is Amy enlightened? It’s mostly hard to tell.