There are some downsides to HBO’s Enlightened. It is painfully sincere. It riffs on commercialized, New Age-y self-help. It satirizes corporate America in a way that makes you wonder if it is really satire after all. But I find myself recommending the show anyway.
I haven’t really seen anything like it. I cringed a lot. I felt uncomfortable. But I didn’t stop watching. There’s a tension in the show, which totters between rage and earnestness. These extremes are broadcasted on the face of the protagonist, Amy, played by Laura Dern. Everyone is a bit of a caricature, which is the show’s main method of comedic delivery. You know these types, oh you know them. But many of the characters are given time to show complexity, as character development is the core of the series. The casting is stellar, and as much as I enjoyed Dern’s performance, I thought Luke Wilson, who plays her character’s ex-husband, Levi, stole the show. Amy and Levi are co-dependent messes, leaning on each other as they battle demons within and without. It is sometimes hard to tell the difference, which is one the series’ clever tricks. How much can we blame on the external forces of society or the corporate machine, and how much should we blame ourselves? Where does our individual identity end and another’s begin?
These heavy themes contribute to the uncomfortable strain between dark comedy and Amy’s cloying optimism. But it’s perhaps a necessary combination to cut through the slick cynicism of much of today’s television. At the end of each episode they cue the New Age wisdom, but by the time you get there your reaction isn’t eye rolling. It’s tears. It’s relief. It’s a very self-aware acknowledgement of the truth of the character’s moral insight.
So if you like to be put through the wringer emotionally, watch Enlightened. But you have been warned.