TV Rewind: The Bold Brilliance of Enlightened and Its Timeless Legacy

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TV Rewind: The Bold Brilliance of <i>Enlightened</i> and Its Timeless Legacy

Editor’s Note: Welcome to our TV Rewind column! The Paste writers are diving into the streaming catalogue to discuss some of our favorite classic series as well as great shows we’re watching for the first time. Come relive your TV past with us, or discover what should be your next binge watch below:

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With the recent success of Mike White’s satirical dark comedy The White Lotus, now seems like the perfect time to remind everyone that his earlier show, the brilliant, often poetic, but short-lived HBO series Enlightened, is one of the greatest things that has ever graced our televisions. Co-created by White and Laura Dern, who also stars as the show’s lead character, Enlightened has a relatively simple premise. It centers on Dern’s Amy Jellicoe, a woman aspiring to be an agent of change, as she’s on a mission to better herself and the crooked corporate world she lives in.

When we first meet Amy, she’s having a meltdown at work after finding out that she’s been transferred from the Health and Beauty department to the less-elegant Cleaning Supplies. She suspects that the reason she’s transferred is because she slept with her superior and their affair had come to an ugly end. Angry and humiliated, with mascara running down her cheeks, Amy goes to confront him, forcing open an elevator door and swearing she’s going to destroy his life.

Following that public nervous breakdown, Amy decides to take a one-month leave to attend a wellness retreat in Hawaii, and comes back an almost completely different woman—emphasis on the almost. But she’s trying to be more forgiving and caring about things other than herself. A protest on the street invigorates her. A news headline about a mother being deported makes her angry and inspires her to do something good. She wants to make real changes and create a better world.

But in Amy’s world, change is not something that’s easily accomplished. After she’s demoted to work in a new department down in the basement of her office along with the other outcasts, Amy finds out about all the bad deeds that her company has been doing. At first, she proposes an idea to create a community outreach program, basically attempting to make changes from within the system. But when her ideas get rejected, one after another, by HR and the executives, she realizes that the only way to enact change is by recruiting an outside force.

Amy’s quest to become a social justice warrior and a woman trying to rebuild her life after a professional and personal setback is the show’s main core throughout two seasons. But just like how The White Lotus evolves from just a hilarious vacation comedy into a critique on white privileges and class divide, Enlightened also keeps morphing into something a lot more complicated as it goes on. On the one hand, yes, it mostly chronicles the drama of Amy’s life, observing the fractured relationships she has with her mom Helen (played by Dern’s real-life mom Diane Ladd) and her drug-addict ex-husband Levi (Luke Wilson), as well as her journey to make a positive impact on her surroundings. But on the other hand, the show is also a social commentary on capitalism and justice, addressing how our society is rigged on behalf of the rich while at the same time asking us to think hard about what we can do to dismantle that system. Even in Season 2, the show kept finding ways to reinvent itself; among other things, it became a whistleblower drama.

Enlightened was a show about so many things that it’s nearly impossible to put it in one box. Perhaps that was the reason why it struggled to find an audience when it aired a decade ago. Most viewers couldn’t quite determine what the show was about, and even fewer were ready to experience its constant tonal shifts from tragedy to comedy to hopeful spiritual drama to satire. That Amy is not always easy to root for—she’s irritating and constantly makes questionable choices—is an even tougher sell. So, despite an outpouring of support from critics, HBO decided to cancel the show not long after the Season 2 finale dropped.

But the fact that Enlightened is not just one thing is actually the reason why it’s so brilliant, and different from any other series. The show didn’t exactly follow any rules or any sort of conventional forms. If anything, it challenged those rules. If it wanted to zoom out from Amy to focus solely on the other characters like Helen, Levi, or White’s own character Tyler (Amy’s coworker who has a crush on her), it did. If it wanted to spend an entire episode without any plot other than just observing Amy as she herself was observing the people around her, it also did that. This may not seem too revolutionary right now, but at a time where the norm for TV was a show with just one gritty storyline and a complicated, sometimes unlikeable, male lead, what White dared to do with Enlightened felt groundbreaking and ahead of its time.

When we take a look back at 2011, the year when Enlightened premiered, it’s not really difficult to notice that the number of shows with complex female leads was relatively low. Amy Jellicoe, along with Homeland’s Carrie Mathison and Damages’ Patty Hewes, was among a new wave of female TV characters who were not only deep, but allowed to be as unlikeable as their male counterparts. And though Enlightened might not directly influence or inspire other female-centered shows that came after it, Amy sure did become a trailblazer for characters like Fleabag or Russian Doll’s Nadia.

The brilliance behind the way White wrote Amy and the other characters lies in the fact that he never treated them just as a means to move the plot or to convey all the ideas he wanted to explore, but simply as flawed, complicated human beings. Amy may be constantly unable to read the room and does things that make us cringe throughout the show, but her actions never feel too cartoonish. If anything, she’s as real as someone we know or that we’ve been at some point in our life. That’s why, even when it’s not easy to love her, there’s always some part of her—especially her desire to enact positive change—that touches our souls and breaks our hearts so deeply. Amy is, after all, just a woman trying to do good things and speak her truth, but who has to face so many challenges both from inside and outside herself. To know that she keeps marching forward and stays hopeful despite those challenges is inspiring.

In essence, the legacy that Amy and Enlightened left behind was a reminder for us to not give up in the name of justice. We may have a bad past, we may clash with a lot of people on our journey of effecting positive change, our friends and family may deem us as too much, the root of our motivations may not always be altruistic, but all of that doesn’t necessarily negate the good intentions inside our heart. In a society that encourages us to stay silent, and as a result makes us apathetic, the only way we can fight back is by doing the complete opposite. We may not succeed on our first try, but what matters is that we keep trying. In Amy’s own words, “You can wake up to your higher self. And you can change and be an agent of change.”

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Reyzando Nawara is a TV and film journalist from Indonesia. He’s mostly talking about Asian representation, foods, and mental health on Twitter. When he’s not busy watching TV and movies, or writing about them, he likes to spend his day in the kitchen, trying new recipes and mostly making sorbet.

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