Saturday, March 09, 2013

Review: HBO's "Enlightened" is the best show you've never heard of

     Laura Dern as Amy Jellicoe in "Enlightened"
     Photo Credit: HBO

Since around its eighth season, Comedy Central's "South Park" has been known particularly for its sharp cultural satire. That isn't to say the show never did satirical episodes before that, mocking suburban life and celebrity culture - many consider the Ben Affleck/Jennifer Lopez skewering "Fat Butt and Pancake Head" from the seventh season to be the show's best episode. But Trey Parker and Matt Stone see season eight as the point where the show stopped being just an aimlessly wandering cartoon devoid of any law or precedent and started being the show whose six-day turnaround gave them television's first crack at a takedown of current events.

One of the seemingly less beloved episodes of "South Park," season 12's "Britney's New Look," was a dark examination of celebrity and tabloid culture through a story in which the boys, trying to sell a picture of Britney Spears to the paparazzi, push her to the breaking point as she puts a gun in her mouth and pulls the trigger. Spears survives the attempted suicide, despite the fact that she is now missing most of her head. And through the remainder of the episode, the boys attempt to help revitalize her career to no avail as Spears' critics continue to nitpick flaws in her appearance and vocals, barely registering that there's nothing above the flapping mouth that she can no longer speak out of. The episode's plot and themes pay homage to Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery," a good reminder that "South Park" apparently didn't learn to distance itself from esoteric parodies following their disastrous "Great Expectations" takeoff "Pip".

In the DVD commentary track for "Britney's New Look," Parker and Stone acknowledge that the episode's bleak and unattractive shell are off-putting to the audience, making it difficult for fans to appreciate the intended message. Specifically, Parker mentions that such an episode is one in a handful of episodes through the years of "South Park" that requires the full trust and acceptance of the viewer. You're either on the train or you're not, and if you're not, it's gonna be a 22 minute bummer.

HBO's "Enlightened" asks something similar of its viewers. It's a half hour show, but like so many of those on premium cable, it isn't really a comedy outside of awards purposes (its comedic moments are really limited to Timm Sharp's Dougie). Yet it's not quite a drama, because everything happening is so wonderfully ridiculous. "Dramedy" is a word that never had any positive meaning and yet has somehow lost all meaning, especially when you see things like the "Silver Linings Playbook" ad where Bradley Cooper explains that the movie is both "a drama and a comedy, much like life". This show defies classification like no other unique show that has come before it. Co-creator Mike White extended his hand and said "Come with me and I'll show you something awesome. Just trust me." And unless you were expecting highlights of his time on "The Amazing Race," he delivered.

Things are a little rough for Amy Jellicoe (Laura Dern in a Golden Globe winning performance) at the moment. Following a public breakdown at work, she heads for the Open Air Treatment Center in Hawaii. "Enlightened" picks up just as she returns home to Riverside, California, ready to make a fresh start and be an agent of change in the world. The thing is, Amy hasn't really changed at all, or at least not in the way she thinks. She's not coming back enlightened, as the title suggests (ironic titles, e.g. "Girls," are a favourite for HBO) - she's coming back a hippie looking to single-handedly right all the wrongs in her world. And of course, annoy and mortify the people who don't want anything to do with her since they last saw her screaming "I WILL KILL YOU MOTHERFUCKER!" into an elevator.

Likeable characters have not been the stars of this so-called "golden age of television". The Drapers, Whites, Mathisons, and Horvaths - misguided, unpleasant and occasionally straight up evil antiheroes - are the faces you tend to see during awards season. Amy Jellicoe is similarly misguided, annoying, and so lacks self-awareness that I'm not going to complain if someone watches a few episodes of "Enlightened" and decides they don't like it. But one of the things I like about it so much is that because Abaddonn Industries is filled with some really repugnant assholes, I can find myself empathizing with almost every character. Take this typical scene: Amy has approached her co-worker Janice (thank God Michaela Watkins is working, by the way - I'm still pissed that she was let go at "SNL" after only a year) with an inquiry about their supposedly mutual friend and Amy's old secretary Krista. Janice brushes the question off, since Krista wants as little to do with Amy as possible and Janice is her actual best friend, despite whatever Amy might think. And then two different opinions form in my head:

In support of Janice: "Okay Amy, this is like the seventh time in the course of the series that you've tried to talk to Janice. She hates your guts. Stop bothering her and just walk away. Why are you so stupid that you can't see this? I like you better when you have actual moments of self awareness."

In support of Amy: "Jesus, this Janice is such a bitch. You can't even nod and fake interest in this? She means well and you know that. Just because her presence mortifies you doesn't mean she isn't trying to be nice. Your blindness to Amy's good intentions are literally destroying the earth."

That's probably all you need to know about why "Enlightened" is only watched by about 200,000 people every week. Each episode is like its own short film. Most follow Amy, although three of their best episodes have focused on her mother Helen (season 1's outstanding "Consider Helen"), her junkie ex-husband Levi (season 2's "Higher Power"), and her co-worker/partner in crime Tyler, played by Mike White (season 2's "The Ghost is Seen"), respectively. And each episode unravels a little bit more of Amy's mentality and worldview. The deeper you go in, the clearer everything becomes. If there's one show that's probably best viewed through binge watching, it's "Enlightened," because as mentioned, as long as you're on the train, there's just no stopping things. Very few people opted not to bail after the first stop, but after three or four episodes, I knew I was hooked. I watched all 18 episodes in the last seven days and loved basically every minute of it.

Maybe too many of these antihero shows have desensitized me to what constitutes unlikeability. Some of the reviews I've read of this show describe Amy's interactions with people as "mortifying" and "cringe inducing". I don't think they're wrong, nor do I deny that's White's intention - the big Krista/Amy blowup in the second season finale was hard to watch even for my lowered bar. But at the end of the day, I'm totally in the tank for Amy Jellicoe and never feel the need to cover my eyes in the way I might during the most mortifying moments in "Girls" (and in rewatching Mike White's "School of Rock" today, I found Dewey stumbling his way through parents' night harder to watch than most of "Enlightened"). The intention of the writing is also to feel bad for her, but something about White's writing style is just so comforting to me and strangely easygoing beneath the surface, despite the train wreck that's actually happening on screen. I don't find Amy to be a barrier to entry because I understand her. She believes in something very strongly and while she might not necessarily understand that she's being annoying, she sure as hell doesn't care in the fleeting moments when she does know. As much as she loves herself and never doubts for a second that she will one day be regarded as a modern day global hero, she puts what she cares about before herself. Basically, she's a human being. She has hypocritical beliefs and conflicting emotions. She has serious flaws and generally doesn't handle human interaction very well. But all of those things come from very authentic damaged places and make her a fascinating study on human behaviour. "Enlightened" isn't afraid of exploring anyone or anything, and it depicts those things in such a simple, effortless way. With each passing episode, Mike White gave me all the answers before I had to ask the questions. I could just sit back and process every insane, paradigm destroying moment that was playing out in front of me because he's such an excellent storyteller. And knowing that I'm the exception that proves the rule makes me more appreciative for my own personal viewing experience.

Even if that sounded like the most glowing review I've ever written, it still seems like I'm not doing the show justice. Like its categorization, "Enlightened" defies written criticism and analysis in the way that it defies contemporary storytelling and artistic precedent or anything else it pulls off. It's an experience that needs to be seen to be believed, and likely one that will be happening for many people over the following decade as they discover the show on DVD or HBO Go, or hopefully, a few dozen more new episodes on HBO.

Thankfully, several critics have been beating the drum for "Enlightened" over the last few weeks to prevent that, hoping to convince people to seek the show out immediately and for HBO to renew the series for a third season. And if I'm HBO, I see no reason not to renew it. If "Girls" and "Enlightened" are both relatively inexpensive shows that draw huge amounts of critical praise on a network that doesn't rely on advertisers, why renew the 600,000 viewer audience for "Girls" and cancel the 200,000 viewer audience for "Enlightened"? There are subscribers begging for renewal (yeah, some of them are me) - why dump it just to end up looking bad?

In Sunday (March 3) night's season finale, Levi tells Amy, "You have more hope than most people's a beautiful thing to have a little hope for the world." I'm still fully on board the "Enlightened" Express, and I have a great deal of hope that one of the most engaging shows I've seen in a long time will get to keep chugging.