A new television show I enjoy watching is Laura Dern's Enlightened, currently showing on Sky. It's a strange little show, only a half hour long, with Dern as the main character who is frighteningly off-balance and, as one of her workplace friends called her, angry. Her character, Amy, is both repulsive and someone who you root for, in the main because Dern is so good at conveying how hard this woman is struggling to deal with her life and its disappointments.
Amy really is angry, very angry, and we are watching a woman who has already had a nervous breakdown teetering on the edge of having another one. She knows she isn't 'cured' but she is trying so hard to use what she learned on her recent therapy 'retreat' and apply it to her life - and it isn't quite working. At least, not how it's supposed to work in the New Age incense-and-crystal-holistic-food-centered-and-one-with-life way the self help books she uses as her new bible tell her it should. Instead, because she is trying so hard, each episode we are treated to watching her struggle to understand herself and the people around her; our, and her, reward is each step she takes brings her closer towards accepting herself for who she is.
Yet this is precisely why she is on the verge of another nervous breakdown. Amy IS angry, and, as we come to find out, not without good reason. In this modern society, though, there's a certain type of personality that doesn't express itself, much less anger, for fear of rejection. Amy is like that, and she projects an over-the-top cheerfulness that is truly scary because of the anger and conflict seething underneath its facade. Amy is learning to 'let go' and confront things in her life, learning to decide whether she really needs to hold on to someone else's issues or her instinctive dysfunctional reactions, but she still takes in a lot of hurt moments that are cruel and unfair. Eventually, she will snap, and Dern does a terrific job of showing us a woman who is desperately balanced between being unhinged and genuinely striving towards Enlightenment. She is also achingly good at portraying a very lonely woman who deceives herself about how lonely she really is.
This is a quirky show that doesn't fall into what could become cliche. Amy, once a high-powered executive before her mental breakdown, now works in a basement with other 'misfits' whom the company, for liability reasons, can't get rid of. You sense the show could go in a direction where Amy finds that all misfits are really people too, gosh darn-it, but instead, Amy's combination of utter clueless-ness, self-delusion, and genuineness makes it more about the realization that she is a misfit. But where does she really want to fit? Is the answer she is seeking to be found in others' acceptance
of her, or will it be her acceptance of herself?
What is the Enlightenment that the title of the show refers to? Is it the moment when someone becomes truly free with themselves? The supporting cast offer alternatives Amy can choose; different versions of people locked up inside themselves, such as her mother. Played by Diane Ladd, Amy's mom doesn't say very much. She silently observes with a wonderful look of 'I can't believe this crap' that has all the patience of a saint. She spends her time tending her rose garden, which is seriously beautiful, and
reminding her daughter that while soul-searching may feel good, she also has to get her affairs in order and be practical about things. One episode examines this contrast when Amy's car is broken down and her mother won't let Amy borrow hers. Amy thinks its unfair, as she has to take the bus to work and it's a week of California rain, but her mother stands firm. Amy has to learn how to take care of things. Perhaps the rose garden is a metaphor for that - only when you care for and tend to all of your garden, that is when its beauty will bloom.
Another character Amy struggles with is her former assistant at work, who was promoted to Amy's executive position in her absence, and is now pregnant. Obviously, that could have been Amy's life, and that realization, in both women, is palpable. Yet what seems like the perfect life doesn't actually come across as perfect. In contrast to Amy's frighteningly on-the-edge desperation of a woman undone, the character Krista, played by Sarah Burn, is confined by expectations and the world of sanity: back
stabbing, false friends, selfish, cruel, and shallow behavior. The false friendship between the two and the unease Krista feels around Amy, as if she is in a room with a bomb that could go off with the slightest push, is well played between the two actresses. Krista has her own struggles too, as she feels guilty for replacing Amy, and for rejecting her; she is smart enough to recognize Amy's issues - and is the person who astutely observed her anger - but she knows to fit in she has to play the game, and to win at that game she has to reject people like Amy.
Other aspects of the show examine Amy's relationship with her ne'er do-well slacker ex-husband, and the reasons for their break-up, as well as looking at how a friend she made during her retreat had the ability to plug the hole of her loneliness for a short time and contribute to her growth when she confronted the truth of how she was using that friendship to make herself feel better.
A lot of food for thought this quirky little show provides, unexpectedly in a world of television that doesn't normally look so closely at the way people can so easily fall apart. Laura Dern does a fantastic, uncomfortable job of conveying a woman dealing with a lot of mental pain that makes this show worth watching every week.