Kelly Stitzel begins the journey with Laura Dern and Mike White as they search for enlightenment.
Enlightened (Mondays, 9:30 P.M., HBO) Laura Dern has always been one of my favorite actresses, so I was excited to learn that she was going to be starring in a new show on HBO this fall. And when I found out she had co-created the series with writer/director/actor Mike White (Chuck & Buck, The Good Girl, Year of the Dog), I knew Enlightened was going to be something special. And I was right.
Amy Jellico (Dern) is an executive who, after have a nervous breakdown at work, goes to a rehab center in Hawaii and comes back a completely different, ”enlightened,” person. She attempts to take what she’s learned at the rehab center and reconstruct her life, to try and make it better this time. She goes back to work at her former company, tries to improve her relationship with her mother (Diane Ladd, Dern’s real-life mother, who is fantastic in this first episode), attempts to make amends with the colleague she angrily confronted in the midst of her breakdown, and reconnects with her druggie ex-husband (Luke Wilson). She does all this while trying to maintain her new-found calm and content state of mind, which proves to be more difficult than she thought it would be.
A couple of things struck me immediately about Enlightened’s first episode. First, Dern is incredible. She deftly portrays Amy’s breakdown, and subsequent enlightenment, putting to good use every bit of intensity she’s learned studying under David Lynch for so long — the first elevator scene alone would easily fit into a Lynch film. Some of Amy’s behavior is over-the-top, and Dern could’ve turned Amy into a caricature, both ”before enlightenment” and ”after enlightenment,” but she doesn’t. And just when she comes close to being really irritating with her exaggerated tranquility, you see her slip and realize that she’s still fighting an uphill battle, just like the rest of us, and enlightenment may end up meaning something completely different as her story continues.
Another thing that struck me is how this episode seemed very much like a Mike White short film — and that’s a good thing. Everything about its pacing, dialogue and the style in which its filmed reminded me of some of White’s other work, particularly Year of the Dog. The styles of Dern and White may not seem like they would work well together, but they do. There is a good balance here, one that, if maintained, will make for some great television.
The first season of Enlightened is slated to last 10 episodes and I’m really looking forward to seeing how Amy’s story plays out. I hope this show finds an audience and does well enough to return for a second season. If the rest of the episodes are as good as the first, I think it will prove to be one of the more interesting and refreshing shows on television.