Enlightened is a HBO comedy-drama television show that aired between 2011 and 2013 before it was rudely cancelled by the studio. It centres on the character of Amy Jellicoe, played spectacularly by Laura Dern, who has a nervous breakdown at work after being demoted by the boss she’s been having an affair with. Following this public spectacle she disappears to Hawaii for a month for therapy before returning with newfound ‘enlightenment’ where she then tries to find her place back in the corporate world.
Season one of the two season show focuses on Amy readjusting to the real world following her ‘wellness retreat’ style therapy in a Hawaiian paradise where she learnt all about self-healing and using positivity to help others, and being the change you want to see in the world. She uses narration at the beginning and end of each episode following her existential thinking and meditating on how her life is and how it can improve, and how she learns daily how to be better.
Before she left for Hawaii, Amy had been through several life trials. She was divorced following a miscarriage which lead her to have an affair with her boss that ultimately caused a demotion at her work to keep her silent. Her workplace, Abaddon Industries is a global corporation that touts health and wellness products from natural ingredients, but is actually using harmful chemicals that pollute and poison people. Unsurprisingly, “Abaddon” can also be translated from Latin as “Hell”.
Once Amy returns to Riverside, California (just outside of LA), she tries to go back to her position as an executive within Abaddon after she states several times she’s worked there for fifteen years. HR are concerned they might face a lawsuit if they don’t take Amy back as she’s been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. However, given her very public breakdown and terrifying exit, HR instead demote her to the basement as a data entry drone. She naturally struggles to come to terms with this new reality as she deems it well below her skillset as a ‘people person’ in the health and beauty department upstairs with the other executives she spent fifteen years with.
Throughout the first season we see Amy use her newfound life wisdom to help herself seek a higher level of living, but she also tries to push these ideals on those around her that aren’t as ready to change. This includes her overbearing yet emotionally cold mother (Diane Ladd, Dern’s mother in reality), her bitter drug-taking ex-husband (Luke Wilson), and some of her ex-colleagues and current ones.
The focus on Amy and her development in the beginning of season one is on her idealistic perspectives seemingly not changing a lot of the inner behaviours that have been cemented following years of self-destructive behaviour. The way Amy flips between two sides of her personality, from ‘free-spirited’ and ‘enlightened’ to raging over being called out on her bullshit, is played so well by Dern. It’s a really nuanced portrayal and the way she shifts her body language when she goes between the two sides so effortlessly is really well done. I don’t think any other actress could have portrayed the character with such finesse while still remaining somewhat enduring. Dern received an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Lead Actress In A Comedy Series in 2013 for the role. Amy is a self-righteous arsehole at times, but you can see the intent she has, it’s just the execution and the way she words things that comes across as ‘holier than thou’.
Season one begins to ramp up as you see Amy start to channel her newfound energy into uncovering what Abaddon has been up to all these years after she reads several articles about pollution and harmful toxins in people’s bodies.
The focus shifts away from Amy near the end of season one, with spotlight episodes focusing instead on her ex-husband, and her mother, which provide a lot of great moments for Wilson and Ladd respectively to show the audience why Amy is the way she is, and who she was before we met her in the pilot episode. I loved the season one finale and the way it culminated that I actually had to let it sit for a few days before I continued with season two. There are only eight episodes in season two and some of these are also Amy-lite, and spotlight some of the other characters, such as her reserved and timid colleague Tyler (played by Ned Schneebly himself, Mike White). White wrote every episode himself without a writer’s room, and it’s a testament to his writing ability given how concise and satisfying the overall story was. Especially following the season two finale, and seeing how full-circle Amy’s life had come.
I initially remember seeing Laura Dern advertise the show on Ellen back in 2011 and I thought it would be interesting, especially since the advertisements all focus on the initial meltdown at work within the pilot. It’s a really great hook.
However, the show was unavailable to me back in 2011 without Foxtel, and now that it’s on streaming service Binge, I figured I now have a chance to watch it. I watched the pilot one afternoon and it didn’t exactly hook me past the meltdown. I was also tentative toward the show premise, however, after leaving it for a few weeks, I decided to pick it back up, and I’m glad I did. I read plenty of reviews stating how it was worth it, how the show was cancelled too soon, and how it became somewhat of an underrated gem of television ahead of its time. And I agree with all of these sentiments.
I am also glad I waited to watch the show. At the time it aired I was 17, now I’m 28. I have a corporate office job in a big organisation. I have experience in existential crises and wanting to see change in the world. I think what makes this show so special is that it is timeless. And it might actually hold particular relevance today compared to when it first aired. There is more information out there for people to hold big corporations to account for environmental commitments, and there are probably more people around today wondering what to do with themselves, and how to change the world around them following a two-year pandemic. This show spoke to me more today than it would have back in 2011, and I definitely appreciate it a lot more now that I’m older.
I do believe that there is room for a season three. It’s 2022 when I write this. The show ended in 2013. You could have a ten-year timejump and see where Amy is at with her life and what happened following the end of season two and what that meant for her and all the relationships in her life and whether she is still an advocate for the enlightenment she felt post-therapy.
While writing this review I discovered that White also wrote The White Lotus, the show I finished binging right before Enlightened. As I watched the latter, I did see a lot of comparisons to the former, and I could see a lot of the same sort of ideas and character types. This has blown my mind as I sit here and type this review. If you liked The White Lotus, watch Enlightened. Or vice versa. There are a lot of common ideas and observant satire on how white privilege operates, the corporate world and your place in it, and how people try to act like they’re on some higher plane of existence, when in reality, a lot of it is to satisfy their own desire to feel like they’re making a change when truly, nothing changes.
Enlightened is now streaming on Binge, and it’s well-worth watching. Please, HBO, bring it back for a third season. I want to see what Amy’s life is like in a post-pandemic world!