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How Did a Showtime 'Comedy' End Up on HBO? Thoughts on Laura Dern's 'Enlightened'

by Maureen Ryan, posted Oct 10th 2011 4:00PM
I'm confused. The DVD mailing came from a different premium cable network, but 'Enlightened' (9:30PM ET Monday, HBO), which debuts alongside the return of 'Bored to Death,' sure looks like it came from Showtime's "comedy" factory.

Consider the evidence:

1. It's a star vehicle for an actress of a certain age (in this case, Laura Dern, who came up the show with Mike White, who co-stars).

2. The lead character is a middle-class woman in crisis (Dern's character, corporate executive Amy, wigged out after an affair with a co-worker and had to go to a counseling/addiction retreat, where she became committed to "growth" and "change").

3. The lead character has problematic relatives (Amy's mom, who's played by Dern's real-life mother, Diane Ladd, is your stereotypical remote-mother cliche, and her ex-husband, who's played with casual charm by Luke Wilson, is an unambitious stoner).

4. The lead character finds herself in a difficult work and personal situations that she tends to make worse due to her selfish, clueless and/or uptight behavior (Amy's return to the company where she had her memorable meltdown is more or less disastrous).

5. Very little of what happens is actually funny or even mildly amusing.

Check, check, check, check and check. 'Enlightened' covers all those Showtime woman-in-crisis bases, but the question is, Why? Even Showtime has seen how limited its lady comedies have become, and the network has moved away from (canceled) fare like 'The United States of Tara' and the increasingly formulaic 'Dexter' by commissioning the bravura new drama 'Homeland,' which isn't -- thank the programming gods -- like anything else currently on TV.

Even so, one woman's quest for real change in her life could form the basis of a nice little HBO slice-of-life comedy-drama, but, weirdly enough, 'Enlightened' appears to be fairly dismissive of the idea of personal evolution. In any case, everything in 'Enlightened' is too broad, predictable and extreme to really work as either comedy or drama. Amy's mom is too brittle and bored to be interesting, her co-workers are one-dimensional and flat, and Amy herself is frequently unpleasant to be around. Dern is a performer who brings a good deal of loopy likability to her roles, but Amy is so frequently shrill that you can see why her co-workers swerve to avoid her when she turns up. Amy may want to "be wise," but the show spends almost no time making her or her goals seem sympathetic.

Another big problem is that 'Enlightened,' like almost every other TV show and movie of the past few decades, seems content to be blithely judgmental about anything that smacks of self-help and New Age thinking. The thin gloss of inner peace that Amy acquired at her spiritual retreat is shown to be completely ineffectual: Amy goes off on everyone in her path whenever it suits her and generally comes off as a pushy, self-absorbed know-it-all (when not judging her co-workers as "circus freaks"). "See," the show almost seems to say, "people can't really change -- and if they read self-help books, they just become even more annoying!"

Sadly, this is of a piece with any other pop-culture depiction of people who pursue topics like spirituality and meditation: They're generally shown to be clueless jackasses (show me a fictional character who sports sandalwood or rosewood beads and I can guarantee you that character is going to be a narcissistic douche). As someone who's attended almost a dozen meditation retreats in the past decade, I can report that most people I meet at these retreats have more perspective on themselves and a better-developed sense of humor than Amy does.

I'm certainly aware of the mockable of aspects of spiritual ambition, but I also have a sincere respect for the desire to gain serenity and to better oneself. I just wish 'Enlightened' did as well.

Follow @MoRyan on Twitter.

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Well, I liked the pilot and you didn't. I'm not too surprised since you didn't like The Big C and I loved it, lol. I thought the beginning of Enlightened was very funny (especially loved her prying the elevator door open to yell at the guy who she had an affair with). Laura Dern acts the hell out of her character and elevates Amy above just a crazy, raging woman. The way she goes psycho at work shows that she has some serious underlying issues that I hope we learn more about. The transformation after her retreat in Hawaii leaves me believing she so badly wants to be better that she has to try extra hard to convince herself that she is happier and that things will be OK. I personally have known people just like the character Dern is playing, so maybe that has something to do with my interest in it. Anyway, I'm definitely interested in seeing more.

October 12 2011 at 9:12 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Thank you Mo
I'm glad someone said something about that Hollywood new age stereotype. It's almost never funny, although I imagine it could be if handled right.

I like hanging out with people who meditate. They tend to be aware in a rare way of people, interactions, reactions. When I started meditating, I was able to think & choose my reactions, and not just knee jerk react before I thought. Turned into a meditation commercial there. :)

October 11 2011 at 7:59 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Mo, I suggest you take a look (or listen) to the Fresh Air interview with Mike White and Laura Dern on NPR. They address exactly this question and White said that he couldn't approach the subject matter cynically and just make fun of Amy. I think, in their intent, that they do want to follow this character's journey in a sincere way. Maybe it's not apparent in the first few episodes, but I gotta hope that Dern's character does indeed evolve. I think part of the story is how difficult it is to apply the lessons of meditation and spiritual seeking to everyday corporate life. And that we mess up.

October 11 2011 at 6:25 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Frank Parrinello

I dug the pilot. Maureen Ryan, it would seem, didn’t like the pilot. She must be biased because her opinion isn’t in sync with mine, right?Right??? Right!!!

October 11 2011 at 1:18 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Hmmmm.... Mo Ryan says don't watch this show, it sucks. That means its a really good show and we must watch it.

October 10 2011 at 4:32 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to firebobhesucks's comment
George Otwori

Actually she tells people not too watch something so Lovers of Quality Tv don't have to continue to lower there standards. Obviously some networks, producers, and writers have not realized yet that quality has changed in the last 15 years. So when another networks rehashes a similar formula for it comedey. Less People won't be Decieved into thinking its distinct or orginal.

October 10 2011 at 5:56 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to George Otwori's comment
O Nikos

Yes lower our standards by watching Sons of Anarchy, Breaking Bad, How I Met your Mother, and those are just 3 from this season. All quality unbiased reviews from Maureen, not! Will you stop apologizing for her already?

October 10 2011 at 8:03 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down

@ O Nikos:
From what I remember, Mo was pretty harsh on HIMYM last time she reviewed it. I don't read her Sons of Anarchy or Breaking Bad reviews because I'm nowhere near caught up with them but in my experience she never hold back from bashing shows she love when she feels they deserve it. Just look at her last Supernatural recap...

October 11 2011 at 1:32 PM Report abuse rate up rate down

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