“Enlightened” deserves another season

I was predisposed to like HBO’s Enlightened for one simple reason: Laura Dern.

Then the premise sold me: A stressed-out executive has a very public nervous breakdown and retreats to an ashram, where she finds enlightenment. Then, when she comes home, she realizes that inner peace is not easy to sustain in the midst of chaos.

Amy (Dern) expects to return to her high-level job at Abaddonn, a huge consumer products company with questionable ethics and definite environmental negligence. Armed with a new commitment to make the world a better place, she believes she can use her influence to bring changes (“healing”) to Abaddonn. Unfortunately, Amy’s job has been filled and the company consigns her to the basement with other corporate misfits. She tries to maintain the positive frame of mind she learned in New Age rehab, but the real world seems to be conspiring against her.

What makes Enlightened unique is that as much as we believe that Amy sincerely is trying to “live her truth,” we also realize that she’s not very likable. She’s manipulative and selfish — but thinks the world adores her. As a manager, she looked down on her coworkers and treated them badly, yet she considers them friends and honestly doesn’t get why they aren’t supportive of her now. Watching her navigate her life is as uncomfortable as it is ironic.

Laura Dern is wonderful as Amy. She is able to make the role completely believable, balancing Amy’s idealism with the bad habits and deep anger that she wants to overcome. The character isn’t like Nurse Jackie, pretending to be different so she can get out of trouble. Amy has experienced a different awareness — if only briefly — and wants to be the spiritual person she was at her retreat in Hawaii. We’re never quite sure what to think of her.

The supporting cast is equally great. Enlightened co-creator/writer Mike White (who also happens to be Soulforce founder Mel White‘s son) is Amy’s basement co-worker and listening ear, Tyler. Luke Wilson plays ex-husband Levi, who still has the drug habit Amy kicked — and eventually sees that he needs to change his life, too. Amy Hill (Grandma Kim in Margaret Cho‘s All-American Girl) is perfect as humorless lesbian HR representative Judy. And Diane Ladd, Dern’s real-life mom, is as brilliant as you would expect as Amy’s mother Helen. Last week’s episode was hers — and will likely garner a supporting actress Emmy nomination.

The truth is that Enlightened has low-ratings and seems to be a love-it-or-loathe-it kind of show. An entertainment writer friend whose TV taste I respect told me that the pilot made her want to punch Amy in the throat. But other critics love it and are urging HBO to renew it. The decision could go either way.

Personally, I think Enlightened is worth watching. Maybe it’s because I’ve had some moments of “enlightenment” myself, which I wanted to share with a world that didn’t want to hear it. Realizing that inner awareness can’t be imposed on anyone else is a painful lesson, but a freeing one. Seeing Amy learn that makes me wince, but it also makes me smile.

Did you watch Enlightened? What did you think? Do you think the show should get a second season?