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Enlightened: Laura Dern’s best role was smart, brave and ahead of its time

Brigid Delaney
·4-min read

What happens when an annoying narcissist has a spiritual awakening? Do they become different? Better? Or does real change require much more than learning how to meditate?

Enlightened, starring Laura Dern, aired for two seasons on HBO from 2011 to 2013. Critics loved it, a third season was on the cards – but it never got the mainstream viewership it deserved and was cancelled due to poor ratings.

Its biggest crime back then, it seems, was to be born too soon. Now streaming in Australia on Binge, it’s stood the test of time.

When Enlightened first screened, streaming services were in their infancy and the TV landscape was more conservative and dominated by the risk-averse network model. These days female anti-heroes and shows that mash up comedy with drama are the norm.

The premise is simple: a self-destructive woman, Amy Jellicoe (Dern), is having an affair with her boss and has a nervous breakdown at the office. A buyer at a major firm, she’s been demoted from health and beauty to the cleaning products department and is furious. When we meet Amy, she has mascara running down her cheeks, is crying in the toilets and then – with the strength that comes from sheer rage – manages to prise open the doors of an elevator to confront her cowardly boss.

After taking a month out to attend a wellness retreat in Hawaii, she comes back enlightened and tranquil. Returning to the banally evil corporation where she once had an office and an assistant, Amy is working in the basement with all the other corporate misfits doing menial data entry work.

Her enlightened state vanishes almost immediately.

In many ways Enlightened depicts how humans are a work in progress. We might think we’ve changed, but a new challenge or an old trigger has the power to knock us back to our old selves.

Dern plays a complicated character who is hard to like in the same way that Girls’ Hannah Horvath was. Amy means well, but the volume is up to 100 and she can’t read a room to save herself. Despite all the self-help books, her ego constantly gets in the way. She wants to save the world, but treats the people around her as expendable. She appears in some of her more obnoxious scenes like an early prototype of a Karen.

Wanting to change the world doesn’t ease your character flaws. You may think you want to work at a homeless shelter (as Amy does in the first season) but you’ll still turn your nose up at the pay.

This year Vox called Enlightened the stand-out performance of Dern’s career and the start of a run of excellent turns including in Big Little Lies and Marriage Story. The role of Amy was created especially for her by writer and co-star Mark White; it is Dern’s performance, and what she can do with her mobile face, that makes this show a must-watch.

While Enlightened saves most of its satire for the corporate world, there is a more subtle critique of the wellness industry running through the two seasons. An idyllic (and expensive) retreat in Hawaii will take you away from your worries for a while, but it doesn’t take long for the glow to wear off. What these retreats often don’t prepare you for is life outside: your annoying co-worker (Mike White), your drug-addicted ex-husband (Luke Wilson), your beaten-down mother (played by Dern’s real life mother Diane Ladd). And they certainly won’t dismantle society’s social problems or structural inequalities.

Over the two short seasons, Amy morphs not from loser to success story – or from unenlightened to spiritual – but from an individual seeking fulfilment to a social justice warrior who tries to change the system from within. That her quest and transformation happens while the character still remains annoying is part of the show’s intelligence – and its bravery.

Viewers have become more accustomed to shows that deliver complex characters and more realistic endings. Here’s hoping Enlightened finds the audience it deserved the first time around.

Enlightened is now streaming on Binge