ENLIGHTENED — the television series co-created by Mike White and Laura Dern — opens with a scene of extreme disillusionment. Even prior to that first shot of Amy Jellicoe’s mascara-teared face, a close-up of which has become the show’s iconic image, the viewer senses that something is amiss. Just before we’re introduced to the face of our heroine, played by Dern, we’re aware of a sound. Someone is crying. Issuing from a blank screen, the crying already startles, but perhaps even more so because it’s a kind of irrepressible sobbing, verging on hysteria. Our reaction to the faceless weeping isn’t, and isn’t meant to be, one of sympathy or tenderness, but of disquiet, even fear. The disconnect lasts only seconds, as Amy’s contorted face floats into view. From there, Amy goes on a bridge-burning rampage through the office that — again, while lasting only minutes — becomes integral to how we will view the entire series. While most narratives proceed toward building connections, securing attachments, Enlightened begins by breaking them. During Amy’s path of detachment, however, the inverse was happening with me: I was falling in love with Enlightened.
White and Dern’s show is difficult to describe, with a plot that fluctuates in pace, and a deep occupation over its tone, extreme or subtle, regardless of who is directing. Those first few minutes of a manic, sobbing Amy, then, is all the more powerful as it not only conveys the show’s interest in expressing affect, but its narrative bones. Amy breaks down at the Abaddonn headquarters upon being fired for an affair with her boss. It’s a scene of rage and despair — a bang and a whimper — followed by a severe shift in tone. A calm voiceover — Amy now “speaking in her real voice” — floats over the next scene of beachside sunsets, and we see her in various meditative poses at what we learn is a holistic wellness retreat in Hawaii. Again, the camera doesn’t stay here long, and we soon find Amy in the present, newly at peace, returning to Riverside to live with her mother (Diane Ladd). We hardly recognize her when she walks back into Abaddonn, her beach-tangled hair tied in a loose clip, to ask for a job from the place that had caused her breakdown. The return might seem counterintuitive, even regressive, but Amy has plans to be “an agent of change”: this time, she thinks, will be different.
But for viewers, we’re barely a third into the pilot — so much has already changed — and Amy is back where she started, except this time without a job. What could Enlightened be about, and what is it clinging to? It’s a question White keeps us asking.
Instead of granting Amy’s proposal to be the company environment watchdog, her employers place her in the basement of Abaddonn, where rows of ostracized social misfits log data using a computer program called Cogentiva. The workspace — white windowless walls and reflective surfaces — is almost a complete reversal of where Amy has spent the past months getting well. But it’s not enough to quell her recently acquired optimism. Instead of epiphanic encounters with sea turtles, Amy hunkers over a compute...read more