There’s a long and rich history of comedies about characters severely lacking in self-awareness. Just in the past decade, we’ve been blessed with “The Office” (both David Brent and Michael Scott), “Arrested Development” (most of the family, but especially Tobias and GOB) and “Modern Family” (Phil Dunphy), to name a few. People who aren’t aware how the rest of the world perceives them can be incredibly amusing in the right context.
HBO’s new “Enlightened” (it premieres tonight at 9:30) – in which Laura Dern plays a woman who never seems to realize how off-putting everyone finds her – is not the right context, unfortunately. Despite writing from Mike White – who’s been involved in TV shows and movies as wide-ranging as “Freaks and Geeks,” “School of Rock,” “Pasadena” and “Year of the Dog” (among many others – it’s stifling, awkward and just plain not funny.
Dern (in her first regular TV role) plays Amy Jellicoe, executive at a large, soul-crushing corporation called Abaddon.(*) Amy has an affair with her boss that blows up in ugly fashion, and we first meet her as she’s having an epic, very public meltdown that involves smeared makeup, tears, screamed profanity and an amazing feat of strength – and leads Amy to take a very long break at a New Age tropical retreat.
(*) The name comes not from Lance Reddick’s character on “Lost” (White was actually dismayed to learn that such a person existed when a critic told him about it at press tour), but presumably from the Biblical figure from the Revelation of St. John – who was not, I gather, a good dude.
Amy returns to her life a transformed woman: peaceful, happy, drug-free, dressed in bright, airy clothing, and determined to heal the world – or, at least, the portions of it influenced by Abaddon.
“You can wake up to your higher self,” she tells herself in one of many daily affirmation voiceover monologues, “and when you do, the world is suddenly full of possibility – of wonder, and deep connection.”
The problem is, Amy’s corner of the world doesn’t much want to be changed. Her mother (Dern’s real-life mother, Diane Ladd) gets impatient when Amy tries to read her a confessional letter she composed in therapy. Her ex-husband (a bearded Luke Wilson) mainly wants to snort drugs with her like they used to back in the day. And everyone at Abaddon – where she gets demoted to a mindless data entry job in an underground bunker where the company stores its other problem employees(**) – reacts like she’s a mentally-ill plague carrier whose presence they have to endure as an act of charity.
(**) On the plus side, several of those problem employees are familiar, welcome faces from the world of indie comedy, including Timm Sharp (“Undeclared”), Jason Mantzoukas (Rafi on “The League”) and Mike White himself.
And for the most part, Amy seems to have no idea how uncomfortable she makes everyone(***) – and that, in turn, makes much of “Enlightened” extremely uncomfortable to watch.
(***) There are hints here and there that some of this is an act – she’s able to use the blissful hippie act to sucker-punch the Abaddon HR rep with threat of a wrongful termination suit in order to keep her job – but the opening scene suggests Amy had some issues with social tone-deafness long before she got in touch with her inner self.
The trick to making a comedy with this kind of character work usually involves some combination of putting them in a position of power over the people they’re inadvertently offending, making them so blissful in their idiocy that it barely matters how often they embarrass themselves, or making them jerks in need of comeuppance. Amy’s none of those. She’s not terribly likable (Dern plays her so broadly that you may not want to spend time with her, either), but nor does she seem deserving of her life as a drone in a large corporate machine, smacked down at every turn, not realizing when she’s face-to-face with people how much they dislike her, then pained when she realizes later it through outside corroboration. Through four episodes of “Enlightened,” I just felt sorry for her, and frequently embarrassed on her behalf.
In a way, “Enlightened” seems like HBO’s attempt to make one of those Showtime dramedies built around actresses of a certain age who are willing to do TV in exchange for a meatier part and a chance at an Emmy. But most of those shows are essentially half-hour dramas with occasional moments of humor, its central characters dealing with dark, life-and-death issues (cancer, drug addiction, mental illness) that, when they’re working, make the lack of laughter a non-issue. Just because they get classified as comedies for awards season doesn’t mean most of the people watching them view them that way. Though Amy has concerns about large issues – she wants, for instance, to become a watchdog for Abaddon’s corporate misdeeds and impact on the environment – the show overall is mainly concerned about her personal growth and attempt to rebuild her life.
And as set up by White (and Dern, who’s a producer and a contributor on the pilot script), “Enlightened” feels too lightweight to work as a short drama, and too clumsy in its attempts at humor to work that way.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org