When “Enlightened” debuted back in October, I called it an awkward comedy that I had very little interest in watching any more. Since then, a number of critics I respect (including James Poniewozik, Tim Goodman and Dan Fienberg) have kept making passionate arguments for the show, and it made me curious to check back in to see if perhaps I had missed something the first time around. I caught up through last night’s season finale, and I have a few thoughts coming up just as soon as I’m not a yoga instructor…
Having watched all 10 episodes, I will readily admit to being wrong in one major way about “Enlightened.” It’s not a comedy – not in the sense that it isn’t funny (which it isn’t), but in the sense that it’s almost never even trying to be. The dark, dark final season of “United States of Tara” was more overtly comic than this. “Mad Men” is more overtly comic than this. “Rubicon” might have been.
And that’s okay. We get into this weird classification thing in television where everything that’s an hour is a drama and everything that’s a half-hour is a comedy, even if the longer show may lean more towards the funny and the shorter one might have its mind on more serious matters. And when a show breaks that pattern, you can’t always instantly wrap your mind around it. Mike White (who wrote every episode himself, with some story help from Laura Dern on the pilot) had loftier ideas on his mind about spirituality, corporate America, mental health, personal reinvention and more, and if he occasionally told a joke about Timm Sharp’s character being gross and inappropriate, this was still a half-hour drama.
That said, it wasn’t a half-hour drama I particularly enjoyed.
In one of his columns on the show, Poniewozik said he’s heard from “plenty of folks who find it morose, dull and focused on the whining of an unlikeable character with no real problems,” and that’s roughly where I’d fall, I think. Calling Amy someone with no problems is reductive, as she has many problems – financial, social and emotional among them – but she tends to deal with them in such an oblivious, narcissistic fashion that I don’t feel sympathy for her most of the time. The show itself is acutely aware of her failings, as the character played by White himself got to tell Amy off about her selfishness a few weeks ago. An unlikable character isn’t a crippling thing in and of itself to a show – Walter White, Don Draper and Carrie Mathison all suffer from likability deficits to varying degrees – but for me to invest my time into watching such a character week after week, I need to find some kind of way in. With the three I mentioned, they’re all very good at what they do (and Carrie is mentally ill, besides), which becomes compelling even if I wouldn’t want to invite them over to play Wii bowling. Amy, on the other hand, is ineffectual at almost everything she does (or, at times, backs out of the things she might be good at because it’s personally inconvenient) on top of being socially clumsy and self-absorbed. (That her self-absorption manifests itself as a desire to help others doesn’t exactly mitigate it, because it’s always about helping others on Amy’s own terms.)
I think there’s some fine craft that goes into the making of this show, where White has brought in directors like Jonathan Demme and Nicole Holofcener to collaborate. Last week’s episode, “Consider Helen,” shifted its viewpoint away from Amy and onto her mother, who to that point had been presented as fairly unsympathetic and one-note, and it was terrific. I could imagine quite liking a version of the series that begins to use Amy as a jumping-off point to examine the lives of everyone around her, with occasional glimpses of how they see Amy when she crosses their path. (The finale, for instance, once again painted Amy’s former co-workers as pretty terrible people themselves, but what would an episode that gave its sympathies to Krista look like?) But I think that’s the only way in which I would continue watching in the event HBO execs decide they want to be in business with White and Dern enough to renew the show despite tiny Monday ratings.
But that’s me. I imagine anyone else who stuck it out through the finale did so because they genuinely enjoyed the show. So I’m curious what everybody else thought about the finale, and the season as a whole. What drew you to “Enlightened,” and what kept you watching? If HBO does renew the show, will you come back for more?