The Return of ‘Enlightened,’ TV’s Most Cinematic Comedy

The HBO comedy-drama Enlightened flew under a lot of people’s radars when it premiered in the fall of 2011, scoring soft ratings but a Golden Globe win for star Laura Dern. HBO surprisingly kept the series around, renewing it for an eight-episode second season amidst a bloodbath of cancelations for the network’s other low-rated comedies like Bored to Death, Hung, and How to Make It in America. Critical acclaim and awards attention might be what spurred HBO’s decision to spare Enlightened, as well as an appreciation for creator Mike White’s vision for the show. This season, which just kicked off last night, the network’s putting more stock in the show by giving it a coveted post-Girls timeslot, and Enlightened is rising to the occasion with a second season that’s much more intricate and enjoyable than its first.

For those of you who didn’t catch season one (based on the ratings, I’m assuming that means most of you), Enlightened stars Laura Dern as a self-destructive woman named Amy Jellicoe who has a mental breakdown and is sent to a holistic treatment facility where she has a spiritual rebirth. She returns home determined to be an “agent of change,” despite taking a demotion to work data processing in the basement at Abaddonn, the giant heartless corporation that employs her. There, she finds an ally in her good-hearted sad sack co-worker Tyler (played by co-creator Mike White), deciding by the end of season one to use his computer know-how to unearth the company’s history of corruption and bring it down from the inside, all without her oblivious dirtbag boss Dougie (Timm Sharp) finding out. Luke Wilson, Diane Ladd, and Sarah Burns make up the rest of the cast as Amy’s ex-husband, her patient but frustrated mother, and her former assistant who is taking her job, respectively.

Season two picks up right where the first year left off, with Amy’s quest to take the company down – partly out of spite for her old boss and partly out of a desire to do good – serving as an overarching story and one that gives season two a much clearer endgame than its predecessor. I’ve seen all eight episodes of the season, which were screened for critics prior to the premiere, and the story has a much grander, more cinematic feel than last year with an intricate plot and a well-structured arc for each character to boot. One of last season’s most acclaimed episodes was “Consider Helen,” which was told from the POV of Amy’s mother Helen, and writer Mike White wisely takes the show in that direction again by handing entire episodes over to other supporting characters. Amy can be a challenging, cringe-inducing character at times – like a lot of cable TV anti-heroes – and seeing the show from some of the other well-written characters’ perspectives is a breath of fresh air.

Laura Dern created Enlightened with Mike White, but White writes every episode of the show single-handedly, something that’s very rare for TV today – especially for a comedy(ish) show. Besides Louis C.K., White is the only person in TV who’s writing a half-hour series without a staff, and the result, like Louie, is such a pure distillation of the author’s vision that often feels more like a movie than television. White cut his teeth as a writer for Freaks and Geeks and Dawson’s Creek before jumping to film and penning dark indies like Chuck & Buck, The Good Girl, and Year of the Dog, and mainstream fare like Orange County and School of Rock. Enlightened feels like an encapsulation of all of his past work, mixing the underdog spirit of Freaks and Geeks and the dark, difficult protagonists of his indie movies, with some of the feel-good energy of School of Rock shining through.

Enlightened, along with Louie and Girls, feels more cinematic than other comedies on TV, in terms of the quality of the filmmaking and the way all these shows either are (or feel like they are) written by one over-arching creative voice, whereas most TV shows are written by committee. The Sopranos led the way for TV dramas to match (and sometimes exceed) the ambition andquality that movies have always been known for, with The Wire, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad, amongst others, following in its footsteps. The trend is bleeding into cable comedies now, with Enlightened and the two aforementioned shows leading the charge. The eight episodes that make up Enlightened’s second season weave together and bleed into each other so finely that it feels like Mike White went out and made a four-hour movie. Adding to the show’s more cinematic feel is White hiring several well-regarded filmmakers to helm episodes, including Nicole Holofcener, James Bobin, Todd Haynes, and David Michôd, giving the show a much richer look than others on TV.

By the end of this season of Enlightened, it becomes clear that Mike White has an idea of where the show is to go in season three – and one that’s ripe with potential at that – and hopefully, the show draws the larger audience that it deserves this year so that we get to see it.

The Return of ‘Enlightened,’ TV’s Most Cinematic Comedy