Something like a little less than one month ago, Patton Oswalt began to tweet his effusive praise of a show very few people had heard of. Like a virus, more and more people on Twitter began to speak the world of it, suddenly discovering that the half hour after Girls Sunday nights on HBO wasn’t a test pattern, a talk show talking about Girls that just ends up being a conversation about Lena Dunham, or even a classic episode of Arli$$. Instead, they found a challenging, uncomfortable, intelligent, incredibly nuanced work that wasn’t The Wire that is categorized as a “comedy,” and featured a bunch of talented comedic actors. That show would be Enlightened.
For those who are first hearing about this show - which would make you a part of the vast majority of the country - or you grew sick of the endless love the show has received online and took it out on the poor ratings challenged thing by refusing to watch, here’s a synopsis: Laura Dern’s Amy Jellicoe, after an affair with her boss turns sour, freaks out at Abaddonn Industries and is forced to take an extended break from her job as a buyer in the Health and Beauty department. She goes to a New Age retreat and comes back as someone who wants to change the world for the better. You know, one of those people. The ones that ask you to sign petitions or to generally “join a cause” on Facebook and exist to make you feel guilty. The ones that live on the edges that try to wake up the hardened, jaded middle. But School of Rock’s Mike White - who along with Dern created the show, plays Tyler, and is the lone credited writer of all eighteen episodes - didn’t portray Amy as a saint, but as a complex woman who is in the right for the wrong reasons, still angry about all of the ways that life had screwed her over. Throughout the series, Amy would try to change her junkie ex-husband (Luke Wilson) to get clean, or to get Abaddonn - who brought her back in to waste away in the basement working on a computer program - to stop their shady, environmentally poisonous practices, and be told over and over again that that isn’t how the world works, and that she is crazy to try.
Season one was HBO-y: plaintive, flirting with pretentiousness, and really uncomfortable at times. The humor came mostly from whenever Amy’s headstrong beliefs faced head on with reality (the seemingly built-in satire of New Age thinking never felt pressed upon at any point in the series, what with each character being both right and wrong all of the time ). So uncomfortable in fact, that for most of the episodes during that season there would be one scene that would make you want to press pause to prepare for the awkward moment that was unavoidably about to come. Season two - which concluded the other night - revolved around a classic caper plot, in which Amy - with the help of Tyler and Timm Sharp’s douchebag with a heart of at least silver Dougie - tried to bring down the corrupt CEO of the company by hacking into his private email account: redemption for never being taken seriously in the office, culminating in literally being laughed out of a conference room in the previous season’s finale. The uncomfortable moments didn’t disappear, nor did the show’s ability to continue to build the internal lives of the characters, making us feel like we knew them more than characters on other television shows that have or had appeared in literally more than a hundred episodes. But there was also some “traditional” humor, with more mainstream rhythms, like jokes about Mike White’s physical appearance (written of course by Mike White himself). Or Dermot Mulroney’s calm, repeated attempts to temper Dern’s enthusiasm. And Amy calling a tweet a “twit” more than once. The usually sardonic Luke Wilson character Levi relapsing and doing coke and suddenly shouting out how fucking great everything was. Dougie discovering through hacked emails that all of his bosses thought he was a tool in just one elevator ride. The jokes didn’t come as often as one would expect from a “comedy,” but they always landed because of how perfectly the universe of the show was built.
It also helped that Enlightened has a deep pool of comedy talent on their roster. Although the things that make the show so tight, profound, and intelligent wouldn’t allow most of them to show off any talent reel stuff on the comedy side of things, they all at least proved capable of playing dramatic scenes. Jason Mantzoukas was in the cast, but it would have been incredibly off if he acted like Rafi from The League. Instead, Mantzoukas’ Omar character was only there to provide exposition and to fill out an office staff in the first season. In season two, he managed to fire off a few funny lines about how unlikely an Amy/Tyler romance would be due to their differing physical attributes before getting fired in the second episode, never to return. Riki Lindhome played Harper, who was a key part of an Amy scheme in a season one episode but maybe had two lines this year. Whose Line is it Anyway?’s Charles “I’m not Chip anymore” Esten played the smarmy boss that had the affair with Amy appropriately low-key, and did not appear at all in 2013, getting “promoted” back to ABC to break hearts and play country music I guess on Nashville. Poor Sarah Burns had to pretend to be pregnant both years, but was up to the task in playing Krista, Amy’s former assistant who took Amy’s job but tried her best to remain loyal to both her former boss and Abaddonn. Michaela Watkins was almost unbearably great at playing the constantly smirking and snarky Janice. A more down-to-Earth Molly Shannon played a key role in a three episode arc as Eileen, a former introvert who charmingly romanced the self-proclaimed “ghost” of a human being in Tyler. Luke Wilson as Levi got his own episode, where he kicked a drug addiction, at least for a little while. Timm Sharp definitely had the most fun out of any of the comedic actors, playing the dickish, stupid, but adoringly pathetic Dougie, possibly a karmic balance being restored after appearing on ’Til Death for three years.
Sunday’s “Agent of Change” was possibly the series finale. Like any good cult show, the ratings indicate that only Twitter and television critics bothered to watch, and the odds of a third season is estimated at 50/50 by Mike White. In a perfect world, Enlightened would continue on and maintain its quality. Or maybe in a perfect world, Sunday was the end, the show leaves a beautiful corpse like it was a Judd Apatow show, and one of the final scenes of the series was Amy’s never satisfied mother Helen smiling at seeing her daughter’s name in print, a massive payoff that wont be forgotten for a long time. And all of the comedians on the show will find a new project that jibes with their specific voice, and people actually watch it.
Ugh, now I sound like a weirdo, don’t I?