Showtime has excelled at a certain kind of attention-getting half-hour — high-concept series featuring big-name female leads, with themes (cancer; drug abuse; multiple personalities) that practically market themselves. By contrast, it’s hard to think of a lower concept than HBO’s “Enlightened,” an offbeat showcase for Laura Dern that, after watching four episodes, still isn’t completely clear regarding its intentions. In the hands of writer/co-star Mike White, that’s not entirely bad, but the unorthodox tone and emotionally fragile protagonist suggest this strange journey of self-discovery will harbor narrow appeal even by pay TV’s refined standards.
Dern’s Amy has a jaw-dropping meltdown at work in the opening moments, having been transferred from her job at a big corporation after an affair gone wrong with her married boss (Timm Sharp).
An idyllic, life-changing interlude at a counseling retreat in Hawaii follows, where she cavorts with sea turtles, finds inner-peace and begins soothingly narrating her own spiritual reclamation.
“I will change. And I will be an agent of change,” Amy says in voiceover, following her epiphany.
Upon her return, though, Amy’s harmony is tested time and again. Her former assistant (Sarah Burns) has been promoted, while she’s been relegated to the bowels of the company, surrounded by other losers (among them one played by White). Her ex-husband (Luke Wilson), while mostly sympathetic, doesn’t want to do much but sit around smoking pot; and her mom (Diane Ladd, Dern’s real-life mother) looks at her like she just beamed down from the Enterprise.
Can Amy maintain her new-found serenity and find — or maintain — the peace she professes to have achieved, especially within a conglomerate that cares not a whit about her? White seems determined to test that point, with Amy’s unnervingly upbeat exterior (which recalls the religiously converted in Michael Tolkin’s “The Rapture”) occasionally giving way to fits of rage that suggest her New Age transformation hasn’t fully taken hold.
One can see why Dern (who shares story credit with White) was drawn to the role — and perhaps even why HBO would gamble on somebody as famously idiosyncratic as the director, whose indie-film sensibility (see “Chuck & Buck” and “The Good Girl”) has pay-TV written all over it.
That said, it’s difficult to ascertain for whom “Enlightened” is intended, simultaneously mocking and exalting the self-help movement, without really indicating precisely where it stands.
By that measure, the show’s ethereal qualities are interesting in places but never particularly enlightening, and its pairing with HBO’s quirky but significantly broader “Bored to Death” — in the latest attempt to expand the channel’s original-series footprint to Monday nights — feels like an especially low-wattage combination.
Ultimately, “Enlightened” sets up its own quixotic quest — the long uphill slog of building a series around making the audience uncomfortable.
Personal growth might be in the cards for Dern’s damaged heroine. Changing the laws of TV gravity is probably another matter entirely.