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‘Enlightened’ is Back, Still Unique and Maddening

To its credit, “Enlightened” is a
show perhaps only HBO would or could have done -– a series filled with sad-sack
characters, quirkiness in lieu of comedy, and the sort of understated,
melancholy tone normally associated with French best-foreign-film submissions.

Enlightened10On the down side, the program ambles
along at such a plodding gait, with such a maddening protagonist, it’s hard to
relish entering series creator Mike White’s numbing world unless you need
something to tide you over between therapy sessions.

HBO made all eight episodes of season
two available, and it’s fair to say they put an appropriate coda on the whole
exercise, which earned star/exec producer Laura Dern a Golden Globe nomination
but went almost wholly unwatched. Paired with the return of the higher-profile “Girls” (and look for a separate review of that shortly), HBO has thus provided a service to the show’s loyal if puny audience, which is the sort of luxury only a pay channel could afford.

The second season boasts a somewhat
stronger arc in that Dern’s character Amy –- who experienced a spiritual
epiphany in season one –- finds a purpose that drives the narrative all the way
through: She’s decided to become a whistle-blower against the big, faceless
corporation for which she works, enlisting her hang-dog co-worker Tyler (played,
with beautiful vulnerability, by White) as her co-conspirator.

Amy also contacts a reporter for the
Los Angeles Times, portrayed by Dermot Mulroney, to whom she intends to feed
information and strike a blow in her quest to become “an agent of change.” At
first the journalist understandably doesn’t know quite what to make of her, but the plot
grudgingly pulls you along (albeit with various side excursions), wondering how
Amy –- a small person, desperate to feel like she’s part of something bigger –-
will manage to muck things up.

One reason “Enlightened” can be unsettling
to watch is the way White resists taking a firm position about Amy. The show
simultaneously wants us to root for her, yet makes her so lacking in
self-awareness and oblivious to others (especially poor Tyler) that virtually
every encounter is awkward and uncomfortable.

Enlighteneddermot“I don’t know why you don’t see what I
see,” she sighs at one point, which conveys both her central problem and how
teeth-gnashingly dense she can be.

Now that’s fine, in the sense not
everything (especially in an HBO series) needs to be spoon-fed to the audience.
Still, the series’ frequent interludes -– from Amy’s ex, played by Luke Wilson,
experiencing his own awakening to Amy discovering the wonders of Twitter -– can
be as trying to one’s patience as Amy herself frequently is. (One might also
question the old-fashioned notion of a Los Angeles Times expose being the remedy to all ills, but let’s give a recovering-from-bankruptcy dog its
day.)

Almost anywhere else, “Enlightened”
would have had its light extinguished after one season, but HBO doesn’t pull
the plug so promiscuously. White has rewarded that creative license with a series that
feels extremely true to the filmmaker’s vision, however limited its appeal.

For those who could get past the show’s quirks and find something worth savoring in its indie-film sensibility, that’s probably enough. But assuming this is the end, I won’t shed any tears in saying goodbye.

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