Judge Daryl Loomis has a pet turtle. Its name is Mother.
Peace had its chance.
Well, it's done now. For some reason, HBO decided not to renew Enlightened for a third season. The comedy was a critical success and viewership, while not great, certainly was not the worst for a premium channel program. More important than that, though, the show was of a higher level of quality than almost anything else on television. Heck, I don't even like the show all that much, but I can't understand why they wouldn't bring it back, especially since it was conceived as a trilogy. But while I will never fathom what's going on inside an executive's head, and it's too bad that Mike White (School of Rock) and Laura Dern (Wild at Heart) couldn't see their vision through to the end, this second season could hardly have been executed better.
Facts of the Case
The last moments of the first season saw former executive turned basement drone Amy Jellicoe (Dern) beginning her crusade to bring down her employer, the corporate giant Abbadon, by hacking into the system and tracking down incriminating material. What she finds shocks even her, and she tracks down a reporter (Dermot Mulroney, J. Edgar) who has made his name off of corporate takedowns. As she collects evidence and waits for the story to hit, she makes nice at work while juggling her feelings for the reporter and her ex-husband (Luke Wilson, Legally Blonde), while trying to keep her mom (Diane Ladd, National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation) from driving her crazy.
Because the entirety of Enlightened is essentially linear and all the setup got taken care of during the first few episodes of last season, Mike White and Laura Dern are able to jump right back into the thick of the story. They hit the ground running, starting up almost immediately after the conclusion of Season One without missing a beat. The down side of that, I guess, is that you can't really watch this without having seen the first season, but you should have watched that already, anyway.
Amy and the people she surrounds herself with are grating characters and the only ones I don't patently dislike are White's Tyler and Ladd's Helen, but even they have their problems. It may well be that, because I and a lot of other people who have worked in corporate offices know people exactly like this and they are, indeed, exactly this irritating, that they ring too true in my head to be able to properly laugh at the uncomfortable situations they force upon themselves.
That's not to say that Enlightened isn't a funny show. I had plenty of good laughs during these four hours of television. Eventually, though, watching Amy do her insincere Erin Brokovitch act and succeed at it, in spite of that insincerity, is frustrating. She's a plainly annoying person, a character who has noble intentions and beliefs that, personally, I agree with, but her methods and attitude will quickly turn me off to the cause.
Indeed, though, it's the believability of Laura Dern's performance that both makes the show both so good and so frustrating. When she is on her game (see, for instance, her insane triple-character performance in Inland Empire), I think she is arguably the best actress of her generation, and her work is so good here that she makes me hate the character she portrays. It would probably have been easier to play Amy as a lovably quirky idealist, but Dern shows the character for what she is, warts and all.
It's Dern's show, no doubt, but the rest of the cast is excellent, with remarkably consistent work over the two seasons. Mulroney is a great addition as the hot shot handsome reporter, the man who, no doubt, delivers the kind of wish fulfillment that only Amy Jellicoe could desire. Had the show continued, there apparently would have been much more glory for her character, which would likely have made me dislike her even more, but I would have really appreciated watching it happen.
On the whole, Enlightened gave two great years of brilliantly written, steadily beautiful productions with some of the best performances anywhere on television. The show is stylish without being flashy and isn't afraid to allow its main characters to look like total jackasses. It's a show that's honest about life and all its funny, sad, terribly annoying moments. It may rub me the wrong way much of the time, but I'm sad that it will be around no longer.
Enlightened: The Complete Second Season arrives on two DVDs from HBO. The image looks very good for a standard definition release, consistent across the eight episodes. The colors are nice and solid and the whites, in a show that makes heavy use of them, are bright and clean throughout. The surround sound mix is equally strong. There is good separation through the channels, clear dialog and, and decent use of the rear speakers. It's a dialog heavy show, so there's not much for it to do, but it performs fairly well.
Extras are rather scant, though. Three episodes feature audio commentaries with various members of the cast and crew. Mike White is featured on two, while Dern, Wilson, and Mulroney get together for the third, and most interesting of the trio. White seems very smart and he certainly knws what he's talking about, but he's a little soft-spoken to make for a thrilling talk. All that's left is a series of two-minute featurettes, one for each episode, so on that front, the discs are pretty underwhelming.
I'm in a little bit of a weird place regarding Enlightened. I have the utmost respect and admiration for the show. It's a brilliantly performed and exceptionally realized four hours of television. It's a strange feeling to love a show but not like it very much, but I just don't care for any of the characters, save those played by White and Ladd. Even at their funniest, and all of them have some choice moments in the season, I wouldn't want to spend a real life minute with any one of them. You can't like 'em all, and however conflicted I am personally about Enlightened, there's no doubt that is one of the best things television offered during its two year run.
Absolutely not guilty.
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