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Now and Then: 'Enlightened,' HBO's Masterpiece of Heartbreak

Photo of Matt Brennan By Matt Brennan | Thompson on Hollywood! January 7, 2013 at 2:01PM

"Enlightened" opens with Amy Jellicoe (Laura Dern) gag-sobbing in a bathroom stall, mascara streaking down her cheeks in mournful black rivulets. Like the rest of Season 1 of HBO's masterpiece, which returns for Season 2 on Sunday at 9:30, it isn't all that funny. But to call "Enlightened" simply a comedy is unjust: it's a symphony of regret.
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Laura Dern, star of HBO's "Enlightened"
Laura Dern, star of HBO's "Enlightened"

"Enlightened" opens with Amy Jellicoe (Laura Dern) gag-sobbing in a bathroom stall, mascara streaking down her cheeks in mournful black rivulets. Like the rest of Season 1 of HBO's masterpiece, which returns for Season 2 on Sunday at 9:30, it isn't all that funny. But to call "Enlightened" simply a comedy is unjust: it's a symphony of regret.

Amy's mad-as-hell moment, after she's been transferred from her department in a drugstore chain's corporate office following a failed affair with her boss, is only a prologue. But her volcanic rage — prying open the doors of an elevator, looking like Jack Nicholson in "The Shining" — consumes the series, eroding her quest for peace at every turn. With treatment, she finds the aphorisms for a new life, but she has to return to pick up the pieces of her old one; she knows the mantras of happiness, if not yet the thing itself. "You can be wise and almost whole," she tells herself in the pilot, emphasis on the almost.

Created by Dern and Mike White, who co-stars as her workplace co-conspirator Tyler and wrote all ten of the first season's episodes, "Enlightened" follows Amy's slow replanting of all the earth she scorched the last time around, and the new fires she can't help but set. In a bravely unlikable performance, Dern's Amy is all forced sunniness and barely suppressed wrath, striving and failing to be something other than what her ex-boss and ex-lover calls her. "You are a mistake," he says. "You're a giant fuckin' mistake and everyone knows it." Though it's "Girls" that gets all the credit for nervy, discomfiting comedy, "Enlightened" makes the sexual predilections and willful neuroses of urban twenty-somethings — and I know of whence I speak on this count — seem rosy by comparison. It is, at heart, a bleak, sorrowful, stricken series: Amy is one of the "Girls" in 15 years, wrangling with bigger disappointments than she had ever imagined.

Indeed, when she heads up to the mountains for a weekend kayaking trip with her ex-husband, Levi (Luke Wilson), in the season's beautiful fourth episode, she stumbles over her past, and it is rife with unintended consequences. "You can try to escape the story of your life, but you can't," Amy says. "It happened. The baby died, the dog died, the heart broke... Mine isn't the one I would have chosen in the beginning, but I'll take it. It is my story. It's only mine. And it's not over."

This article is related to: Now and Then, TV, TV Reviews, DVD and VOD, Genres, comedy, Television, HBO Films, HBO , HBO


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.