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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.

These voiceovers, epigraphs to the story she hopes to write, can seem both a life raft and a sinking ship. I've fallen in love with them, their run-on affirmations and soft-spoken hopes — at times they seem a design for living that she can speak but not yet will into existence, always "almost" but never quite whole. The scene that first won me over follows one of these monologues, at the conclusion of the pilot. Amy sweeps into work on the strains of Regina Spektor's "Human of the Year" sporting a yellow dress, a beam of light amid the charcoal suits. The way the camera catches the sun on the glassy skyscrapers, the way she runs the last few steps to the elevator, imagining an ocean of joy before her: it's one of those small, perfect moments you're sometimes lucky enough to glimpse before the spell is broken.

And perhaps it is, or will be. Like the river Amy kayaks with Levi or the black-stained tears on her face, the central reason I am so excited to see where the series goes in Season 2, that makes "Enlightened" such compelling viewing, is its fierce current of regret. It's Amy's mother (Dern's own mother, Diane Ladd), staring wistfully at an old photograph in her cheap pink robe. It's the omnipresent feeling that Amy's words are tricks, empty even to her, gauzy dressing on a deep and unhealed wound. I suppose I mean to say that I started watching "Enlightened" as a comedy and ended up seeing it as an unfinished tragedy, tending away from the happy ending. The heart broke, she says, past tense.

Season 2 of "Enlightened" premieres Sunday at 9:30 ET/PT on HBO.

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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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.