HBO’s ‘Enlightened’: A triumphant comeuppance in cubicle land

Hank Stuever
TV critic January 11, 2013

It’s just you and me and one other guy, who called to say he’s running late, so let’s go ahead and start the meeting of People Who Really Love “Enlightened,” and hope some others show up.

This HBO exercise in exquisite portraiture (I still won’t call it a comedy) returns Sunday night, and it is the most hauntingly nuanced and carefully written show currently on TV. Yes, I already know “Enlightened” is not your cup of green tea, because so many of you have already said so: It’s too slow. Nothing happens. It’s depressing.

Hank Stuever has been The Post's TV critic since 2009. He joined the paper in 1999 as a writer for the Style section, where he has covered an array of popular (and unpopular) culture across the nation. View Archive

It is depressing. It is a real downer, and too many viewers have a bias against that sort of thing. We’ll watch countless ­Prohibition-era thugs get shot in the head, or detectives examine rape-kit results, and of course we’ll watch a couple hundred people die violently in the “Homeland” finale, but somehow ­“Enlightened” is too ooky and dark. In its first season, something like 200,000 people tuned in from week to week; even for HBO, where patience is a virtue, that’s the ratings equivalent of a party no one came to.

For those of you who watch it anyhow (a.k.a. my real friends), a superior season awaits: “Enlightened” comes through with a triumphant eight-episode arc that broadens its characters, quickens the pace and finishes strong.

Laura Dern returns as Amy Jellicoe, who was a mid-level executive at a global corporation called Abaddon Industries until she got demoted after a screaming meltdown at the office. After an expensive stay at a new-age-y rehab resort in Hawaii, Amy came back to Riverside, Calif., broken down but spiritually high. She moved in with her emotionally distant mother ­(Diane Ladd) and set about mending her life and relationships, spouting self-help claptrap and radiating good vibes, while barely managing to keep from plunging over the sanity cliff once more.

To avoid a lawsuit, the HR department at Abaddon (the company’s name is a sly nod to the angel of destruction in the Book of Revelation) reassigned Amy to the basement, where she joined a team of heavy-lidded cubicle outcasts who are all beta-testing a software program called Cogentiva, which tracks productivity to better target workforce reductions.

Aided by a reluctant IT nerd, Tyler (played by “Enlightened” creator-writer-director Mike White), Amy became a saboteur, hacking into Abaddon’s records to search for evidence of environmental and corporate malfeasance.

This season, Amy reaches out to Jeff Flender (Dermot Mulroney), an investigative reporter at the Los Angeles Times, who urges her to keep poking around. The forever-gullible Amy, drowning in her own kale-fed sense of righteousness, falls hard for Jeff’s world of Santa Monica activism, earnest liberalism and legions of Twitter followers.

Back at the office, Amy and Tyler are joined by a surprising new ally, who helps hatch a scheme to gain access to the chief executive’s private e-mail account, by befriending an executive assistant, played by “Saturday Night Live” alum Molly Shannon.

In addition to its superb cast, “Enlightened’s” real strength lies in White’s and Dern’s commitment to brutal realism. Decades from now (I hope), someone will marvel at the show’s accurate feel for early-21st-century American work culture as well as the way it portrays our daily sense of disconnect and vacuity. “Enlightened” is not a social harangue so much as a story with a heavy heart; its best episodes are the ones that take a step back and focus entirely on a supporting character in Amy’s world. Last season, one such episode peeled back the layers of Amy’s mother, each one sadder and more mesmerizing.

Similar episodes this season zoom in on Amy’s ex-husband, Levi (Luke Wilson), who travels to the same Hawaii rehab center to work on his drug dependency and has an entirely different ex­perience there than the blissed-out Amy had. Another episode reveals the lonely depths of Tyler, who moves through life in a cloak of invisibility among oblivious strangers and colleagues.

Dern’s Amy is fascinating but unlikable, mainly because she sees herself as a selfless crusader, which only makes her more self-absorbed. In this way, “Enlightened’s” biggest asset is also its biggest drawback — the main character is written with such unsettling ambivalence that the viewer doesn’t know what to do: cheer for Amy or slap her?

As Amy prepares to become a whistleblower and possibly bring Abaddon to its knees, “Enlightened” reaches for something like the anti-corporate suspense films of yore, seeking sisterly kinship with “Norma Rae,” “Silkwood” or “Erin Brockovich” — only with much lower stakes in the outcome. Amy’s about to step into a world of trouble, but, almost beatifically, she is also bathed in light.

And with that I’ve done what I can here. Either you’ll watch this highly original, thoroughly gratifying TV show . . . or you won’t. In any case, I’ve got to split — there’s a “Treme” support-group meeting next door.

Enlightened

(30 minutes) returns Sunday at

9:30 p.m. on HBO.

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