Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified the show “How to Make It in America.”
Once every season or so, the TV critic finds himself in the tricky spot of recommending a new series even though he knows most of you are not going to like it very much.
HBO’s “Enlightened,” which stars the achingly talented Laura Dern as a corporate drone in the throes of a disastrous midlife crisis, is just that kind of show. It is certainly not the comedy that the network’s ads have touted it as being; nor is it a straight drama with a clearly defined protagonist or particularly gripping plot developments. Nothing about it will cheer you up.
So what is it? I finally settled on the word “portraiture,” but you should tune in Monday night and see whether you can work out your own definition. I happen to like “Enlightened” a lot and found it strangely fascinating, but I’m not sure what I would say if called to testify in its defense.
Co-created by Dern and writer-director-actor Mike White (you may remember him from “School of Rock” or “Chuck & Buck” or even his two seasons on CBS’s “The Amazing Race”), “Enlightened” is quite simply a depiction of a woman far past the edge of a nervous breakdown. It also sublimely lampoons office life, Los Angeles and the touchy-feely panacea of 21st-century yoga culture. And yet I never laughed aloud once in four episodes. It’s that funny.
Dern — an expert at playing unhinged, crazypants types — is Amy Jellicoe, a buyer in the health and beauty division of a quasi-organic grocery corporation called Abbadon Industries. Amy snaps one afternoon when she is thwarted by her boss (Charles Esten), with whom she’s been having an affair. Upon learning that she is being transferred to another department (organic cleaning supplies), she bursts out of the ladies’ room like a mascara-streaked banshee, headed for her boss’s throat.
Fade into blissful sunlight. “I’m speaking with my true voice now,” Amy calmly intones from a dreamy, $48,000 stay at a Hawaii rehab center called Open Air, which rejuvenates her soul. While snorkeling in the Pacific she has a transcendent encounter with a passing sea turtle. She unloads her anxieties in group therapy. She reads self-help books (“Flow Through Your Rage”). She is hugged and listened to.
Which has turned her into an insufferably enlightened kookaburra. She returns with nothing but optimism to L.A., which quickly undermines her energy. She moves in with her mother (Diane Ladd, Dern’s actual mother), who would rather watch crime procedurals and work in her garden than listen to Amy’s New-Age nonsense. “I meditated on you, Mom. I do that now,” Amy says. “If we can change [our relationship], then the whole world can change.” (“I don’t even know what that means,” her mother says.)
More dispiriting is Amy’s return to her snake pit of a workplace, which is incongruously decorated in eco-aware murals depicting organic health and well-being. On her first day back, a trio of dour HR administrators inform her that her job has been filled. Amy, still spacey but suddenly relocating her set of knives, gently floats the possibility of a wrongful-termination lawsuit. Lo, a new job is found for her — keying data entry on “Level H,” in the building’s basement, which is Abbadon’s equivalent of a rubber room.
Here, among Abbadon’s washouts, misfits and problem employees (including White, who plays an IT geek who set off a computer error that got him permanently reassigned to Level H), “Enlightened” finds its true bliss as a series, mining the vicious slums of the corporate margin. Satire in this milieu is easy — and already achieved by everything from ”Dilbert” to “Office Space” — but “Enlightened” wisely chooses verisimilitude and heartache over the meta-antics of a “Community”- or “Office”-like ensemble of dorks.
The show is rounded out by the welcome addition of Luke Wilson as Levi, Amy’s ex-husband, who finds his own bliss by snorting cocaine. He patiently listens to Amy’s profundities and stories of sea turtles, but he clearly thinks she’s full of it.
Or full of herself. As much as anything, “Enlightened” is a closely observed, wonderfully realized depiction of a very modern brand of narcissism, in which Amy’s insistence on her own special place in the universe is the very thing that inhibits her mental health. I dare say Amy will seem quite familiar to many viewers who’ve had friends go off a similar deep end.
Which doesn’t solve the problem of getting people to like the show. These are unfortunately dry times at HBO: The recent season of “True Blood” devolved into something resembling improv theater. “Boardwalk Empire” progresses ever so artfully, but also like an assignment. “Bored to Death” is . . . well, still on; “Hung” feels wrung; “How to Make It in America” is bafflingly devoid of momentum. In this current array, “Enlightened” seems even more delicate and more puzzlingly unique. In other seasons, it would nicely complement the lineup; right now, it’s the best series HBO has.
(30 minutes) premieres Monday
at 9:30 p.m. on HBO.