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When HBO announced last week that it would not renew “Enlightened” for a third season, television viewers everywhere wondered: What is “Enlightened”? The show had a small fan base, to the say the least, but we true devotees aren’t quite ready to say goodbye. So, in the tradition of “Arrested Development” fans of past, I’d like to throw one final plea in the ring: Please bring back “Enlightened” and let more people see the quiet show that achieved some of television’s greatest feats.
On the surface, “Enlightened” is about Amy Jellicoe, a corporate employee trying to take down her morally corrupt company from within. But as Todd VanDerWerff at The A.V. Club notes, one of the show’s biggest issues—one that most likely cost it potential viewers—is that it’s nearly impossible to describe. I spoke with someone recently who’d seen every episode and still told me she couldn’t quite figure out the show: “What’s its mission statement?” It’s a valid question. “Enlightened” will regularly dictate a moral philosophy in an introductory voiceover and completely challenge it by episode’s end. If anything, the series is about the limits inherent in offering a single point of view. Its mission is to not come down on one clear side of anything.
“Enlightened” achieves this first through its protagonist, Amy, who desperately wants to enact change for moral “good.” Played by series co-creator Laura Dern, Amy is a familiar type. She’s the person who talks about “taking down the man” without irony, the one who’ll throw herself in service of a social issue she learned about on the evening news. Her violent will often leaves her blind to social cues, and the series is rife with cringe-worthy moments. But while intense, Amy is a relatable character. Her pursuit is just a heightened version of a Capital-B Big question we’re all trying to figure out: How does one live an ethical life?
In real life, it’s hard to know, and we often make missteps in the smaller aims we set in service of this big one. Co-creator Mike White—who plays Tyler (Amy’s coworker) on the show and wrote every episode—masterfully captures this reality in slow-simmering episodes that erupt in singular, charged moments. In the first stretch of season one, viewers sympathetically follow Amy’s headstrong pursuit to create a women’s group at her company, Abbadon. In the fifth episode, Amy’s ex-assistant Krista, who has struggled with the effects of her boss’s oblivious idealism, invites Amy to her baby shower. Amy stands up to give a speech, and in a moment that would traditionally call for attention toward Krista, instead makes her plea for the women to join her civil service group. Here, the show effectively shifts the way we view Amy’s goal: As she gives her speech, we’re not on the edge of our seats, rooting for our protagonist to prevail in convincing the women. Instead, we’re suddenly wondering if she should be trying to convince them in the first place. In the fallout that follows, we feel for both Amy and Krista. Amy meant well, but failed in execution. Krista has reason to be upset, but her lashing out goes too far. The beauty of “Enlightened” is that it doesn’t come down on either side.
These expansions of perspective are, more than any of its plot developments, what “Enlightened” is about. They don’t happen every few episodes. They happen multiple times in every single one. The effect is an empathetic lens on realistic situations—one that we often lack while living through their real-life counterparts.
The show’s title is “Enlightened,” but its characters are people who can’t see past their very narrow points of view. The real enlightened ones are its audience members, who gain a nuanced understanding of human relationships by watching White’s fictional ones play out on screen. Let’s join our friends in the Twitterverse and urge another content producer to pick up the show. If we speak loud enough, maybe Netflix will see the light.
—Columnist Lily F. Karlin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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