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Enlightened: The Best New Show No One But You, If You Are Bothering to Read This Post, Is Watching

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White and Dern in a scene from an excellent, and rainy, episode.

The end of last week’s mail brought a new batch of screeners for HBO’s Enlightened, the Laura Dern–Mike White half-hour about a California woman trying to get her life back together after a nervous breakdown and spiritual awakening. I was so impressed by what I saw—specifically, last night’s episode, “Not Good Enough Mothers,” directed by Nicole Holofcener—that I tweeted that I wanted to write a long post on it, except that judging from the miniscule ratings, no one would read it. I then promptly got a flood of reply tweets from closet Enlightened fans out there, including Men of a Certain Age producer Mike Royce, who knows a thing or two from underappreciated character-study TV series.

Enlightened, I guess, is the Velvet Underground of this TV season: that handful of people who are into the show are really into it. So here’s one more effort to get you to consider watching this weird, perceptive show. And when I say “you,” I’m talking about that guy over there. If you’ve read this far, I assume that you already watch it.

One thing Enlightened is very smart about is that it knows that internal spiritual struggles are connected to external concrete realities. In Amy’s case: she’s trying to learn to master her emotions, to forgive, to nurture, to give back the world, yada yada yada. (The “yada yada yada” is me, not Enlightened; as I’ve said before, the show’s surprising strength is that it can be tough on Amy, but it doesn’t treat her spiritual questing as if it is inherently comic or ridiculous.) But her spiritual journey is driven and challenged by a concrete reality: she’s broke.

And she’s broke in a way that—as exaggerated as her behavior and some of her circumstances might be—a lot of Americans in this economy could relate to. She’s downwardly mobile: literally, she’s been moved down from her corporate suite into the sub-basement of antisocial software drones. She was once one of the elect, and she was cast out of the Garden.

She feels a lot of things—frustration, bitterness, betrayal—but she also experiences something that David Brooks once referred to as “status-income disequilibrium.” That is: she is the kind of person who has to take the bus when her crappy car breaks down, but she does not see herself as belonging to that class of people. (Side note: Mike White wrote the episode, as he has every episode of the season, but it’s appropriate that this episode was directed by Holofcener, who explored similar kinds of money-soul issues in Please Give and Friends With Money.) Part of Amy’s discomfort, and ours, is that she’s a broke woman trying to practice a luxury-pastime, private-spa version of spiritual peace. (If Hollywood and the upscale-yoga-pants business have taught us anything, it’s that the road to Nirvana is paved with dollar bills.)

And yet—swinging back again from the economic to the emotional—it’s not just the global economy that put Amy on this bus. She’s riding the bus because of her mother, who doesn’t trust Amy to borrow her car because of an accident she had when she was 16. Or at least that’s the nominal reason: we know that Amy has given more evidence that she may not be the most trustworthy person to lend your keys, even if her mom doesn’t know about her drive to her ex-lover’s house in the pilot episode.

You could say that Amy’s mom is overreacting, that she’s being petty and judgmental in a way that only exacerbates Amy’s worst behavior. You could say that Amy is being whiny and entitled and that there are worse problems than taking a bus. You could say that her mom is being unsupportive, or that she is helping Amy as best she can by insisting that her daughter take responsibility for herself. You could argue that her mother has exhausted her patience or that she is simply cold. And you could throw in the fact that Amy, for all her talk of having grown and her disdain of material greed, is at heart acting out because, well, she believes she is the sort of person who should get to drive a car to work.

It is possible that all of these things are right. And all of those things, taken together, would be the perfect material for a satire of a spoiled Westerner with first-world problems, rationalizing her entitlement through New Age mumbo-jumbo. But Enlightened works as well as it does because at heart it’s not a satire. (I suspect that some people wrote Enlightened off because they assume that’s what it was, and therefore expected it to be ha-ha funnier.)

Amy is imperfect and damaged (in ways she’s partially self-conscious of), but, Enlightened recognizes, she’s also genuinely trying to understand herself. The lesson she takes here, projecting her own situation onto the news story of an immigrant woman set to be deported (literally a Third World problem), is that these are all stories of mothers and children, and that what the world needs is for everyone to recognize their maternal responsibility to one another.

Now: is this theory in some ways ridiculous? Is it faintly insulting that Amy is mapping her own mommy issues on a poor family who is seeing its very welfare threatened? Is it maybe self-pitying that Amy sees her perceived mistreatment by her mother as the sign of some global ill–that what it takes to heal the world is what she needs to heal herself?

Yeah, probably. And as we see, Amy’s zealot’s desire to make the world see itself through her eyes does not go well. But that doesn’t mean she’s fundamentally worse, or less ridiculous, than most of us, who come to whatever wisdom we have about the world through forms of solipsism and projection.

One of the experiences new parents often report is a feeling of greater empathy for the rest of the world. You suddenly have a helpless person to take care of, and you are reminded that even the most obnoxious person you encounter in your day is somebody’s child; it may not make you like them better, but it makes it harder to demonize them.

Now, as a parent, I’m the first person to admit that this claim is smug—as if reproducing, a process that’s been going on for millions of years, somehow makes you a better person—and at least a little dubious. As a former new parent, I will say it’s the kind of thing that can make new parents insufferable. At some point in my early years as a father I had that “Everyone is someone’s baby” epiphany, but I’ll wager that it was at least half the slaphappy product of exhaustion, and at the end of it all, am I really less of a jerk than I ever was? Probably not. Ask my family and coworkers!

But it’s something. It’s one of the many ways that people at least try to recognize that making yourself a better, more empathetic person is one of the goals of life. People with and without kids attempt versions of this. And what Amy is aiming at, in “Not Good Enough Mothers,” is a framework for a person to come at this understanding, not from the perspective of a parent—since she has no kids—but of a child.

Watching the news about the immigrant woman’s plight, Amy’s mother comments that she feels badly for the children: their mother had a choice, but they did not. Amy’s response: “She’s just a child too. I mean, her mother’s just a child too.”

Now, is Amy talking about herself here—indulging in a little self-pity by using this story to continue to see herself as the wronged child in her relationship with her mom? Is she infantilizing the woman on the news along with herself? Yeah, probably. That doesn’t mean there’s no truth in what she says: that no adult ever feel truly, 100% grown-up and competent, that we figure things out and make bad decisions, that there’s never a point when we are so “adult” and assured in our actions that we are beyond sympathy.

Amy’s attempts to act on that belief by organizing a woman’s group at the office are unsuccessful, a little self-serving (i.e., a way to restore some of her lost authority) and more than a little passive-aggressive. But at the end of the episode, she also makes a small gesture that is totally—well, mainly—about someone else, bringing a gift to the woman whom she’s been using as an object lesson in her attempt to diagnose the world.

And for all Amy’s failures and awkwardly comic attempts to heal humanity, the gesture is real and genuine. Something honestly seems lighter in Amy as she walks away and, for the first time since the beginning of the episode, the sun comes out. It would be a corny moment in many TV shows, a classic example of the pathetic fallacy. But here it feels earned—an opportunity for Enlightened to show us a bit of happiness and decide for ourselves if we’ve simply seen a natural change in the weather or, just perhaps, a very small miracle.