TV Review: Laura Dern Joins Cable Club to Get ‘Enlightened’

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CHICAGO – Why has television become the home for so many talented actresses? The sad fact is that Hollywood screenwriters aren’t writing many quality roles for actresses over forty and so you have incredibly gifted performers like Toni Collette, Laura Linney, and Jessica Lange turning to the writing on cable to find roles that challenge them. Will Dern find the same success in HBO’s “Enlightened”? Television Rating: 3.0/5.0
Television Rating: 3.0/5.0

While they’ve definitely started another chapter with acclaimed dramas like “Boardwalk Empire” and “Game of Thrones,” HBO is still struggling in the half-hour department. “Sex and the City” is long gone and their best comedy is still the veteran “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” “Hung” and “How to Make It in America” are disappointingly stale and “Bored to Death” is my least favorite program on the network. Can this one be the exception to the rule for half-hour HBO? The one that finally breaks through? Probably not. “Enlightened” features a stellar lead performance, as fans of Dern would expect, but the show isn’t engaging enough to break HBO out of their half-hour rut. At least not at first.

Photo credit: HBO

Amy (Laura Dern) is having a BAD day. The premiere opens with her crying in a bathroom stall, mascara running down her face, listening to two catty colleagues talk about her by the sink. She’s about to be transferred to a horrible department and she believes it’s because her office lover has turned on her. She’s furious. And kind of crazy. It turns into a total 100% meltdown by the elevators and poor Amy has to go away to a place called “Open Air” find her peace again.

You can walk out of Hell and into the light.” Amy returns in a complete 180 from that first scene, full of zen and happiness. Her narration is awash in meditative advice and talk about illuminated paths. She tries to get her old job back (which she does in a funny way), tries to mend broken bridges with her mother (Dern’s real mother Diane Ladd), and develops an old relationship with a friend (Luke Wilson) skeptical of “the new Amy” and addicted in his own ways.

Photo credit: HBO

It’s ironic that writing is clearly what has brought so many talented people to television in pursuit of the next “Mad Men” or “Boardwalk Empire” because it’s the writing on “Enlightened” that is the program’s biggest problem. I really like Mike White (who co-wrote with Dern, directed the premiere, and joins the cast in the 2nd episode) but there’s a bit of “Who Cares?” going on in the first episode of “Enlightened.” We don’t know these characters and there’s little identifiable in watching someone else’s mid-life crisis. Dern does an amazing job — she immediately has to be on the short lists for Golden Globe and Emmy consideration — and she’s ably assisted by a strong supporting cast, especially a low-key performance from her real-life mother. But the emotional connection isn’t there due to the thin writing.

One can’t criticize the cast in the slightest and the program is crisply directed and produced but, to be blunt, I didn’t buy it. One of the biggest problems is that we don’t know Crazy Amy for long enough for her recovery to have any impact. As the people in her life are stunned by her change in character, we’re left with only that one prologue as evidence of what Amy used to be like. As her former lover, mother, and friends seem to understandably push Amy back to her old self, we kind of want her to go there.

Although maybe that’s the point. Maybe “Enlightened” is a show about not only how difficult it is to find peace but how it’s even harder to keep it. And maybe even about how we shouldn’t. The show definitely grows on you. Watch more than one episode. The second episode in which Amy finds her new job a little frustrating is MUCH funnier (the first episode is actually more accurately a drama). I think the show actually would have been stronger in hour-long form, so we could get to know Amy more completely from night one.

It took Amy some time to find her inner happiness. Maybe we should give her show some time to find its rhythm as well. Still, as we all struggle to keep our patience in line with our happiness and satisfaction, the writing on “Enlightened” has to get better in order for viewers to care. “Enlightened” is not yet the next great dramedy but I can’t rule out that it could become so before year’s end. I’m still waiting for the light.

“Enlightened” stars Laura Dern, Diane Ladd, Luke Wilson, Sarah Burns, Timm Sharp, and Mike White. It premieres on HBO on October 10th, 2011 at 8:30pm CST after the season premiere of “Bored to Death”. The show was co-created by Dern & White and the premiere was directed by White. content director Brian Tallerico

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