Writing for television, especially when creating characters, is a tricky business. When we tune into our shows, sometimes even before the pilot airs, we know exactly what we want from the people who populate the stories. At least for a large portion of viewers, they must be complex enough to keep us coming back while still being consistently likable. When they fail, they must be redeemed, and when wronged, avenged by the justice of their showrunner God. We want to see people we can agree with and get behind, at least 90 percent of the time. We don’t want to have to contend with the narrative dissonance of loving a plot and loathing its focus, disparaging a character’s choices while enjoying the ride. When it comes to TV, often the greatest sin a show can commit is making its viewers work too hard to empathize.
Now, anyone who’s a fan of HBO’s “Girls” and who has stayed abreast of the criticism leveled at the show should be well attuned to this issue. All too often, the only complaint people can level at Lena Dunham’s revisionist Sex in the City (a show that I adore and will defend to my grave) is that they dislike the characters—they don’t agree with their choices and they have too many flaws. Even James Franco, chosen son of every artistic medium and cast member in “Your Highness,” could only say that the characters all seemed like losers to him and that he wouldn’t want to hang out with them.
Our adherence to the cult of likability is an extremely unfortunate trend because it ends up neutering so much of television, leaving us with five hundred “How I Met Your Mother” clones, each oozing that sort of dull “niceness” that makes modern television so flavorless. Of course, certain shows are able to challenge these expectations (“Girls,” “Breaking Bad,” and “Homeland”) and unsurprisingly, these are often the best shows on television. There’s another show, however, that is often overlooked and that I believe is truly the best executed rebellion against the vanilla-ing of our TV casts, and it surely deserves your attention.
“Enlightened,” which airs on HBO and is currently in the middle of its second season (the first has recently been released on DVD), is the distillation of the ethic of the unlikable protagonist, and consequently, one of the least watched and most astute shows currently on television. Written and created by Wesleyan alum Mike White (whom you most likely know as the director of “School of Rock”) and starring Laura Dern, “Enlightened” is an examination of mental health, self-help, corporate malfeasance, whistle-blowing, substance abuse, sexuality, and a thousand other equally nuanced topics. The show expertly arranges all of this around the story of Amy Jellicoe (Dern) who, after having an affair with her married boss, is transferred out of her department at the health and beauty giant Abaddonn Industries. Upon finding out, Amy has a breakdown, chasing her boss to the elevator, makeup streaming down her face, screaming ribbons of expletives, before finally prying the doors to the elevator car open, to curse him out in front of a host of shocked visitors. It’s a wonderful scene, expertly acted by Dern and company, and a perfect introduction to the show’s difficult tone, which neither outright mocks nor redeems the actions of its cast. Rather it reaches for a hard-to-grasp niche between drama and comedy that feels closer to the awkward gray of real life than any show in recent memory.
Following this sequence, the show jumps forward in time. Amy has undergone rehabilitation in Hawaii and is on her way back to Abaddonn, newly concerned with the health of the planet and determined to change the world. She moves in with her mother and goes back to work, now relegated to the basement level of the company by a reluctant HR department, where she is tasked with data entry using a program known as Cogentiva. Slaving under a chauvinistic new supervisor and surrounded by a host of well-meaning (if passive) fellow exiles, Amy decides to begin to wage her earth-shaking campaign of change. And, Lord, is she obnoxious about it.
This is most likely where the show has trouble attracting viewers but is also what makes “Enlightened” so remarkable. Episode after episode, with the best intentions, Amy forces her way into the lives of all those around her, from her mother, to her alcoholic ex-husband, to her coworkers, who are clearly discouraged by her willingness to skip out on work to attend union rallies and environmental protests. Spouting New Age platitudes, Amy goes about trying to immerse (if not drown) those she cares about in the inner peace she seems to have attained, only ever cursorily aware that she still has a host of problems to fix.
For some, Amy’s character will be all too easy to despise—a by-the-book, holier-than-thou nervous wreck, too engaged in prying into other people’s business to try to fix her own. She’s a missionary for the church of the recently broken, held together with duct tape and meditation exercises, here to proselytize a world she doesn’t really understand, inwardly or outwardly.
But there’s a real beauty in this, and in the exploration of such a character, which this show undertakes unflinchingly and so thoroughly that by the end of the very first episode, Amy Jellicoe feels like someone you know and probably don’t like very much. And “Enlightened” is very aware of this. White and his fellow writers are never trying to make you unequivocally sympathize Amy or support her decisions. Rather, they’re dedicated to creating in their viewers a textured and forgiving empathy that can feed into the show’s interest in self-healing—how difficult it is to fix yourself when you really don’t know who you want to be or who you were to begin with.
“Enlightened” is a show about the rocky road of change and recovery—the ugly little pitfalls, the overconfidence, the unwillingness to recognize that you may not have come as far as you think. It’s a show about a humanity both fractured and sacred and the sort of missions, both misguided and wonderful, that this breeds. When the show invites us to laugh at the absurdity of its characters, it’s quick to add redemptive and probing refrain.
Very few shows in recent memory, if not in the canon of television overall, showcase the bravery and empathy that consistently keep “Enlightened” afloat. With its dedication to presenting its characters as fully as possible, flaws and all, the show captures an emotional realism that’s a far cry from anything currently on the air.