Why, the long face of Laura Dern is even more marvelous than usual on Enlightened (HBO, Mondays at 9:30 p.m. ET). It is ever changeable, sea-changeable, even, on this fairly rich, pleasingly strange show. Dern plays Amy Jellicoe, formerly a mid-level executive at a big faceless conglomerate, now a Morlock toiling under its headquarters. Last week, in an economical prologue, Amy suffered a core meltdown at her office. She had been burdened by bad habits and unlucky brain chemistry, and she was erupting at the married boss with whom she’d been sleeping. Amy sobbed operatically, her face blotched with mascara, her rage harrowing. The boss, urgently pushing the close-door button on the elevator, was shutting out the awful beak of her approaching nose.
But later, fresh out of rehab in Hawaii and glowing with hope, Amy floated like a tropical bird. In coming installments, she will be delicately angelic and haggardly angular, serene with prettiness and as monstrous as a Gorgon. Dern’s wide mouth can morph from the deep grimace of a tragic mask to its manic opposite in an imperceptible instant or a violent spasm. Hers is the captivating face of an uncomfortable comedy about self-destruction and self-actualization.
Amy lives and work in Riverside, Calif. Amid lots of citrusy dream-state cinematography, the show acknowledges, in small off-handed ways, that Riverside is a uniquely grim corner of America. This is the same Inland Empire where Dern’s mind resides in David Lynch films. (It is only natural that Lynch, with his fixation on double lives and down-home grotesques should be attracted to Dern’s magical mug. Her melting grimace upon witnessing Dorothy’s bruised clinch with Jeffrey in Blue Velvet, her shifts from ecstasy to terror in Wild at Heart—these are memorable examples of the elasticity that Enlightened exploits.) Amy returns from a spiritual center of a rehab facility fitfully blissed out and regularly acting off-kilter. She moves back into her mother’s place, but she spends a lot of time at her ex-husband’s. Amy is off her meds; he is most definitely on his, as prescribed by Dr. Feelgood. Amy’s attempt to rescue her heavy-drugging ex—named Levi and played, at low boil, by Luke Wilson—is just one expression of her messianic streak.
She wants her old job back, but it doesn’t want her. The brass reluctantly grants her a new position in a department called Cogentiva, which is corporate newspeak for a data-processing center staffed by persons whose cognitive functioning is dubious. Amy’s new cubicle is below the basement, on “Level H.” You need to swipe your key card at least twice to get there, and the viewer gets the impression that the purpose is not to deter intrusion but to forbid escape—or maybe to spare other employees a glimpse of the wretchedness within. Her colleagues are clammy weirdos and clinical misfits, unsocialized and perhaps unsocializable. (The most sympathetic of these is played by series creator Mike White as a pale mole.) Her new supervisor is inappropriate at best. It would be a stretch to imagine him, in the real world, rising to the rank of the assistant manager at a fast-food joint. At one point, he exhorts his team, “Let’s act professional! A’ight?”
Amy, in a pathetic farce of office politics, lobbies her colleagues aboveground to behave ethically. Meanwhile, she conducts a search for a do-gooder job and is hampered in that effort by her need to find one that will pay well; her rehab experience left her not only with a distrust of the material world but also $24,000 in debt. How best to put it? Amy is trying to follow the Noble Eightfold Path, but she is all over the road. She is trying to rebound, but it feels as if, having clanged off the rim of life, she is loose ball bouncing toward the sideline. She is trying to power herself with pure optimism, but the fuel lines are leaky, and so she periodically pops with rage, spurting fancy profanities and hurling her self-help books in the trash. Such moments are at once tense with melancholy and wild with humor.
Amy is, in common parlance, batshit crazy. Is it a holy madness? Or is it a the-whole-world’s-insane overcorrection? Is godliness next to nuttiness? Dern and White are terrifically ambiguous when asking and answering such questions. A black comedy working many shades of gray, Enlightened is about dark mornings of the soul and the fool’s-golden glow of the new convert, and it measures the weight of the world with an eccentric scale.