Written by Sophie Scott


Binging: Enlightened

So, you’ve finished The Wire, Breaking Bad and The Killing but you’re still hungry for more boxsets. Fear not, Standard Issue writers are on the case with some hidden gems you might not yet have seen. This week, Sophie Scott on why she really wants you to like Enlightened.

Enlightened cast shot

Photos: HBO.

Once, when I was complaining about someone who always disrupts committee meetings because they feel that people don’t validate them enough, my partner said: “People are so interesting, aren’t they. They can’t just stop being themselves. They can’t stop doing it.”

Tom and I both have training in psychology so this kind of high level erudite discussion is of course completely typical (maybe one day we’ll publish a book called Just Stop Doing It). What he was getting at was the way that all of us have habits and mannerisms and ways of dealing with situations that may or may not help us get what we want or make us feel better, but which can be really hard to get out of. I pretty much always want to dominate conversations, even when I can tell that I’m being too much for people. It isn’t always very becoming.

Enlightened poses the question: can we really change? Can we be different people? Can this make us happier?

Amy cryingWe start with the heroine, Amy Jellicoe, having a full-on mascara and anger-streaked meltdown, when she discovers that her boss, also her lover, has passed her over for a position. Undeterred by her colleagues’ barely suppressed horror and schadenfreude at her state, she claws her way into an elevator to scream at him, while everyone shuffles in embarrassment.

The plot then leaps to Amy coming back to work after a period in therapy in Hawaii, where she has dived and meditated and written letters to her mother about her perception of their relationship. She returns expecting people to be pleased to see her, only to find that they are not, that her former assistant has her old job and her former lover wants nothing to do with her.

After a skirmish with human resources, she keeps a job but is sequestered away to a new part of the vast corporation, operating in semi-secrecy in the basement with a horrible boss and a variously demoralised workforce.

The rest of series one follows her attempts to be an agent of change, at home and at work. Amy feels that she has so much to give, but has she really changed or is she still incredibly angry? And even if she hasn’t changed, could she be right that her corporation is toxic and her secret project harmful to real people’s careers?

“In the wrong hands, Amy could just be a monster: instead she is real, and kind of awful, and kind of lovely, like all of us.”

Enlightened sounds unpromising: Amy is not especially likeable and she often spouts empty sounding comments, e.g. about being an agent of change. But I cannot recommend it highly enough: the story evolves with economy and wit, and features some of the cleverest skewering of social interactions that I have ever seen.

The unbearable brightness of tone Amy adopts when approaching her former colleagues is matched only by their borderline contempt, and by her razor-sharp needling of her pregnant former assistant. Her secret project boss is a perfect horror show of a weak, needy man: when Amy fakes an emergency visit to the gynaecologist, he glances at her crotch with a look of disgust and interest, as he asks if there’s anything ‘wrong’. Meanwhile, Amy’s developing friendship with computer expert Tyler, who has had problems with female co-workers in the past, suggests a new narrative path for her, even as she gets him to help her out.

The acting is just superlative: Laura Dern fully commits to flawed, angry but hopeful Amy. Her mum is played by her real-life mum, Dianne Ladd, who is quietly despairing; her ex-husband Levi, who is sinking into depression and drugs, is played by Luke Wilson. Their relationships are drawn with real emotional clarity.

In one episode, Amy wants to use her mum’s car as hers has broken down but her mum doesn’t want to let her, because Amy isn’t insured and is clearly a horrible driver. Amy keeps asking and her mum keeps saying “no” until she asks Amy to stop asking and Amy screams, “I WILL NEVER STOP ASKING.”

'Find your joy' post-it noteIn another episode, Amy and Levi go on a canoeing and camping trip that ends abruptly when Amy finds Levi’s drugs, then throws them into the river. Anyone who’s reacted in such a way that, even at the time, they’ve thought, “This probably will not go brilliantly,” will recognise themselves in moments like this.

Enlightened was created by Laura Dern and Mike White, who plays Tyler, and who wrote all the episodes. White based much of the story on his own experiences of having a breakdown due to work pressure, and again the emotional truth of this is played out in Enlightened. The sadness of lives gone awry is balanced by the possibilities of change and hope. In the wrong hands, Amy could just be a monster: instead she is real, and kind of awful, and kind of lovely, like all of us.

There are only two series of Enlightened, which was a critical hit but never achieved high viewing figures. You can find it on Amazon and I absolutely insist that you do, because I like it and I want you to like it, and I’ll probably never change.


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Written by Sophie Scott

I am a cognitive neuroscientist at UCL, and I study brains, voices, speaking and laughing. In my spare time I try to turn theory into practice with science based stand up comedy. @sophiescott