There is a moment in the February 3rd episode of HBO’s wonderful series Enlightened where Amy Jellicoe (Laura Dern), the show’s serenely chaotic centre, takes a wine glass from a server and considers the wealthy, elite philanthropists around her. Having watched a speech from a woman who mobilised a social movement online from a Starbucks in California, she is approached by a cater waiter. He recognises her, and tells her that he sometimes serves her at a Chili’s restaurant back in Riverside, where she lives. She brushes him off and pretends he doesn’t exist. She’s one of them now, her voiceover tells us. She has learnt their ways.
Amy is just one of many female characters in modern television that refuses to conform to the archetypes we know: goofy spinster, bimbo, bitch, love interest, hot girl. Through the genius writing of Mike White and Dern’s phenomenal performance, she is suffused with the kind of irritating narcissism that festers alongside smug self-superiority. You can see it in the politics-obsessed; those friends we all have who are so passionate about a cause, yet too naïve and stubborn to see outside their own perspective.
In the pilot of Enlightened, we meet Amy mid-breakdown. She’s a junior executive in a massive corporation who has been sleeping with her boss, who is now transferring her out of her department. When some co-workers walk in while she’s weeping in the bathroom and essentially slut shame her, she storms out of the cubicle with the words, “Fuck off, Cheryl. Back-stabbing cunt!” She marches down the hall, past her protesting assistant, and screams at her boss, mascara running like the blood she wants to spill.
Everyone reacts in horror. And when the show premiered, it wasn’t just the characters that reacted negatively to Amy, and the show at large. It was funny – in the show, Amy was being shoved out of her job because the boss didn’t want her around anymore, essentially shifting all the blame off him onto her. Suddenly, she was the desperate chick who wanted to bang the boss to get ahead. In real life, the show was too inaccessible, or not funny enough, or not relatable enough. The two reactions mirrored each other.
As Enlightened has progressed, Amy – for all her sometimes irritating idealism – has become one of the most sympathetic protagonists on the best show currently on television. So why have so few people been willing to follow the show in its ascent? It’s hard not to point to Amy. She is a difficult character, yes, but she’s also an incredibly autonomous, forceful, persistent woman – and people simply aren’t used to that on TV.
In television (and often film) these days, shows are written in a manner that says that female characters need to be ‘softened’ before sympathy for them can develop. Usually, this is done by making them a victim. For Amy, there’s no immediate push into the “sympathy” column. Instead, White writes her in the way that best suits the tone of the show – a slow, meditative, unfurling account of why and how she has become this wounded warrior.
Part of this comes from her coldly distant mother, Helen (Dern’s real life mother, Diane Ladd). In the ninth episode of the first season, the show spends half an hour from her perspective, and we see the reason for her guardedness, for her deep concern for Amy, but her near-inability to properly express it. It also looks at the achingly lonely life of an elderly woman, how even in old age society expects just one kind of person from the senior citizens of the world. It’s one of the most heart-wrenching pieces of television in recent memory, and it’s made all the more impactful because it’s earned and real and deserved. Suddenly, Amy makes so much more sense, an indirect development of her character through her mother that reveals volumes about their relationship, Helen’s parenting and how Amy got to the point she did. It is clear Amy could never talk to her mother about anything, and this inability to communicate permeates the show.
Amy is no saint, however. For all her loneliness, the utter abandonment by all her friends upon return from a holistic wellness retreat, her mistreatment by her former employer and so on, she is still retains a sly, manipulative streak that parlays into the show’s developing major plot – corporate whistleblowing. Upon her return from Hawaii, Amy comes back more stridently concerned about the environment, about people’s rights, about all manner of things she felt blinded to before. And Enlightened proceeds to cleverly show us how unwilling people are to deviate from the norm, especially in a company like Abadonn, Amy’s employer for fifteen years.
Her assistant, Krista, has taken over her old position and now meekly swats at her like a buzzing fly, refusing to treat her like a human being, and more as a caricature of the woman she was for all of a five minute breakdown. Her boss refuses to talk to her, where all Amy wants to do is apologise. The company rejects out-of-hand her suggestions they become more eco-friendly and engaged with the community. It’s no wonder people have struggled to get into the show, because it almost feels like they’re being preached to.
But Enlightened’s strength is the way it uses these issues to explore the humanity of its characters. Amy doesn’t champion these causes because the show wants us to examine those issues first and foremost. She does it so we can see the way people treat activism, cower from change and make lepers of strong women. She does it so we can see how these issues consume the time she would otherwise spend on friends and family lost, or an addict ex-husband (Luke Wilson, doing his best work since The Royal Tenenbaums). She does it so we can experience the crushing loneliness that comes with it, this horrifying sense of belittlement that life can so often dole out unrepentant.
Its second season opens with Amy’s patient, poetic voice intoning, “What if this kingdom really is cursed?” as images of a night-lit office complex come into view. There’s a literal element to this sentence – Amy is trying to take this fictional company down – but buried deep within its words are far more essential truths. Amy’s quest is far more than corporate espionage. She is tearing down notions of subservient female characters, of fatalistic passivity, of overwhelming cynicism, of reliance on technology, of how globalisation is making companies treat people like utter shit, just for starters. There is so much rich, thematic depth in Enlightened that is almost makes your head spin.
The reason, however, that it has been viewed as inaccessible or difficult is because at no point does the show stand behind Amy’s cause one hundred per cent. In the same monologue, Amy asks, “What if somehow you knew how to break the spell? And only you could bring the light? What if somehow you had found the key that could unlock the chains, the magic key that could free us all? Would you use it?” Amy’s quest also seeks to destroy hundreds, perhaps thousands of jobs. She speaks of it in voiceover and to other characters as though she is a glorious avenging angel from the heavens, coming down to liberate cubical monkeys from their tombs. There’s a pomposity to what she does, an overabundance of self-satisfaction that, early in the show’s run, makes people stop and think, “Wait. Why do I want her to succeed?”
Enlightened asks the viewer to look past why, and examine how she goes about her failures and successes, but also how this whirlwind of a woman, this intelligent woman with no filter, fits into the lives of others. To her assistant Krista, she’s a plague, a ghost of the past who haunts her and brings disarray. To her meek workmate Tyler (played by series creator Mike White with perfect awkwardness), she becomes the agent of change, someone who sweeps him along with her and gives him purpose, turning him from a ghost into flesh and blood again. This is a show concerned with the kind of female duality we get little of – so many female characters are written without a second side to them, and as Skyler White of Breaking Bad has taught us, it’s incredibly difficult to make men in particular identify with the suffering of a strong woman. In Enlightened’s case, it’s even more difficult when that woman is the show’s anchor.
Hannah Horvath, however, is a proximate example. In Girls, with which Enlightened is paired on Sunday nights on HBO, she is another rare example of a flawed, intelligent woman at the centre of a television show. The reactions to Hannah in and outside the show are deeply illuminating, as have been the varied and often insane reactions to the show’s creator, Lena Dunham. For her part, Dunham has created and stars as a young woman who too is suffused with a naivety, some lack of social graces, poor decision-making, and a desire to change herself and follow a long, difficult path (in this case, being a writer). Girls, however, has garnered far more attention, largely because of bizarre accusations of nepotism, projective complaints about Dunham’s nudity, an abundance of ugly sex, and how the absence of characters of colour is indicative of her racism, and not of the cloistered lives of the show’s characters.
The reactions to Girls have been characterised by overexposure, where Enlightened still battles away for meagre ratings week after week. The latter suffers because it’s not as young-skewing and doesn’t have pigheaded people concocting controversy around it simply because they don’t like it as much as everyone else does. One of the most cited reasons for this is that the characters are unlikeable or aren’t relatable, which is up there with the absolute dumbest reasons not to engage with a show or film. “Unlikeable” characters show us a slice of life we actively retreat from in reality, and present them to us in the safety of fiction. Refusing to engage with that simply comes off as wilful ignorance that there are people out there who aren’t like you.
And if all art was simply content to reinforce things we already know, where would we be? The world ought to be grateful that Mike White, Laura Dern and Lena Dunham exist to give us these beguiling fictions, these alternate realities, where characters can do and say things we would never dare do or say ourselves. These are the kinds of shows that elevate discourse, that last in our minds because they showed something different instead of repeating things we all already know in our minds – which still makes for good entertainment, but not meaningful art. There’s a good reason modern shows like Mad Men, Breaking Bad, 30 Rock and The Simpsons are viewed with the intense reverence they so deserve: none were ever content to just be what they’re “meant” to be.
It is in the vein of these shows that ones like Enlightened and Girls follow, and why they represent quality television going forward. Each is able to break convention (both have, in recent weeks and in the past, made stark departures from their usual points of view or narrative to engage in more meditative, contained story-telling) and each is willing to portray characters with the kind of nuance that, though never absent before, has become the hallmark of great drama* in modern television. For all the buzz around Girls, it does sap discussion away from another terrific – arguably better – show. Enlightened is like no other show on television in its perspective or in practice, so why won’t you watch it too?