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Why HBO's Enlightened Will Be Missed

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Lacey Terrell

HBO has canceled Enlightened after only two seasons – a rational decision, judging by the low ratings, but not necessarily an enlightened one.

The comedy, created and written by Mike White and starring Laura Dern, was the only TV comedy I can think of that you could call beautiful. It was also deadpan, disturbing, ironic, moving and – even rarer – full of a kind of zen stillness: Everyone always seemed paused in their places, as if sensing that their daily reality was only a blink removed from empty dreaming.

Given all that, I think “beautiful” is the right word. But as Mr. White and Ms. Dern have learned, that’s not really what people are looking for in a comedy.

Audiences by now accept comedies that are unusual and unpleasant – even sadistic – as long as the payoff, the laughs, are there. That’s certainly true of HBO: Curb Your Enthusiasm is a big, influential hit; Veep, starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus as possibly the most mortified politician in American history, returns for a second season next month. I think even The Comeback, Lisa Kudrow‘s reality parody that lasted only one season, probably could have caught on. It’s now regarded as a kind of classic.

Enlightened is – was – different – something beyond comedy.

It was about the ordeals of Amy Jellicoe (Dern), a smiling, sun-haired corporate employee who firebombs her career with a terrifying office meltdown. She goes off and finds what she believes is inner peace at an emotional rehab camp. But her newfound spirituality is constantly tested (defeated) after the company takes her back – and boots her to a miserable data-entry job in an IT dungeon. She vows revenge and, roping in a reluctant colleague (White), plots to bring down the top echelon.

Which, in a way, she does.

But by the finale of the second season, a woman who was once on the verge of a nervous breakdown was edging into an emotional breakthrough. Her fallback, self-help shibboleths, which fueled much of the satire of the first season, somehow were proving meaningful. She was beginning to understand friendship, becoming aware of herself as something more than just a corporate Joan of Arc. What had started as an incredibly dark show radiated a sense of possibility.

I don’t know how Enlightened achieved this, exactly, except through the alchemy of White’s tuning-fork sensitivity and Dern’s brave performance – it can’t be easy to play that many shades of delusion, desperation and inspiration, to be genuinely pathetic without tossing in some winsomeness or cuteness.

There was an also an incredible, quiet performance by Dern’s real-life mother, Diane Ladd, as Amy Jellicoe’s mother. A woman who had retreated from life following a tragedy, she didn’t have Amy’s tenacity (or lunacy) and seemed to both resent and pity her daughter’s attempt to start again. She, rather than perhaps the corporate baddies, was Amy’s greatest foil.

I don’t know where the show would have gone for a season 3, but seasons 1 and 2 combined will make one perfect series for newcomers. Maybe, after the weird mess of Girl‘s sophomore season, that’s enough. What can I say? The show blew my mind.