Amy Among Ghosts

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HBO’s Enlightened is on the chopping block. Despite a flood of Emmy nominations and critical praise, the series has not garnered the viewership it needs to be safe from cancellation. In an interview with The Huffington Post, the show’s writer and co-star, Mike White, says Enlightened’s fate will be decided within the next week as the Season Two finale approaches on Sunday, March 3. If you’ll give me a blog’s worth of your attention, I’ll tell you why this matters.

The opening scene of HBO’s Enlightened finds Amy Jellicoe at her corporate workplace in the midst of an emotional meltdown. After being demoted for sleeping with her married boss, a tearful Amy blazes forth from a bathroom stall, spewing profanity in a foot-stomping, mascara-stained spectacle that, at its peak, evokes an uncomfortable blend of horror, sympathy, hilarity, and sadness. The sadness is what lingers though, as you’re certain you’ve just witnessed an event so destructive and unforgettable that surely no career, no reputation, and no sense of sanity could be salvaged from its aftermath. But Amy Jellicoe is no ordinary woman.

After seeking treatment at a New Age mental health facility in Hawaii, the show follows Amy (played by the magnificent Laura Dern) as she boldly and unapologetically returns to Abaddonn Industries to reclaim her old job and her old life.  Vibrating with frenetic energy, touting a vague message of spiritual renewal and altruism… Amy is ready! Amy is unafraid! Unfortunately for Amy, her former corporate colleagues are still very afraid, and as one might suspect, they do not welcome her with open arms.  Shunned by her “friends” and relegated to a data entry job in the bowels of Abaddonn, we witness the core of Enlightened—the story of a woman who refuses to accept her fall from corporate grace and the powerless, ineffectual existence that comes with it.

What unfolds is not easy to watch, as Amy is her own special mixture of poor judgment, social awkwardness, and uninhibited speech and action. She teeters precariously between tranquility and rage as she navigates the disappointments and failures that come with starting again.

My feelings toward Amy are complicated. As I watch, there are so many moments where she gets knocked down… and I think, “For god sakes, Amy. Just save yourself the grief and stay down.” There have been episodes where I wish so badly I could insert myself, throw a burlap sack over her head and drag her away from her next mistake. But even if I did, I know Amy would find her way back. She lacks so many of the survival skills I cling to in my own life: the ability to accept circumstances as they’re presented, to conceal my disappointments and my dissatisfaction, to inhibit thoughts and opinions that might make others feel upset or uncomfortable.

But then I take a step back and think, What the hell kind of values are those?  So, although watching her causes me great angst and discomfort… a part of me truly admires Amy. She is openly strange. She is vulnerable. She is brave.

I think it’s difficult to admit aloud that you’ve made mistakes, that you’re unhappy, that you want your life to be better and more fulfilling than it is. And how many of us would have the courage to act on this unhappiness—to change the patterns of our lives that make us feel comfortable and secure, or  to start all over again? Could we withstand the pitying regard of our peers? Would we have the resolve and the strength to pick ourselves up after the failures and embarrassments that would surely lie ahead?

As you zoom out from Amy and begin to meet others in her life, you see she is actually surrounded by people who are just as unhappy as she is—but are choosing to slowly and quietly recede into lives they feel they cannot change. The show sometimes refers to them as ghosts—people who move about undetected, hoping their misery goes unnoticed, ambling forward in life without passion or fulfillment. Amy’s ex-husband Levi (Luke Wilson) uses cocaine and alcohol to numb his own existence. Her mother (played by Dern’s real-life mom, Diane Ladd) isolates herself in her Riverside home in order to escape memories of a painful past.  MW_LDernAmy’s meek, hypernasal co-worker Tyler (Mike White, pictured) floats silently into the office in his hummus-colored clothes to perform the repetitive duties of his data entry job while only hinting at feelings of depression and loneliness. Even Amy’s former executive colleagues, as they whisper and mock her behind her back, seem to be functioning on a singular gang mentally that prides itself on blending in.

In comparison, Amy is an outstanding figure of action (mostly chaotic, misdirected action… but action no less!) And to me this is her most redeeming quality.  She may not know exactly where she’s going, but she’s perpetually in motion, and the sheer force of her existence has a way of shaking things loose around her. She has the power to awaken even the most resigned and torpid ghosts. I must admit Amy forced me to take a closer look at some of my own ghostly tendencies and sources of unhappiness… and I think I’m better for it.

So this is my plea. Please watch. Just give it a couple episodes…though I doubt you’ll stop there. And if you love the show like I do… please speak up! Drop a note to HBO…140 character will do! (Social media links below.) I know Enlightened doesn’t have the same “hook” as other more popular T.V. shows. There are no zombies, no vigilante cowboys, and no twenty-something firefighters who could be models in their spare time. Instead, its power is simply in these well-crafted characters. Mike White has created a complex world of relatable, hilarious, multidimensional people… with an unforgettable leading lady who is hard to ignore.  Amy Jellicoe’s transformation is slow and painstaking, but her misery and her victories are moving and beautiful. And this is just the beginning of her story.  

Enlightened airs on HBO, Sundays at 9:30pm.

Here’s the Season 1 Trailer: http:// 

HBO via Facebook, HBO via Twitter @HBO #Enlightened

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