Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The best show on television

Sunday night is my big television viewing night. For the last several weeks, of course, there's been "Downton Abbey" on PBS to provide us with enough angst to last until the series returns next winter. Then there is HBO's "Girls," the hot show these days, the one that gets all the critics slavering. "Girls" is sort of a non-airbrushed version of "Sex in the City," four twenty-something friends shown with all all their warts, freckles, anxieties, and cellulite intact. It is in many ways a maddening show, but I can't seem to stop watching it.

But the best half hour on Sunday night is HBO's "Enlightened," the creation of Laura Dern and Mike White, who also star in it.

This is "Enlightened's" second season, like "Girls" which it follows in the Sunday lineup. It may have suffered from its association with "Girls" which seems to sort of suck all the air out of the room. But for those of us who have watched this brilliant - and I use that word advisedly - show from the beginning, there is plenty of air and plenty of reason to watch.

I think the show has had difficulty finding its audience because it is hard to classify. It's too poignant and sometimes downright sad to be called a comedy. And yet it has its comedic moments, some of them quite dark, that just make you shake your head at the human capacity for folly and even occasionally make you laugh out loud.

It is very much a character-driven show and regular viewers are deeply invested in these characters. Amy Jellicoe (played by Laura Dern) is the character around whom everything revolves. She is employed by a big pharma company in California. Her background story is that she had worked at this company for several years and then she became romantically involved with one of the douchebag vice presidents. Things began to fall apart and she had a complete mental breakdown. She went away to a rehab center in Hawaii where she regained some control and, as the show opened last year, she had come back to California to resume her job. Instead of getting her old job back though, she was given a job in the basement of the firm, doing data entry, under the supervision of a boss named Dougie.

Her co-worker at the next desk in the basement is Tyler (Mike White), a sad, lonely, and bitter little man. Amy bonds with him and begins to dream that she and he can avenge themselves on the employer that has wronged them both and which she believes is polluting the earth and making people sick. They just need to find a way to get the information that can bring the company down.

Meantime, Amy lives with her mother (Diane Ladd), having lost everything when she had her breakdown. Even before that, she had lost her marriage to her high school sweetheart Levi (the wonderful Luke Wilson), a former professional baseball player whose life went off the tracks because of drug abuse. Levi sunk very low but Amy never stopped believing in him and believing that he could be the man that she still dreamed he could be. Finally, this season, we saw Levi admit that he needed help to get his life back together. He went to the rehab center in Hawaii where Amy had found "enlightenment." Parenthetically, one of the best episodes this season was the one which focused on him in Hawaii.

Amy is full of energy and do-gooder intentions and she dreams of making her mark, making a difference in the world. She is pushy and self-centered and yet her heart is in the right place. She wants to make things better, to right wrongs. This season, she has latched onto a crusading investigative reporter for the Los Angeles Times who she believes can write the expose` she wants to tell about her employer. She approaches him and pitches the idea and he doesn't shoot her down immediately. Finally, it seems that someone may be taking Amy seriously.

In fact, in last Sunday's episode, it seems likely that Amy's wildest dreams may actually be coming true. In the middle of the episode, Levi returns from Hawaii. Declaring himself "fixed," he tells Amy he wants to try again with her. He even dreams of making another baby to replace the one they lost to miscarriage. But Amy has just started an affair with her journalist friend. Where will it all lead?

I identify so strongly with all the characters in this show. They are all such flawed, fragile human beings, fully realized by the wonderful actors who portray them, and I care deeply about each of them. I do so want them to be happy! I can't remember when I last felt that way about a television show. That's why I say it is the best show on television. Admittedly, I haven't seen them all, but I can't imagine one that would be better.

And yet, this wonderful show does not do that well in the ratings and it could be canceled after this season. It needs a bigger audience. That's why David Haglund in today's Slate.com writes, "Please start watching 'Enlightened'."   I can only second his plea. There are only two more episodes this season, but I recommend you go back and binge-watch all of last season and this season. Trust me, you won't be sorry.

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