I know Laura Dern is very famous, with famous parents and movie credits and a long loose frame and a famous ex-husband.
I know she’s starred in some interesting things, like "Citizen Ruth" and "Recount," in which she played Katherine Harris of the 2008 presidential election debacle in Florida.
She starred in "Blue Velvet" and "Jurassic Park" and "Jurassic Park II" and about 50 other movies. Plus she was Ellen DeGeneres’ first female love interest on "Ellen" back in 1997. She’s a little out there, I think, not in a crazy Hollywood narcissist way, more like an I-don’t-need-to-care-what-you-think-of-me way.
I guess I’d say that Laura Dern is like a distant cousin from the glamorous side of the family, whom you see at the reunion and think, "Wow, she’s tall," and then forget in your search for more sour cream and onion dip.
Last week, while noodling around a website that lets you watch a million different American TV shows via European and Russian satellite (don’t worry, I pay for content on Hulu and Netflix, so I’m not being baldly unethical, just receding-hairline-with-bad-mullet-weave unethical), I decided to watch an episode of "Enlightened."
I usually stick with beloved reruns, being lazy and very tired when I have a moment to fritter, and from the few reviews and interviews I’d seen, I knew this wasn’t going to be a hamburger-and-French-fries kind
Sometimes, a show about bad people turns the world into a pre-apocalyptic farce drenched in cynicism and desperately sad if athletic sex. Or it’s just tiresome to endure people living their lives without much humor or imagination, which is my main beef with the 10 minutes of "Mad Men" I managed to watch.
"Enlightened," though, was co-created by Dern, who stars in it, and Mike White, who wrote all the scripts. Mike White wrote "School of Rock," those 90 minutes of earnest Jack Black awesomeness. He wrote "The Good Girl," in which Jennifer Aniston was pretty good. (By the bye, I read that she prepared for the role by wearing clothes with weights sewn into the cuffs and hems to give her a sensory experience of depression. Really? There are people in modern America who still don’t know that depression makes you slump? I don’t trust that gal.)
Mike White was a writer and producer on the scintillatingly perfect "Freaks and Geeks." He directed or co-directed a handful of well-regarded indie films. He wrote "Nacho Libre," for absurdity’s sake! This is one interesting mind.
And he went to Wesleyan University. I went there. I had a fairly terrible time, but our shared alma mater would grant us 2.5 seconds of conversation were we ever to meet.
So I said "da" to "Enlightened" and clicked Aleosha Petrenko’s link.
In the first scene, Laura Dern’s character, Amy Jellicoe, is going insane in her fancy corporate workplace, at her boss, with mascara blotching her eyes and streaking her cheeks like war paint. She shrieks and screams.
Her rage is so big, so uncontrollable, so humiliating and so sad that her body, already long, seems monstrous, with sentient whip cords flailing out like a mad Doc Oc in heels.
It’s discomfiting to watch, but the next scenes are almost squirmier. Time jumps forward to the end of Amy’s stay at a New Age-y rehab center in Hawaii called Open Air. We see her meditating and doing yoga, sitting around a campfire on the beach, full-body hugging her friends and healers goodbye as she leaves to go back home.
Her accompanying voiceover is measured and somnolent with the modulated ecstasy of the blissed-out. Her hair is long and wavy and her smile is beatific. Her bags are filled with spiritual self-help books. She believes she has found the key to make all parts of her life well.
It reeks of cliché. There is an aggressive naivete in this portrayal of New Age healing, a willful insistence that if you just meditate enough, read enough Ekhart Tolle, the world will simply align itself to your vision for it. At 40, Amy is astoundingly immature. Though we learn over the 10 episodes the reasons for it, at first her behavior is painful and her disappointment and rage and hope and entitlement unbearable in their largeness.
Did I mention "Enlightened" is a comedy?
I kept watching despite Amy’s impossible personality. I’m so glad I did. "Enlightened" is a fine thing.
Mike White and Laura Dern are not mocking Amy. Yes, she is humiliated and rejected, thwarted and betrayed. Yes, she is inconsiderate and selfish and she talks like a Valley Girl on homeopathic drugs, but my god, she is brave. She is intensely alive, kicking hard and then harder in her hero’s quest to be better person who can make a better world.
Mike White’s smart, layered scripts give Amy the tiniest successes. She lets an inscrutable friend go. She releases her ex-husband, momentarily anyway, from her unwanted attempts to save him. She covers her difficult mother with a blanket when she’s fallen asleep on the couch.
The triumphs are small, but they are delicious. They are earned. Because of them, the season finale is an explosive thrill.
I also now know that Laura Dern is an incredible actress with a face that twists and flattens and blossoms with feeling. Especially striking are the moments that shove her out of her New Age cloud into the anger and loneliness beneath it. Suddenly there is depth in those rich blue eyes. Her torso clenches or coils. Suddenly she is jangled and enraged; suddenly all those planes and angles settle into molten clarity. It’s fearless work. It is so cool.
Conversely, my favorite part of "Enlightened" is that Amy Jellicoe is so deeply uncool. There is a lot of ugliness in her, and in the show generally, along with mock-worthy hopes and haircuts. Some people are pathetic jerks and some are powerful jerks.
But the series believes in people, in their capacity to change. It just knows that it takes more than a Rumi poem and a group hug to grow, and that it doesn’t look anything like you thought.
In this case, it looks like crazy Amy Jellicoe, extraordinary Laura Dern, brilliant Mike White, and pirated HBO.
Slyedooyet, chto blazhyenstvo!
Becky Karush is a regular contributor to the Reformer. You can follow her TV blog at www.Reformer802.com/favoritewasteoftime.