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The Brilliant White of 'Enlightened'
October 17, 2011  | By Eric Gould
 
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There are many moments in HBO's new Monday half-hour series Enlightenedwhere the scene dissolves to bright white light, while the main character's thoughts go in and out of meditation. These are the white spaces where the mind might drift smoothly, or in here, run rampantly and disquietly through attempted calm. They're also spaces created by another White -- Mike White -- who is the head writer, sometime director and the show's co-creator and co-star alongside actress Laura Dern.

Enlightened is a deceivingly benign picture of southern California, with roses in bloom and lots of pale yellow, celery green and plum painted interiors where everyday rage and frustration bubble just below the veneer. Dern's character, Amy Jellicoe, is back to work after a busted affair with another department head, an unceremonious sacking out of her own department, and an emotional breakdown that followed.

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Amy has worked for Abaddonn, a multinational retailing firm specializing in environmentally conscious health, beauty and household products, for 15 years. And since they can't legally fire her for her public meltdown, the higher-ups have stuck her down in the headquarters basement (shown as Level "H" on the elevator pad, presumably for Hell), on a throwaway data processing project with a bunch of other company outcasts.

The company name (pronounced AH-ba-don) is all too apparently the home for A Bad Don, i.e., corporate culture itself, with all the arm-twisting and self-importance usually wielded by a crime boss.

Except here it's done with the click of a mouse sending out an interoffice memo.

White and Dern have created a simple, difficult world where personal change and growth come in small moments, and there are no cathartic interpersonal earthquakes.

This is part of the immense charm and interest of Enlightened, and it's a bit of risk for any network that wants its comedies quip-tastic and its dramas heated. The small moments in Enlightened provide the biggest payoffs, but perhaps aren't the surefire ones to be expected in something with higher emotional stakes like Six Feet Under.

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As such, this is a slice of the real workaday world where we suffer unfairness and general backstabbing we don't deserve -- although there may be something to be learned regarding what we did to get a blade between the shoulder blades in the first place.

The first two episodes of Enlightened have been quiet, quirky, awkward, uncomfortable. And deeply enriching. The second two available for screening not only sustain the mood, but peel away the layers of Amy's backstory; her former assistant Krista (Sarah Burns), who now has her office; and Amy's ex-husband, Levi, well played by Luke Wilson [photo at right].

We'll see Amy struggling with trying to maintain the serenity she found in her Hawaiian rehab retreat, while the indignities of modern city living attempt to swallow her again. She impatiently greets the barking of her emotionally distant mother's precious Cavalier King Charles Spaniel with "Shut up, Ginger," as if she were casually flipping off an irritating sister.

We'll also see her friendship with basement cellmate and co-worker Tyler, played by White. And all indications are that White's character, embedded into the Abaddonn computer system, won't turn out to be as ineffectual or as dense as we are being led to believe he is.

And speaking of peeling layers, the Abaddonn headquarters are a lion's den in sheep's clothing, full of holistically branded, artificially pretty photography. Most notable of these are billboard-sized prints in the main conference room of thin slices of tender cucumbers and onions, perhaps suggestive of the thinness of the talent pool there, or maybe, more emblematic of our being placed under an office microscope on a daily basis. It's scrutiny under which pretty much any of us would wither.

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White is a first-rate writer with the memorable Chuck and Buck (2000) behind him, as well as The School of Rock (2003) and TV's Freaks and Geeks (2000).

While he and Dern are leading us through a small web of desperate undercurrents, they also are cleverly using the tough economic times as a smart background refrain. The characters must eventually look at themselves against it and wonder exactly what are they competing for and why are they knocking themselves out to get it? Is the corporate ladder, and the acquisition of things, worth the enormous sacrifice of personal integrity and inner being?

Enlightened also marks another TV musical scoring success for Mark Mothersbaugh, former mastermind behind the 1980s band Devo, which predicted (some would say rightly) the beginning of the "de-evolution" of modern culture.

Who better than Mothersbaugh and White to illuminate the awkward tension and quiet desperation just under the surface of everyday ignominious life?

They're all right there in Enlightened. We just have take a slow breath and look between the little crevices to find them, and heed the lessons to be found.

 
 
 
 
 
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