Me: “My to-do list is never ending bleh.”
Friend: “It always has been Marps. I’ve never met you when you told me ‘oh I’m so chill I got nothing on my todo list.’” (I’ve known her 10 years).
Me: “Haha. I guess I should just realize this about myself…And accept it.”
It was then I understood why, in my foolhardy quest for personal and professional perfection, I so loved HBO’s Enlightened.
Of course, Laura Dern’s Amy Jellicoe, the protagonist — or antagonist — of Mike White’s peculiar HBO series, has more on her mind than a to-do list. She has issues, many more than she can handle. After having an affair with her boss, Amy is transferred to another department and has a nervous breakdown. She promptly flies away to an expensive tropical retreat, replete with self-help gatherings and lessons in pseudo-spirituality, before returning to work at Abaddon, the chic but nefarious corporation who fired her. Demoted, single, middle-aged, hated by everyone including her own mother, Amy is all alone and works hard every episode to maintain the peace she fleetingly achieved.
The small question in Enlightened is: can Amy achieve true peace? The bigger question is: can we all, in this ruthless, chaotic and fragmented world, become complete and satisfied citizens?
Enlightened is about the constraints we all feel on our lives and our silly belief we can surpass them. I have been trying to conquer my to-do list for ten years! Tranquility is always just around the corner, never fully realized but always a possibility.
Yet the story is grander than that. At a time when corporations are more powerful than they’ve been in decades, of increasing competition in the white and blue collar labor markets, this question is more pressing than ever. Social constraints have caused, and risen with, the market for self-help and the American rhetoric of personal responsibility over the past 20 or so years. For years academics have charted how, inadequate social welfare/protections and persistent deregulation has led Americans to run toward God, spirituality and self-help in search of answers. People ask Oprah, Suze Orman or The X Factor to help them fix their lives and achieve success, and they often come up short.
Amy truly believes she can overcome the massive challenges before her, despite her age, gender and employer’s less-than-legal employment practices (not to mention general lawlessness on human and environmental rights). Her mother, representing the older generation, has no dreams of personal satisfaction: life is about the drudgery of living. Amy’s ex-husband Levi (Luke Wilson) has also resigned himself to the fallacy of the American dream, of financial and personal well-being. He medicates this condition with robust collection of drugs: pills, coke, weed.
Amy’s drug is self-help. Each episode concludes with a monologue, by turns cloying and inspiring, in which Amy temporarily finds peace. In a recent episode, Levi and Amy take a nostalgic but disastrous camping trip to reconnect with each other and the outdoors. After it all more or less falls apart, Levi tells Amy to give up on him: he’s miserable and always will be. He doesn’t have Amy’s blind faith in personal and professional Nirvana. Amy then delivers the following monologue:
“You can try to escape the story of your life, but you can’t. It happened. The baby died. The dog died. The heart broke. I knew you when you were young. I know your heart broke too. I will know you when we are both old, and maybe wise. I hope wise. I know you now. Your story. Mine isn’t the one I would have chosen in the beginning, but I’ll take it. It is my story. It’s only mine. And it’s not over. There’s time. There is time. There’s so much time.”
In this monologue Amy, for a moment, realizes that she has limited control over her life. She has to deal with what she has and with her inevitable death. What Amy does have is very little: her job is a dead end; it has no social meaning and isn’t intellectually challenging. The people she thinks are her friends make fun of her behind her back. Her mother won’t even lend her a car when hers breaks down. Her husband is suffering from serious trauma and has checked out. The comic part of the show is how quickly Amy forgets all this and jumps right back into blind hope.
Enlightened sets up a interesting tension: the poetry of the American dream, the promise of personal peace it engenders, and the tough economic, personal and social realities most Americans deal with everyday. Because Amy is educated and middle class, she has a better chance at happiness than most, but then her personality steps in.
Like in The Comeback, Amy is, of course, her own worst enemy. The Comeback‘s Valerie Cherish believed she could achieve personal success and fulfillment through reality television, in many ways the public face of self-help in our society (see Laurie Ouellette and James Hay’s brilliant Better Living Through Reality TV). But both Valerie and Amy suffer from extreme social awkwardness and an aggressive strain of narcissism that renders them unable to to read other people’s reactions to their hijinks.
Co-creator Mike White is known for developing these sad characters. Says Gawker‘s Richard Lawson: “Mike White traffics in that kind of punishing, Todd Solondz-with-a-smile American meanness and despair that can be pretty bleak and exhausting. Not necessarily that his characters are mean…but that he can come across as being incredibly mean to his own creations.”
I would argue White has reason to be mean. After all, there’s a lot of evidence Americans should be angry right now — indeed, we’re starting to get more and more angry. By all accounts, Amy should be very mad at Abaddon (in Hebrew: the place of destruction), which stuck her in a basement after 15 years of employment. Even those who have jobs are doing more work for the same or less pay — even academics! Because of the economy, Amy can’t get a better paying position, and so far she hasn’t sued. Amy wants to work for an institution promoting social justice, but those jobs don’t pay enough. Finding true meaning through her job is not possible at the moment. And the people around her, suffering in various ways from the same fate, have already resigned.
Why is this revolutionary? I and others have argued that television has failed to critique this distinctly American problem. Almost every show, scripted or reality, traffics in the idea that individuals, through perseverance, can achieve some level of satisfaction by whatever standard they set. Think of how many television shows end in marriage, professional promotion, friendship, a new house, etc. Most of them. The few that don’t — The Wire chief among them — are noteworthy for precisely that reason.
In this landscape, shows like The Comeback and The Wire, and to a lesser extent United States of Tara, Weeds, The Sopranos, and the like, are necessary and refreshing. Current critical darlings like the AMC trio Breaking Bad, Mad Men and The Walking Dead are asking some of the same questions and may yet conclude with the harsh reality of The Wire.
But so far Enlightened has been admirably focused on the question of whether individuals truly can affect change in their lives, even as their worlds, and the world, fall apart. Whether Enlightened can maintain the punishing brutality required to answer that question is reason enough to keep watching every Monday. Stay tuned!