When Enlightened premiered a year ago, it instantly became one of the most interesting shows on television. What was this half-hour, low-key series about a woman, Amy Jellicoe (Laura Dern), piecing her life back together and going back to work for a big, Johnson & Johnson-like company after some kind of stress-related breakdown? It wasn’t a sitcom, or even necessarily a comedy, and it wasn’t a “prestige drama” of the sort HBO has done several times before. Amy wasn’t a straightforward hero, certainly, but she wasn’t an anti-hero, either. And the other characters on the show similarly veered from endearing and awkward to unsympathetic and even repellent.
The show didn’t push for plot twists or melodrama—and its mellowness seemed to make it a tough sell. The trailer for the second season promised more to come with the whistleblower plot, in which Amy uncovers dirty deeds by her employer, and the first six episodes have delivered. But the show has kept its focus on the characters and their inner lives and their relationships with each other. Dermot Mulroney’s muckraking journalist, whom Amy contacts in her quest for justice (and, arguably, attention), seemed a little broad for the series, initially. But he’s become—as Jeffrey Bloomer and Miriam Krule noted in the most recent installment of Slate’s Enlightened TV Club—something like the successful, male equivalent of Amy, a vain, pushy person who’s a bit full of himself, perhaps, but not wrong about the big stuff and not without goodness in his intentions.
Meanwhile, Amy’s ex-husband Levi (Luke Wilson) has gone to rehab and, in the most recent episode, returned to Riverside, Calif., to win Amy back. Sitting with Amy at a Little League field where the two made out as high school kids, Levi says he sees in it Heaven… and Hell. That he sees the latter is typical of this show, which is earnest without being sentimental—and which, with Louie on hiatus until 2014, Mad Men and Breaking Bad in between seasons, and Girls in the midst of an uneven (if occasionally brilliant) second season, might be the best thing on television right now.
And yet, in a Friday interview with the Huffington Post, the show’s creator, Mike White, who also plays Tyler on the show, said a renewal for the series was far from assured. “Right now, we’re struggling for our lives,” he explained. The show does not get big ratings, and it has not garnered the awards and press coverage enjoyed by, e.g., Homeland, which premiered a week after Enlightened, or Girls, which airs right before the show on HBO.
This past Sunday’s episode, “All I Ever Wanted,” which was directed by Todd Haynes, may have been the best in the series so far. Slate got screeners of the two remaining episodes as well—this season is just eight episodes long—and I couldn’t resist watching them ahead of time. If anything, they are even better.
If you’re not opposed to binge-watching, you could easily catch up on this season in a night or two. Give yourself a week and you could catch up on last season as well. It’s worth it. I promise.