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Laura Dern’s resurgence started with HBO’s Enlightened

It’s a brilliant series that contains what might be Dern’s finest performance.

Amy Jellicoe takes down her company.
Laura Dern stars in Enlightened.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

In Watch This, Vox critic at large Emily VanDerWerff tells you what she’s watching on TV — and why you should watch it, too. Read the archives here. This week: Enlightened, which aired on HBO from 2011 to 2013 and is available on HBO’s streaming platforms.

When did the Laura Dern renaissance begin? My colleague Constance Grady pins its origins to 2017, when Dern appeared in the incredible one-two punch of the first season of Big Little Lies (for which she won an Emmy) and Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Since then, she’s rolled from strength to strength, in movies like The Tale and Marriage Story (for which she just won an Oscar) and another season of Big Little Lies.

But I would peg Dern’s rise to an earlier program: HBO’s Enlightened, which debuted in 2011 and aired for only two seasons but tapped into Dern’s talent for playing white women of a certain social class who are barely holding it together. She’s played variations on her Enlightened character, Amy Jellicoe, in many of her biggest film and TV roles since, but none of them quite match up to Amy in my mind. She was a true original.

Enlightened was one of my favorite TV shows of the 2010s, and Dern gave perhaps the best TV performance of the decade. Created by the genius writer Mike White, Enlightened offered a genuinely new take on the antihero series. It centered on the ways women might transgress the social code we are bound by in the same ways that Tony Soprano transgressed the social code men are bound by. In Tony’s case, the transgression was in committing crimes but also in going to see a therapist — something men in his demographic rarely did when The Sopranos debuted.

Amy’s transgression is that she turns everything up to 100, and that can be incredibly annoying. She, like Tony, is uncompromising. But unlike Tony, she’s not making the world worse. She’s trying to make it better.

Empathy courses through every frame of Enlightened, even when the characters have it in short supply

It took me a few episodes to grasp what Enlightened was doing. In its first half-hour installment, Amy is introduced as a woman at the end of her rope. She’s been transferred from the health and beauty department at the massive and faceless corporation where she works to the “cleaning supplies” department, which makes her inordinately angry. She suspects she was transferred at the behest of a superior she slept with, and she tracks him down, forcing open the doors of an elevator to scream her vows of revenge to his face.

“Woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown” is a character Dern plays well, but what’s remarkable about Enlightened is how memorable this three-minute elevator sequence is and how heavily it hangs over everything that follows. Amy’s downward spiral is also touched off by her realizing that the people she works with don’t like her very much. They find her annoying and hard to take. They’re happy she’s being transferred to another department. And for Amy Jellicoe, who wants nothing more than to be liked or even loved, that is simply too much.

After Amy returns from a lengthy retreat at which she finds a new sense of centeredness, she’s dumped into an even less desirable position than the cleaning supplies job. That's when she comes to realize how thoroughly her corporate overlords are stacking the deck against anybody who’s not in the executive suite. She tries to change the system from within. And when the company doesn’t respond, she looks for ways to effect change from outside of the company, via journalists and social justice movements.

The tension between the Amy who really could do good in the world and the Amy who remains annoying and hard to take is at the core of Enlightened. Dern excels at playing a woman who has good ideas but so much nervous energy that she puts people off as often as she attracts them to her cause. Amy is a different spin on the antihero archetype, one driven less by bad behavior than by being a woman who isn’t constantly pleasant and eager to please.

White talked about this divide in the character in a 2013 interview with Vulture, on the verge of the show’s cancellation:

Everybody wants to point out the hypocrisy of people who are trying to push toward some kind of positive change. But what’s the option? Total apathy? I like the idea of the show being a celebration of that kind of person but also acknowledging with those kind of people there can also be delusions of grandeur or a Joan of Arc complex. There is this bloviating side to Amy, too. But people who can read a room and are completely gracious, they aren’t always the ones who agitate for real change. It’s often the person who keeps putting her hand up, like, Okay, okay, okay.

Does Amy make any meaningful progress? Enlightened certainly suggests that she does, even if it’s hard-fought and perhaps not as lasting as she would like. And one of the series’ most brilliant strokes is in stepping outside of her point of view every few episodes to explore how she has inadvertently inspired the people around her, most memorably in an episode from late in season one about Amy’s mother, Helen (played by Dern’s mother, Diane Ladd). Amy might not change the world, but she changes the people around her. Sometimes that’s enough.

The slow build of Enlightened’s first season can be a challenging watch for viewers who are more accustomed to plottier shows. The second season mixes the character stuff that makes season one so terrific with an involving plot about Amy trying to become a corporate whistleblower. But they combine to form one of the very best TV shows of the past several years as well as an unrivaled celebration of Laura Dern, a woman who can do anything and who is rarely asked to do as much as she is in Enlightened.

Enlightened is available on HBO’s streaming platforms.