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Best of 2011 in TV: Mary McNamara

It was a fantastic fall season for women, first and foremost thanks to Laura Dern's absurd yet sympathetic character on 'Enlightened.'

December 18, 2011|By Mary McNamara, Los Angeles Times Television Critic
  • LAURA DERN'S Amy Jellicoe, above, is truly revolutionary. "Enlightened," indeed. KAT DENNINGS, lower left, and Beth Behrs turn the odd-couple setup on its head in "2 Broke Girls." BEST FRIEND as lead: Zooey Deschanel, lower rightl.
LAURA DERN'S Amy Jellicoe, above, is truly revolutionary. "Enlightened,"… (HBO / CBS / FOX )

"Girls, girls, girls" — if the 2011 season had to wear a neon sign on its head, that is what it would say. Blame it on the "The Good Wife" or Lady Gaga or "Bridesmaids," but suddenly television went all gynocentric.

It started in January, with the sight of Elizabeth McGovern, Penelope Wilton and Maggie Smith going head to head on the wonderful "Downton Abbey"; by the fall, all anyone was talking about was "The New Girl" and not just the Zooey Deschanel show but also the concept it stood for — the Pan Am gals, the Playboy bunnies, a double dip of Whitney Cummings ("Whitney," "2 Broke Girls"), the arrival of power hitters Claire Danes ("Homeland") and Maria Bello ("Prime Suspect"). Once again, the face of TV was changing, growing smoother (not to mention whiter) and less prone to that weird, unshaven look all the TV guys still seem to think is so attractive.

Not all of them succeeded, of course. The bunnies were among the first to get the ax, then "Prime Suspect"; "Pan Am" is hanging by a thread, and "Whitney" never transcended the inherent problem of trying to shoehorn a shock-jockish gal stand-up into the confines of a by-the-book network show. Although it's nice for us critics to have such an obvious trend to write about, the characters, though remarkable perhaps in their numbers, were mostly mild twists of old standards.

"Whitney" and "New Girl" explore what would happen if you took the best-friend role — airhead geek (Deschanel) or foul-mouthed cynic (Cummings) — and made it the lead. The odd-couple roommates of "2 Broke Girls" dutifully follow a similar setup, with Kat Dennings as the sarcastic but soulful poor mouse and Beth Behrs the giddier but resourceful rich one. On Showtime, Danes' Carrie roils nicely with contradictions, but even she is a version of the driven cop/spy/surgeon/investigator, legions of which march across our screens large and small every year.

In the end, for all the numbers and the chatter, only one truly revolutionary female character emerged from the fall season — Laura Dern's Amy Jellicoe on HBO's "Enlightened." Driven to hysterical breakdown by multiple factors, including a high-powered job, an affair with a coworker and her own near fatal narcissism, Amy sought treatment at a Hawaiian spiritual retreat and returned to L.A. a "changed" woman. Co-created by Dern and Mike White, who also costars, what could have easily been a satire of self-help or a send-up of a certain kind of woman is instead a clear-eyed yet surprisingly kind look at a genuinely troubled soul attempting to become a healthier person and failing more often than she succeeds.

Not since "The Comeback" (also on HBO) has a female character been allowed to look so absurd while remaining essentially sympathetic. Dern remains a remarkably fearless performer, and her ability to shift between rage and joy, helplessness and determination as Amy slowly realizes that she has been defining the world backward, through a narrow splinter of her own reflection, is astonishing to watch. Anyone who has had a truly transformative experience or witnessed one up close will recognize the messy, exasperating, faltering and yet admirable journey that Amy has begun and is, of course, determined to share with everyone she meets.

Which makes this character and "Enlightened" a long-overdue but blessedly necessary antidote to the quick fix mentality that TV provides nightly. Personal transformation has become the lingua franca of pop culture in general and television in particular. Reality television, from "American Idol" to "Hoarders," thrives on it; Oprah Winfrey has built an entire empire (including her new network) upon it, and virtually every scripted series revolves around some version of it. People and characters are broken; the experiences they have will heal them and, because we are watching, may heal us too.

While there is much to be said for stories in which people recognize problems and work to overcome them, television by its very nature requires a pretty quick turnover, which isn't ideal for life-changers. Making Personal Renaissance something one accomplishes in the arc of a season or, even worse, an episode is just as narratively convenient as the inevitable pivotal pep talk in a sports movie and just as ridiculous. No one becomes a star athlete solely because of a pithy something someone said. It takes years of training and dedication, as does any attempt to overcome an addiction or a pathology or a deeply held but false belief.

None of which means you shouldn't try, either personally or as a television writer, especially now that "Enlightened" offers us such an admirable alternative. It does not poke fun at self-help books or platitudes or any of the popular aids to serenity, but it does point out the futility of exchanging one set of obsessions for another, for changing your wardrobe rather than your world view.

Although, being a television character, Amy tends toward extremes, she is basically the kind of woman who loses her mind if a traffic jam keeps her from getting to yoga class and doesn't see the contradiction in that. There are a lot of us women out there, but she is the first to get her own show.

mary.mcnamara@latimes.com

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