"Enlightened," which premieres Monday on HBO, is to my mind the most interesting and ambitious series of the fall season. (And when I say ambitious, I mean emotionally ambitious, though it is beautiful to look upon as well.) You can't really reckon it by anything else on television.
Co-created by Laura Dern, who stars in it, and Mike White, who wrote it, it is a satire shot through with poetry. (The two previously worked on White's "Year of the Dog.") Its directors include White, co-executive producer Miguel Arteta ("Cedar Rapids" and White's collaborator on "Chuck & Buck" and "The Good Girl"), Jonathan Demme, Phil Morrison ("Junebug," Superchunk videos) and Nicole Holofcener ("Please Give"): an indie-flick super-summit.
Dern plays Amy, a corporate executive who as we meet her is in the middle of a noisy breakdown, having learned that she is being transferred out of her department into a lesser one — possibly, as she loudly declares, because she has slept with her boss, though she is not the most reliable guide. Having burned her bridges, she retreats to an oceanside spiritual spa, where she meditates and communes and finally, snorkeling in clear blue waters, meets a sea turtle and sees God.
"Or it was better than God," she later tells ex-husband Levi (Luke Wilson). "Something was speaking to me. It was saying, 'This is all for you. And everything is a gift, even the horrible stuff."
She returns home with mermaid hair, loose clothing, a vocabulary newly charged with "awesome" and "amazing" and an attitude that might be described as aggressively mellow. Though she has been filled with the spirit of the turtle, she has not lost the instincts of a shark and blackmails her way back into work. But instead of the job she has imagined for herself — a community liaison to make her irresponsible employers newly responsive to the Earth — she is sent to a sort of corporate detention, where the staff (including the wonderful Timm Sharp and White himself) do not so much do a job as inhabit a metaphor: A Basement of Misfit Tools.
Above ground, there are Amy's former assistant (Sarah Burns), now occupying her old office; Levi, whom Amy loves but does not trust, and her mother (Diane Ladd, Dern's own mother), who loves but does not trust her.
"I meditated on you, Mom. And me."
White and Dern might have settled for lampooning a certain strain of spiritual striving and the blindness the convert mistakes for sight, in which case they would have done nothing new. But they're out for something more, it seems to me, something as deep and deeply moving as what Amy herself wants to feel, and they bring you every so often to the same ecstatic, painful place their heroine inhabits. You might weep a little.
This is a show about reaching for the light, and as such it runs counter to the many cable comedies whose characters are drawn down to darkness. Amy has had a different vision: "You can be kind and you can be wise and almost whole." Her creators will throw stones in her way, gleefully, but they don't discount her experience or belittle her quest. (Indeed, withholding judgment — which Amy must learn to do, even as the viewer must — may be the real theme of this show.) She's inconsistent, but no hypocrite; deluded, but not dishonest. And if for the moment she has mostly replaced one sort of egotism with another, there is something sparking within her.
"If we can change," she tells her mother, "the whole world can change for the better."
"I don't know what that means, honey," says her mother.