I have a shameful confession to make. I read self-help. Tons of it. On a pretty regular basis. I love the daily affirmations, the journaling, the gooey “you go girl”-ness of it. In the course of my life, I have found the power of now, had the seat of my soul awakened, returned to love, and gotten in touch with the boyfriend within. I have attended workshops, followed gurus online, and meditated in the park with strangers. Don’t even get me started on Oprah. I can honestly say that many of the books I have read have moved my life into a better direction. I am aware of myself, take care of the things I know are important, and feel more and more comfortable each day being me, a major accomplishment if you knew the “me” years ago. That being said, I also realize the incredibly amount of bullshit that comes along with the genre. Composing letters that will never be sent to those who supposedly wronged you in the past does nothing but make you look crazy. Writing “I am all the love that I need” 50 times with your non-dominant hand only leaves you with carpal tunnel. Visualizing cashing a million dollar check when you cannot even pay the minimum on your credit cards is flat out delusional.
Because of (or in spite of) this self-help mania, I have fallen in love with a new series on HBO, “Enlightened,” starring Laura Dern. Dern, who developed the show along with “Freaks and Geeks” writer Mike White, plays Amy Jellicoe, a “Health and Beauty” executive who, after getting demoted following an epic, anger-fueled office-place meltdown, ships herself off to an island rehabilitation center and discovers that “Change is possible.” She returns to her old life with a new, self-help centered focus, determined to act upon the self she found in her awakening. For anyone who has tried to change any aspect of their lives, it is easy to see that some changes don’t take as easy as others. In Amy’s case, her new self is not only hard to maintain, it is also uncomfortable to watch. Watching characters painfully stumble through awkward situations and uncomfortable moments is a staple of today’s television. Successful shows such as “The Office” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm” have made their mark based solely on this premise. We seem to take pleasure in watching the painful foibles of others, laughing at them to fight off our uncomfortable connection with our own lives. Amy is no exception to this category. We cringe as she tries to win back her old job with grand ideas of corporate change and responsibility, only to be hidden away in the basement as a soul-crushing data-entry processor. We turn our heads from the screen as she reads a letter to her mom, knowing the promises held in that letter not only reveal her soul but will go unheard by a (seemingly) vacant woman. And with each of these moments, Amy looks to be the spiritual kin of Valerie Cherish, another HBO character who tried to return to glory through the one-season run of “The Comeback.”
And yet Amy’s journey, in a pleasing surprise, is quite different. Amy is not a one-note annoyance, hell bent on reveling in our ugliest flaws. Instead, Amy has become one of the most likable of the “unlikable” characters we see on the small screen. In fact, I would even go as far as to say Amy, and “Enlightened” as a whole, has grown into one of the most soulfully honest series on television right now. Amy has become a character we not only scorn but root for, a rarity for a show pegged as a comedy. Take the series 6th episode, “Sandy.” In the episode, Any receives an unexpected visit from one of her closest friends, Sandy, played lovingly by Robin Wright. Amy adores Sandy, believes she can tell her anything, recover from any problem that might arise in their friendship, be the person she is and not the character she pretends to be around others. A surprise visit from Sandy sends Amy into fits of happiness we haven’t yet seen from her. Someone finally understands her. We are shown all of this within the first five minutes of the show, which in television mean “things will go wrong from here.” The viewer fully expects Amy to ruin her friendship with Sandy through her sheer Amyness. Instead of becoming uncomfortable, however, what unfold becomes infinitely sad. I don’t want to reveal too much about the episode other than to say that by the end, it had me in tears, reflecting on failed friendships of my past. “Sandy” could have been a painful excursion into a characters inability to connect with others, but turns out to be a subtle and even moving meditation on our own fears of not being enough for those we love. As beautifully directed by Jonathan Demme, the episode is easily one of the best to air on television this year.
“Enlightened” is not easy to describe, which probably accounts for its low viewership. It is not quite a comedy, not quite a drama. What it is is wholly original. It is unlike almost anything on television now. It is a show that has grown over time, becoming something powerful and wrought with feeling. Eckhart Tolle would be proud.