True confession: I’ve never truly forgiven HBO for canceling The Comeback — Lisa Kudrow’s scathing examination of the Hollywood machine and unflinching/unsettling look at basic human insecurity — that lasted for one brief, dazzling, and painfully hilarious season back in 2005. (All together now: “Note to self: After a long day at work, I don’t wanna see that!”)
Flash forward to 2011 — and more specifically to Monday night’s season finale of the network’s equally brilliant/wince-inducing/honest/infuriating Enlightened — and here I am ready to rage against the network for not yet committing to a second season of this initially challenging but ultimately rewarding Laura Dern vehicle about a woman who returns from treatment for a nervous breakdown to try to navigate murky corporate and family waters. (The show, coincidentally, was created by Dern and her costar, Chuck & Buck‘s Mike White).
If you haven’t yet sampled Enlightened (or haven’t yet warmed to its copious attributes) here are five reasons I think the half-hour meditation — I dare not call it a sitcom — deserves a life beyond its initial 10-episode run.
* The most tantalizingly/unapologetically unlikable lead character in recent memory | “Sometimes you just want to slap her in the head,” my friend Mitch said to me midway through the season finale, and honestly, I can’t disagree. For a woman with a $24,000 therapy bill, Dern’s Amy Jellicoe spends a maddening amount of time on the mechanics of enlightenment — the journaling, the yoga, the rambling therapy-speak — rather than any true internal transformation. Case in point, when Amy’s drug-addicted ex (Luke Wilson) showed up at her door this week desperate, sweating, and finally admitting the need for detox, Amy grinned broadly and declared, “You have no idea how happy I am.” To which he replied, “Well I’m glad you’re happy, ’cause I wanna die.” Indeed, as much as we root for Amy to find a glimmer of self-awareness, score an occasional victory in her sad, treading-water life, the show refuses — even in a possible series-finale situation — to make Amy more palatable by conveniently curing her of her pathological self-absorption. As a result, Enlightened isn’t always the easiest show to watch, but it’s never less than fascinating.
* A stellar supporting cast | Amy’s Cogentiva coworkers rarely get more than a line or two of dialog, but they mine every last ounce of humor from Mike White’s scripts. (Think the Dunder Mifflin crew as viewed through a warped funhouse mirror.) In particular, The Comeback‘s Bayne Gibby — as religious and quietly judgmental colleague Connie — can be wickedly funny with as little as a goodnight nod. And Jason Mantzoukas (as bearded Omar) scored the finale’s biggest laugh with a simple hand gesture: Dramatically pointing Amy’s boss in the direction of the elevator banks to help him chase down his errant employee, as if she was a bank robber making off with a stash of cash.
* Darkly comic details | White (who also penned The School of Rock and The Good Girl) embellished the finale, as he does with every episode, with tiny moments of genius: Amy returning home from work and grappling with a front door left unhinged by the previous evening’s encounter with her unhinged ex; White’s mousy Tyler using the password “Julie_Bitch” (the name of the coworker he once cyberstalked) to help Amy gain access to corporate email accounts; Amy’s frenemy Krista (Sarah Burns) offering a look of silent yet seething disdain when Amy sits alongside her in a conference room; Amy’s mother (Diane Ladd) flubbing a moment of intimacy with her daughter by commenting on her split ends.
* The occasional blast of righteous indignation against soulless corporate life | As Tyler pointed out in a recent episode, Amy is an abyssmal employee, but that doesn’t mean parent company Abaddon — with its giant murals of bumble bees and onion slices feigning regard for natute, its cavernous elevator banks, and its employee-monitoring software — isn’t pretty awful, too. After Amy overhears her former lover Damon mocking her presentation on the company’s environmentally destructive ways — “Do I deliver a show, or do I deliver a show?” he jokes to his team — you can understand Amy’s sudden urge to turn whistleblower, to burn the whole place down, even if she’s motivated more by personal hurt and anger than altruistic reasons. Of course, Enlightened isn’t blind to the relative comfort of ambivalence, either. “We can blow this place wide open!” Amy excitedly tells Tyler, to which he responds, “Why would we want to do that?”
* An ending that finally puts Amy in a position to begin the transormation — or at least attempt the transformation — from unrepentant navel-gazer into a serious woman of action | Those closing moments of the finale — Amy furiously unearthing corporate wrongdoing while the Cogentiva computers blink green behind her — were thrilling. Amy may be as emotionally misguided as ever, but at least she’s directing her energies toward an interesting end goal. That change of direction sets Enlightened up for a second season that should challenge Amy in new and unexpected ways, and advance the action beyond her initial quest to make better connections at home and work. And that’s pretty much everything a sophomore season should do.
What did you think of Enlightened‘s initial season and its finale? Are you rooting for a renewal, or did the show lose you along the way? Sound off in the comments, and feel free to start the petition to renew The Comeback while you’re at it, too!
Slezak on Twitter: @MichaelSlezakTV