Liberal Idealism, With a Healthy Dash of Satire

In case you don't know, Enlightened—co-created by its star, Laura Dern, with fellow cast member Mike White, and in its second season as of last week—is the show that currently airs right after Lena Dunham's Girls on HBO Sunday nights. To say it hasn't gotten as much attention as Girls is to riot in understatement, as Gore Vidal used to say. But without getting into which one is, how you say, better—these two tales of self-realization couldn't be more different—I have to admit that Enlightened interests me more these days.

The main reason is that it's branching out into new areas in a way Girls hasn't so far. No matter how acute Girls is about the problems and attitudes of 24-year-old hipsters, they're still a fairly hermetic bunch of 24-year-old hipsters. Partly because she's one herself, a miniaturist like Dunham is hardly likely to think that giving their concerns any wider social applicability is part of her creative task. She thinks they're resonant for their own sake, after all.

Enlightened, on the other hand, has upped its premise's ante to fetchingly provocative effect. No longer content to regale us with the pitfalls of heroine Amy Jellicoe's New Agey conversion to do-gooder idealism—a satiric target with a limited shelf life—Dern and White have turned the show's sophomore season into a very sharp, yet affectionate take on the allure, stubborn imperatives, built-in delusions, and ultimate valor of political activism.

Season One viewers may remember Abadonn—wittily named for the baddie in Pilgrim's Progress, and the toxic conglomerate that fired and then rehired our heroine after the nervous breakdown that triggered her spiritual awakening in Hawaii last year. Now radicalized by the company's plans to downsize the whole sheepish crew of basement sad sacks she's been ignominiously reassigned to, Amy no longer dreams of making Abadonn a better corporate citizen by playing its in-house conscience. Nope, she's out instead to demolish the castle by getting the criminal goods on vulpine CEO Charles Szidon (James Rebhorn) and feeding them to handsome L.A. Times investigative reporter Jeff Flender (Dermot Mulroney). Since that means hacking into the private e-mail account that exposes Szidon's dirty deeds in all their crony-capitalist detail, Amy's got to recruit the help of the computer geeks she works with—first her unprepossessing deskmate, Tyler (White), and then their hotheaded boss in the basement crew, Dougie (Timm Sharp).

What's original about this scenario is that she's such a flawed messenger. In fact, she's got all the self-righteous failings that drive people up the wall about liberal crusaders; she's vainglorious, hopelessly tin-eared about everybody else's mundane concerns, and foolishly enraptured with fighting on behalf of "little people" she wouldn't identify with on a bet. Yet the concept's beauty is that, with all her flaws, she isn't wrong. She really is fighting the good fight, and Abadonn does deserve to be taken down. You keep catching yourself chortling at her fatuities, groaning at her oblivious narcissism, and rooting for her to win all at once, which is a lot more sophisticated—and maybe moving, too—than liberal agit-prop usually gets.

One nice touch is that Amy's co-workers aren't thrilled about joining the fray. They're just doing their best to get by, and unlike her, the jobs they've got aren't a comedown from the corporate heights. These dreary Office Space gigs are as good as it gets. But except for the weak episode that centers on Tyler's inner life and makes it much too self-consciously drab, they aren't patronized as ciphers. They've got individuated motives and quirks, and their lurking mistrust of Amy the interloper makes perfect sense. For that matter, the heroine's mother—played by Dern's real-life mom, Diane Ladd—isn't wild either about her daughter's new sense of mission. "Are you going to blow the whistle next on me?" she asks, in a wonderful conflation of corporate "family" and the real thing.

Ultimately, and no surprise, Enlightened puts its heart on its sleeve as an "empowering" fairy tale. But it's rare to see one that can keep its heroine in satiric perspective—when Amy gets shushed by some black patrons at a jazz bar, she promptly reimagines them as her triumphantly Afro'ed posse in the fight against Abadonn—without belittling her accomplishments, not to mention one that gets so many details right. Introduced to Noam Chomsky's Manufacturing Consent and Howard Zinn's A People's History of The United States by her new L.A. Times beau, Amy doesn't have to read either to be beatifically sure they're holy writ; once a sucker for self-help books, always a sucker for self-help books. But she wouldn't be the utopian California gal she is if she didn't know there's nothing so wrong with that.

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