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How Did a Showtime 'Comedy' End Up on HBO? Thoughts on Laura Dern's 'Enlightened'

Date October 10, 2011
How Did a Showtime 'Comedy' End Up on HBO? Thoughts on Laura Dern's 'Enlightened' I'm confused. The DVD mailing came from a different premium cable network, but 'Enlightened' (9:30PM ET Monday, HBO), which debuts alongside the return of 'Bored to Death,' sure looks like it came from Showtime's "comedy" factory.

Consider the evidence:

1. It's a star vehicle for an actress of a certain age (in this case, Laura Dern, who came up

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How Did a Showtime 'Comedy' End Up on HBO? Thoughts on Laura Dern's 'Enlightened' I'm confused. The DVD mailing came from a different premium cable network, but 'Enlightened' (9:30PM ET Monday, HBO), which debuts alongside the return of 'Bored to Death,' sure looks like it came from Showtime's "comedy" factory.

Consider the evidence:

1. It's a star vehicle for an actress of a certain age (in this case, Laura Dern, who came up the show with Mike White, who co-stars).

2. The lead character is a middle-class woman in crisis (Dern's character, corporate executive Amy, wigged out after an affair with a co-worker and had to go to a counseling/addiction retreat, where she became committed to "growth" and "change").

3. The lead character has problematic relatives (Amy's mom, who's played by Dern's real-life mother, Diane Ladd, is your stereotypical remote-mother cliche, and her ex-husband, who's played with casual charm by Luke Wilson, is an unambitious stoner).

4. The lead character finds herself in a difficult work and personal situations that she tends to make worse due to her selfish, clueless and/or uptight behavior (Amy's return to the company where she had her memorable meltdown is more or less disastrous).

5. Very little of what happens is actually funny or even mildly amusing.

Check, check, check, check and check. 'Enlightened' covers all those Showtime woman-in-crisis bases, but the question is, Why? Even Showtime has seen how limited its lady comedies have become, and the network has moved away from (canceled) fare like 'The United States of Tara' and the increasingly formulaic 'Dexter' by commissioning the bravura new drama 'Homeland,' which isn't -- thank the programming gods -- like anything else currently on TV.

How Did a Showtime 'Comedy' End Up on HBO? Thoughts on Laura Dern's 'Enlightened' Even so, one woman's quest for real change in her life could form the basis of a nice little HBO slice-of-life comedy-drama, but, weirdly enough, 'Enlightened' appears to be fairly dismissive of the idea of personal evolution. In any case, everything in 'Enlightened' is too broad, predictable and extreme to really work as either comedy or drama. Amy's mom is too brittle and bored to be interesting, her co-workers are one-dimensional and flat, and Amy herself is frequently unpleasant to be around. Dern is a performer who brings a good deal of loopy likability to her roles, but Amy is so frequently shrill that you can see why her co-workers swerve to avoid her when she turns up. Amy may want to "be wise," but the show spends almost no time making her or her goals seem sympathetic.

Another big problem is that 'Enlightened,' like almost every other TV show and movie of the past few decades, seems content to be blithely judgmental about anything that smacks of self-help and New Age thinking. The thin gloss of inner peace that Amy acquired at her spiritual retreat is shown to be completely ineffectual: Amy goes off on everyone in her path whenever it suits her and generally comes off as a pushy, self-absorbed know-it-all (when not judging her co-workers as "circus freaks"). "See," the show almost seems to say, "people can't really change -- and if they read self-help books, they just become even more annoying!"

Sadly, this is of a piece with any other pop-culture depiction of people who pursue topics like spirituality and meditation: They're generally shown to be clueless jackasses (show me a fictional character who sports sandalwood or rosewood beads and I can guarantee you that character is going to be a narcissistic douche). As someone who's attended almost a dozen meditation retreats in the past decade, I can report that most people I meet at these retreats have more perspective on themselves and a better-developed sense of humor than Amy does.

I'm certainly aware of the mockable of aspects of spiritual ambition, but I also have a sincere respect for the desire to gain serenity and to better oneself. I just wish 'Enlightened' did as well.

Follow @MoRyan on Twitter.

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