"It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society." - Jiddu Krishnamurti
An HBO TV series written and created by Mike White, "Enlightened" stars Laura Dern as Amy Jellico. Amy works within the marketing department of Abaddon Industries, the company aptly named after the Biblical "Abaddon" (a bottomless pit and place of destruction).
"Enlightened" opens with Amy quite literally losing her mind. Driven insane by bastardly bosses and crummy corporate credos, Amy escapes to a "spiritual retreat" in which she learns "hippie values" and in which she has idyllic visions of sparkling waters and floating turtles. Why, Amy thinks, can't the whole world be like this? As such, Amy returns to Abaddon with a new evangel; she will impose upon the world a new reality, a new way of thinking, a new ethos! Everyone else thinks Amy's nuts.
Toward the end of its first season, "Enlightened" becomes a comical political tract. Howard Zinn for the "Sex and the City" generation, Amy becomes a revolutionary outfitted in Prada and knock-off Gucci. Amy's original corporate values – a kind of Randian social Darwinism which trumpets extreme individualism and in which the only ethical precepts are those which sanction cutthroat competition – are thus swiftly replaced by more "enlightened" values (love, peace, respect, community, environmental concerns etc). Because Amy's scatterbrained and a little bit confused, these values are ill-defined and only superficially understood by Amy herself. Indeed, Amy initially treats these values as fashion accessories, little trinkets and badges of honour to be worn and displayed. Soon, Amy begins to display all the behavioural patterns of a cult-member, the poor girl clinging to these values in an attempt to be "born again" a "better", "saner" more "humane" person. White even goes to lengths to portray Amy as being hypocritical, vindictive and often angry.
So what's great about "Enlightned" is that it portrays Amy's "enlightenment" as being a form of "instability". Her "enlightenment" is not a rational ideological choice, but rather the accidental byproduct of social rejection, social violence, personal stupidity, emotional wounds and of various self-defence mechanisms. In short, it is the world which radicalizes Amy and which then deems her insane for being radical. At the same time, White makes it clear that Amy's "craziness" is in fact a type of beautiful sanity. It is only in the eyes of an insane world that Amy appears a crackpot. As such, Amy is aggressively demonized, mocked and belittled by her "sane" co-workers, all of whom have been fully colonised by Abaddon's logic, jargon and values. These "sane" co-workers, of course, are slowly revealed to be deluded nuts. Or as George Orwell ironically pointed out in "1984": "Sanity is statistical. It is merely a question of learning to think as they thought." Abaddon wants you thinking like Abaddon thinks.
"Enlightened's" second season watches as Amy attempts to reform Abaddon Industries. She attempts to implement a form of "green", "compassionate" and "sustainable capitalism", which are of course oxymora. When morality comes up against profit, it is seldom profit that loses, and, as activist Lucia Ortiz once said, asking "capitalism to transition to a Green Economy is like asking a tiger to become a vegetarian". Amy's wishes are thus a systemic impossibility; any system predicated upon exponential growth (in production, energy consumption, market expansion, interest based money creation etc) must ignore a variety of ecological, moral and social concerns just to stay alive. Already, for example, Earth Overshoot Day - the day on which we've used more of the planet's resources than it's able to replenish in a year — is steadily arriving earlier and earlier; it now takes an Earth and a half to support our current rate of resource extraction. By mid-century, under "modest" projections for population growth, we will need three Earths (about 85 percent of the world's population lives in countries that are overusing what they're able to replenish).
So Amy is ultimately unable to slay Abaddon. Amy and a LA Times reporter (Dermot Mulroney) may run an expose on the company, but her values and its are incompatible and there can never be meaningful reconciliation.
"Enlightened" finds Laura Dern doing her best work outside of David Lynch. Her character – a wholly original creation - is a roaring mass of contradictions and conflicting emotions, all of which Dern expertly conveys. Unfortunately White's series is a good five or six episodes too long, contains far too much padding and White would arguably have done better to adopt a more comedic tone. Indvidiaul episodes were directed by a number of well-known auteurs, including Jonathan Demme, Nicole Holofcener and White himself.
8.5/10 – Daring and sophisticated. See White's "Year of the Dog", which sketches a similarly complex portrait of animal right's activism.