HBO’s Enlightened, which was cancelled this week, proved in its two short seasons to be one of the great American comedies about work. That may seem like a big claim, given the disproportionate number of TV comedies set in workplaces. But usually, the workplace is little more than a pretext to put wacky characters in close quarters and force them to interact. Enlightened aspired to be something else: a comedy that says something about the nature of work and the dehumanizing, soul-corroding effects of capitalism. In its second season, it became something even more interesting: a comedy about social justice and how even the most admirable attempts to overthrow the system can come from very ugly places.
The show, created by filmmaker Mike White and actress Laura Dern, centers on Amy Jellicoe (Dern), a former high-powered executive at the fictional Abaddon Industries, whose disastrous personal life culminated in a career-destroying tantrum. In lieu of losing her job completely, Amy spent a month at a Hawaiian rehab facility, where she saw a sea turtle she believed to be God, and came back to Los Angeles touting the healing power of meditation, self-help literature and social justice. Unfortunately for Amy, Abaddon was none too pleased to have her back and so doomed her to a life in its basement, processing data from Cogentiva, a computer program that functions as Abaddon’s “electronic leash,” tracking every move and minute of low-level employees’ lives so that they can be more efficiently fired or denied benefits.
Understandably, this does not gel with Amy’s desire for a more enlightened life. It was only a matter of time before she went nuclear once again. And so, while the first season focused on Amy’s efforts to share her cosmic wisdom while semi-politely petitioning her employers to be more socially and ecologically responsible, the second focuses on what happens when she is ignored: She decides to raze Abaddon.
This has all the elements of a classic lefty revenge fantasy. Abaddon Industries is unambiguously evil, and so large that even attentive viewers can’t quite figure out what — aside from selling poisonous products and buying Congressmen — it actually does. Working for Abaddon is shown to be toxic on every level. From what we’ve seen, the shrieking, loathsome, pre-enlightenment Amy was an inevitable result of Abaddon’s corporate culture, and her more successful co-workers are in the same mold, just more at peace with it. Given that she’s pitted against a stereotypical evil corporation, Amy’s plan of hacking corporate emails for incriminating details she can leak to the Los Angeles Times would seem to position her as a lesser Norma Rae, or (pause for shuddering) Erin Brockovich, yet another spunky fictional lady who’s sticking it to the man and hitting the boss where it hurts.
But it’s not that simple. Dern and White don’t trade in cartoon fantasies — not even the gratifying ones. Amy’s defining characteristic is that she’s continually caught up in grandiose fantasies that she mistakes for real life, whether of healing a lifetime of dysfunction with a month of scuba diving or of becoming a shining beacon of anti-corporate activism without experiencing any blowback. Amy isn’t Norma Rae, but rather a woman who’s seen Norma Rae one too many times; she’s not Luke Skywalker taking on Darth Vader, but a woman who listens wide-eyed as Jeff (Dermot Mulroney), the handsome, faintly sleazy reporter, describes her boss as “a classic Darth Vader.”
Enlightened’s greatest strength lies in its preference for the small, real moments; the way it works almost entirely in tiny strokes and complex details, slowly layering each character into a mille-feuille of frustrating, earnest, lovely, unlikeable detail. It’s entirely unclear whether Amy’s desire to take down the company is political (we know that she, unlike anyone else around her, is actually appalled by their practices) or personal (she came up with the idea after she heard her former co-workers laughing at her); whether it’s a real attempt to help people or simply her most destructive tantrum to date. In this, she’s not unlike many of the social justice crusaders I have known.
As Amy’s quest gathers steam, she loops in a number of equally complicated characters, all driven by their own mix of human ambitions, both noble and pathetic. There’s the reporter, Jeff, who clearly revels in Amy’s naïve worship, and who humblebrags about having “like 30,000 Twitter followers.” There’s Amy’s insecure and supremely bro-tastic supervisor, Dougie, who once believed that heading Cogentiva gave him “real power,” but is converted into an ally of the proletariat by an email chain in which the other divisions make fun of his hair. There’s the CEO’s personal assistant, Eileen, played beautifully by Molly Shannon. She’s an unwitting collaborator, a woman whose emotional life has been so warped by the demands of Abaddon that “when I had a relationship, I would feel like I was cheating on my boss.”
The big joke of Enlightened is that, although Amy thinks she’s reached the titular state of compassion and self-awareness, she’s still too self-obsessed to notice that people who are just as lost as she is surround her. But in this second season, the show yook the more provocative step of suggesting this emotional deformation stems from capitalism. Amy’s rage, Jeff’s narcissism, Dougie’s bravado, even (or especially) Eileen’s channeling every human need and feeling into answering a rich man’s personal emails: These are all expressions of a basic human need to matter, to do something with one’s time and effort that actually makes an impact. Alienation from their labor became an alienation from their own best selves.
When the second season closed, the dirt had been found, the emails leaked and the destruction of Abaddon seemed well under way. Of course, we’ll never get to see that destruction, as the show was cancelled shortly after the finale aired. But White and Dern plotted the season finale like a series finale. We didn’t need to see Abbaddonn’s CEO go to jail; we only had to witness Amy reduce him to some very Amy-like shrieking in order to feel that she’s triumphed. She used to scream at Abbaddonn for taking her power away; now Abbaddonn shrieks at her for doing the reverse. I look forward to the spin-off with Amy’s boss at the head of a yoga class.
Jude Ellison Sady Doyle is an In These Times contributing writer. They are the author of Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear… and Why (Melville House, 2016) and was the founder of the blog Tiger Beatdown. You can follow them on Twitter at @sadydoyle.