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Streaming TV Party: Why ‘Enlightened’ is still a perfect show

'Enlightened' still has lessons for us nearly a decade later.

Dec 16, 2020, 12:03 pm

Internet Culture

 

Audra Schroeder

Warning: This newsletter contains spoilers for Enlightened. Catch up here with Streaming TV Party’s previous newsletters—and sign up to receive the best of the internet straight to your inbox.


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There's so much time

When I set out to watch Enlightened back in September, I really didn’t anticipate how deeply it would affect me. I’m not trying to be melodramatic; Enlightened isn’t a “this show saved my life” situation. 

No, this is more about consuming something and carrying it with you. Enlightened is about flawed people, and the sickness of corporate America. But it also reveals itself almost like a painting: The shading and outline giving way to full color and shape. It’s not the kind of show you have on in the background while you look at your phone. It demands that you pay attention––especially to the mundane moments, like a silent exchange of facial expressions between co-workers. Those moments are in short supply right now. It’s just not the same on Zoom. 

Much of Enlightened is characters reacting to things. It’s a great show for faces: Laura Dern’s is its own magical canvas, able to convey multiple conflicting emotions at once. Diane Ladd, well, I could make a collage of her reaction faces. Mike White’s face might be the one that sticks with me, though. The show made me more aware of how I react to things, of how much I default to frowning and furrowing my brow throughout the day, and saying “What the fuck” to some awful thing on Twitter before moving on. 

It made me crave a shift in perspective.


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'Enlightened' was never duplicated

I tried to think of shows that have come out since Enlightened that might have been influenced by it, and couldn't drum up a good comparison. While there are more Amy-esque characters on TV, the show’s framing––calming voiceovers guiding you in and out of the episode––is something so specific to Enlightened that it would seem cheesy in any other show. 

Still, it has its champions. Enlightened was on lists of best shows of the decade last year, and several lists of shows to binge during the pandemic.    

I asked comedian and actor Martha Kelly what she loves about the show, after seeing her recommend the pilot on Twitter recently. “There’s so much to love about Enlightened,” she says. “Laura Dern’s acting––she’s so funny and so heartbreaking. I love the device of having her ideal, higher self narrate the show, while on-screen Amy is a mess. Diane Ladd kills me. All the supporting cast is bananas. The writing, the music. I just think it’s a perfect show.”

Would another season spoil its perfectness? Possibly. Part of Enlightened's legacy is its small but devoted recommendation engine. It would also be a fundamentally different series if it aired now.   


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'Enlightened' as a document about work and wellness

I’m pretty much the opposite of Amy personality-wise, but her character made me realize how I often work against myself, something a lot of women likely have experienced. More broadly, the American workplace, which is in flux right now, makes us work against ourselves too. 

In the last decade or so there’s been a real shift to the idea that free time or downtime is for suckers. That you always have to be busy. For many people, working multiple jobs and having no free time is reality. I recently came across a tweet that stopped me mid-scroll: It employs a meme format that shows two identical red buttons that one must choose between. In this version, one says “Actually take some time off” and the other says “Work on personal projects and call it ‘relaxing.’”

The tweet went viral, in large part because people relate. Even during a pandemic, there’s this pressure to be doing something, creating something, filling the void. I understand that impulse. But––and here's my Amy voiceover––I think about all the hours I gave to "work," always working, and regret that more of my time wasn't put into working on myself. 

But I still can. We all can. There's so much time.     

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*First Published: Dec 16, 2020, 12:03 pm