To its credit, “Enlightened” is a show perhaps only HBO would or could have done -– a series filled with sad-sack characters, quirkiness in lieu of comedy, and the sort of understated, melancholy tone normally associated with French best-foreign-film submissions.
On the down side, the program ambles along at such a plodding gait, with such a maddening protagonist, it’s hard to relish entering series creator Mike White’s numbing world unless you need something to tide you over between therapy sessions.
HBO made all eight episodes of season two available, and it’s fair to say they put an appropriate coda on the whole exercise, which earned star/exec producer Laura Dern a Golden Globe nomination but went almost wholly unwatched. Paired with the return of the higher-profile "Girls" (and look for a separate review of that shortly), HBO has thus provided a service to the show’s loyal if puny audience, which is the sort of luxury only a pay channel could afford.
The second season boasts a somewhat stronger arc in that Dern’s character Amy –- who experienced a spiritual epiphany in season one –- finds a purpose that drives the narrative all the way through: She’s decided to become a whistle-blower against the big, faceless corporation for which she works, enlisting her hang-dog co-worker Tyler (played, with beautiful vulnerability, by White) as her co-conspirator.
Amy also contacts a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, portrayed by Dermot Mulroney, to whom she intends to feed information and strike a blow in her quest to become "an agent of change." At first the journalist understandably doesn’t know quite what to make of her, but the plot grudgingly pulls you along (albeit with various side excursions), wondering how Amy –- a small person, desperate to feel like she’s part of something bigger –- will manage to muck things up.
One reason “Enlightened” can be unsettling to watch is the way White resists taking a firm position about Amy. The show simultaneously wants us to root for her, yet makes her so lacking in self-awareness and oblivious to others (especially poor Tyler) that virtually every encounter is awkward and uncomfortable.
Now that's fine, in the sense not everything (especially in an HBO series) needs to be spoon-fed to the audience. Still, the series' frequent interludes -– from Amy’s ex, played by Luke Wilson, experiencing his own awakening to Amy discovering the wonders of Twitter -– can be as trying to one's patience as Amy herself frequently is. (One might also question the old-fashioned notion of a Los Angeles Times expose being the remedy to all ills, but let’s give a recovering-from-bankruptcy dog its day.)
Almost anywhere else, “Enlightened” would have had its light extinguished after one season, but HBO doesn’t pull the plug so promiscuously. White has rewarded that creative license with a series that feels extremely true to the filmmaker’s vision, however limited its appeal.For those who could get past the show's quirks and find something worth savoring in its indie-film sensibility, that's probably enough. But assuming this is the end, I won't shed any tears in saying goodbye.