It's a fine line between creating a dynamically flawed character and a pointlessly distasteful one, and "Enlightened" discouragingly crossed it with Monday's episode.
Laura Dern's Amy was flighty, to say the least, from the get-go of the HBO series that premiered Oct. 10. That mental disarray is wrapped up in a heartsick soul yearning to heal, and that's the means for the audience to invest in her. Fair enough.
But for this formula to work, for us to buy into this journey of self-improvement, you can't have Amy be as galactically lacking in both self-awareness and the most basic level of common sense as she was Monday, in the third episode of the series written by Dern's co-creator and co-star, Mike White. Not without coming up with an ending that rewards us for the tragedy of errors.
It was bad enough when Amy carried on a conversation with Krista (Sarah Burns), her former assistant who now has the well-rounded life Amy lacks, far past the point of obvious discomfort, because you might at least believe that Amy can't help herself from half-wallowing in the unpleasantness.
It got worse when Amy cluelessly prattled on about her own desire for a new job in front of Tyler (White) without any regard to how she was sounding, and worse still when she initiated her job search right in open view of everyone in her new department at work.
By the time Amy was coming up to Krista and her former boss and lover Damon (Charles Esten) while they eat and making up grandiose stories about her new department that the others would clearly know were bull, "Enlightened" had seemingly become nothing more than a "Can you top this?" challenge of how pathetic Amy could be made to look. It's not that I didn't get the joke — Amy was the joke, a tragically unfunny one that can't be explained away by calling the show a black comedy.
And yet, I could forgive every single one of these scenes if it weren't for what was to come. Amy, whom we have learned owes about $25,000 to the rehabiliation program she attended in the pilot, goes on a job interview at a homeless center. She's offered a job. And then, she's shocked that an understaffed center working with homeless people can't hand her an annual salary that allows her to pay off her debt and live comfortably on her own.
The first 20 minutes of "Enlightened" removed pretty much every shred of competence, dignity and likability that Amy might have had. Then, in the final five minutes, the show tries to salvage it in an afterschool-special moment in which she realizes that hey, some people around her have it bad too. She invites Tyler to lunch, signifying, her latest step toward enlightenment.
It's a very small step. And while big journeys start with small steps, not all those steps are worth putting on TV.
People with mental issues will do strange, silly and self-defeating things — sometimes one right after another. I know that, all too well. If you want to explore this on TV in a serious fashion, in a comic fashion, in a serio-comic fashion, great. But to absolutely pummel Amy (and in turn, the audience) for 20 minutes just for the insight that other people also have it rough — that's not enough. It might be enough for Amy, but it's not enough for this viewer. (My colleague, Andrew Wallenstein, will metaphorically if not literally hammer me with an "Englightened" screener in disagreement upon reading this.)
Going forward, I'm hoping we see Amy develop at least some amount of people skills — and not simply in the final minute of the show. I'm hoping Amy retains the simple lesson of this week's episode, rather than falling into the sitcom trap of forgetting, just so that the writers can have fun with the same beats. That Amy doesn't realize how she comes across to people is admittedly well-established since the beginning of the series as one of her handicaps, but it has already become grating beyond the point of having comic value.
Amy, I'm realizing as I write this, is a character very much like Michael Scott was on "The Office," except that for me, "Enlightened" demands that we take Amy's journey more seriously. The difference in the titles says it all: "The Office" was about the craziness that arose from Michael's wayward behavior, rather than about actively trying to cure him. Yes, we reveled when Michael became more enlightened, when he found true love, but when he was loony or dim, when he went too far over the line of common sense or human decency, "The Office" typically found a resolution that was clever, not simplistic. That made the journey through each of those episode worthwhile.
There are a billion people who are searching for happiness, for meaning in life, for simple peace of mind in a difficult world. "Enlightened" needs to deliver some reassurance that Amy's story is one worth focusing on, as opposed to the 999,999,999 others. Given the great track records of the people involved, I'm still hoping it will.