When Enlightened premiered at the end of 2011, its parent network, HBO, promoted it under slightly false pretenses: There was Laura Dern—her mascara smeared, her mouth contorted into an expression somewhere between a heaving sob and a rageful shriek—as “the new face of tranquility.” It played the cognitive dissonance for laughs, setting up a slapstick show that would play off Dern’s endlessly pliable face in order to heighten its inner tension.
The first episode, in which Dern has the makeup-ruining breakdown that serves as the show’s dramatic catalyst, had some of these moments. But as the first ten episodes of Enlightened unfolded, what came to the fore wasn’t the high drama promised by the pre-premiere marketing campaign; instead it was the show’s sense of quiet, tinged with the sort of low-level dread that comes from having a set of principles and trying to negotiate them with the outside world. Amy Jellicoe (Dern) suffers a hard landing from her high-powered executive gig at the corporation Abaddon (a Greek underworld for lost souls) after her breakdown; she heads to a rehab facility called Open Air, where she learns to be in touch with her emotions and harness her anger and Be A Better Person, Or At Least Try To. But her extended time there (one episode reveals that she’s on the hook to them for $24,745) results in immediate tension with her everyday life—with her mother (Diane Ladd), who is serving as her roommate-slash-landlord; with her addict ex-husband Levi (played with exquisite agony by Luke Wilson); and with the people at her place of employ, where she’s been banished to the windowless basement with other misfits, including the meek-on-the-surface Tyler (played by series creator Mike White).
This isn’t to say that Amy is a perfect person who’s constantly being wronged. Instead, Enlightened expertly navigates the tension bubbling inside people who are demonstrably flawed, and who desperately want to better themselves while being too self-absorbed to realize all of their problems. [...]