HBO’s The White Lotus Season 2 finale had barely ended when a friend texted a succinct review: “BULLSHIT.”
At first blush, I agreed. Like many in the extremely online Lotus fandom, I’d gone down a rabbit hole of intricate theories about the identity of the killed and the killers. But in the end, it turned out the whole bro vs. bro thing was misdirection, and that fan favorite Tanya (Jennifer Coolidge) died what showrunner Mike White called a “derpy death” — because she couldn’t take her heels off after gunning down a boat full of her would-be killers.
But was this White’s fault, or a case of faulty expectations? Clearly he had a more simple, light-hearted sensibility than we twist-loving, metaphor-seeking internet denizens. Running his Lotus scripts through the HBO location production machine had (twice!) made it seem like we should expect a lavish murder mystery. In fact, both times we were watching satirical, goofy deaths (Season 1’s being a strung-out hotel manager, accidentally stabbed after taking a dump in a difficult guest’s suitcase) play out against a background of extreme privilege.
And that’s what led me, finally, to binge-watch Enlightened – the show that brought White to HBO in the first place. I’d heard good things about the show, acclaimed as Laura Dern’s best ever role, ever since it premiered in 2011. It was canceled in 2013. Viewership never cracked the 300,000 viewers-per-episode mark. From then on you’d sometimes see Enlightened tweeted next to phrases like “criminally underrated.”
White wrote Enlightened as a showcase for Dern — as Amy, a corporate climber at fictional California conglomerate Abbadon who is transformed into a platitude-spouting do-gooder after experiencing a breakdown and then rehab in Hawaii. He also appears in it himself as Tyler, an IT dweeb who becomes Amy’s best friend in the department for misfits they’re both shunted into. White put his whole self into this show, literally.
What better way to fully understand the showrunner’s sensibilities — and recalibrate my White Lotus appreciation — than finally joining the small horde of Enlightened fans? (Cue the Arrested Development GIF: “There are dozens of us! Dozens!”)
Enlightened is a strange blend of serious comedy and gently mundane drama.
And join them I did. I liked the show’s healthy suspicion of anyone who claims to have all the answers to life, and I was also surprised to find myself tearing up every time Enlightened offered its own philosophy anyway, without preaching. (That philosophy boils down, as many self-help philosophies do, to “We’re all more or less messed up, so be kind, don’t expect too much, and appreciate simple pleasures that come your way.”)
To overcome your own healthy suspicion (what, another golden-age-of-TV show I have to watch?), let me offer this guarantee of simple pleasure: Enlightened is blissfully short. It’s two seasons, and a total of 18 episodes (White wanted a third season, HBO said no, but the story feels pretty wrapped up anyway). Each episode is half an hour — itself a breath of fresh air in a world where most dramas insist on swallowing fifty of your precious minutes at a time. You could binge the whole thing in a day and still have time left to see a few White Lotuses with new eyes.
While telling a coherent story from beginning to (untimely) end, Enlightened still takes time to give us splendid stand-alones. There’s the one where Amy persuades her ex-husband Levi (Luke Wilson), to go on a rafting weekend with her, still (in her typically airy way) living the dream that they’re together. Levi, now addicted to hard drugs, embarrasses her terribly, but Amy stumbles into moments of epiphany regardless.
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There’s the one that follows Amy’s mom Helen (played by Dern’s real life mom, Diane Ladd) through an ordinary day: previously an annoying sitcom-ish mom, Helen suddenly reveals vast underground wells of sadness. (“Our parents are children too,” Amy realizes in one of her voiceovers; her narration often swings between wild New Age optimism we laugh at, and melancholy truth we nod along with.)
And then there’s Season 1, episode 6, “Sandy,” a standalone with guest star Robin Wright in the title role. Wright outshines even Dern here, and for good reason: Amy is obsessed with Sandy, an even more New Age-y BFF from rehab, and we become obsessed with her too.
Many times in the show Amy is extremely extra, such as when she hijacks a work colleague’s baby shower to protest the breaking up of an immigrant family she’s been following on the news. But the cringe factor in “Sandy” is a different animal; anyone who has ever lost their dignity to the burning question of “But do they really like me?” will relate. (The final scene, revealing what Sandy has actually been putting in her secret journal throughout the episode, is just chef’s-kiss-perfection.)
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Season 2 has more of a through-line than the first. It focuses on Amy’s attempt to bring down Abaddon corporation with the help of Tyler and an investigative journalist. Tyler gets a journey of his own, out of his achingly dull loneliness and into a delightful blossoming romance with — well, no spoilers, but she’s played by a famous actor who also showed up in White Lotus.
It’s also no spoiler to say that the end of this particular Mike White season 2 has a certain delightful inevitability to it. Yes, of course, given the things Amy has wanted, given the amoral behavior of Abaddon itself, it was always going to end this way.
Enlightened is focused on hypocrisy and absurdity, not mystery.
White isn’t interested in plots that present a thorny mystery for the viewer to unpick. He does have quite a lot of anger at the things we should be angry about in the world — greedy corporations in Enlightened, oblivious wealthy tourists in White Lotus – but the anger soon dissolves into absurdity. The comedy in both these shows is a coping mechanism.
White also never forgets to put the natural world front and center; those establishing shots of surf and sun in White Lotus have their predecessors all over Enlightened in, say, the camera lingering over the flowers Amy’s mom has planted in her simple suburban California garden.
After bingeing both seasons of Enlightened as fast as we could, the friend who’d texted “bullshit” and I were both keen for more. White had plotted out the structure of the canceled season 3; it was supposed to be a courtroom drama. My friend and I agreed Dern would have knocked that one out of the park, perhaps winning a second Golden Globe for her performance as Amy (as she did for Season 1).
Tanya’s death in White Lotus now seemed to have a certain absurd inevitability to it; after all, Tanya was kind of the anti-Amy, utterly oblivious to both the joys and the evil shenanigans around her. A gormless life led to a gormless death. Yes, both were messy and living for drama without realizing it, but at least Amy was trying to do something different with her life, and occasionally succeeding.
In the absence of Enlightened season 3, however, White Lotus season 3 is the best we’re going to get. And now I know how much DNA the shows share, I can’t wait.