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Now and Then: ‘Enlightened,’ HBO’s Masterpiece of Heartbreak

Now and Then: 'Enlightened,' HBO's Masterpiece of Heartbreak

“Enlightened” opens with Amy Jellicoe (Laura Dern) gag-sobbing in a bathroom stall, mascara streaking down her cheeks in mournful black rivulets. Like the rest of Season 1 of HBO’s masterpiece, which returns for Season 2 on Sunday at 9:30, it isn’t all that funny. But to call “Enlightened” simply a comedy is unjust: it’s a symphony of regret.

Amy’s mad-as-hell moment, after she’s been transferred from her department in a drugstore chain’s corporate office following a failed affair with her boss, is only a prologue. But her volcanic rage — prying open the doors of an elevator, looking like Jack Nicholson in “The Shining” — consumes the series, eroding her quest for peace at every turn. With treatment, she finds the aphorisms for a new life, but she has to return to pick up the pieces of her old one; she knows the mantras of happiness, if not yet the thing itself. “You can be wise and almost whole,” she tells herself in the pilot, emphasis on the almost.

Created by Dern and Mike White, who co-stars as her workplace co-conspirator Tyler and wrote all ten of the first season’s episodes, “Enlightened” follows Amy’s slow replanting of all the earth she scorched the last time around, and the new fires she can’t help but set. In a bravely unlikable performance, Dern’s Amy is all forced sunniness and barely suppressed wrath, striving and failing to be something other than what her ex-boss and ex-lover calls her. “You are a mistake,” he says. “You’re a giant fuckin’ mistake and everyone knows it.” Though it’s “Girls” that gets all the credit for nervy, discomfiting comedy, “Enlightened” makes the sexual predilections and willful neuroses of urban twenty-somethings — and I know of whence I speak on this count — seem rosy by comparison. It is, at heart, a bleak, sorrowful, stricken series: Amy is one of the “Girls” in 15 years, wrangling with bigger disappointments than she had ever imagined.

Indeed, when she heads up to the mountains for a weekend kayaking trip with her ex-husband, Levi (Luke Wilson), in the season’s beautiful fourth episode, she stumbles over her past, and it is rife with unintended consequences. “You can try to escape the story of your life, but you can’t,” Amy says. “It happened. The baby died, the dog died, the heart broke… Mine isn’t the one I would have chosen in the beginning, but I’ll take it. It is my story. It’s only mine. And it’s not over.”

These voiceovers, epigraphs to the story she hopes to write, can seem both a life raft and a sinking ship. I’ve fallen in love with them, their run-on affirmations and soft-spoken hopes — at times they seem a design for living that she can speak but not yet will into existence, always “almost” but never quite whole. The scene that first won me over follows one of these monologues, at the conclusion of the pilot. Amy sweeps into work on the strains of Regina Spektor’s “Human of the Year” sporting a yellow dress, a beam of light amid the charcoal suits. The way the camera catches the sun on the glassy skyscrapers, the way she runs the last few steps to the elevator, imagining an ocean of joy before her: it’s one of those small, perfect moments you’re sometimes lucky enough to glimpse before the spell is broken.

And perhaps it is, or will be. Like the river Amy kayaks with Levi or the black-stained tears on her face, the central reason I am so excited to see where the series goes in Season 2, that makes “Enlightened” such compelling viewing, is its fierce current of regret. It’s Amy’s mother (Dern’s own mother, Diane Ladd), staring wistfully at an old photograph in her cheap pink robe. It’s the omnipresent feeling that Amy’s words are tricks, empty even to her, gauzy dressing on a deep and unhealed wound. I suppose I mean to say that I started watching “Enlightened” as a comedy and ended up seeing it as an unfinished tragedy, tending away from the happy ending. The heart broke, she says, past tense.

Season 2 of “Enlightened” premieres Sunday at 9:30 ET/PT on HBO.

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