Growing in Circles: Why Enlightened is a lot like high school


The problem with having so much good television on at the same time is that we are all bound to miss something truly special, something that seems made just for us and our personal tastes. True, we all have PVRs and television on Netflix and DVD but there are still plenty of shows that need our help to survive by watching them as they air.

I missed Enlightened while it was airing, and it seems that everyone else did too, because the show is now cancelled. But, if you have the chance to catch up with it, I promise you will not be disappointed unless you don’t like slow-moving character studies with bits of “magic realism” and poetic monologues thrown in sporadically. I suspect many people don’t so that’s why I want to tell you what Enlightened really is (and what I think many more people will care for): a high school drama in disguise.

Enlightened was created by Mike White who has some connections to Freaks and Geeks (he was supervising producer on many episodes, in fact), that now immortal cancelled-to-soon high school show that was ahead of its TV time and made stars of James Franco, Seth Rogen and many of the other “Judd Apatow players”. Enlightened also stars Timm Sharp who played Marshall on Undeclared, that other Judd Apatow TV show about college that was well entrenched in its TV time but cancelled way too soon.

The similarities between the shows don’t end there. Freaks and Geeks is (among other things) the story of a young woman who, after the death of her grandmother, decides she can no longer live the life she had been living. Lindsay Weir (one of the great teenage female protagonists in TV history, right up there with Angela Chase from My So-Called Life) finds a group of new friends to hang out with in attempt to shake up the patterns of her old life. These new friends are misfits and troublemakers but good people. In the end, we find that the freaks and the geeks and all the people at McKinley High School aren’t so different after all.

Enlightened is the story of a forty-something woman named Amy Jellicoe (played by the amazing Laura Dern) who goes through (SPOILER ALERT) the end of a marriage, a miscarriage and a nervous breakdown at her job working for a company called Abbadon. She checks herself in to a treatment centre in Hawaii called Open Air to change her life. She finds God in the form of a sea turtle and becomes devoted to a new way of thinking. We meet Amy after this nervous breakdown, back at Abbadon but now working in a wing of the company called Cogentiva. She has returned to her childhood home to live with her mother, Helen, for the second time in her life.

At home, Amy behaves like a perturbed teenager, yelling at her mom for not understanding her and constantly retreating to her bedroom, with her single, childhood bed, to be alone. Amy and her mom have a beautiful, fraught, sometimes wordless relationship, like many a teenager and their parents. We know that Helen has seen this behavior from her daughter before and has become resigned to this. Helen even goes so far as to outright ban Amy from driving her vehicle, claiming she is worried that Amy will get into an accident.

Helen is living with someone in a state of arrested development. She can’t gloat over Amy, as we see when Helen runs into an old friend in the supermarket, because in Helen’s eyes Amy isn’t the adult she is supposed to be. It’s not until the last episode of the series, when Amy has taken down Abbadon, that Helen finally understands that her daughter has been doing good for the “greater good”, as Amy would say. At the same time, Amy believes as an episode title suggests, that Helen is a “not good enough mother”, never thinking that perhaps she is a not good enough daughter.  In one of her many monologues Amy says, “I’ve lived in a world full of not-good-enough mothers. Imperfect, bad mothers. But the mother is a child, too. She is a child. I will stop waiting for you to be the perfect mother. I will be patient with you. I will be tender. I will be the mother I wanted you to be.” And here Amy is not talking about being a mother to a child, she is talking about being a mother to her own mother. At a certain point in your life you are just growing in circles, forever a child and an adult.

While at Abbadon and Cogentiva, we meet various secondary characters who perform the role of the “Mean Girls” and the popular kids. These characters are the most explicit in their high schoolishness, to the point where Amy actually brings it up. In fact, Amy’s desire to take down Abbadon for various nefarious practices stems from the need for vengeance from these people at the top. In her dealings with these folks, Amy is at her lowest, her least convincing and her ugliest. Amy constantly thinks her former co-worker and friend Krista has ulterior motives but goes to visit her constantly in hopes that something will give. Amy forever thinks Krista will see the light and become a better person, but is always disappointed when she decides (usually wrongly) that Krista is out to get her. The beautiful people are, literally, at the top of Abbadon. It’s not a mistake that Cogentiva is a windowless dungeon.

Cogentiva is like the detention of Abbadon. It’s where the misfits, troublemakers and weirdos end up. Cogentiva is where we meet Tyler. Tyler is where the geeks come into the equation. Tyler is a beautiful creation in his own right and just as important as Amy in the grand scheme of things. Tyler, played by Mike White himself, is a mouse of a man who hacked into the Abaddon computer system and found himself down at the basement of Cogentiva, paying for his actions. He is timid and seems beaten down. He keeps to himself. In season 2 there is a wonderful episode all about Tyler where we learn about his self-imposed isolation and, through his relationship with Amy, his movement to being more bold, more adult. Tyler learns the joys of sharing the world with other human beings, be it sexual or platonic. Amy is Tyler’s friend, and although she uses him for her own devices, they truly find a strange symbios.

The most beautiful relationship in Enlightened, though, and the one that is the most profound is Amy’s relationship with her ex-husband Levi. Levi is dealing with addiction issues and when we meet him he hasn’t kicked the habit. Amy desperately tries to get Levi to follow her path and go to Open Air for help. For a long time he seems like a lost cause but eventually he goes. In what is the most beautiful episode of the series, Levi learns that he doesn’t believe in a God that might save him, but he does believe in Amy. Amy is his higher power, his purpose. In a later episode Levi says that Amy just has more hope than everyone else.

When Levi comes back from Open Air, a changed man, he and Amy have a discussion in the bleachers of a school baseball field. Amy essentially tells him that she can’t be with him anymore and that she has a new boyfriend. Their relationship has the air of a high school, suburban romance. Levi’s the bad boy – jobless, drug-addicted but also fun-loving and devoted. Levi and Amy have a long history (longer than her history with any of the other characters in the show, save her mom), one that includes many adult experiences, but when they are together they seem like two kids, connected by the secrets, the fun they had in this past they shared. And its this past, this childhood knowledge that makes it possible for them to change each other and want to change for each other.

It’s this past that always years its ugly head in Enlightened, this past that Amy can never escape from, and in her monologues (peppered through every episode, designed to make people like me weep uncontrollably), Amy tries to understand that her past is just as beautiful and profound as the possibilities of her future. Enlightened seems to be saying that our past is what shapes us but also what haunts us. We are exactly who we were in high school and perhaps we are just living the same experiences over and over and over again. But it also seems to be saying that we can grow. We can become the people we thought we were and always wanted to be. We are the divine and the ugly. We are kids and adults all at the same time. There’s always a fight between the profound, the divine and the ugly and messy and absurd. And sure, Amy is not the person she wants to be or thinks she is in her monologues. She is selfish and manipulative and uses people constantly. But her desires count for something. Her monologues become mantras.

Thinking of Enlightened as a high school drama probably simplifies it too much. The show is also a meditation on what it means to be a good human being in a world full of people who can’t see the good in you. It’s a show about taking down an evil corporation. It’s about someone who is deeply and profoundly self-involved. It’s about thinking you have all the answers and simultaneously knowing that you know nothing. It’s a show about the way we lie to ourselves constantly and lie to others just as much. It’s a show about becoming the person you’ve always wanted to be. It’s a show about finding returning again and again to the person that is inside you. It’s a show about the poetry and lyricism of the mundane. So, yes, high school.

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