Warning: Contains spoilers if you haven't seen the Season Two finale.
There is one YouTube clip that I turn to again and again when I feel so sad that it's hard to think straight. It's from the episode of HBO's "Enlightened" called "Picture Someone Else's Life."
In it, Laura Dern, in her turn as the Golden Globe-winning Amy Jellicoe takes a minute to see outside of herself and imagine the characters in her workplace as they struggle and suffer through the mundane horrors of every day existence. The loneliness. The spoiled crying child. The exhaustion of trying to keep up in an ever-sped-up world.
At one point in the brief montage, she imagines a bleak, lonely scene with the show's creator Mike White who plays shy and uncertain Tyler, a character built with so much gorgeous nuance -- as opposed to what would normally be schlock-written as an "IT nerd" by most hands. The scene is heartbreaking in its simplicity and empathy. But it's also when Amy realizes: She has so much love to give. Starting with kindnesses, small and profound.
Please understand that I will be the first to agree, in spite of lovely uplifting moments such as these: Yes, Amy's character is maddening. Which is what makes her so realistic and so incredible. No broad strokes or caricatures here.
I have a friend who is very much like Amy. My friend even acknowledged this the other day, a bit horrified, seeing her wide-eyed, easily impressed, embarrassingly earnest at times nature portrayed by Dern, as we watched the second to last episode together at my place.
"Can we watch the next one?" she asked, riveted, even though she had to be somewhere. The season finale airs Sunday, I told her, and hopefully that's the only kind of finale it is, and there will be many more "next ones" to come.
What makes Amy compelling to me is that like my friend, she cannot and will not be ignored. That's actually how I became friends with this woman a few years back. She kept reaching out to me after we met at a spiritual conference, seeing Amma, the hugging saint of India, when she visited New York.
I was busy, I said. She suggested another date.
When we finally met, she charmed me, speaking with ease about the Hindu god of Ganesh and her desire to live a life filled with seeking and wonder. Her earnest, open and joyful nature was jaw dropping. It changed me. I shot a video short one time with her around, and it was only her presence that made the video work. She is an energetic lightning bolt. Imperfect, as human beings are, but ever surprising.
In fact, the character of Amy Jellicoe uses one of my favorite tropes in pop culture and in the world at large. The character you underestimate at first who then comes through, causing you to challenge whatever cynicism and judgment may have been clouding and skewing your foggy lens in the first place. The underestimating? That's on you. And no one else.
Underestimating people means, in some way, you are underestimating yourself. Because, yes, we are all pretty much as far from enlightened as it gets -- but the art of trying to get there at all is a form of achieving some measure of a higher self in its own right.
I had just quit my own version of an evil corporate job when I gave "Enlightened" a try on a whim last year. I found myself weeping. I watched the next one. And the next one. I stayed up until 3 a.m., like I had discovered a new confidante who "got" me in a way that few people did. It felt akin to a friend reaching out to hold me, stroke my hair, say the perfect thing and make me realize that no matter how shitty we can feel at times, you are connected in this life.
To explain why this show is such a revelation to me, let me theorize that there are two kinds of television I tend to recoil from. One is the "idealized self" kind of TV where as Mike White said recently in an exquisite interview with Marc Maron, it's these writers who you know in real life to be these kinds of craven shallow clawing characters who then create these Camelot-like renditions of life and idealized human beings.
The other form I deplore is anything that is easy and obvious and predictable. It's like when some comedians don't laugh at other comics on stage. I think it's a shitty thing to do, but I also understand why it happens -- even for comics who might want to laugh and be supportive and generate that positive energy that so drives a live show. They just can't. Because they see it. The math equation is already completed in their head.
Likewise, obvious television -- oh did the slutty character do something slutty, did the nerdy character do something nerdy? -- it pains me, it hurts me, it saddens me. It makes me feel trapped at a Tri-Delt party where the slightest revelation of humanity or authenticity is enough to justify shooting you on sight.
Which is why it's hard for me to believe that Mike White's show ever got made, with the preponderance of television like this out there. But it's also a sign to me that HBO is still beating every other network when it comes to doing television that is the best of the best. And renewing this show for Season 3 will be a sign that they are listening to their fans and critics -- and care about supporting a program that is at times nothing short of revolutionary.
A storyline about fighting corporate greed in a way that is not a period piece? Plotlines showcasing self-development and attempts to change the world in a way that doesn't nauseate with saccharine earnest oblivion? Character after character being shown with Technicolor shades of gray that actually approximates true humanity rather than the hero/villain "Outfoxed" archetypes we are so numbingly spoon-fed in most of our mass entertainment? Revolutionary.
What strikes me the most about this show is its large, beating heart. It's that magical element in TV that can change a tight joke machine like "The Simpsons" into something that makes you cry. My favorite "Simpsons" episode has this touch from James L. Brooks in the stunning "Lisa's Substitute" episode from Season Two. Dustin Hoffman plays the father figure of a substitute teacher that Lisa always wanted and needed, with intelligence and empathy, which Homer could never provide for such a precocious little girl. Hoffman is not credited, however. In the credits he is listed as simply "Sam Etic." Semetic. Genius.
The standout moment from this episode occurs near the end when the substitute teacher is leaving Lisa, boarding a train, and he says: "Whenever you feel that you're alone, and there's nobody you can rely on, this is all you need to know."
He hands her a note.
She unfolds the note. Inside, it reads: "You are Lisa Simpson."
It makes me tear up even now.
White's show takes these kinds of Television Heart Moments and breathes life into them through characters who are so real they hurt. Right from the start, his heroine of Amy Jellicoe could have continued on with the cozy corporate life she subsisted on -- until she doesn't get the promotion she feels she deserves at the start of Season One.
Like happened to White, the show's creator in his own career at the helm of a doomed Fox sitcom, a breakdown ensues. It was actually White's breakdown in real life that led to him realize, as he has said in various interviews, that we are not a victim of unchangeable circumstances. In fact, at the beginning of the series, Amy's voiceover implores this. She says she wants to be an "agent of change."
And, in the season finale called "Agent of Change," she is just that. Her world crashes down around her in ways that are so realistic as to be more riveting than a high-tech cinematic explosion -- because it hits so close to home.
There is her fraught relationship with the LA Times reporter played by Dermot Mulroney who she reaches out to provide corporate intrigue documents from her job and eventually has an intimate relationship with and invariably comes to project an entire fantasy-land romantic future upon.
We see it happening, as viewers, maddened by her naivete but realizing it's that same openness that would lead her to be a corporate whistleblower in the first place. In a few moments that sparklingly sting, the reporter dumps Amy right before the story appears and tells her that they both "knew" that they couldn't really have a relationship. Amy didn't know that, she says quietly. When she finds out that her actions against her villainous company could lead to a lawsuit, the reporter again says, well we "knew" that would happen. "We did?" she asks.
But near the end of the Season Two finale, we see on Amy's face a sly smile. One of emerging phoenix-like strength. She's had her own personal life implosion, and she is rising from the ashes of the wreckage of her making. Like a scene from "Defending Your Life," it's apparent she took the risks that impress the jury, and she's starting to realize it.
The LA Times reporter asks if she wants to see him later, after she calls to tell him she's been fired, because he says he wants to hear what went down in her confrontation with the CEO. But she is now wiser. She has become an agent for change -- in her personal life as well.
For whatever good this reporter did, and there was plenty, she sees his human failings as a user, and is more aware. The character arc is spectacular, as the strength seeping through her determined eyes reveals she will not be broken. She's changing. The awareness is increasing. She is an open vessel.
She is Amy Jellicoe.
"Who am I?" she asks a short while later to her estranged husband played brilliantly by Luke Wilson, as they sit on the steps to his dream-aborted condo, looking lost and forlorn but unmistakably, with something that cannot be underestimated. "Am I crazy?"
"No," he responds, looking straight at her. "You just have more hope than most people do."
Which is what inspired me to even write this in the first place.
Because so do I, HBO. And I never underestimate hope.
Find Mandy long-form at http://tinyurl.com/stadtmiller.