If The White Lotus has been your introduction to the work of writer, director, and actor Mike White, here’s some homework for you: Enlightened, the series he co-created and co-starred in with Laura Dern. Enlightened follows Amy Jellicoe (Dern), an executive who, after suffering a nervous breakdown at work, goes away to a holistic rehab retreat in Hawaii, and returns to Abaddon Industries with a better mind, but a “worse” position in the company. Relegated from her office to an open-plan-situated desk in the basement, Amy contemplates becoming a whistleblower and starting a revolution with her fellow misfit coworkers, including Tyler (White), a mousy loner suffering from an unfortunate unrequited crush on Amy.
Enlightened aired on HBO for just two seasons from 2011 to 2012, and though Dern won a Golden Globe for her performance, Amy Jellicoe remains one of her most underrated characters. In addition to Dern and White, the supporting cast of Enlightened is just as sharp. Dern’s mother Diane Ladd plays Amy’s mother on the series and Luke Wilson plays her ex-husband Levi. The series boasts appearances from Jason Mantzoukas, Michaela Watkins, Molly Shannon, and Dermot Mulroney, as well. Some episodes are also directed by auteurs such as Todd Haynes and Nicole Holofcener.
The thing about Amy Jellicoe is, ultimately, she just wants to be a good person. In fact, she wants to be a good person so fiercely that she ends up remaining, in some ways, just as selfish and myopic as she was before she flew to Hawaii for rehab (which, by the way, is not something that just anyone could afford—she was able to make it work due to the fact that she was paid the big bucks at the fictional Abaddon Industries). But her quest to feel fulfilled, and her journey toward a new perspective, is entirely relatable. As tragically and embarrassingly as Amy may act in her efforts to be an agent of change, she is just human, after all.
The message behind Enlightened seems to have compassion for the human spirit. That could be, in part, because the show was actually semi-inspired by White’s real-life nervous breakdown, which occurred after he repeatedly suffered panic attacks while working on a quickly canceled Fox sitcom. (And if you can’t get enough of White’s filmmaking style, check out his movies Year of the Dog, Brad’s Status, and Chuck & Buck. He also wrote the screenplay for School of Rock, in case you needed any more proof of his astuteness when it comes to writing characters who are burnouts or otherwise society rejects).
Visually, Enlightened is often unglamorous—most of the show is set under harsh fluorescent office lighting—sometimes to the point of feeling grotesque. But this pairs nicely with the melancholy feeling the viewer gets while watching—which ends up encouraging them to seek out their own version of an enlightened worldview.