This is not to denigrate her Oscar-nominated turn as 1991’s Rambling Rose or her work as muse to David Lynch, most notably in Blue Velvet or Wild at Heart — all solid and accomplished. It’s just that her role here as Amy Jellicoe is the most complex and multilayered character she’s been given. Amy represents an opportunity to act the hell out of it, and Dern does.
Across 10 episodes that make up the dramedy’s first season, Dern gets to play different notes: enraged, bemused, calm, conflicted, embarrassed, joyous, depressed, hopeful, wounded, defiant, worthless, passionate, self-destructive and so on. Often, she gets to play all of them within each 30-minute span, and not a single jump from one emotion to another rings false, because the character is as sharply, smartly written as it is constructed. Dern won a Golden Globe for it; she deserves an Emmy to match.
As Enlightened dawns, Amy is on an office rampage, going berserk in a very public nervous breakdown at big-pharma firm Abbadon Industries, where she works as a high-level exec. One trip to a Hawaiian holistic center later, she’s a changed person. But she’s also not allowed back to her position of power, instead shuttered to the fluorescence-soaked basement for a menial data-entry job amid I.T. misfits.
Amy purposely clashes with and/or unintentionally annoys everyone: her former assistant who now has her job (Sarah Burns, I Love You, Man), her douchey supervisor (Timm Sharp, TV’s Undeclared), her drug-addicted ex-husband for whom she still has feelings (Luke Wilson, Vacancy) and, hell, even her own mother (Diane Ladd, of course). About the only person who gets her is her nearest co-worker, the shy, reserved Tyler (Mike White, who co-created the show with Dern, and who has ported the palpable sense of unease from his role in — and script for — Chuck & Buck); eventually, she pisses him off, too.
By design, Enlightened is supposed to embrace viewers, then push them away, then beg for forgiveness — lather, rinse, repeat. Such is Amy, in all her nuttiness. Dern (recently seen briefly in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master) makes her incredibly compelling and sympathetic, and uncomfortably real.
The show makes you wonder how you’d react having to deal with Amy on a daily basis. Would I befriend her? Love her? Tolerate her? Despise her? Ignore her? That I continue to ask these questions weeks later is a testament to the series’ narrative brilliance, snuffed out before its time. —Rod Lott