We'd like to shout at you for not watching "Enlightened," Mike White's astonishingly good comedy-drama, which was cancelled soon after finishing its second, little-watched season. But we have to confess that we weren't watching it either -- it passed us by on initial airing, and we only caught up with it while preparing for this piece. We needn't feel all that badly about it -- HBO never quite worked out the angle on how to sell it, and most critics took a little time to warm up to the show, which was never the most immediately lovable of series. But boy, we wish we'd got on the train earlier, because "Enlightened" was one of the most impressive, complex and fascinating extended character studies that we've ever seen on television. The show, from "Freaks & Geeks" and "The Good Girl" writer White, focuses on Amy Jellicoe, an executive who returns to work after a nervous breakdown and subsequent rehab determined to create a better world for herself and for others. In the second season, it became a sort of whistleblower thriller, with Jellicoe teaming up with co-workers and L.A. Times journalist Jeff (Dermot Mulroney) to expose corruption within her workplace.
But any plot took a backseat to its portrait of its central character, one not quite like any other on television. To put it simply, Amy is a terrible person, self-centered and manipulative. And yet White's compassionate writing and Dern's hall-of-fame performance meant that while you might occasionally find her actions excruciating, she was entirely plausible, sympathetic and even lovable (which extended to every other character, from White's lonely, lovelorn co-worker to a career-reviving performance from Luke Wilson as Amy's substance-abusing ex-husband). Often deeply, deeply funny while secretly proving to be incredibly moving, and featuring the best roster of directors on TV (Todd Haynes, James Bobin and David Michod joined White and Nicole Holofcener for season two, while Miguel Arteta, Jonathan Demme and Phil Morrison had worked on the first run), it was an absolute gem throughout, and the only reason not to mourn its premature cancellation was that it found pretty much a perfect ending.
Best Episode: "Higher Power," which broke with the format to follow Luke Wilson's Levi to the Hawaiian treatment center that caused his ex-wife's rebirth.