By FRAZIER MOORE
NEW YORK — Yes, she can! Or can she?
Amy Jellicoe, the scrambled heroine of HBO’s comedy-drama “Enlightened,” has an explosive, tragicomic, mascara-streaked meltdown at her workplace in the series’ first scene. Then she takes refuge in Hawaii for several months at a New Age-y treatment center to get her head back together.
Now she’s telling herself that she’s recovered and newly empowered. Off her meds, with her manic-depression in full swing, she’s back to reclaim her job as an executive for her corporation’s Health and Beauty department.
But more than that, she’s ready to change the world.
“You can change,” she proclaims. “And you can be an agent of change.”
By turns funny, heartbreaking and rapturous, “Enlightened” is a portrait of a damaged woman who sets her sights on being an activist and not a sad joke; a woman who may be delusional or, instead, have found herself some valuable answers worth sharing with the human race – or maybe both. (It premieres Monday at 9:30 p.m. EDT.)
As played by the splendid Laura Dern, Amy is endearingly quixotic in her mission as a would-be eco-warrior, while cringingly pathetic to behold when trying to “clear the air” with the married boss with whom she had a disastrous affair, or when trying to master something as simple as a fax machine.
How much can Amy really hope to change the world, or even a corner of her own little world, which includes her standoffish mother (played by Diane Ladd, who also happens to be Dern’s mom) and her druggy ex-husband, Levi (Luke Wilson)? “Enlightened” keeps the viewer rooting for Amy to succeed while fearing for her tendency to whirl out of control.
“We wanted her to be a champion in some areas, a disaster in others,” says Dern, igniting her radiant smile. “What’s fun about Amy for me to play is that I felt like she was a person who would fall through the cracks in the medical profession, where no one would have a diagnosis or specific help for her.” Poor Amy is a misfit even to doctors.
The series is a meditation on the role of “craziness” in self-discovery and human interaction.
A zealot such as Amy “feels things in such an enormous way, and there’s no one to say, `Maintain your boundaries, be appropriate.’ Amy doesn’t know those things. She’s pure feeling – someone brave enough and perhaps dysfunctional enough to speak her mind, use her voice, be in her truth.
“I deeply admire her, I adore her,” Dern says. “And she’s a nightmare!”
For Dern (whose credits include such classic films as “Blue Velvet” and “Jurassic Park“), “Enlightened” sprang from her Emmy-nominated portrayal of Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris in HBO’s 2008 political drama “Recount.”
That film, which revisited Florida’s 2000 election fiasco, left Dern feeling frustrated, wondering anew how people stood by for such a travesty? After all, this is an actress whose favorite movie when she was growing up was “Network,” with its mad-prophet anchorman, Howard (“I’m mad as hell and I’m not gonna take it anymore”) Beale.
“I loved the idea that the hero of `Network’ was a person they would call crazy and want to throw off the air.”
She says rage isn’t her style, confiding, “I kind of panic and placate because I don’t want people to be uncomfortable. But I wanted to play a rager – someone who was sometimes ineffectual, but perhaps was also sometimes successful as a voice of protest and a whistle-blower.”
Meanwhile, Mike White, Dern’s co-executive producer of “Enlightened,” brought his own issues to the project.
Along with “Dawson’s Creek” and “Freaks and Geeks” and the films “School of Rock” and “Nacho Libre,” White’s producing-writing credits include “Cracking Up,” a short-lived 2004 Fox comedy about psychiatric care.
“Cracking Up” was not a happy experience. White says that, as the show’s creator-showrunner, he was besieged by so much network interference that he himself almost cracked up.
“It got so stressful,” he recalls, “that I had a kind of Amy-meltdown where I was sending crazy faxes to people saying, `You’re liars! (Expletive) all of you!’ After that, I figured my career was over.
“So I thought it would be a funny moment for Amy to be coming back to work, smiling at everybody, saying, `Everything’s fine. I’m better now. And not only am I not crazy, I’ve seen the light and I have all these ideas for saving the world’ – and nobody believes her.”
Besides, the soulless company for which she works in that tall, glassy office-park tower doesn’t really want her back. Instead of reclaiming her former position, Amy is banished to the dungeon depths of a data processing center staffed with other misfits.
On seeing her new digs, Amy rages, “It’s like some sort of high-tech warehouse with a bunch of carnival freaks” (one of whom, the mousey-looking Tyler, is played by White in a recurring on-screen role).
Amy feels persecuted by this downgrade.
“But as the season unfolds,” White says, “she realizes that being down there provides the key to all the malfeasance of the company – she’s in the brain center!”
White (who wrote all 10 of the season’s episodes) liked the idea of making Amy’s employer her archrival, and thus putting the heroine behind enemy lines.
“Then, as the season progresses, she faces the question of how much change can you make from within? And after that, what’s the next step – which builds to a showdown between her and the powers-that-be.”
As an actress, there’s no doubt Dern is fully up to the challenge.
“She’s got such a range and she’s totally fearless,” says White, whose biggest problem is deciding which of Dern’s interpretations of each scene to use. “That’s tricky. I think it’s important to assert Amy’s lucidity as much as her lunacy. But Laura can do the restrained version, and she’ll also go for the wildest version.”
The result is a captivating, discombobulating performance. But is it easy for Dern to embody this character with all her extremes?
“Will I scare you if I tell you yes?” she replies and bursts out laughing.
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