HBO: The Cool Kids With Nothing To Say Anymore
When it comes to original, scripted programming, HBO has firmly secured its place in the echelon of “television do-gooders”. A beautiful list of groundbreaking dramas and comedies have been birthed by this pay-channel that once had insight and, well, balls, along with the censor-less freedom to tackle any subject matter they desired. It’s the beast of this latter ability, however, alongside with general cool-hunting that has reared its ratings-hungry head in the face of what once made the channel’s original programming so wonderful and subsequently, let if fall by the wayside.
It comes as absolutely no surprise that in the past eight weeks HBO has renewed Girls for its third season and cancelled Enlightened after its tour-de-force second. Obviously, television exists in a Gladiator-esque forum wherein the bloodthirsty masses thrust gut-reaction thumbs by way of ad sales and ratings figures. The once-virgin beauty of HBO, however, eschewed this system—not only by existing as a subscription service that forewent traditional commercial breaks, but also in their creative direction to push forward with well-written, unflinching, and remarkable stories about, basically, being human. That’s what has so often worked in their favor. Maybe not always for their ratings but if not there then definitely in esteemed accolades (which then inflated their amount of subscribers anyway).
The oxygen-soaked spark of this punk television attitude came about during a post-Reagan era of strange, late-late shows. They aired, successfully, oddballs like Tales from the Crypt, Real Sex, Def Comedy Jam, The Kids in the Hall, and the seminal The Larry Sanders Show— which would bring their programming out of the midnight cult scene and pave the way for many more realistic and sharp narratives. They got in with the weird and then started refining themselves.
Throughout the mid-nineties this alternative comedy edge stayed sharp and gave us Arliss, Tenacious D, Tracy Takes On..., and the brilliant Mr. Show. Then, HBO almost completely ended their sketch sensibilities with their first hour-long drama: Oz, a chillingly realistic and deftly written tragedy about life, or lack thereof, in prison (a particularly violent show that my parents, who held strictly true to the age limits of the MPAA, actually made me watch to deter me from a life of crime—I was fifteen; it worked). Oz was the harbinger of HBO’s golden age. In the next five years earth-shattering shows such as Sex and the City, The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, and The Wire would leave their imprints in television history alongside well-tailored and beautiful mini-series like Angels in America and Band of Brothers. The amount of Emmys this half-decade period produced would be enough to melt down and fund a new space program.
If the early 90s was HBO’s “Cult” period then afterward came the period of “Storytelling,” with an intermediate phase that had a logistical crossover between them. They took steps to get there and they took them well. On the tail end of their golden age, however, another intermediate period began to develop crossing an emphasis on storytelling with what was working so well for their ratings: edgy ideas. And so were born Entourage, Deadwood, Extras*, Big Love, Flight of The Concords*, and True Blood [*although these only lasted two seasons, it’s important to note that, unlike Enlightened, they chose to cancel themselves]. These shows were still interesting enough outside of their “quirky” settings by handling their scenarios just as well as continuing to tell good, and sometimes great, stories (even if Entourage and True Blood devolved into mindless garbage over the years, both had substantial and promising beginnings that lasted more than two seasons). These shows were the tipping point, and the tail end of the “storytelling” era, that brought us into the current state of affairs at HBO: the era of “Cool”.
Concerned more with bringing in viewers in a climate of rapidly decreasing television viewership than dedicating themselves to excellent craftsmanship, HBO seemed to seek out a large amount of salacious and surprising material, with an eye on the modern youth who was more into downloading than buying premium packages through their cable provider. Hung (a show that never knew which tone it wanted to convey), How To Make It In America (a show that had most of the puzzle pieces of Girls but focused more on achieving success than on absurd confessional-ism), and Bored to Death (the only one that seemed to harbor sharp writing and a sense of fresh modernity) all failed early on. Instead of rethinking their rubric, they pushed for more ratings-bait ideas— where now the popularity of a show won over its quality.
Now, this is not to say that some shows still exist on the channel that juggle both: Game of Thrones is a masterfully handled storytelling experience, but it also had a largely built-in fanbase to begin with and has filled a fantasy void in most television viewers’ schedules. Girls and Eastbound and Down both had subtle, heart-examining first seasons worthy of many merits, but soon after started focusing more on shock with nearly robotic human interactions. But the ratings were still there, so they got to stay. Veep is too early to call and The Newsroom is too Sorkinese of a wild card.
Unfortunately, this is just how it seems to go when you have a good thing on your hands. If HBO was the punk in a Stooges jacket it was only a matter of time until he traded in his safety pins and liberty spikes for a 401k and a house in the suburbs. Maybe FX, with its shining light Louie (hey! remember when HBO fucked this up all those years ago?!), is the young-blood following in its footsteps.
This current model, this cool-huntin, is bound to fail. If I learned anything in high school it’s that trying to convince anyone else that you’re cool will tell them just the opposite. Jonah Hill’s character says in 21 Jump Street, about the current state of coolness: “liking comic books is popular, environmental awareness, being tolerant…” So does that, coupled with its complete lack of trying to be so, make Enlightened the coolest show around? Then good riddance, HBO, because House of Cards, Cougar Town, Arrested Development, and Friday Night Lights have shown us that there is life off the networks and life after cancellation.
Alan Hanson is a writer who can be found here.
There has been a decided shift in this season’s Enlightened - not to say it isn’t as good as the first season, because I wouldn’t say that. I love the show. What I am getting at is there has been some serious plot writing by Mike White.
When “Enlightened” was renewed—a major vote of confidence from HBO—White says that he set out to affix his fine-boned character study to a “juicier plot.” The heightened drama and quickened pace of the show are an attempt to make it more competitive in a line-up full of serialized dramas that lurch from cliffhanger to cliffhanger. (via)
The show, while pumping out some juicy plot, still maintains that sense of the uncomfortable, especially Amy (Laura Dern). I just want to shake Amy sometimes and be like “Krista doesn’t like you! Keep the pillow your mother made for yourself!” I hope she will at least get beyond that relationship this season.
The major shift here is Amy and Tyler (Mike White) teaming up to bring down Abaddon, the company where they both work. (Side note: Abaddon is named after a demon/angel). We saw Amy in the season one finale hacking into the computer with Tyler’s password: julie_bitch. This season Amy has strong armed Tyler once again into helping her take down Abaddon, but in the second episode we finally get a balancing out of the duo. Amy and Tyler are about to be caught for hacking into the system by the IT department and Tyler pulls Amy aside to say that he’s fixed everything. It’s the moment Tyler exits the room after telling Amy that marks the shift in his attitude and what I expect to be a major shift in his character development. It is also a development that I think we were all hoping would happen.
FINALLY. The Enlightened Season 2 Trailer
Indiewire put together a pretty decent Emmy Wish List and I love all their choices, but I am in complete agreement of their number 1 choice: Best Actress in a Comedy: Laura Dern, “Enlightened”
It’s a shame Mike White’s “Enlightened” escaped all the auteurist buzz that surrounds “Louie” and “Girls.” His sensitive exploration of the crazy-making, anti-humanist contradictions of modern city life, from corporate technocracy to grassroots politics and beyond, revolves around the most burrowing television performance since Tony Soprano. Laura Dern’s Amy Jellicoe is a narcissist extraordinaire, and Dern plays plausible deniability like a Wall Street CFO. The show depends on that mystery of authenticity — the question of how self-aware Amy is could occupy the Supreme Court for a whole session. But the general answer is obvious: Amy lives in a constant state of flux between all the show’s central dichotomies, including sympathetic pawn and unsympathetic manipulator. You can’t pin her down because she’s not your average TV character, a pithy game-piece in a simplistic cause-and-effect narrative. She’s fuller than that, more self-contradictory, more unknowable, and not out of ass-covering writerly vagueness but rather Dern’s digging. On a network dedicated to static female antiheroes reveling in bad behavior to piss off Mom, Dern keeps finding new expressions for the raw material of her physicality, all motivated by Amy’s sincere if hesitant attempts to grow. In short, Laura Dern burns through her character like a star. Here’s hoping the Emmys take notice.
When this image first appeared on screen in the season finale of Enlightened I immediately thought of the Matrix and maybe that was the point. Now that Amy is a computer hacker (sorta) will the future plot line echo The Matrix? “A computer hacker learns from mysterious rebels about the true nature of his reality and his role in the war against its controllers.” Let’s think of it like this: Amy learns from googling at her desk while she’s supposed to be working about the true nature of her company and how it is slowly killing people and covering it up with kickbacks and whatnot to upper management and her old division.” Amy’s (Laura Dern) soothing voice over starts and settles me back down into the final amazing few moments of the show.
At this point we don’t know whether or not Enlightened will be back for a second season, but let’s briefly talk about this season and how great this show is and why people aren’t watching it. My favorite thing about the season finale was the callback to the pilot episode. Amy was wearing her yellow dress again. The thing I love most about that yellow dress is that she stands out so much from everyone and everything around her in all black or dark colors, from walking through the lobby to sitting in her desk at Cogentiva. Then there was the point where Amy overhears her coworkers talking about her when she leaves the office and just when you are like “Oh, man. Here she goes.” She shuts that shit down with a real argument. Earlier in the episode we learn that Tyler (Mike White) was sent to Cogentiva when he hacked into a coworker that he liked email while working in IT. This, of course, was a plot point for the final few moments setting Amy’s whistle-blowing plan into motion. (JULIE_BITCH).
We also get to see Levi (a sexyish, back to acting and not doing AT&T commercials Luke Wilson) break down Amy’s door and then break down in her bedroom admitting he needs help. He heads off to Open Air like Amy did in the pilot. This seemed like an inevitable step in the story considering last week’s confrontation with Amy’s mother, Helen (Diane Ladd is amazing in this role), and showing us that maybe Amy’s postive attitude can really be an agent for change. If the show returns for a second season maybe we’ll see if that’s true. I am going to wager a bet that Levi will return and then relapse even harder than before. I’m just thinking of what would make for a good story.
Amy has made a few enemies this season: Damon, her boss at Abaddon, Dougie, her boss at Cogentiva, Krista, her former assistant/friend (isn’t it weird to dislike a pregnant lady?), and Janice, her former coworker. It’s Janice (Michaela Watkins) I dislike the most and want to eventually get hers, “I’ll tell you why, because you are a mean girl! You’re a bitch!”
Now that Amy, presumably, will have the information to take down her former coworkers and company what will she do about it? She is compulsive and will obviously put it out there and you know that saying ‘Once you put it out there, there’s no taking it back.” and that’s what excites me most about the prospect of a second season. I want to know what happens, but I guess I would take comfort in know that at least she tried if this is all we get.
Watching Amy work so hard to become a better human being is wrenching, especially since one of the show’s messages is that it should be very easy if you stop struggling to align the world’s chakras with a rose quartz crystal and just learn to think small. The season’s phenomenal third episode, “Someone Else’s Life,” begins with Amy thinking about the secret lives of the people she works with. ”I imagine the love that they’re getting,” Amy says in the opening voiceover, “and the relief that comes from being really known, the private pleasures they share, the friends they have, and the pressures they don’t. Their sense of importance, the satisfaction of their work … ” But by the end of the episode, after making a simple gesture of kindness to a coworker (I won’t spoil what happens), she looks at things a little differently. “I realize how much I have,” she says, again in voiceover, “and how much I have to give.”
Now, those words might sound like something from Dr. Phil’s Life Script when you’re reading them on the computer. But when I saw that episode, I cried. And when I watched it a second time, to write down those words so that I could quote them here, I cried again.
There are moments just like the one described above in every episode. Moments that would normally be just so cheesy, but in context of the show it’s just so perfect. It makes me want Laura Dern voicing over my life. Seriously, just watch this show.
I was worried that Amy Jellicoe’s (Laura Dern) Big Gulp would be the new Nancy Botwin iced coffee, but after watching the second episode of Enlightened I think we can all rest assured that it won’t happen (maybe).
While I have you here, though, we are all watching this show, right? I’m not sure about the rest of you, but I am a fan of Mike White’s writing. He’s written episodes of Dawson’s Creek and Freaks & Geeks. He also wrote the films Chuck & Buck, The School of Rock, and Year of the Dog. Enlightened is quirky and borders on the uncomfortable, but that’s what makes this show great. I love having Diane Ladd (Dern’s real mother) play her mother on the show. Her ex-boyfriend is played by Luke Wilson. Aren’t we all happy he’s not doing AT&T commercials anymore? Then at the center of this show is Laura Dern’s Amy. I am so happy to have her on my TV every week.