You've never met Amy Jellicoe, but trust me, you know her. She's the screwed-up character who has had some big-time epiphany that has led her to believe she now has the key to make the world a better place -- starting with you.
Amy also is the lead character in "Enlightened," an offbeat, character-driven adult comedy premiering Monday, Oct. 10, on HBO.
A fast-rising executive at a global conglomerate, Amy (Laura Dern) has made a series of unfortunate personal choices, including an affair with a married co-worker, that ultimately leads her to a very public and mortifying nervous breakdown at her workplace. After spending more time than she can afford at a New Age-y treatment center in a Hawaiian paradise, Amy returns to Southern California feeling compelled to speak truth to power and change the world, which is definitely a mixed blessing for the people in her life: her repressed but disapproving mother, Helen (Dern's real-life mother, Diane Ladd); her ex-husband, Levi (Luke Wilson); and, most recently, Tyler (Mike White, who created the series with Dern), her fellow drone in a data processing department.
All this could be played as an easy satire of the faddish Left Coast, Prius-driving set, but White, working from a rough idea that Dern had to create a show about a woman outraged by what she perceived as the injustices everywhere she looked, took a far riskier course with this half-hour sitcom, filling it with characters and situations designed to have viewers change allegiances on a regular basis.
"Amy's desire is pure, and I think what is beautiful about her, but what also gets her into a lot of trouble, is that she is a deeply honest person -- and some people don't like honesty," says Dern, whose Golden Globe-winning and Emmy-nominated turn as Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris in HBO's "Recount" had netted her a development deal with the premium channel. "She feels everything. If she's your lover, she's going to go insane on you, and if she sees a dog on the street, she's going to be the first person to take that dog in. She's got all of that in her. I hope, and I think I speak for Mike, too, that the ambiguity is part of a journey where you will root for her, but also there will be moments where you will think, 'I can't believe she just did that.' "
White, the actor-writer-director-producer whose past work includes projects ranging from the deeply unsettling comedy-drama "Chuck & Buck" to the more mainstream "The School of Rock," was a little gun-shy about coming back to television after twin disappointments at Fox with "Pasadena" and "Cracking Up," but he had wanted to work again with Dern after directing her in his drama "Year of the Dog," so he made the leap of faith.
"When I was starting in TV, it was hard to get characters (approved) who were dysfunctional and sort of unhinged," he explains. "You always had to tone it down, but now, with this proliferation of all these cable shows, it's almost as if each show is outdoing the other one in terms of how dysfunctional the characters can be. There are all these antiheroes who almost seem to be competing to elbow themselves to the front of the line. I thought it would be refreshing but also more challenging to create a character who was flawed and human but her goal actually is heroic and is done in a sincere way, as opposed to just laughing at her."
Nowhere is this more evident than in Amy's relationship with Levi. Their marriage foundered on the twin shoals of a miscarriage and his growing substance abuse issues, but while the two of them still obviously care deeply about each other, the jury definitely is out on whether we should root for them to get back together.
"Well, that's obviously very true in life, where you see these people who may be great individually, but they absolutely bring out the worst in each other," White says, laughing. "I think it's fun to play with the audience's expectations a little bit and challenge their loyalties to a character. That's tough to sustain over a series, but I'm really happy with these first 10 and letting Amy have a lot of flaws, but with the audience sympathizing and to some extent identifying with her."
That dynamic comes to a head in an upcoming episode in which Levi indulges Amy's wish to go on a camping trip together, although he has to get loaded on drugs to cope with the prospect of spending a two days with her in the woods. When Amy, in a fit of self-righteousness, discovers his stash and "flushes" it in a stream, Levi angrily points out to her that she has just thrown away the only thing that allowed them to get through the weekend together.
"If they make it, it will be a miracle, and no one who loves either of them would wish for it," Dern says, "because
if she makes it all about him being sober, then a) she is trying to fix and control him, everything that any program would never support, and b) this is a guy who probably, under his substance abuse, has anxiety and self-loathing, so being with someone who isn't comfortable in her own skin might be difficult.
"It's interesting that you can look at them and think, 'Oh, my God, train wreck!' but wow, if those two can turn inside and actually heal themselves, the love is real. It's a relationship that has its own arc, its own story, and it keeps changing."
HBO hopes viewers will be 'Enlightened' by Laura Dern-Mike White sitcom
Laura Dern stars in "Enlightened," premiering Monday on HBO.