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Dern takes the lead in ‘Enlightened’

Laura Dern stars as a stressed-out executive in HBO’s “Enlightened.’’Prashant Gupta/HBO

Laura Dern always seems completely immersed in her characters. In movies such as “Rambling Rose,’’ “The Baby Dance,’’ “Citizen Ruth,’’ and “Wild at Heart,’’ she has consistently projected a fully-in-the-moment, about-to-burst energy. She’s not exactly a showy actress, but when she’s on the screen you’re usually looking at her and feeling her raw electricity. With her bright blond hair, her height, and her wide, nervous smile, she’s a big presence.

Obviously I’m a fan, so I’m happy to say that she and writer-producer-costar Mike White have come up with a worthy TV vehicle for her, one that contains her frazzled power without reducing it to shtick. On “Enlightened,’’ she plays Amy Jellicoe, a highly strung executive at a health and beauty corporation who has a nervous breakdown in the office over her affair with her married boss, Damon (Charles Esten). By way of recovery, she goes to a New Age retreat in Hawaii called Open Air, where she learns a lot of convenient phrases about letting go of her rage and going with the flow. When she returns, she’s better - still prone to making scenes, but better.


You want to root for Amy, as she tries to breathe in and breathe away her temper tantrums. She has rebounded back to her life with renewed hope. But then she’s also unbearable at times, as she tries to convert everyone around her to her state of “enlightenment.’’ It’s like when a friend force-feeds a new band on you; sometimes, your reflex is to resist. She takes on her cold, passive-aggressive mother, Helen (Diane Ladd, Dern’s mother), trying to read her a healing letter about their relationship. “How long is this going to take’’ is Helen’s reaction. She visits her cynical, drug-using ex-husband, Levi (Luke Wilson), and gives him a book called “Flow Through Your Rage.’’ He is unmoved. And her attempt to make her company more green? Useless.

Dern is able to make Amy both ridiculous and touching at the same time, as she preaches inner calm and then slips back into her more familiar state of agitation - including the bashing of her ex-boss’s car. She’s trying so very hard, but she’s still sitting on a powder keg of unresolved anger that would take years of therapy to eliminate. And no one in her life is helping her. Watching Helen, so unrelentingly unfeeling as a mother, you can see why Amy has become a woman carrying around too much feeling for her own good. The company‘s executives, too, greet her with ice: They send her to a windowless basement office to work alongside other unwanted employees (including White’s IT guy). They position her very far from Open Air.


“Enlightened’’ is on HBO, beginning tonight at 9:30, but it shares tonal features with Showtime’s trademark women-in-crisis series. Like “The Big C’’ with Laura Linney and “Nurse Jackie’’ with Edie Falco, “Enlightened’’ is a character study that is as dramatic as it is blackly comic. There’s not a lot of major plotting on the show, so much as a faceted lead performance, strong supporting actors, and an ongoing, intimate view of a person trying to change. Amy is learning a difficult truth, which is that change is about more than simply reading books about change.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.