In the first few minutes of her new HBO series Enlightened, Laura Dern does a screeching meltdown as intense as a nuclear reactor gone haywire.
"We rarely have seen a woman be in true rage — a rage that's human — especially done, hopefully, in an irreverent and funny way," the Golden Globe-winning actress says of her character Amy Jellicoe, a health and beauty corporate buyer who flips out after being bounced from her job, betrayed by her scheming boss and lover.
With Amy on a hallway rampage as his lift doors close, her smug boss Damon (Charles Esten) smirks, and thinks he's safe — until Amy prises open the steel doors with her bare hands. As her mascara melts with angry tears into warpaint, she screams point-blank at his stunned face: "Do you think I'm stupid? I will BURY you! I will KILL you!"
She's scarier than Jack Nicholson madly smashing his axe through a door in The Shining, in what has to be one of the best series openers in television history.
Dern, 44, the daughter of Hollywood aces Bruce Dern and Diane Ladd, has never lacked in dramatic range, whether mad-loving Nicolas Cage in Wild at Heart or dodging dinosaurs in the Jurassic Park franchise. But to see her this cranked up, emotionally foaming at the mouth like a rabid pit bull is crazy fun.
A public, on-the-job nervous breakdown is a hard act to follow — but in Amy's case, she beautifully transforms hers into a "nervous breakthrough". She jets off to Hawaii for three months of contemplation and meditation at a treatment centre. Apparently, there's nothing like snorkelling in the Pacific azure surrounded by sea turtles to help a troubled soul see God.
Amy returns with mermaid tresses and casual garb — a spiritually enlightened woman — rested and eager to pick up the pieces of her old life and reshape the world she left behind. She decides she'll no longer run away from life; she'll be an agent of change. "You can wake up to your higher self," says Amy. "The world is full of possibility. You can really live."
"There is anger management, but does anyone ever do anything about excessive joy?" The New York Times asked in its review of Enlightened when the series launched earlier this year in North America.
Excessive joy, it turns out, is not such a good thing. Neither is excessive honesty.
Upon her return to her former employer, Abaddonn Industries, she begs for a job and tries to inspire the corporate drones: "Wouldn't you guys be happier working at a place that's giving back to the world instead of some corporate parasite that's raping land and people?"
Sceptical, the powers-that-be dump her to the career basement with a demeaning position in data processing. Amazingly, she turns her lemon of a job into nirvana lemonade when she uncovers corporate abuses and corruption at Abaddonn. "We could do something more with our lives — we could expose everything!" This ultimately fuels her quest to make a change in the lives of others, as well as validating her own change — even as it drives the series' story engine.
Created by Dern and writer/actor Mike White (School of Rock), Enlightened focuses on Amy's new cultivated approach and perspective, which includes daily meditation and selling others on the power of self-help and inner healing. She moves back home temporarily to strike sparks off of her somewhat-estranged mother, Helen (Diane Ladd, Dern's real thrice Oscar-nominated mum) and reconnects with her ex-husband Levi (Luke Wilson), who's struggling with his own demons and addictions.
"She's working at this big company and she's kind of trying to get them to go more green, and they couldn't be less interested," says Wilson. "And she's trying to help my character Levi, the ex-husband, and I couldn't be less interested."
"Enlightened is to my mind the most interesting and ambitious series of the fall season," writes Los Angeles Times television critic Robert Lloyd. "And when I say ambitious, I mean emotionally ambitious, though it is beautiful to look upon as well. You can't really reckon it by anything else on television."
On Thursday, Enlightened was nominated as best comedy or musical series, and Dern for best actress in a comedy series in the 69th annual Golden Globe Awards to be presented on January 15 in Los Angeles.
A complex series, it ricochets about a triangle of drama, satire and comedy, often hitting all three marks within a single episode. With only 22 minutes of story in a typical half-hour show, that's a rare triumph.
Moments of soul-to-soul honesty between Amy and her mother Helen ring so pure, it's wise to keep a tissue handy; other scenes skewer the very notion of enlightenment. Both heartbreaking and rapturous, Enlightened skilfully bops the funny bone up and down the emotional scales as it both embraces and mocks its subject matter.
"This is someone who's had 40 years of self-destructive decisions," says White. "She goes to treatment, and then it's about her coming back to her life with all of the answers. [But] how do you take an enlightened philosophy about life and try to apply it to the reality of your life?"
Undaunted and aggressively mellow, Amy declares with utter conviction: "I barely have a job. I have no love life. And I've never felt better."
Enlightened will premiere tonight and will then be broadcast Mondays and Tuesdays on OSN Comedy and OSN Comedy +2