Amy Jellicoe (Laura Dern) cannot take a hint. In the first episode of Enlightened, having had an affair with her married boss, she's transferred to another division. This is meant to paper things over, but she does not go quietly. The last we see of her before the opening titles, she is wrenching an elevator door open, cursing, makeup bleeding down her face, a melting birthday cake of fury.
Amy's breakdown earns her a stay at a new-age retreat in Hawaii. She meditates. She reflects. She swims with turtles. Then she goes back to work, ignoring the nervous smiles of her colleagues, who'd rather she moved on. Believing she's fixed herself, she now wants to fix everyone else: her drug-addict ex-husband Levi (Luke Wilson), her emotionally withholding mother Helen (Dern's real-life mother Diane Ladd) and her ethically challenged employer, which she resolves to blow the whistle on.
None of them particularly wants to be fixed. This does not deter Amy. "I'm here to tell you," she says in one of the meditations that bracket each episode, "that you can walk out of hell and into the light." And she's going to get them there if she has to drag them by their ears.
It's that pushing, prodding, raw-nerve aspect of Amy Why won't she just go away? that made Season 1 of Enlightened (returning to HBO on Jan. 13) TV's most fascinating character portrait of 2011. But it also made her a tough sell. The show won Dern a Golden Globe but scored low ratings even for HBO, maybe in part because Amy is not what today's ambitious cable shows have taught viewers to expect in their antiheroes. Breaking Bad's Walter White intimidates. Mad Men's Don Draper dominates. Amy Jellicoe unsettles. She leans in too close. Like Hannah Horvath of Girls, she's an antiheroine who polarizes viewers in ways her male counterparts don't. She presses buttons and transgresses; she overshares and overcares.
"I have never experienced such strong reaction to a character," says Dern, who, please note, played a paint-huffing pregnant drug addict in the 1996 film Citizen Ruth. "I've watched men like Tony Soprano, and women say he's sexy in a scene with his lover where A) he's cheating on his wife and B) we've watched him just decapitate somebody in a bathtub. But the minute Amy had a breakdown in the elevator, people were like, 'Whoa! Aren't you afraid people aren't going to like her? I mean, she's so awful!'"
"People rejected the show within seven minutes," says co-creator/writer Mike White (who also plays Amy's shy co-worker Tyler). "But that makes me feel that there's a reason to keep writing about a character like her." On another show, Amy might be comic relief: as White puts it, "the irritating office pest who's always trying to make you run a marathon." Enlightened has a sense of humor, but it also takes Amy's ideals and unfiltered personality seriously. "She's a wild innocent," Dern says. "Maybe it takes a level of seeming insanity to use your voice."