Saturday, February 9, 2013

Eunice on the Gong Show

I am in awe of a TV show on HBO Sunday nights called Enlightened.  Created by Mike White and Laura Dern, and mostly written and directed by White, and starring Dern, the show is in its second season right now, and is so on-target and mystifyingly rich with meaning I often find myself remembering sequences and images from it all week long.  White has become a sort of  televisual Voltaire in his half-hour renderings of the life of Amy Jellicoe, a nobody who wants to be a somebody but who does not understand the odds are completely against her.  Not knowing this, however, allows Amy to move forward bravely and humiliatingly into realms and realities she craves to be a part of, but without the credentials and the smug know-how she sticks out like a homeless person in a palace.  Just her very presence, and the looks she gets from the people in almost every scene, satirizes the way the world works without one word. 

The series started with Amy having a major meltdown, going to Hawaii for rehab, getting majorly "enlightened" by self-help gurus and yoga, and then coming back to remake the world. Amy did not take into account that no one would want her to come back. Her place of business, Abaddon, Inc., a pharmaceutical mega-company, has allowed her a piss-ant position post-breakdown after she self-righteously threatened them with a law-suit. The first season mainly consisted of Amy trying very very hard to get back into the swing of things, while also hell-bent on showing the world how rotten it currently is and how she has seen the light and they will to if they listen to what she has to say.

Season 2 is much more plot-driven and incredibly watchable.  It has morphed into a subterfuge story in which Amy and a co-worker (played by White) hack into Abaddon's computer system to show the world Abaddon's vileness.  Enter Dermot Mulroney's Jeff, an accomplished, self-styled neo-muckraker from the LA Times.  Amy contacts him so they can blow the lid off of Abaddonn.  You know deep down Jeff is using Amy for everything she is worth, but Amy seems driven to be used, acting under the assumption that Jeff's reporting will transform her into the whistle-blowing savior of the universe, a superstar.

The satire caused by Amy's unending desire to be a part of "something" is deft and heart-wrenching. Case in point:  last week's episode, in which Amy attends an very upscale, wine-fueled fundraiser at a glassy, cream-colored Southern California mansion.  Invited by Jeff as a good will gesture, Amy arrives in her shitty little car, gets out, gives her key to the valet, and is automatically wowed by her surroundings.  Well-dressed rich shiny successful people drink from large-stemmed glasses, mulling around the spacious interiors and outside by the pool, all there to raise money for the poor.  The way this scene is shot you definitely understand that charity and poverty are the last things on these people's minds.  It's status-porn in action, everyone beaming and networking, with Amy goggle-eyed and open-mouthed, starstruck by the ritzy altruism, the swanky "we-care industry" on display.  As she walks up and tries to introduce herself to people, they look at her as if she has somehow stumbled in off a bus.  But she does not recognize the snobbery.  Her desire to be a part of the clean, sweet non-profit glamor overrides any sense of self-consciousness.  These are my people, her voice-over lets us know. 

As she curtsies at the site of such splendor I kept thinking about Carol Burnett's finest creation, Eunice Higgins, the loudest and angriest member of the white-trash family sketch that appeared regularly on The Carol Burnett Show back in the day.  Eunice and Amy have a lot in common.  They are caricatures that somehow blossom into tragic figures without losing their comedic/sardonic energy.  Dern has the same go-for-broke elegance as Burnett.  Burnett and Dern also have the agility and c oncentration to allow Eunice and Amy to be both satirical flourishes and cries from the heart simultaneously.  You can't seperate the comedy from the tragedy; they fuel each other. 

While Eunice may be a Southern Gothic harpy, Amy is a Southern California wannabe.  Still their desires for fame and glamor overlap, and both their faces exhibit a hunger that far outshines the situation of ther lives.  At one point, Eunice goes on The Gong Show (back in 1976).  The whole sketch is about how awful her rendition of "Feelings" is, but she tries so hard and practices so diligently in front of Mama and Ed (wonderfully portrayed by Vickie Lawrence and Harvey Korman), that it is obvious her Gong Show appearance has become Eunice's only way out, an obsession that has overtaken her life, just like the Abaddonn-whistle-blowing has taken over Amy's.  And when Eunice appears on The Gong Show, sings her horrible little song, and is summarily gonged by  Jamie Farr, Allan Ludden and Jaye P Morgan, there's a moment of pure unadulterated tragedy.  Eunice just stands there.  The lights go out.  Her image shrinks and dissolves.  Right at that moment she realizes how meaningless her journey has been, and how she will have to return to herself and her family.  She realizes right then that there is no way out. 

I'm sure that moment is waiting on Amy.  But I also have a feeling it may not be so tragic.  The genius of Enlightened is not only its poignant use of parody but also how it is hellbent on championing someone like Amy.  She's annoying and self-involved and just plain wretched a lo of the time, but she also always seems innocent, and just about the only person in the room worth talking to.