Letting The Right One In: Identifying with ‘Enlightened’s’ Amy Jellicoe

If you’ve read my thoughts on the top ten shows of 2011, you know that I think HBO’s Enlightened is pretty good stuff. Starring recent Golden Globe winner Laura Dern, Enlightened is billed as a comedy, but it’s the most heart-wrenching, cringe-worthy, rollercoaster “comedy” that I’ve ever seen. Each episode is like watching a car accident at varying speeds: dreamy slow-motion, desperate fast forward, and sometimes the pace of painful everyday life. And whose driving this out of control car? Amy Jellicoe.

Post nervous breakdown and treatment, Amy returns to rid her former life of its poison, literally and figuratively. Unfortunately, the world she returns to is not as responsive to her breathy assurances or laid-back attitude as she had hoped. In fact, it remains relatively intractable. Newly focused on environmentalism, activism, and sustainability, Amy chafes against her data entry job at her former employer, a company that knowingly sells toxic personal products to consumers. As she tries to change the company and her life, she encounters constant roadblocks that challenges her, and the viewer, to ask, “Can we really affect change?”

Watching Amy is painful, because, well, she’s Amy.  And she’s always Amy. Whether she was always oblivious to social cues and parameters or she has recently overlooked them as part of her new lifestyle is unknown (I suspect the latter), Amy blunders around like a brahma bull in the china shop. She is always late for work and constantly overstepping the boundaries of coworkers and loved ones in the hopes of reigniting former friendships and allies. Her genuineness drives people, and potentially viewers, away.

So how do we relate with an in-your-face character like Amy? It’s writing 101 that the audience has to identify with a character to engage with a show, book, movie etc. That doesn’t mean we have to like them. There are lots of detestable characters throughout history that have captured the attention of audiences. Hannibal Lecter comes to mind. Despite his perversity, we root for him. We admire his intellect and cunning, and sympathize with him when he’s treated with disdain by the prison officials. Of course, it helps that we don’t really see all the horrible things he’s done. But what about Amy? Do we admire her despite witnessing all her awkward, oblivious interactions?

Certainly, there are admirable things about Amy. She never gives up on her journey to change her life and the lives of others, even if that means swallowing her pride. But, at least for me, admiration is pretty low on my list of emotions I associate with Amy. At the top of list are: uncomfortable and frustrating.

So if I don’t strongly admire Amy, why do I stick with her, other than the rubbernecking desire to see how the car crash ends? It’s because I recognize traits that Amy and I share. It’s tough to swallow that I, or anyone watching, has anything in common with Amy. She’s a total disaster. I don’t want to admit to myself that I know what it’s like to be sucked into total despair. I don’t want to admit to myself that I’ve said and done awkward things in public that probably cause others around to judge me. I don’t want to admit to myself that I know what it’s like to yearn for strong human connections only to be rejected. But I do. I think we all do. And that’s why we stick with Amy.

It’s hard to realize that you identify with a character because of your shared flaws, but it’s a powerful link. You might push Amy away at first, but letting her in is cathartic. You may realize something new about yourself. And isn’t enlightenment what you, me, and Amy are all looking for?

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In Defense of “New Girl” and Its Golden Globe Nomination or My Last Post on “New Girl”, I promise

New Girl is arguably the break out comedy hit of the Fall season. It might not have the strongest ratings, but it has the most buzz. It’s a show that polarizes its audience; you either love it or you hate it, but you can’t ignore it. Those who consider New Girl an all shtick-no-substance show will probably write its recent Golden Globe nomination for “Best Comedy” off as a bad pick, but I think there’s more to New Girl than hollow hijinks and made up terms like “adorkable” and “gumbo pod”.

Undeniably, much of New Girl’s hype is predicated on Deschanel. She is the draw and the deterrent for a large part of the show’s audience. Assumedly, those that are turned off by Deschanel never tuned in, but New Girl’s audience can’t be made up entirely of Deschanel devotees. In fact, a lot of Zooey D. fans gave New Girl a chance, but found it wasn’t for them. Just peruse the comment sections of New Girl recaps and you’ll see lots of “I gave it a shot for Zooey, but I can’t stand this show”. It’s clear that Deschanel isn’t the only thing dividing audiences. The other culprit? It’s Jess!

Let’s be honest, New Girl’s protagonist Jess Day isn’t much of a character, strictly speaking. She’s more of a caricature full of smiles, giggles, and eccentricities. A recent essay published in The New Inquiry readily points this out. Handelman writes, “Jess Day’s one-sided personality relies on an assortment of quirks…” and goes on to argue that Jess’ lack of personal history and desires make her a “stunted character” that relies solely on her idiosyncrasies to entrance and entertain. To Handelman, Jess is more akin to a logo, like the Morton Salt girl, than a real character. Where did Jess come from? Where is she going? What does she want out life (other than to have geeky non-weird sex or thaw a turkey with her body heat)? We, the viewers, don’t know. But the bigger question is: do we need to know?

One answer is no, we don’t. New Girl is a sitcom and therefore requires less character development than a drama. Sure, there are lots of sitcom characters that do have life goals (Leslie Knope wants to be mayor, Lucy Ricardo wants to be a star), but there are also many that exist unentangled by aspirations (Cosmo Kramer, Tracy Jordan) who maintain themselves through their zany antics. For Handelman, “weird for weird’s sake isn’t compelling…It’s embarrassing”, but for modern audiences weird for weird’s sake is a staple of sitcom fare. Inexplicably weird characters like Jess have become part of sitcoms’ narrative language and viewers know how to interpret and enjoy them.

The more interesting answer, however, is that Jess’ lack of personal context is intentional. Each of the three guys Jess lives with have more of a backstory than her, so why the imbalance? Jess is purposefully atemporal; she is a sitcom experiment in minimalism. How bare can we paint this character and still hold our audience? Let’s even make our theme song a cheeky reference to it:

Hey girl, whatcha doin?/Hey girl, where you going?/Who’s that girl?/ It’s Jess!

There are other examples of New Girl’s subtle meta-humor that suggest Jess’ character may be more than just inconsistent writing. In the episode “Bells”, a good-natured spoof of Glee, Jess is a rather inept, but unconditionally accepting, teacher trying to help disillusioned kids by introducing them to music. “Kryptonite”, the only episode so far that features people or events from Jess’ past, introduces her ex-boyfriend Spencer, the center of her ethos, and recalls Deschanel’s indie film 500 Days of Summer.

Maybe I’m giving New Girl too much credit. Maybe its Golden Globe nod is based solely on its shiny, bubbly surface. If so, then I have some parting advice for New Girl: Hey there, tiger. You have the foundation and opportunity to be funny AND smart. Don’t give in and deliver Jess’ backstory episode. Embrace her wonderful inexplicability, add a dash more self-awareness, and let her play confidently and intelligently with her role as the forever new girl.

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