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New fall season: Enlightened gives HBO a life-affirming series with just enough edge

Laura Dern yearns for a life affirmed in Enlightened. HBO photo

Premiering: Monday, Oct. 10th at 8:30 p.m. (central) on HBO
Starring: Laura Dern, Luke Wilson, Diane Ladd, Sarah Burns, Timm Sharp, Mike White
Produced by: Mike White, Laura Dern

The wonderful new HBO series Enlightened is a heartbreaker/dreammaker.

What it's not is cynical, ironic or defeatist. Don't worry, though. This half-hour drama, with some comedy sprinkles, isn't a Good Ship Lollipop sailing on a milk chocolate sea.

Its key player, Laura Dern as the rekindled Amy Jellicoe, is newly in search of a atonement and fulfillment after a full-blown nervous breakdown at her workplace. In Monday's premiere, we first see her weeping in a restroom stall after learning she's been transferred by her boss from the health and beauty division to cleaning supplies.

Upon hearing co-workers gossip about their affair, she impulsively confronts the married Damon Manning (Charles Esten), loudly vowing to avenge her demotion. Her eyeliner running and her mouth spewing expletives, Amy closes the book on this particular sequence by screaming through the elevator doors she's pried open to get a last shot at the fleeing Damon and two male underlings. This is a series that instantly knows how to get a viewer's attention. And Dern is an actress who holds it.

Enlightened centers on Amy's subsequent return from the Hawaii-based Open Air institute, a pricey means of getting one's life back on track.

"I'm speaking with my true voice now, without bitterness or fear," she narrates. "You can change. And you can be an agent of change."

But Manning wants nothing to do with her efforts to apologize. And Amy's severe, set-in-her-ways mother, Helen (Dern's real-life mom, Diane Ladd), is none too pleased about her 40-year-old daughter moving back in for a spell. Ex-husband Levi (Luke Wilson) is still enamored of cocaine and other mood-alterers. And her old workplace, Abaddonn Industries, no longer has a position for her until Amy cheerily talks about the illegalities of dismissing an employee with a pre-existing condition.

Abaddonn is portrayed as a serial polluter, with Amy selling herself as someone who can both alter that course and re-position the company as a community do-gooder. Instead she's re-assigned to the so-called "Cogentiva Project," whose fellow exiled workers are laboring over a new software program while working in the bowels of the Abaddonn skyscraper. It's a windowless island of misfit toys presided over by a sleazeball named Dougie (Timm Sharp).

Meanwhile, Amy's old assistant and perceived friend, Krista (Sarah Burns), has moved into her vacated office and pretty much shifted her loyalties to Damon.

Perhaps you're wondering where the affirmation comes in. Amy remains profane and continues to have her moments of near-despair. But she's determined to make headway, whether it's befriending a milquetoast co-worker (co-producer Mike White as Tyler), thawing out her mother or dragging Levi along on a kayak trip in hopes of regaining at least a small portion of what they once had.

Four episodes were sent for review. And they keep getting better and better, even if Amy remains on something of a treadmill. There's a very affecting side trip in Episode 3, with Amy applying for a job at a homeless shelter in hopes of starting a new and worthy career. The middle-aged male director is both dedicated and highly impressed with what she hopes to offer. But there are complications.

Co-producer White, also known for competing twice on CBS' The Amazing Race with his father, Mel, notes in HBO publicity materials that "there are so many anti-heroes populating TV series right now. I wanted to do a show about someone who is dysfunctional and far from perfect, but whose impulse is to do good and try to be the best person she can."

Dern is letter-perfect as Enlightened's dented Joan of Arc, preaching to her choir of one in ways that never seem hokey or false. And the supporting cast is uniformly terrific, with Wilson convincingly shedding his goofball tendencies while Ladd shines in a rare (for her) understated role.

Enlightened will hit you where it hearts. And hurts. It's HBO's most mature half-hour series ever, rising above the material worlds of Sex and the City and Entourage to offer a road worth taking in pursuit of a "higher self."