Primal Screen: Laura Dern finds intermittent serenity in Enlightened


(8:30pm Mon, HBO)
Laura Dern joins the list of brilliant actresses (Edie Falco, Laura Linney, Toni Collette) who have made cable TV an exciting place to be. Dern created and produced this new drama about — sorry, there’s no other way to put this — life. She stars as Amy, a corporate executive who spectacularly loses it in the office after her affair with a married coworker goes bad. Amy has makeup-melting intensity, but also a thirst for serenity. That’s why she heads off to a Hawaiian retreat that teaches unhappy people to “Flow Through Your Rage.”
Amy returns home blissed out, flashing a beatific smile at her skeptical mother (Diane Ladd) and drug-using ex-husband (Luke Wilson). But clearly, the makeup-melting intensity hasn’t gone away. It’s bubbling right below the placid surface as Amy desperately tries to get control of her life.
Dern puts a real human being on the screen — a woman who exists somewhere between the comic and the tragic, like a lot of us. Amy is not terribly bright, not terribly perceptive about her problems, but her search for enlightenment can’t help but endear her to us. “You can walk out of hell into the light,” she says in meditation mode. “You can wake up to your inner self.”
I don’t think Amy’s going to wake up to her inner self anytime soon. But her hit-or-miss attempt to do so will keep me glued to Enlightened.

Free Agents
(7:30pm Wed, NBC)
Hank Azaria is renowned for creating many memorable characters on The Simpsons, from Apu to Moe to Chief Wiggum. So I’m surprised he has so much trouble creating a single memorable character on his new sitcom. Alex is a corporate public-relations guy, a divorced dad, and a sad sack. But Azaria plays him so blandly that he makes no impression at all. “Dude, it’s official, you’re hopeless,” says a coworker, saving me the trouble of thinking up my own critique.

American Horror Story
(9pm Wed, FX)
I’m a fan of good haunted-house shows, and the new American Horror Story could have been a contender. The acting and filmmaking are top-notch in this tale of a troubled family who move into an L.A. home that even the realtor has qualms about selling them. Connie Britton and Dylan McDermott create a credible portrait of a couple trying to hold their marriage together, and Jessica Lange makes for a deliciously creepy neighbor. The horror scenes deftly use music, editing, and cinematography to get under your skin. I admit to closing my eyes more than once.
So what’s the problem? It’s the extravagantly grotesque approach. I don’t tune in to extended basic cable to see a teenage girl cutting herself with a razor blade, a wife raped by an intruder disguised as her husband, and a psychopathic kid enacting a Columbine-style massacre. Those are cheap ways to elicit a reaction, and they make me feel slimed rather than entertained.
“You’re gonna regret it,” a neighbor girl warns people venturing into the accursed house. I’d offer the same warning to people planning to watch American Horror Story.

Last Man Standing
(7pm Tues, ABC)
Tim Allen tries hard to be lovable as a right-wing crank in his new sitcom. The trouble is, right-wing cranks haven’t been all that lovable since Archie Bunker’s day. Allen stars as a man’s man who works for an outdoorsmen’s company, railing against universal health care and gay parades to his wife and daughters. This could have been funny if the filmmakers had perfect control of their satirical tone, à la All in the Family. But Allen’s character is a blowhard who is as off-putting onscreen as he would be in real life.
The coarse punchlines don’t help. “It smells like balls in here!” Allen bellows upon entering his all-male workplace as the laugh track goes wild. If that line made you laugh too, be my guest and watch Last Man Standing. I’m heading off to the gay parade.

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