Laura Dern stars in HBO's 'Enlightened' 

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Enlightened begins with Laura Dern’s character, Amy Jellico, ready to snap. The affair she's been having with her boss has gone public inside their company, she's being transferred from a job she loves, she’s recently divorced and she’s living with her cold and distant mother.

In short, Amy is about to make Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction seem almost like the girl next door. Amy’s not murderous, but she is in the midst of a breakdown.

And then, after the eruption, comes … enlightenment. She goes off to Hawaii for treatment and comes back imbued with the logic of self-help. She learns to say things like, "You can walk out of hell and into the light" and "You can change, and you can be an agent of change."

That’s great. But as Ian Hunter once sang, “I wanted to conquer the world, but the world has a mind of its own.” And Amy is about to find out that the world doesn’t want to change, that the world thinks anyone who's relentlessly cheerful is, perhaps, crazy.

The world might be right. But Dern straddles that fence magnificently, giving one of the finest performances you’ll ever see, as part of one of the best new series of 2011. Dern is in almost every frame of every episode — there are no “B” stories here — and she earns every second of screen time.

She injects her character with a remarkable amount of nuance, flowing from the cheerful optimist to the raging beast and back. One scene among many stands out: When Amy hands her drug addict ex-husband (Luke Wilson, in a terrific performance) a brochure for a treatment facility, we watch Dern’s face reflect many moods and reactions. She’s subtle and stellar. You feel bad for her, but you also feel like she should know better.

Enlightened is fascinating on multiple levels: the reaction from Dern’s co-workers after she returns from treatment; the way her soul-sucking company chooses to deal with an employee it would rather not have; how a person can stay positive in a world where she gets no support. (In a great bit of dialogue, Amy says to her mother — played by Dern’s real-life mother, Diane Ladd — “It’s good to see you, Mom.” To which mom replies, “Why?”)

Why, indeed. Mom is a pill, Amy’s ex-husband is a self-centered jackass and her co-workers are either weasels or damaged. She’s trapped in an untenable situation and she knows it. And all the self-help books in the world can’t help her.

A certain number of viewers will relate. Others can take comfort, knowing their life is so much better than Amy’s and that they’re watching a gifted actress give a wonderful performance. Enlightened is exceptional.

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