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 Enlightened (Monday, 8:30 p.m., HBO), a 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.
Last Man Standing
Tuesday, 7 pm (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's 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.
Wednesday, 7:30 pm (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
Wednesday, 9 pm (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 topnotch in this tale of a troubled family who move into an L.A. home that even the real estate agent 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.
Thursday, 7 pm (ABC)
You know you're in trouble when you start yearning for the high quality of the 1970s-80s Charlie's Angels. No one ever mistook that tale of babelicious detectives for a masterpiece, but give it this much: The damn thing was memorable, thanks to actresses (Farrah Fawcett, Kate Jackson, Jaclyn Smith) who all deserved their long showbiz careers.
Rachael Taylor, Annie Ilonzeh and Minka Kelly, the stars of the new Charlie's Angels, will not be remembered 30 years from now. They're just generic hardbodies solving generic crimes while taking themselves way too seriously. The series offers nonstop karate kicks and explosions and precisely zero fun. Meanwhile, the actresses deliver the lame dialogue with would-be fierceness: "We're Angels, not saints!"
You're not stars, either.