Mike White is, at the moment, a man in limbo. His HBO series "Enlightened" has two episodes left in its second season, and its future is uncertain -- ratings are up from season one, but it's still attracting half the audience that tunes in for "Girls," the show with which its been paired this year. While journalists, critics and fans are rallying around "Enlightened," which has yet to receive a yea or nea from the network, White's left waiting to find out what's next for him and for his unique comedic drama. "It's hard to even make a lunch plan," he sighs. "Even if it's a no, a just want to know so that I can move on with my life."
The uncertainty surrounding "Enlightened" comes, naturally, at a time when the show is at its best and attracting deservedly glowing press. It's anchored by a fearless Laura Dern as Amy Jellicoe, an executive who's returned to Abaddonn Industries, the company at which she used to work before a mental breakdown and subsequent time at a treatment facility. Fond of self-help generalizations and driven by a new, vague desire to do good and bring about change, Amy can be both a grating presence and an achingly vulnerable one -- she's ridiculous and touching all at once as she strives to lead a better, bigger kind of life while having little idea of how to actually manage that. Dern's formidable performance as Amy is backed up by some strong supporting turns from Luke Wilson as her substance abusing ex-husband Levi, White himself as her meek coworker Tyler and Dern's real-life mother Diane Ladd as Helen, the somewhat estranged parent with whom Amy has moved back in.
In its second season, "Enlightened" has combined its portrait of a woman trying to rethink her existence with a corporate thriller-style story arc in which Amy attempts to bring down Abaddonn with the reluctant help of Tyler, thanks to the encouragement of a dreamy Los Angeles Times journalist played by Dermot Mulroney. The overarching plot has pulled the show together into a stirringly sad and funny whole in which good intentions meet up with action, and not always easily. Indiewire spoke with White on the phone about the series and its incomparable heroine.
I saw you speak on a panel about the future of sitcoms at The New Yorker Festival last fall -- one of the things that came up from another showrunner was that he didn't feel his show had really come together until several episodes in. Did you feel the same at all with "Enlightened"?
For me the pilot has all of the tones of what the show turned out to be -- the emotional stuff and the reflective stuff, but also the character/observational satirical stuff. What I like about writing it is it keeps shifting in tone from episode to episode. I wanted to do a show that shed its skin every week, that can veer off into more emotional episodes or more black comedy ones.
This season does have the overarching whistleblower storyline -- was the plan always to do something different this round?
Originally we were going to do the whistleblower stuff in the first season, but then I started writing all the scripts and I got more into these meditations on her relationship with her mom, or her friend coming to town. I wanted to explore aspects of her character and stuff that was interesting to me. I thought people would like that part of it, and I think they do, but it didn't have that hook of "You've got to see what happens next week on 'Enlightened!'" Because of our ratings, the second season may be pushing a little bit more the potboiler part of it to help draw in viewers.
One of Amy's foremost qualities is the generalness of her desire to change the world -- she has such a strong desire to better things without really having had any specific ways to go about that. How has it been, balancing that vagueness against having this thrillerish plot?
Some people used to say "Why doesn't she just volunteer somewhere in Riverside? Then she could feel good about herself." And I was like, that's actually a pretty good question. What she wants is a bigger life. She does have delusions of grandeur, too, coupled with her desire to do good. It wouldn't be enough to just, I don't know, recycle. She wants to be Joan of Arc, and that is something I can relate to, for sure.
I once volunteered to teach English as a second language, and I thought that I would have all these intense relationships with all these people from other worlds. Then you get there, and it's like, "This is a pencil. This is a pencil." And afterward, you like, "It's so depressing. This isn't what I imagined! I thought this would be more glorious."
There's something poignant about that aspect of Amy -- the way the idea of her doing these things is almost more important than any actual achievement.
That's part of the fun of the character. If she was just a pure, straight-up saint, I don't know how interesting it would be, let alone relatable. Obviously there are people doing good things all over the world at all times. But Amy has this romanticized notion of what "good" is, and that's why she's flawed.
When "Girls" started, I remember getting into a argument with someone over whether or not the show approved of Hannah's tantrum over her parents cutting her off -- like, no, that's supposed to be funny, it's satirical. And Amy preceded her, and "Enlightened" is more overtly compassionate toward her. Do you feel that people have trouble processing female characters like this, who aren't primarily designed to be likable?
I mean, I did "Chuck & Buck," which was about a male character and was the same kind of thing. People were either like "AAAAAAAH! I hate him!" or they cried for him. He got a polarizing reaction. So I don't think it's necessarily just female characters, I think it's more that men often come to female-driven shows with a certain amount of trepidation anyway, in the sense that getting inside a female character's world is somehow intrinsically feminizing: "Why would I want to see that?" There's some kind of resistance to the material off the top. Then when they get in there and she's annoying, it's like, "Exactly!" It affirms their resistance. But it's actually a really good time for annoying female characters. [laughs] There's a lot of them. Calculatedly annoying, you know, not just Bonnie Franklin in "One Day at a Time."