In recent weeks, there has been a groundswell of passionate support from critics to save Mike White’s HBO comedy Enlightened, which concludes its second season Sunday. The show, starring Laura Dern as former corporate executive turned determined do-gooder Amy Jellicoe, is perfect for cable, if not for the usual risqué reasons. It’s quiet, slow, reflective, uncomfortable, hilarious, and hopeful. Which is also to say, it’s been a tough sell from the start. “It’s a meaningful show, it’s heartfelt, it’s willing to be kind of … saaaad,” said White, who writes the entire series by himself. “Most places don’t want that. I don’t know HBO necessarily wants it either.” The show’s audience is small even by the We Don’t Care About Ratings standards of HBO, and over lunch at Brentwood’s A Votre Sante, where an oversize green Buddha fittingly looked on, White said he was unconvinced Enlightened would live to see a third season. It’s a possibility that really bums him out, even while he’s got other “cool opportunities” on the table. “I’m afraid this will be the best thing I ever do,” he said. “I think it will be.” In a conversation with Vulture, White talked about the challenges of trying to get people to watch — and appreciate — a show with a polarizing female lead, how he gets over the criticisms that he condescends toward his characters, and why season two became a bit of a corporate thriller.
I just rewatched Year of the Dog, the movie you made with Molly Shannon in 2007. Like Enlightened, it follows a woman who tries to make big, positive changes in the world around her but in ways that are alienating (and often funny). Why are you drawn to that type of character?
There are so many people in this world who are in their own way little heroes, people who are cleaning up the messes created by the guys with the guns or the overgrown kids fucking everything up. There is a little part of me that feels like I have a little bit of creative capital, and I’d rather use it to put a different face forward as the center of the world.
I sound like a bloviater myself, but if you think of these Buddhist ideas of being compassionate, being kind, being a caretaker, all of these more traditionally female roles, and as far as the entertainment world, that’s not what people want to build their big comedic pitch around. You see everyone pivoting to the marketplace as far as the kinds of characters that they’re going to write about, and it’s this sort of normative male thing. I get sent tons of scripts to rewrite or ideas that are pitched to me, and after a while I think, If I have to read another script about a guy who learns to commit to his family and grow up, I’m gonna kill myself. Ugh. Who cares?
Does that make it frustrating that more people aren’t watching Enlightened?
It irritates me. When the show came out, I saw that because the face of the show was a woman, it was put in this box with The Big C and these other female-led shows. And somehow it was a “less than” kind of show just from people coming to it that way. If we had a male lead character, I think people would have approached it in a different, kind of more serious-minded way. It’s taken almost eighteen episodes to get people to get it. Now it’s kind of cool to like the show. I don’t know why. Maybe because it has made some inroads into some of the male characters [Levi and Tyler].
That sounds kind of cynical, but it’s the story of my career. If I have a male protagonist, it’s a studio movie, and if it’s a female protagonist, it’s an indie movie. That’s just how it is. It’s not about the studios. It’s about America and who goes to see movies. Women are interested in men and women, and men aren’t interested in the woman’s story. They just aren’t. There are exceptions, but by and large … I mean I do think that it’s feminizing for a guy to go see a movie with a female lead unless it’s Angelina Jolie shooting people or Zero Dark Thirty or something that feels like it’s in the male sphere. The devaluation of the traditional female roles or the traditional female approach, it starts to feel like this is what’s wrong with our country. Should I get off my high horse? [Laughs.]
You’ve talked at length about your own breakdown and how you began doing yoga and reading Buddhist self-help books, which is what we see Amy doing in the first season. But Enlightened isn’t necessarily autobiographical, so what do you think of these New Age life views that Amy espouses?
I like to read about that stuff because it’s interesting to me, but I’m not a believer in the indigo children and past lives. I have had moments where I’ve had mental-health issues and I’ve felt like yoga and meditating and reading these Buddhist self-help books actually really help. I still see the absurdity, and there’s still some part of me that’s laughing at myself.
But I definitely feel, especially as you get older, the world is very anxiety-inducing, and the idea of trying to swim a different way, trying to be kind or trying to be compassionate or trying to get over yourself, that’s a worthy thing to work on. And it does require work. Part of me wanted Enlightened to reflect those values. My impulse is to create an aesthetic that’s about a humanistic approach to a world and trying to create compassion for all the characters. That’s why I felt it was weird when I would read reviews in the beginning and they’d say, “It’s so snarky!”
You know, I’ve had that criticism over my career. [Los Angeles Times critic] Kenneth Turan said all of my movies are smug and mocking. Some people thought that about The Good Girl, like I was making fun of poor people. The nice thing about having a long career is that things, I hope, are clearer over time. I don’t see myself that way at all. I want to have compassion for my characters — I feel like I am the characters when I’m writing them. I feel the emotion of it. At the same time, I like to be observational, and if you observe people closely, there’s always buffoonery. There’s always something that they’re not aware of themselves. That’s the funny thing about the Real Housewives. That can get extreme. They’re ridiculous. But there are moments where you’re like, Awww, poor so and so. That’s the way we are in life. My pleasure is not being satirical and being mocking. I don’t know. I’m trying to go for something complex, I guess.
It feels like there has been an outpouring of love from critics lately.
In the last couple days!
No, it began earlier this season.
Three weeks or so. I don’t know how much HBO even follows that.
Of course they do.
But how do you quantify that? It’s sort of true about Girls, because it has so much buzz and not great numbers. We have less buzz and less numbers. It actually hurts us. In a way, Girls is the show that they go, “Well, even if the ratings aren’t great … ” If Girls was doing huge numbers and we were still doing bad numbers, then we could be more the pro bono case. But Girls is like the pro bono case.
Laura Dern is also listed as a co-creator of the show. Can you talk about how Enlightened came about?
I had a movie idea that I wanted to write for Laura, which was kind of the pilot but longer. Separately, Laura had sold an idea to HBO about a rager, a white-trash activist who didn’t have the most nuanced perspective on politics but was fired up. She’d spent a lot of time on the Obama campaign and she’d met all these people who had never been a part of politics before but got all fired up for him. That was her idea. Mine was more about the spiritual, like someone going to AA and coming back and wanting to confront everyone in a loving way and everyone responds with, Ehhh. The show wound up being a blend of the do-gooder spiritual thing with the do-gooder political thing.
I’d heard things could get really tense between you two while you were shooting, but you want to do another season. How does it work between you two while you’re working?
It wasn’t like a personal thing. It reminds me of The Amazing Race: two people in a car, one wants to go left, one wants to go right, and you both want to go to the same place. It comes from two people being really passionate. There are ups and downs with collaboration. We both are veterans, and especially veterans of the world of indie movies, and we see this for what it is. We realize we’re making something where [HBO] is giving us the real resources to do it right. I’ve made movies that I’m really proud of that premiere in four markets and go away, or shows that I really love and they air four episodes and that’s it. I’ve had all of those things, so I think both Laura and I see … If we have this platform here, and if there is a chance I could keep writing about things that are meaningful to me, yeah, I want to do it. I don’t think either of us could be more proud or pumped about the show. Again, it’s like The Amazing Race, only you’re in a car with a person for three years. I’m sure I drive her crazy.
The first season was like a series of meditations. The second has a lot more plot. It’s not any less contemplative, but there’s a propulsive quality that wasn’t there before. What led to that?
Well, originally the first season was going to have the whistleblower stuff, but then I got caught up in the meditations. Then I realized as far as people coming to the show, it did have this take-it-or-leave-it quality. It wasn’t like, “I need to see what happens next week!” They were stand-alone episodes, there were digressions — I like all that, but I felt from a narrative point of view I needed to do my part to bring more people to the tent. Even though there were a lot of good reviews of the show, too, I felt like the encapsulation of it was “A character study of a polarizing kind of person.” Obviously there were a lot of people who, I don’t know, that was a turn-off for. I didn’t want to get away from that, but I wanted to figure out if there was a way to graft it together with something more serialized. From a writing point of view, it felt like a cool challenge.
That said, you did two stand-alone-style episodes, one for Levi (Luke Wilson) and one for your character Tyler. Levi’s episode gave you the anti-Amy experience of rehab in a way. Is that why you did it?
I liked the idea of following Levi and having him have the anti-numinous experience there. I wanted to get at stuff about addiction. I just thought there was something there. And also, Luke is such a great actor. I didn’t want him to just show up. I felt like he deserved his own moment, and the thing about the show is that structurally it’s not like most shows. There’s no B story. It’s all A story. It felt like it was more important to keep that structure and then shift perspective as opposed to, like, trying to follow Amy and Levi. Emotionally, it would have gotten herky-jerky. I like keeping it within one person’s little journey. The Tyler one came when I realized how the plot would have to work. I thought it would be interesting at the moment where Amy gets the MacGuffin of the malfeasance that suddenly we’re seeing it from the perspective of Oh no! instead of Yes!
I cried a lot during the Tyler episode — and during most of the others. When I wasn’t laughing.
I like that. I like an emotional experience watching something. Something that’s sweet but sad. The thing about cable television is there’s so much stuff on there that’s super cynical or super icy or cool. I liked the idea of doing something that was more warm, more emotional.
HBO ordered eight episodes, and last year you had ten. Do you wish you had gotten those extra two?
In a moment like this when we’re still trying to get more viewers, it sucks that we have eight. Because we’re going to end and we could keep building. But at the time? I had months before we started shooting the first season to write all the scripts, and when they picked us up for season two they waited until the last minute. There was a really short window to write it all before shooting. So at the time I thought it was for the best because there wasn’t a lot of time for more.
I’m being totally honest because I’m in this anxious place, but I’m afraid this will be the best thing I ever do. I think it will be. That it might be over is sad.
Why do you feel that way?
Well, the things that I like about the show are the way you can go deep on a character, the melancholy aspects. Whatever the show is, it’s very me. It’s what I’m into writing. And you can’t really do that in movies. You can’t keep deepening and deepening. You can make a deep movie, but you don’t have much time. If I had five more hours of The Good Girl it would be even cooler in my opinion. I’m worried because this was the best situation.
I mean, no one was telling me what to do. It’s like art or something. It sounds weird to say, but Enlightened’s more of a personal expression. And the conversation with HBO was never “Is this what people want? Is this appealing?” But even now, if I did another show with them, I feel like they might push me toward something more, I don’t know, not-Enlightened. Maybe down the road in another cycle I’ll be able to pull off something like this out there on this big a platform, but I’ve been doing this a long time, and it doesn’t happen often. You know what it’s like? It’s like I have this great shrink and now I’m having to switch. I don’t wanna have to start over and explain everything to a new shrink! I want to keep going deeper with this shrink.
Not to jinx anything for you, but HBO could still pick it up.
I come from a place of worst-case scenario. It’s not the business for a cock-eyed optimist. Obviously I love the show, but it’s more like I need to move on with my life if we’re not doing this. I just wanna know. There’s no shoe left to drop as far as the criteria by which they’re going to make this decision. It just makes me frustrated because I hope [the good reviews] are not too little too late. I know there’s someone who runs the HBO twitter account — they must read of this stuff, right? I don’t know who that person is. I should find out and call them! “Hi, are you reading these things? Would you tell [HBO president of programming] Mike Lombardo about them?”
You write the show by yourself, which is unusual — and I’m assuming how you prefer it based on stories you’ve told about working for the broadcast networks. How involved does HBO get? When I spoke with Girls showrunner Jenni Konner, she said they’re not uninvolved.
[Laughing.] I don’t know if I should be saying this as I’m waiting for the show to get picked up, but this is my feeling: They have less material and they’re only scheduling a few hours per week. Because of that, the [executives] who are on your show, they have time to watch it and think about it and so, in a sense, they give thoughtful notes because they have the time to really think about it. At the same time, it’s like … I’m kind of a bitch. I don’t really …
You don’t want notes.
It’s like, why? Is this going to bring more viewers to the thing? Or you just want to change it because it would feel more satisfying to you? It feels very subjective, especially with our show. In the end, they’re perfectly respectful and they are big fans of the show. I like them all personally, but it doesn’t prevent moments where I’m like, Aaaaah, shut up! Leave me alone! Because for me, I’m the only person on the other end. I’m doing the writing and the editing and all that stuff. I don’t know if it seems like it, but I run hot. I want it perfect. It’s like when you give a drawing to your parents, and they go, “Make the sun look hotter. Make the grass look greener.” “Just put it on the fridge! Shut up!” [Laughs.] Hopefully I make up for my anal attentiveness in the show being really thought through.
I’m curious what an activist like Laurie David — who you featured in the episode where Amy goes with Dermott Mulroney’s character Jeff to a fund-raiser event — thinks of the show. What kind of feedback are you getting from the people you’ve sort of modeled Amy on?
Laurie David is someone I know and I asked her to do it because she did kind of remind me of Amy … [Laughs.] I mean, I didn’t base it on her. Listen, we’re here in Brentwood, and this is an enclave of very rich people. So you have someone like Laurie David who lives over here and she’s like banging on the window of the SVU, telling people what cars to drive, telling people to engage in the world outside the bubble, and that’s annoying to people who are in it. Everybody wants to point out the hypocrisy of people who are trying to push toward some kind of positive change. But what’s the option? Total apathy? I like the idea of the show being a celebration of that kind of person but also acknowledging with those kind of people there can also be delusions of grandeur or a Joan of Arc complex. There is this bloviating side to Amy, too. But people who can read a room and are completely gracious, they aren’t always the ones who agitate for real change. It’s often the person who keeps putting her hand up, like, Okay, okay, okay.