Enlightened’s Mike White on His Reluctant Return to TV and His Own Nervous Breakdown

Mike White. Photo: Henry S. Dziekan III/Getty Images

Mike White knew Enlightened would be a tough sell: Its protagonist is an ex-corporate slave turned meditative do-gooder; she’s not always likable. But the School of Rock writer, who got his start making James Van Der Beek sound intellectual on Dawson’s Creek and later helped pioneer the antihero cult-comedy Freaks and Geeks, managed to sell the show and then some. He and co-creator Laura Dern star in it — Dern as the lead and White as the shy, agonizingly awkward office drone Tyler — and an audience is quickly responding to what is a brave, ambitious dramedy. We got on the phone with White to discuss the project, his fear of TV, and that time he had a real-life nervous breakdown.

How did you and Laura Dern come up with the idea?
We had done this movie Year of the Dog, which I had wrote and directed and she had a part in it. Then she became my neighbor. I kept seeing her around the neighborhood and she had this deal with HBO. She had an idea that was pretty different than what Enlightened turned out to be — it was about somebody who uses her rage to take to the streets, become a community activist or something. But it was sort of my idea to keep it behind enemy lines in a sense, work in a corporation. I just felt like it was something that excited me from a writerly point of view. I don’t see shows like this. I just liked the idea of doing something that was kind of internal, kind of a novelistic approach to a character. And not necessarily a lot is happening, but there’s a lot at stake.

It’s been nearly eight years since you were involved with a TV show. Why wait so long?
I had this paranoia of going back to TV, where you end up feeling like you have to keep churning out the same thing, or variations of the same thing. [Enlightened] excites me because it’s so different, swimming in a different direction than it feels like everything I watch.

The show seems like it would be a hard sell.
I can’t think of something that’s more of a hard sell. I didn’t really realize how weird the show was until it got out into the world. The character’s not necessarily always likable; it’s very slippery. It challenges viewer’s expectations of what a show is.

Why did HBO eventually go for it?
They could see it was kind of different. I was really lucky, ‘cause I had a lot of time [to write the first season] before we started shooting because Laura was on Meet the Baby Fockers. [Editor’s Note: That would be Little Fockers.]

Do you see yourself at all in Laura Dern’s character, Amy Gillicone?
I see myself as someone who’s made a lot of bad decisions. The last show I did [the 2004 short-lived Fox comedy Cracking Up], I kind of had, I guess we’ll call it a nervous breakdown. I was like, “Fuck you all” and then basically shut down the show. And then out of it I started reading these kinds of Buddhist-self-help books. And that’s kind of what Amy has at the beginning of the season. I like the idea of someone who is real and not a saint, but has these moments of clarity and insight. Because I think that’s true in life. People kind of stumble their way through life a lot of times. But then you have these moments where you want to be more aware and try to not make the some mistakes.

In a way, you helped invent the antihero comedy with Freaks and Geeks.
My first job was with Dawson’s Creek where everybody looked good and they spoke better than you. It was kind of a wish fulfillment, fantasy-type show. With Freaks and Geeks, I realized you can actually have a show that looks like your own sensibility with some of the absurdities of what your life actually is.

You’ve directed some episodes of Enlightened. Do you want to helm more?
That’s probably the funnest part of the whole production. I gave myself some good episodes. They didn’t really want me to direct a bunch of them, ‘cause they get worried that you have so much other stuff when you’re running a show to deal with.

Which is also why you couldn’t direct Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, right? How did you feel about how that all went down?
I was disappointed. It was one of those things where I was a little stupid in a sense. When I had originally come to do work at HBO, they were like, “Yah, between seasons you can go direct movies or do whatever.” So I threw my hat in the ring [for Zombies] and then got the job. Then I talked to HBO: “Well, we need you back by November 1. If you don’t want to come back, I don’t know what’s gonna happen with [Enlightened].” I was just like “No!” At that point I was so in, I didn’t wanna jeopardize anything.

Enlightened’s Mike White on His Reluctant Return to TV and His Own Nervous Breakdown