Among the slate of fall TV, HBO’s Enlightened sticks out: the story of a woman’s recovery from an emotional breakdown, told at a languid pace through shifting perspectives and filtered through various New Age philosophies. (There’s also some corporate satire thrown in there for good measure.) It’s a challenging viewing experience, but also a rewarding one, thanks to Laura Dern’s enthralling lead performance and the unified vision of Dern and her co-creator on the series, Mike White. Best known for his work in film (his wide-ranging résumé includes crowd-pleasing fare like School Of Rock and Nacho Libre, as well as quirkier, more personal work like Chuck & Buck and Year Of The Dog), White has a long history with TV as well, getting his start as a producer and writer for Dawson’s Creek and Freaks And Geeks; creating a primetime soap, Pasadena, and a sitcom, Cracking Up; even participating in two seasons of The Amazing Race with his father. White wrote every episode of Enlightened’s first season, and he spoke about that experience with The A.V. Club, as well as how the show took its singular shape, and his own, automobile-related minor breakdowns.
The A.V. Club: You’re calling from your car. How do you handle traffic?
Mike White: I used to have a road-rage issue. I actually had to go to the North Hollywood Police Station. There was a summons for me because I like, threatened to kill somebody. Sometimes, if I got cut off by someone I would follow them home, past three freeways that I didn’t even need to take, just so I could keep pulling up beside them screaming.
AVC: So the rage issues faced by Laura Dern’s character in Enlightened, Amy, come from a personal place?
MW: [Laughs.] Well, the part where she crashes—it usually has to do with being in a car, for whatever reason. It’s not like I get mad at the Starbucks or something, but yeah, I’ve gotten better now. I’ve worked through my issues. I grew up here, and there’s something about when someone gives me a punitive honk, and I don’t feel that I was in the wrong, and if I were stressed out about other things, it would just set me off and I would try to chase them down the freeway.
AVC: How collaborative was the process of starting the show between you and Laura Dern?
MW: Laura was a friend of mine; she was a neighbor, so I would see her from time to time. She had this deal with HBO, and she wanted to make a show. The rager part of the show was actually something that Laura was more interested in. She had been involved in the Obama campaign and had met a lot of local, community-activist-type people and community organizers, and she wanted to play a kind of white-trash person who was trying to get into the political system while being kind of a rager. I didn’t feel like I could write that, but I felt like it kind of dovetailed into some stuff, thematically, that I was interested in writing about, and so it morphed into what Enlightened is. I felt that it would be more interesting if she were behind enemy lines where she is trying to work out stuff in a corporate setting, having to wear two faces. I felt like that might give it a little bit more juice.
AVC: What was the thematic territory that you wanted to explore?
MW: The thematic stuff is trying to make positive change, I guess. You know, that was what Laura was interested about in doing a character that was trying to have some political voice in the political system and to be some sort of positive agent in the character’s mind. That is still what Amy is, but as far as all the trappings of it, it changed once I got involved.
AVC: The pace of the show is very patient, and the early episodes feature a lot of very tranquil imagery. What were you trying to achieve with these aspects?
MW: For me the show is about—they’re meditations. Each episode at least tries to be kind of a meditation on some different kind of theme, whether it’s idealism or escape or love or as it goes along, friendship. That kind of meditative quality is a harder thing to ask for the audience in TV, but it was important to me because I felt like it would be an interesting thing to attempt. [The episodes] were kind of these little tone poems about different kinds of subjects.
When it has a more sort of meditative pace, while some people will just kind of tune out, I think it allows some people who are more engaged to allow their minds to wander—so it has a more contemplative tone. It allows you to watch the show, and then also it creates certain kinds of feelings. It just gives you more room to breathe, in a sense. I think it’s tricky, especially with those voiceovers and what we were trying to do with the show. You know, so many of the shows on HBO, and in general, the dramas are these kind of operatic [shows]; it’s a lot of incident and it’s all plot, and I just thought it would be more interesting to do an internal show.
AVC: And yet, HBO is really the only kind of network where you could do a show like this.
MW: Well, yeah, I’m still really lucky because the show isn’t doing great numbers, but it doesn’t feel like HBO gives—I mean I think they care to a degree, but the expectations were low on Monday nights anyway. But on the first week, when the numbers were what they were, I talked to them and I thought that maybe I was asking too much because the show continues to kind of shed its skin over time, so it never is the same thing, and I thought that maybe it’s just too challenging, maybe this isn’t what people want, maybe we should have paced it up. And they were like, “No, the show’s great!” It’s just so rare to have a moment where the network has more faith in what it is than in those insecure moments that the creator does, where you’re just like, “Oh, did I do something that was just too tough?” And, they’re like, “No, this is great, this is cool; don’t worry about it, we’re not stressed about the numbers.” I just think that they believe that as the show continues to kind of move out there that people will start to see what it is. It seems like we’ve already started to get more passionate responses as it goes along.
AVC: The people who have found the show and have stuck with it are very passionate about it.
MW: And I think that, for HBO, is what they are in business to do. It’s the subscription model; they’re not selling advertisement. They just want to have a home for things that you can’t find anywhere else. They’ve seen all of the episodes, and I think that they see that it’s a unique show and that part makes them more bullish in the face of a hard sell.
AVC: You had to wait on the post-production process due to your involvement in The Amazing Race. Did you worry that you took too long to deliver Enlightened, or are you glad it’s airing when it is?
MW: For me, I was happy. This is me as the creator: When it’s all said and done and all 10 episodes are done, I think people see the things that bug them about the characters—because I wrote all the episodes with knowing where I was going, but it took [HBO] a while to also see it all in totality. The luxury of having the time for them to sit with it has been good, because you know it’s hard with all of their marketing people and all of their publicity people. Internally, I think they now have a way that they can talk about the show. I just felt that if we had come out in January, some of the marketing materials would be pushing it in a certain direction that would have kind of been a misrepresentation of what the show was, and would have been more of a “crazy lady on the run” show—and as the show progresses, that’s not really what it is. And it’s not really a comedy in the way that the original material is trying to sell it. So I’m glad that we had this time for them to really sit with the show and get their heads around it, and I think it instilled more enthusiasm, internally, for what the show is—so that by the time we came out, I think they had a better sense of how to talk about it.
AVC : You sort of went away for a while and wrote all of the first season in one fell swoop, right?
MW: I wrote all of the episodes, except for the final episode, before we shot the pilot, just because Laura was doing Meet The Baby Fockers or whatever—
AVC: Little Fockers?
MW: Yes, so it was kind of a long press period and my head was in the show. I’ve had bad experiences in TV and I thought, “Wow, this would be great if I didn’t have a staff and I could just do the whole thing.” And then, if they were to pick up the show they’d know exactly what I’m doing. I’ve had bad experiences where [networks] want to be in “business” with you, but they don’t really want what you’re giving them and so there’s just this constant push and pull throughout the writing process. I just felt that, in a way, I had no leverage, but I had a little bit more leverage if I just had the whole thing done, so when they picked it up I could say, “Well, you picked it up knowing exactly what I want to do.”
AVC : Do you feel like taking that approach gave the first season a cohesive vision?
MW: In a way it does, and it’s a cohesive vision—but it’s also a slippery show. That’s what I wanted to do. As an actor and a writer, the anxiety about doing TV is that you start to feel like you get married to one tone or one kind of idea and you feel like you want to be able to express a lot of different things. It’s cohesive in its slipperiness in the sense that, as each episode unfolds, it comes at things from a certain way, and I wanted to assert that. If I end up staying on this show for more than this season and there’s more to it, I just want it to be able to be a fluid, flexible show, because I’m not comfortable writing that heavy drama that’s just operatic like some of the other dramas on [HBO]—and at the same time, I’m not a comedy writer in the sense that I just want to write that kind of stuff. I just want it let it be something that reflects my own sensibilities.
AVC: And so that kind of frees you up to experiment with different tones and different approaches. The episodes where Amy’s down in the basement at Abaddon are more broadly comedic, whereas an episode like “The Weekend” can be really poignant.
MW: That’s something exciting for me. It’s exciting for me as a writer, but it’s also the kind of thing I’m looking for as a viewer. There’s something unexpected about how it unfolds—and at the same time, it’s not unexpected in the sense that you kill off the main character. To me it’s like an onion, where you’re sort of building a novelistic approach to it. We have an episode coming up that’s all from the mother’s point of view, and you would never get that on a network show. It’s also a challenging show because it doesn’t have a big kind of idea so it’s hard to get those things through, whether it’s features or TV or whatever. The way that this is challenging is the way that this makes the money gatekeepers kind of nervous. You know, HBO is okay with stuff that’s really sensational, whether it’s nudity or stuff that’s more violent, like Tony Soprano, a main character who solves his problems with violence—but some of the stuff you talked about originally, the sort of meditative quality or the uncomfortableness of the show, or how Amy sometimes is annoying, that’s the stuff that basically makes everyone anxious, and I get a perverse pleasure from that part.
AVC: I think what it has in common with so many other HBO series is that Amy is such a strongly defined character. She lacks a basic self-awareness, and she’s earnest to a fault. Do you feel that the viewer should feel sympathy for her?
MW: I do. I believe, in general, that even people that are self-pitying, you can feel for them. I think it’s why I like to watch reality programming rather than scripted television, because the kinds of representations of people in reality programming—even if it’s a canned show—people can be annoying but you can feel for them. Or they can be completely oblivious to themselves and then they have these moments of real awareness and I think that’s something that scripted television—even with all of these antiheroes that populate cable now—it’s still something that’s difficult to really render. I feel that that part of it was important to Laura and I definitely think it’s fun to write. Also, because she kind of ends with these epiphanies, I feel people would have a hard time relating if she was already The Good Wife or something. I can be really annoying, but I also feel like I’m a nice person. [Laughs.] I relate to her. It’s funny to read reviews sometimes where people are like, “She’s unbearable, blah, blah, blah,” or “You feel for the people she’s aggressing on,” and for me it’s funny, because I cry when she cries. So I don’t feel that much distance from it, at least when I’m writing it.
AVC: Do you feel like you successfully rendered that complex portrayal?
MW: It’s building. It’s hard to fully dimensionalize a person without having the time to do it. As the show continues, I think she becomes more and more alive. You have more ability to find the depth because you can show more colors with each episode. At the same time, for me, it’s not about verisimilitude so much. I think that’s maybe frustrating for our viewers, but I feel like she can mold a little bit based on whatever ideas I’m trying to work out in each different episode. I don’t need it to be this consistent character that needs to be this one thing because in a way, the ideas of the show are actually driving it, in a sense, more than the character is. [Laughs.] And maybe that’s a fault of the show, but it is kind of what the inspiration is, so it’s hard.