The second season of Enlightened seemed to pursue almost opposite fates with critics and viewers. The eight episodes aired to massive critical acclaim in a cozy Sunday-night slot on HBO, telling a story about a divisive woman using her quest for change to become a whistleblower against her own company. However, only a handful more people watched the season than had watched the horribly rated first season. Over protests from a surprisingly large movement for a show with such low numbers, HBO ultimately canceled the series last week. The A.V. Club recently sat down with series creator Mike White to talk over every episode of the second season and the philosophies that brought them into existence. The conversation took place before HBO announced the show’s cancellation.
“The Key” (January 13, 2013)
Amy [Laura Dern] breaks into her company’s emails, looking for corporate malfeasance. She doesn’t find it, but is put on the trail of something bigger.
The A.V. Club: What were your goals when you sat down and started planning out the season?
Mike White: Well, I’ve talked about this somewhat before—I did feel like this season, it would help to break out beyond the idea that the show is this sort of character study of a polarizing type of person, that there would be a bigger sort of plot. We had always planned on doing this whistleblower thing, but it just took until the end of the season to let that bubble up as the focus.
The first one, I wanted to do something that just reset us, but also had this conspiracy theory. We talked about it as more of a slightly absurd All The President’s Men type feeling, and that she was almost aware. She mentions Silkwood in it. Luke Wilson had a good quote, like, “She doesn’t want to be Silkwood; she wants to be Meryl Streep in Silkwood.” [Laughs.] So it’s this self-dramatizing aspect, but it’s also sort of real, too. And also, from a writerly point of view, I thought it would be fun to start it out as a little bit like the suburban Riverside woman’s version of Notes From The Underground. The voiceovers would have this Dostoyevskian anarchist talking about how she’s going to not just take on Abaddonn, but take on the entire capitalist culture. Her goals were to not just burn down this building, but a more revolutionary ambition. I thought that would be a gripping way to start the season. That was the idea.
AVC: You’ve mentioned before that you build the episodes around a central theme or emotion. How did you keep that going while also having the plottier aspects?
MW: That was the most challenging part of it. When I outlined the season, I knew where I wanted to take, like, Krista [Sarah Burns]. I knew where I wanted to take some of the people down in Cogentiva. I knew how Levi would fit into it, basically trying to consolidate all the characters and figure out what was going to happen through the season. I wanted to make sure there were a couple of episodes that had to move that serialized plot along, and figuring out how to tie that into an overall idea was the trickiest part of writing the season. I wanted it to fit into that format of a central idea.
Episode seven, particularly, was one where I realized after five and six that there’s all of this stuff that I had to set up to pay off, because originally, the season [order] got shrunk from 10 to eight, and I was like, “In order for me to get where I want to go, there’s a lot that has to happen this episode.” So in that episode, starting off with [Amy], her voiceover is all about how she has all this certitude about everything. It’s all black and white, and she’s on the right path, so that’s an easy idea that then these other things can be a part of the sand slipping out from under her feet. So it feels like it’s all a part of this one idea. But trying to figure out exactly how, the thematic ideas, that took most of the thinking.
AVC: What were some things you had to remove because you had two episodes cut?
MW: Well, I had already written half of an episode of [Amy’s] sister returning. She was going to live in the house throughout the season. Then when they struck it down to eight, I was like, “This is not going to work. This is going to be too many things I’m trying to accomplish.” It’s only a half-hour show. I wanted to do a standalone of the sister that was from her point of view, then I realized there was the Levi [episode], the Tyler [episode], and I was like, “This might feel too haphazard, or seem a little too strained.”
AVC: You’ve talked in other interviews about how you were inspired as a writer by shows like thirtysomething and My So-Called Life. There isn’t really a place for shows like that anymore. Do you think serialized storytelling hurts the smaller-scale stuff, because it has big, high-stakes drama?
MW: Recently, I read some piece—James Poniewozik of Time magazine interviewed Kurt Sutter [Sons Of Anarchy creator] about violence in television. And he talked about—I’ve never heard this phrased before, but it sounds right—part of the thinking behind some of the real gruesome stuff is that it helps make noise for the show. It’s about being noisy. And I think the problem with Enlightened as far as attracting viewers is, it’s often those shows—very beloved after the fact or during, but also always struggling to get viewers, get numbers—they’re not noisy shows.
You think of thirtysomething, and they would make whole episodes about stuff that was very… you have to be a very sensitive person to feel the stakes. It’s all about emotional stakes, so there’s often not a lot of juicy plot, or operatic plot points. And I think those shows are the hardest to market. They get a passionate fan base, but then branching off of that is often difficult. I think with Enlightened, I see why it’s a challenging show for HBO to sell, but it’s part of the whole point of the show is to try to not fall into certain kinds of narrative clichés. In a way, I’d rather it fail and have been the thing that it was, than to succeed and have to pivot to the marketplace to turn into something antithetical to what the whole point of the show is, in a sense.
AVC: Did you do a lot of research into whistle-blowing and whistleblowers?
MW: Yeah, when I first did it, I did watch some of the conspiracy movies, but then I also read up on [it]. But a lot of that research would help me in the season yet to be written, in this next season, because I think what’s more interesting is how far corporations go to discredit whistleblowers. Where we’re at with the story now, mostly the research I tried to do is the way they would be able to hack into computers. I didn’t feel like this was a kind of procedural, where the pleasures were how they hack into the system. It was more of a character show. So I was trying to figure what was the simplest way for us to accomplish this. Because the show is trying to be authentic, in a sense, so it doesn’t feel like a huge buy. That was the part, for me as a writer, I was the most, “I hope they buy it!” But I’m just trying to get to more character stuff, or theoretical stuff. Not so much the pleasures of the war-games element.
AVC: How much input does Laura Dern have? Do you talk to her when you’re writing this stuff?
MW: We talked at the beginning of the first season about how we’d get to this whistleblower stuff, because she definitely wanted it to get out of the world of the internal, personal stories and into this bigger political story. I was the one that kept getting distracted with little nuanced personal stuff of the first season. We talked about it, but I had such a short window between when they picked us up, which was December of 2011, and when we started shooting in early March of 2012. I basically had two and a half months to write the whole season. I was playing it a little close to the vest. I wanted to present them with a bunch of scripts because I didn’t want to have to do too much backtracking. It was kind of like, “Here’s the whole season!” [Laughs.] Sometimes, you can get in a feedback loop where you’re doing notes and changes, and then it’s like you’re never going to get to the end. I felt like if I presented everyone with more material, it was a little more of a self-protective measure.
AVC: What’s your process when you sit down to write a season of television, instead of an episode? How does that change?
MW: This one was fun. The first season, it was more episodic. When I started in TV, there was this real pressure for the shows to not be serialized, because the way people watched shows was different. Not that much has changed, especially with half-hours, but everyone wanted things to be self-contained, because when it’s re-run, people don’t watch it if it’s serialized. It feels more perishable. So I came from thinking, “I want these to have less of a serialized feel,” to, “Let them each be a self-contained thing.” I don’t know why I had that in my head, but I realized over time, especially at the start of the second season, that this needs to be more serialized, but hopefully it can seem like that same show.
I’ve come from soaps. I’d written a soap, Pasadena, for Fox. And the kind of writer I am, I’m very anal-retentive, and I like design. Not only in doing stuff, but in watching things, I like feeling like all of this has a purpose. That everything feels essential in some overarching story. I appreciate that as a viewer. The looser, improvisational feel of some stuff, I want to feel like there’s an authoritative hand there. It was fun to do that for this season. It’s a puzzle that you’re trying to do, but hopefully it’s an emotional puzzle. It’s not just simply the pleasures of the way the plot plays out, but trying to get at all these different characters stuffed within this overarching plot. Basically, I knew that this episode would be Levi’s episode, this is going to be the episode Levi returns, this is going to be the episode they get their McGuffin, this is going to be the episode she meets Szidon [James Rebhorn], and this is going to be the episode where they have their final confrontation. Then within that, once I knew the biggest plot piece of each episode, then each episode was built around that major moment.
“Revenge Play” (January 20, 2013)
Amy teams up with a Los Angeles Times reporter to spread her message, but only manages to get a member of her team fired.
AVC: Where did the character of Jeff [Dermot Mulroney] come from?
MW: I felt like having a love interest, or this love triangle, again, would perhaps galvanize viewership. I thought it would be interesting, anyway, for Amy. It wasn’t simply just, “How do we get more viewers?” But I did feel it would be interesting if she got involved with a Bob Woodward type of guy, and that that person would be interesting not just in how he was going to help lay out this big plot for her, but that he would be a window into this world she feels might be her home, in a sense. People that are more progressive, and more engaged. She’s been dealing in the first season with all the complacency of people that work at Abaddonn, the Kristas, and this guy would be this window into this world of people. It reminded me of when I went to Wesleyan University from growing up here in Pasadena. There were all these hipster kids who were so cultured and politically active, and I was really mesmerized by them, but also felt like a loser or some kind of rube. I thought that would be some fun stuff that we could play with in the season. But I also like the idea of making him a little bit the guy who’s always quoting [Noam] Chomsky, and a certain kind of cultural stereotype, hopefully made real.
AVC: To what degree did you want him to act as sort of a mirror of Amy? Because in a lot of ways, he’s like a more successful version of what she hopes to be.
MW: I feel like there’s a narcissism, certainly, to him. To me, this is from a Buddhist perspective or whatever, sometimes people who are working out their political beliefs, they can rage against the man, and yet at the same time can be oblivious to their own way of stepping on the foot of the person right next to them. As you get older, you realize just figuring out how to be nice to the people in your personal sphere is almost more challenging than trying to change the bigger culture. That is something the whole show gets at: You can be right about all of these injustices in the world, but how are you actually living your life? How are you treating people?
Also, it questions action in general. The second episode really is all about that: Every action has a positive and a negative reaction. At what point, in the pursuit of this big change, how much fallout and suffering are you going to cause in the personal sphere in order to achieve that bigger goal? Which is the history of revolution, certainly in the 20th century. It’s one thing to criticize the power system as it exists, but do you have a vision that will replace that? It is the eternal story of the children raging against the father, then becoming the father. Since the show is dealing with all those things, it felt like it would be fun to, especially in the second episode, it’s about her aligning herself with the “little guys,” and in that version, the “little guys” are like Omar [Jason Mantzoukas] and all these people downstairs. She goes to this club, and in her mind, she’s part of this Black Panther movement, this radical group of people who are going to fight the power, and she’s part of it, and race plays into it. And ultimately, the only thing she ends up actually accomplishing in that episode is, the one person of color gets fired.
At the same time, he’s fired because he’s laughing at the albino paleness of Tyler, and it’s Tyler’s revenge. So you talk about these things, these bigger generalizations of race and class, but really sometimes it can boil down to personal little beefs. Little revenge plays that we are doing on each other. The first season talks about that a little bit; the way she feels about her mother is really the way she feels about everybody. The way she feels when she sees people, it’s like she’s seeing her mother. She’s working out this thing with her mother. Similarly, with this revenge play against Abaddonn, is she mad about how Abaddonn treats its employees, or is she mad about how Damon, her former boss, treated her? How much does this political really boil down into the personal?
AVC: Jeff is taken more seriously by the establishment; part of that is his position, but part of that seems to be because he’s a man. How explicitly do you feel the show is about how we treat men vs. how we treat women?
MW: Amy’s politicization is very nascent. You sense from Jeff, he’s much more well-read. He probably has a much more sophisticated perspective on all this, because he’s been in the trenches doing it for much longer than she has. I think there’s that part of it that I think is completely free of a read on gender, but the truth is, I think it comes down to what Sziden says about Amy in the boardroom at the very end, which is people who come at things from a place of feeling—at least in a traditional sense, women are seen as coming into these kinds of political things from a place of emotion. Somehow the emotional part of it, which to me is where compassion lies, is often devalued or diminished as a goofy way to come into these complicated political situations. If you come from a more intellectual place, a more analytical place, that seems a stronger critique, and an emotional or passionate response is somehow, like, a hysteric, or someone is goofy, or they’re dopey.
To me, I guess that part of it I can relate to. The things that drive me crazy are coming from this place of people suffering because of people polluting into rivers or whatever. It’s not simply just about systems; it’s an emotional reaction to seeing animals or people suffering. That part of it, I think, it’s not simply just a gender thing. It’s about devaluing the emotional aspect. You can come to a political position from an emotional place. I think that’s the thing about Amy or people like Amy that gets discredited. It’s like, you’ve been in many meetings or different kinds of things where people are agitating against the man or the system or whatever, and they’re emotional, and they’re crying, and people are like, “Ugh. Shut up. Sit down.” On one level, I understand that you can’t run a world based on emotion. At the same time, I think there’s something beautiful about the kind of compassion that creates an emotional response that pushes you to take action.
AVC: It does seem like the people who don’t respond to the show aren’t sure how they’re supposed to feel about Amy, and that happens a lot with other shows that have female leads. It happens with Girls. It happens sometimes even with Homeland. Do you think that also stems from that place where we’re not sure how to deal with characters who are emotional?
MW: Enlightened is an odd show, because it is a female-centric show, but it’s not about dating. [Laughs.] And it’s not an aspirational show. You think of a show like Homeland, Homeland really delivers in a genre, and I think the plotty parts of it appeal to guys. The tension, the action, all those things. Even though it has a female lead, it exists in a world of a traditionally male interest: espionage, thrillers, the military. Then you have a show like Girls, which is essentially a dating show. It is a fresh, radical take on the dating show, but that’s where the stories lie.
I think the issue with Enlightened has always been, “Who is this for?” [Laughs.] It’s not about dating. Obviously there’s a romantic aspect to her life, but that’s not the part she is focused on, or interested in. It is more about the political sphere, but in a very personal way. It’s not aspirational. There’s a lot of reasons. I’ve had interviews where I’ve been frustrated about the male response to her, but I don’t really think that’s why the show hasn’t [been a hit]. Homeland is a perfect example. Men can get into that show.
I think women have as much problem with Enlightened as men do. Many women come to Enlightened and Amy annoys them, too. So it’s really not simple as far as what the gender read of it is, but I do think there is this word “annoying.” We never used that word ever. We never said, “Oh, this’ll be cool. She’ll be annoying.” [Laughs.] “Yeah, let’s challenge them by making her an annoying character.” To me, it was like trying to make a character that could be lucid one minute and then kind of deranged the next. Someone who could be self-pitying, but also sympathetic. Somebody who reminded me of people I know, where they have lots of dimensions to them, and it isn’t just one kind of person. I think that’s challenging. It’s not about simply, “Guys don’t want to see that.”
I do think the way the “annoying” thing has caught on has something to do with it. If she had been a man and done all those things, I don’t think it would be taken so much as annoying. I think it would be taken as, “He’s acidic,” or bilious, or whatever, but the “annoying” thing is, after a while, like when people talk about Anne Hathaway. Where it’s like, “Shut up. Just be beautiful.” It’s like, “Stop bloviating.” We just want to project. I do think there’s something about this show. The fact that she’s a woman. That she’s emotional and can be kind of a rager—and in a sense, a castrating bitch, in some person’s perspective—that at least in the first season, the way people wrote about the show, or wrote in comments about the show, you could tell it touched a nerve. “Ugh! I hate her!” [Furious noise.] Where you’re like, “Huh. I didn’t even realize this was that much of a button-pusher.” You’re trying to write a great part for a great actress, and you want to show all these colors. That was really the impulse. Not to alienate the viewer with this annoying character.
“Higher Power” (January 27, 2013)
Amy’s ex-husband struggles with the same rehab that gave Amy such hope, finding it to be largely pointless.
AVC: This is the Levi [Luke Wilson] episode. You did the one extra point-of-view episode in season one [“Consider Helen”]. Why did you choose to do two in season two, even with the reduced season order?
MW: It was really just going to be the Levi episode. I really wanted to do the inversion of her experience at treatment, and that it would be fun to see the person who is not seeing the turtle, not drinking the Kool-Aid. Yet at the same time, getting something out of it by the end. Also it’s, in a sense, pushing him back to her. So I was trying to accomplish a bunch of different things. And Luke is just such a great actor who… I don’t want him to just be an appendage to her story. Most shows have B-stories, and we just have an A-story. In order to let some of these people have their moment, you have to shift perspective from Amy. And I like writing it that way.
As far as why it became two? I knew we were going to use Tyler to get Eileen [Molly Shannon], and it felt like, “How long can he be pining for Amy? Can we use this in some way?” It would be cool if her victory was his loss, in a sense. But then as I got closer to writing that episode, I felt, “The way to actually approach this is going to be from his point of view.” We knew we were going to use Molly, and I was excited to let her have her moment in the show. And to have that all seen through Amy’s point of view felt wrong. So it flipped. Then I got excited about the idea that when they got the McGuffin of “Here’s the proof!” of the malfeasance, suddenly we’ve switched perspective, and it’s like, “Oh no!” Instead of a “Huzzah!” moment, it’s like an almost dread. The show isn’t Norma Rae. It’s not Silkwood. It’s more of a meditation on how to live ethically in a corporate world. It’s not so simple. Although I think in life, there are examples of pure injustice and people fighting injustice. But in this show, I thought a more complex read was the way I wanted to go with it, and I thought that would be a good way to do it.
AVC: Luke is in fewer episodes than he was in season one, but it feels like he’s almost more central to the narrative. What were you hoping to do with Levi’s arc this season?
MW: The idea was that, when it gets down to the title [of episode six], “All I Ever Wanted,” what happens when you get exactly what you want from someone, and instead of feeling like this great victory or satisfaction, it actually brings you to this place of almost horror? Him showing up and saying all those things, the things she’s always wanted him to say, instead of a kiss and a hug and, “Let’s be together,” it’s like, “This is the worst thing you could ever say to me.” To come back and say, “We can flip the script together, and life is beautiful,” she’s like, “You’re killing me.” [Laughs.] So I thought that would be an exciting way to use him, that he goes away, has this horrible experience, and that’s how she’s left with it, and is like, “Okay, I’m moving on.” She finally has this guy who’s going to take her to new places and give her a new lease on life, and then Levi comes back and he’s like, “I’m fixed! I’m ready!” And it’s like an emotional terror. I thought that would be interesting, and it’s fun to be able to use Luke in a way… he’s so laconic, and he has this air of somebody who doesn’t want to emote. He’s sort of shut down. And to use that in a way that breaks your heart instead of to some kind of frat-movie ends was exciting to me.
AVC: Amy’s experience at rehab was beautiful, and she had this epiphany, but this episode is much more grounded, you might say. It’s much more about how awful it can be to go through that experience. Why did you make that choice?
MW: To me, not to be too heavy, what inspired me about the show is, I grew up in a religious family, and yet I never believed, in a sense. That’s really what the show initially was about. To me, at the core of it, it’s about somebody who wants to believe, but just can’t, and all of the jargon of A.A. and lots of those rehabs are about your higher power. And it’s about somebody who just doesn’t have that spiritual belief. In a sense, it reflects my own feelings, which is, I’ve never really believed in some ultimate God/turtle that’s going to come, that’s looking out for me. At the same time, I think that being on some spiritual path, or faking it, I guess, until you make it, trying to find some substitution for that, is an important part of… If you don’t have some kind of belief in something, then you can fall into really self-destructive patterns of behavior. It becomes a very nihilistic way to live. So there’s a very existential drama going on underneath it. It’s not really just about addiction. It’s about somebody looking for some reasons to keep living. And I think that’s why it’s a very sad episode, if you really pull it apart.
I think there’s a hopeful thing, but it’s a very bittersweet place that it lands, which is “I don’t believe, but you believe. I’ll just hold on to that.” Which is something I think of when I think of my parents. I’m glad I have that. There’s something meaningful. People who do have those belief systems end up doing great things, because that belief pushes them through. It is inspiring, whether you end up believing what they believe.
AVC: You directed half the episodes this season. Was that a cost-cutting choice?
MW: It costs the same. [Laughs.] I really wanted to direct that episode with Luke, and I wanted to direct the finale. The reason I directed two and four, it ended up being, it did have a little… Most shows get crossboarded, which means you are sometimes shooting a little of one episode in the morning, and a little bit of another later. From a production point of view, it’s so much easier. Those two scripts, two and four, they were very heavy on Cogentiva. They had the same locations, basically. They just seemed like they would make sense to be crossboarded, and that one person should direct it. That’s the reason I directed those two, and then I wanted to direct three and eight.
It was also, the first season, HBO was worried with me directing too much, that I was juggling too many balls. Part of me felt like when I directed season one’s fourth episode [“The Weekend”]—the one on the Kern River, which we had to shoot last for production reasons, because it was a big location shoot—it had gotten to the point where it was easier for me to just do it than to try to be constantly explaining what we were doing. It doesn’t mean that I thought my episodes were better directed, necessarily. Bringing a new director into the show and trying to talk about the visual motifs and how to work with different actors and getting them the talking points sometimes takes more time than it does to just do it yourself. Selfishly, as a person with a ton of writing experience but not as much directing experience, I got a little more greedy. This was an opportunity to build my résumé, and also my skills.
AVC: This episode has a very different feel from the others. It’s not just because it’s from Levi’s point of view; a lot of it is the location. How does the setting and physical locations of these characters inform what’s happening?
MW: That’s true. Basically, the third episode is like a whole new pilot. Other than Luke, everyone else had to be cast. We had to scout new locations. Everything was different. Plus, we shot some of it in Hawaii, but a lot of it was L.A. for Hawaii, and the show has a very specific visual progression. The very beginning is all static shots, and then once he starts partying, it’s all handheld, and then at the end, it’s all floating shots. So it was kind of this weird puzzle where you’re shooting on one thing, and then you’re like, “Oh, this is on the handheld!” [Laughs.] Because you’re trying to build. Also, the complication of it was, we shot all the L.A.-for-Hawaii stuff at the very beginning of the entire shoot, and the Hawaii-for-Hawaii stuff at the very end. So there was two months between the beginning of the shoot and the end of the shoot. There were times where we were like, “Oh shit! We were supposed to shoot this on a track, and we didn’t!” [Laughs.] So we got the track!
But I do think credit goes to Steve Gordon, who was our production designer this year. There’s a lot of little details in that show that I’m really proud of. A lot of thought went into what’s on the walls. All the little textures of it, I think, create a different kind of feeling. When you were talking earlier about gender and how people come to the show, there were moments where I’d see that show and thought, “Wow. If Luke had been the focus and the face of our show, but we held onto the tone and all the other challenging aspects that make the show difficult, I still think it would have been a way easier sell.” [Laughs.] Especially this season, it was after that episode you could feel a tangible galvanizing of viewers in a way that up to that point it was [indifferent noise.]. After that episode, it was like, “Oh yeah, Enlightened!” Building off that, I felt people got more into what we were doing.
“Follow Me” (February 2, 2013)
Amy becomes active in the world of social media, thinking it might help in her mission.
AVC: To what degree do you actually believe what Amy says at the end, that social media can be used to effect great change?
MW: Well, it’s ironic, because I feel when I wrote the episode, I was a little bit more of a cynic, because I really do see it two ways. To be perfectly honest, in the last couple weeks, I had to erase Twitter off of my phone, because I got in a feedback loop. It’s not just because I want to see praise or am such a narcissist, but as an artist, you’re making something, and you spend a ton of time on it, and the only people who have seen the show were three executives at HBO and the producers. So you’re finally getting feedback, and it’s like, “This is what I wanted. I wanted people to be engaged in the ideas, to be engaged in the characters, to be talking about it.” It’s like you’re eavesdropping on the world talking about what you made, and there’s something about that.
I think ultimately, if the show did get picked up again, it has everything to do with Twitter. Comments and people writing about it at The A.V. Club and The New Yorker, obviously that’s meaningful, but I do think that Twitter, people constantly telling HBO how important the show is to them would be one of the main reasons I think the show would come back. That part of it, just from a personal point of view, I do think that’s amazing. It’s not something that would have happened, with our numbers, 10 years ago, the show would have come and gone, and nobody would have known it had any meaning to anybody. Except for anecdotally, people just walking past you on the street, it wouldn’t have had this sense of urgency that obviously Twitter has created.
At the same time, for me, there’s moments where you’re just like, “I need to get rid of this phone.” [Laughs.] You know what I mean? “I can’t live like this.” There’s a compulsive part of it. You can get locked into constantly living through the Internet and not living in life. And that, for someone who didn’t grow up with that, it does feel like something weird. You see kids now, so locked into their technology. Maybe it’s a pastoral or some kind of nostalgia that wasn’t really so great. Who knows? But you just go, “Really? Is this how you’re spending your youth now?” It comes at a cost. So the end of that show contains both. This is a way we can talk to power. All those things I think are true, and at the same time, what are we doing? Most of the time what we’re doing on the thing is looking at other people’s vacations, or dumb gossip sites. I mean, it’s probably as frustrating for real writers trying to write through the Internet as it is for me trying to get people to watch this challenging show. It’s like sometimes the dumbest, simplest thing is what is the noisiest thing to get people to engage. That’s just a frustration. It’s a timeless frustration of the artist, I guess.
AVC: There has been this discussion about the voiceovers, especially Amy’s voiceovers and whether they’re meant to be sincere or ironic. What are your personal feelings on the mix there, how to get those right?
MW: It depends. It’s pretty elastic. There’s some voiceovers, I think of the fourth episode of the first season where she’s on the river, where it’s totally sincere. When I’m writing it, it’s deeply emotional for me writing it, so there’s no parentheticals. It’s me saying how I feel. The end of the show this season, her affirmations at the end of the finale, that’s what I’m trying to say. It’s not couched from an ironist’s point of view. At the same time, Amy, because she’s such a dramatizer, there’s certain moments where she’s so… The episode before, we see her walking with Jeff and she’s in love, and there is a sense of the images not matching what she’s saying. She’s saying, “This guy’s life is rich and full,” and he’s checking his phone, not really listening to her, and to me, that part is fun. It’s funny. I had a friend who’s really big on the Internet, who went on The Amazing Race with me, and he saw episode four and took it completely as sincere, and said “I think it’s great what you’re saying about the Internet…” Just totally ignoring the zombie-drooling faces of the people in the images.
For me, there is a pleasure as a writer to be able to write something that allows multiple interpretations that are valid. That’s, to me, the most exciting part. Like I go on The A.V. Club and read some of the comments, people reading into the show in a very thoughtful way, and taking different positions based on characters and what they’re saying. And to me, that is the deepest pleasure from a writer’s point of view. Thoughtful people with a strong point of view reading your work as a viewer and coming to different assessments, having strong passions. That there are arguments and ideas there are being debated or whatever, that’s when you feel, “Oh, you’ve made something that is rich enough, it can contain all these conversations, and all these different interpretations of the work.” Again, it sounds like I’m tooting my own horn, but so much of stuff has a predigested reaction that the work is going for. Where it’s like, “She’s a bitch, and he’s cool,” or whatever it is or, “We’re happy, because she wins.” This is something where it’s like, “I’m happy, but why do I feel weird?” Where the emotional response is a weird, complex thing is something that is satisfying for me to make.
AVC: In this episode, Amy goes to a meeting with people who are much further along in this process than she is. How are you looking at Amy’s process of becoming that end point?
MW: I talked about this a little bit, where I have my own experiences getting among these kids who grew up in New York, and they had their look, and they were really cultured, with all their references. And for me, I knew some of the references, but it was only through my own auto-didacticism, searching through libraries, trying to find culture somewhere in the homogenized suburbs of Pasadena. [Laughs.] Then I would get around these other kids, and I felt like a rube, and it just seemed so effortless. So there was a part of me that was exploring this idea of this woman who wants to be a part of this world, but even for them, she’s a little too enthusiastic and, [Amy voice.] “Wasn’t that amazing?” There’s something very endearing to me about that part of Amy, her enthusiasm and sometimes the simplicity of her reaction, as opposed to somebody who was more nuanced and sophisticated.
On Portlandia, they send this kind of stuff up all the time in a much more acerbic, broad way, people who are progressives, but in their own way, elitist. And there’s an enclosed little circle of self-congratulatory behavior that I think I tend to find sometimes when you try to seek out like-minded people.
AVC: It does seem like in American culture, we’re sort of guarded about enthusiasm. How do you approach Amy’s enthusiasm as both a force for good and a force that drives people away?
MW: I talked a little bit about the emotion and that part of it, and I do think that that often is a gendered reading, because to guys, the hysterical woman saying, “We’ve got to do something!”—I’m talking in total over-generalizations, I just want to preface by saying that, because it’s always more complicated than that. But men tend to think about systems and women coming from a different kind of emotional place, often. That seems somehow unsophisticated, or there’s a wary reaction to that emotional enthusiasm.
At the same time, it’s totally a valid thing, which is, you think of the enthusiasm of Tom Cruise, where underneath the enthusiasm, there’s this antic rage, or something else going on, where you’re like, “Okay, you seem really happy, but there’s something demented a little bit about it.” Like, it’s a little unhinged. And that part’s a little bit true about Amy, too. There’s a fine line between passionate advocacy and enthusiasm, and flipping their lid at any point. That’s like the Tom Cruise thing: “I’m so happy!” and jumping on the couch. You feel like he could just jump across the couch and throttle you, you know? It’s a fine line. The emotions are all just too much, and I think that from a Buddhist perspective, it’s trying to hold your emotion, but analyzing where these emotions are coming from. On one level, it leads to a more sophisticated understanding of yourself, but it also leads to inaction. Sometimes that emotion is what causes you to motivate to do something, and if you start analyzing your own emotional response, it dissipates the power of it.
AVC: Do you think there’s something darker at Amy’s core?
MW: Yeah, there are definitely moments where you feel her anger; she goes off the rails. We’ve seen it in different episodes. Because I don’t want to turn her whole mission into a fool’s errand, I tried to minimize where those moments were, pick our moments, in a sense. But I do think she’s somebody who had a nervous breakdown. She does have mental-health issues, and sometimes people who let the dark emotions overwhelm them start running to these more positive emotions, but it’s still the flip side of the same coin.
Tomorrow: Part 2 covers the final four episodes of season two.