Catching Up With Mike White

1.11.2013

By Jason Lamphier

In the auteur’s uncomfortable and poignant HBO comedy, 'Enlightened,' everything—and nothing—is illuminated.

Writer-director Mike White’s HBO series, Enlightened, tells the story of Amy Jellicoe (Laura Dern), a former beauty exec who suffered a major public meltdown, rehabbed in a holistic Hawaii treatment facility, and has now been relegated to the grim bottom-floor division of her company to work as a wage slave among a motley crew of awkward coworkers. As she tries to pick up the pieces of her life, achieve that titular state of zen, and change the world, we’re subject to the countless cringe-inducing encounters she was with everyone from her mother (played by Dern’s real-life mom, Diane Ladd) to her coke-addicted ex-husband (Luke Wilson) and her nebbish colleague friend, Tyler (played by White himself).

These exchanges often involve her spouting off earnest, New Age-y platitudes, but while Amy, delusional and narcissistic, isn’t easy to like, she’s also somehow impossible to hate. Such is the case for Enlightened as a whole: It’s amoral, ambiguous, weighty, and layered. It sounds like tough work—and trust us, the show isn’t an easy pill to swallow—but it has proven to be one of the most complex, compelling character studies on television. (Full disclosure: This writer has shed more than a few tears while tuning in).

The show’s second season, premiering January 13, finds Amy plotting to take down her corrupt employer, Abaddonn, with the help of a handsome journalist (Dermot Mulroney). We caught up with White (also a former contestant on The Amazing Race) to talk about what’s in store for Amy, his own nervous breakdown, and his gay father’s impression of the show.

When you started writing season two, what did you want to change about the series?

Mike White: What I liked about the first season, but what would have made this new season problematic, was that it was more meditative and not so plotty. I wanted this season to show that Enlightened could retain its contemplative side but also deliver something a little juicier. The first season we get a character study of a polarizing woman. The second season opens up into a David and Goliath story about her taking on the company she works for, Abaddonn.

So has Amy become any more “enlightened” in this season?
Now we’re establishing that the company she works for is kind of nefarious. Last season, she was prescribing the answers for her ex-husband, her mom, friends. Now it’s less personal and more political. It’s a fight for justice. She’s still imperfect—whether she goes about her fight in an effective or intelligent way is questionable—but the cause is righteous.

Early on this season, Amy’s coworker friend, Tyler, whom you play, poses a really astute question. He asks her, “Are you just pissed?” How much does Amy really want to change the world, and how much does she just want to change her place in the world?

I think the show is conflicted. It’s not simply a Norma Rae story. With these whistleblowers who are lauded, if you dig deeper, there’s always a personal aspect to it—like, feeling let down by their company or frustrated in their climb up the ladder. I think of it like Survivor. Every week, as someone gets voted off the island, that person is like, “Well, I was just too good to play that game. If I had to lose all my morals to win, then I’d rather be here.” You only say that once you’re kicked off the island, you know? That’s when you’re like, “They’re just a bunch of bloodthirsty competitors.” I do think there are always personal, selfish elements wrapped into the more noble impulses we act on.

Amy is always looking for “The Answer,” and now she think she’s found it by joining Twitter. What are your thoughts on social media?

I’ve never been on Facebook, but I am on Twitter. I originally was kind of dubious about it, but then you hear about the Arab Spring and how it can be such a catalyst for positive change and how it’s a way of taking democracy back from the big media. So I got intrigued by it. But there’s always this ambiguity: You’re spreading the good word, but there’s this feeling that we’re becoming even more disconnected interpersonally from each other. I felt like there was a fun episode to be had based on that. It’s not about the ridiculousness of social media, but about looking at how it can affect the politics of our country and justice issues, while at the same time everybody’s just zoning out and surfing the web for pictures of somebody’s vacation.

You worked with Molly Shannon before in your film Year of the Dog [2007], and now she’s making a cameo on Enlightened this season. What’s her character like?

She shows up in the fifth episode, playing the executive assistant to the head of Abaddonn. Amy and Tyler target her to try to get information, but they hit a wall, and she has a weird crush on Tyler unexpectedly. She’s doing a sort of observational, nuanced, very low-key performance, and she’s great.

Tags: Television
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