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 , 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.
Why are you so drawn to single, middle-aged female protagonists who could be considered pathetic or crazy--like Molly Shannon's character in Year of the Dog and Amy in Enlightened?
Certainly I can relate. I don't have kids, and there's definitely a part in your life when you hit 40 and most of your peers who are gonna have kids have them. The ones that haven't had them, aren't. I'm attracted to characters who are looking for ways to find meaning in their lives outside that traditional nuclear family model. I also think women like that are never front and center. They're usually the irritating office lady who bugs the straight guys. They're usually reduced to a joke. Whether it's those kinds of characters or the one in my film Chuck & Buck , I get a pleasure making those characters the protagonists and forcing the audience to take them more seriously. I'm not the typical heterosexual white guy, and that really is the dominant paradigm in the world of TV and movies. I feel like it's my job to provide an alternate type of story or protagonist. It makes me feel like I'm not completely crazy.
What fascinates me most about this show is how it continually rides the line between dark humor and these really devastating moments. When you finish writing an episode, how do you know you haven't slipped into the maudlin? Conversely, how do you know you're not getting too cynical?
I don't really know. Some people might think that some of the voiceovers do slip into the maudlin--you know, "Deep Thoughts by Amy." The truth is I spend a lot of my time being overly anxious about being sincere. I think cynicism or sarcasm is almost the rule these days, especially in comedies. As a writer who has written a lot of things at this point, it feels almost like a cheap way out. Sometimes it's more exciting when I'm writing to be like, "Oh, wow, I'm really taking this seriously suddenly and feeling the emotion." When the episodes last season started coming together, I realized how emotionally raw some of it was. That was when I was like, "Well this feels new." There's certainly an abundance of comic protagonists or antiheroes or narcissists on HBO and other places who are oblivious to their own self-delusions. While that's true of people in life, they also have other sides of them where they can suddenly have a lot of insight into themselves and others. People can be wise as well as fools.
Like Amy, you suffered a bit of a breakdown a few years ago. How much of yourself do you see in her?
A lot. I've gone through a period where I read a lot of those, you know, Buddhist self-help books. When I read those books, I found the advice to be wise and useful. At the time, I was like, I'd love to get at some of this, how our society is so not built around the values highlighted in these books. I thought about how deep the conflict could actually get when you started being literal, and how that would just put you into deep conflict with your company and the people around you. We turn our lives into our religions, you know? We all come up with our own answers for what makes life meaningful, and then we go out and try to project that into everyone else's answers. It's tricky when you choose a way of life that is the solution for you not to try to get others to convert to your way of thinking. I felt like there was a story there, so I created Enlightened.
You dealt with queer themes in the film Chuck & Buck. Do you think you'll revisit queer storylines in future projects?
Chuck & Buck talked about a lot of stuff I wanted to talk about at the time. My dad's gay, and in the last couple of years things have gotten so different. [Queerness is] still such a nascent identity, and I think there's a lot of fun to be had and a lot of ideas to get at, and I would really like to write about it. It's just hard finding the time.
What does your father think of Enlightened?
I think he cries at every episode. In a way, it's a bit of an anthem for him. My dad is an activist and Amy is kind of an activist. My dad spent so much of his life trying to assimilate into the world he thought he was supposed to be part of, and it made him crazy. When he came out, it was really important for him to get in every person's face about his sexuality and the politics behind it. I remember in my teens being like, "Ugh, god! Can we just get through the day without an awkward interaction with some stranger or old friend?" At the same time, I realized that's how true change happens, from people who are willing to risk being unpopular or unlikeable or create these awkward interactions. When Amy's being strident and in somebody's face, she may be unlikeable. But at the same time, that's somebody who's gonna do something.
There's a moment in the first episode of season two when Amy asks, "Do you believe in fate?" Well, do you believe in fate?
I'm definitely not one of those people who thinks everything happens for a reason. I do think you can find meaning in everything that happens, but I don't think it's all in the cards before it happens. That's, like, a rich person's way of congratulating themselves on their luck.
Season 2 of Enlightened premieres Sunday, January 13 on HBO