Emmy Watch: Mike White talks about the painfully funny comedy of 'Enlightened'

Photo: Mike White and Laura Dern on the set of ‘Enlightened.’ Credit: Nicola Goode.

Between now and June 28, the deadline for Emmy voters to return nomination ballots, EW.com is running a series called Emmy Watch, featuring highlight clips and interviews with actors, producers, and writers whom EW TV critic Ken Tucker has on his wish list for the nominations announcement on July 19.

Before it premiered last fall, many people knew Enlightened as “that HBO show starring Laura Dern and her smeared mascara.” Since then, this moving comedy—which follows corporate whistle-blower Amy Jellicoe (Dern) on her journey from scary, “I will DESTROY you!” meltdown toward Zen-attaining enlightenment—has collected a very devoted group of superfans, including EW’s own Ken Tucker, who put it on his year-end list of the Best TV Shows and called it “beautifully acted, with many stand-out scenes (like, every one in which Dern’s Amy interacted with the dead souls at her company).”

We asked Mike White, who created Enlightened (and also co-stars as Amy’s lonely coworker Tyler), to discuss one of his favorite stand-out scene: the ending of the fourth episode, “Sandy,” which guest stars Robin Wright. We’ll let him explain the background: “Amy has this friend, Sandy, who comes to visit her. Initially, she’s projecting this perfection onto her friend. As the episode goes on, her friend starts to disappoint her, because Amy feels like they’re not on the same page. Then Amy’s paranoid that Sandy is sleeping with Amy’s ex-husband. She’s spun out. Throughout the episode, she really wants to read Sandy’s journal, to see what Sandy thinks of her. At the end, we’re left alone with Sandy, and we look into her journal, and…”

Okay, we won’t spoil it. Watch the scene below, and read our interview with White.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: To me, this is a very touching scene. How does it reflect the larger goals of the show for you?

MIKE WHITE: I relate to this scene, because we always either overestimate or underestimate the people in our lives. You realize that everyone’s just kind of living their own life. They’re really not thinking about us. But we want to project that they are. There’s some disappointment in that, if you want to be the center of the world, but there’s wisdom there, too. To me, this scene reflects the tone of the show, because there’s something bittersweet about it. A lot of shows have these big lessons, but this scene is such a small moment, and when it was executed—Jonathan Demme directed it, and Robin Wright was really great—it was touching to me.

So many television shows focus on the characters having these major transformations. What I love about Enlightened is that the characters want to have some kind of transformation, and they don’t get it, and they just have to accept that. And that makes the show way more moving.

Yeah, it isn’t like you have some kind of victory. There’s a victory in letting go of your expectations. Most of the episodes start with Amy wanting something and ending up getting something completely different. But out of that, she gets some kind of life wisdom. For me, it’s about wanting these scenes to feel real. I’ve written for, like, Dawson’s Creek-type of shows, and that’s often a place that a network doesn’t really want to go. I feel lucky that we’re able to do that.

The first time I watched this episode, I assumed that Sandy was badmouthing Amy. But when I watched it a second time, I realized that everything she says about Amy is fairly neutral. Did you write this episode thinking that Sandy is basically good or bad? Do you assume that she slept with Amy’s husband?

Personally, I don’t think so, but I wanted to leave it open. Sandy’s not Amy’s best friend, but she’s not the enemy either. She’s just another person. Both Amy and the audience can project onto her how we feel. It’s a litmus test for our own suspicion of others. When you see the flowers at the end, there’s a feeling like, that’s how nature responds to people. A flower doesn’t love you or hate you, it just exists. And that’s how Sandy is.

Can you talk a little about the show’s use of voice-overs in other episodes? Two of them got me choked up: the ones in “Someone Else’s Life,” where Amy realizes how lucky she is in her life, and the one in “The Weekend,” where she talks about how you can’t undo the bad things that happen to you. Are these monologues meant to be…

Sincere? [Laughs] Yes, definitely it’s sincere. I’ve talked about this in other interviews, but I had my own nervous breakdown. And I used to read these Buddhist self-help books that I really needed at the time. But I would also see myself reading them, and I would be like, This is so silly, even though it was also meaningful. I feel like that reflects my tone in the show, too. I’m very sincere about those voice-overs. At the same time, the show has a wit and a self-awareness about the “deep thoughts” aspect of it. Whether it’s successful or not depends on the viewer. A lot of people resist it.

Initially, when I started the show, there was a sense that it would be a bit more of a satire, because of other stuff I’d written. But as I got deeper into the writing, I got excited about the idea of challenging the viewer with the sincerity of it. For some writers, myself included, that’s the scariest thing, to go there. When I would turn in these scripts for the scenes you’re speaking of, I knew that it would be challenging to HBO’s perceptions of what a half-hour show should be. Like, it’s okay to have someone doing cocaine, especially in the world of cable television, because the anti-heroes are so prolific that it’s not really even that daring to do that. But I wanted to take this certain type of woman seriously, and not see her as an “other.” As a writer, I want to take the protagonists who are not normative, and make them normative. [Laughs] That’s the reason why Buddhist philosophies are interesting to me, because we really are all the same.

I find that I really relate to Amy, even when she’s acting crazy. How much of yourself do you see in Amy?

I really relate to her character. Even the annoying parts. I think there’s something heroic about somebody who’s just trying to get over herself, to get over her knee-jerk way of living her life, both in the small realm and in the bigger realm. It’s always interesting to challenge yourself to say, “Is this the best you can do?”

Are you surprised that she’s such a divisive character?

I’m always surprised! I wrote this movie [Year of the Dog] where Molly Shannon is an animal rights activist, and some reviews were like, “She’s a terrorist!” And my first movie, Chuck and Buck, was slightly a stalker movie. But I relate to all of my characters. When I first started writing, it would bother me, but now I feel like it’s more about the [critic] than anything else. There’s a certain sense of what a person should be like, or how they should act, and this is particularly true of female characters. But when someone can be very grating one minute and the next minute they’re very sympathetic and profound, I find that very true to life.

That’s why it was exciting when Survivor came out. You’d see these people who were just people. They were funny, but they were also horrible, and then their families would be visiting them on the island and they’d be crying. As a writer of fiction, I don’t want to be outdone by those types of characters. I wanted something that’s as dimensional and inconsistent as the way people really are. As a writer of movies, I’m always getting these Meet the Parents-type scripts to rewrite. It’s like, you know, The Guy With the Wife Who Doesn’t Understand Him. It’s always the same, that normative central figure. I can’t bring anything new to that. So it’s fun to sink into Molly’s character in Year of the Dog. The woman in the office who’s always talking about her dog would be a joke in certain movies. But here, she’s just a person.

You’re shooting the second season of Enlightened right now. Can you tease what’s going to happen?

Molly Shannon comes in for a couple of episodes. Next season, the show becomes a little bit more of a potboiler. It’s a bit more of a David and Goliath story, like an absurd All the President’s Men, where Amy comes upon something that could actually rattle the cage at the place where she works, so there’s a little bit more plot. My hope is that the people who have already connected to the show will want to go along for the ride when it gets a little heightened, because the characters are credible. It’s been kind of a divisive character study of a certain kind of polarizing person, so my hope is that this bigger, juicier plot will bring more people to the show.

Read more
Fewer boorish men, more aggressive women on HBO: Hooray for the ‘Enlightened’ comedy paradigm shift!
Why Enlightened is the best show nobody’s watching
The Best TV Shows of 2011

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