Interview with creator Mike White
Below are some excerpts from my conversation with White about [...] Enlightened,” a simultaneously hilarious and moving show that stars Laura Dern* as Amy Jellicoe, an unstable consumer products executive on a quest to save the world. White plays Tyler, Amy’s geeky office mate, who gets roped into her scheme to expose corporate malfeasance at the company by leaking documents to the Los Angeles Times. The show’s second season premieres on Sunday.
There’s something about Laura’s character that makes her alternately endearing and infuriating.
I think it’s important if you want to sustain people’s interest over a long period of time to make it feel like she’s a real person—flawed and even maybe annoying, but endearing too. One of the reasons I feel that reality TV is interesting to me as a viewer is because you are seeing people who are exactly that. One minute you can’t believe what they are doing. They are annoying, oblivious and self-righteous. And then, the next minute you feel for them, and they are vulnerable. And to me, you want to be able to at least come close to that as a scripted TV writer, to create characters that feel as dimensional. You don’t want to feel like reality TV characters are stealing your thunder.
It is true that so often on TV, particularly in comedies, the characters reset at the end of every episode.
What I find frustrating about scripted television is that it’s rare that you are surprised by how you feel about the character, or how you feel about the show. Either you are laughing and it stays in this light place, or it’s really dark, but you watch a reality show, and there are moments where it creates a new feeling. It’s not predigested. And that’s what I wanted for “Enlightened.” I wanted a show where one minute you feel like “Oh she’s a fool” and the next minute you are crying for her. She’s alive. It’s not just a product that’s predigested. That’s what I like to watch.
Amy’s breakdown is semi-autobiographical, right?
The whole trajectory that she goes on in the beginning, yeah, I had had sort of a work-related meltdown. Coming out of it, it was bad enough that I had to figure out how something as dumb as that work situation could get me that unraveled. I also went though a period when I started doing yoga and reading Buddhist self-help books and there are times I’d be meditating or something which is very foreign to me, and I’d see some of the absurdity to it, but at the same time I was getting a lot out of it. I felt like there might be something I can draw on from this to write about. There’s something about the absurdity of that, but at the same time there’s somebody earnestly trying to get over themselves or be good, whatever that means.
In the dramatic camping episode in Season 1, the river guide says he was a former TV writer who says that he quit Hollywood to become “a poet of the river.” Was that guy a stand in for you?
I could relate to somebody who’s like “F— that, I’m out of here!” I’ve had the moment where I’m like “Yeah, I am going to go be a kayak instructor in Hawaii!” At the same time, Amy’s whole struggle is about having to come back to your world. You can’t escape your ties and your family and your work. What’s really interesting is not so much the escaping but the having to come back and try to be that better self in the real world which doesn’t always want that or understand it.
Have you read any good self-help books lately?
Well, it’s a re-reading. Have you heard of Pema Chodron? She wrote a book called “When Things Fall Apart.” My mom was over the house, and she was like “Why are you reading this? Are things falling apart?” And I said, “It’s just a good book.”
When will you know about a third season of ‘Enlightened’?
I don’t know. Sometimes they tell you after the first episode airs. Last time, it was literally before the last episode aired.