How Mike White Turned "Enlightened" Into The Best And Most Original Show On TV
The second season — a thing of beauty — comes to an end Sunday night. Here, White discusses Enlightened, the Real Housewives franchise, Twitter, and Daniel Tosh.
You may be tired of hearing that HBO's Enlightened is the best show on TV; you also still may not have heard of Enlightened. And therein lies the show's main hurdle as it wraps up its beautiful, funny, sad eight-episode second season on Sunday night. That's a business problem, though. And fans will know soon enough whether Enlightened — created by Mike White and Laura Dern, and starring both of them — will be renewed. Let's hope for the best.
Sunday's episode will bring the story of Amy's (Dern) corporate whistle-blowing to a conclusion; her heroism will be tested, and as always, her reaction will be frustrating, complex, and hilarious. The other characters — White's Tyler, Levi (Luke Wilson), Dougie (Timm Sharp), Helen (Diane Ladd), and Krista (Sarah Burns) — each have at least one truly great moment, befitting their wonderful runs this season. Enlightened began as a story of a mess of a person trying to find her way in an often amoral American world; as it closes, possibly forever, Amy might actually accomplish something real and good.
White and I met in Santa Monica earlier this week. We talked about how much he values making Enlightened; his love of being on and watching reality television (White and his father, Mel, a former right-wing pastor who came out as gay later in life, appeared twice on The Amazing Race); and his fraught relationship with Twitter. White and I went to college together, by the way: I've put a note about that at the bottom of the story.
There are no spoilers about the finale in the interview except for one vaguely discussed, Krista-centered scene that is toward the beginning of the episode.
Kate Aurthur: Did Season 2 turn out the way you meant for it to?
Mike White: I thought we were going to get 10 episodes because we had 10 episodes the first season. So there were a couple of storylines I wanted to include. There was talk about Amy having a sister, and we were going to bring the sister into the show this season. But there was so much story with all of the things going on that it felt like some stuff had to fall away. So yeah, what the vision was as far as trying to do something that had a little bit higher plot stakes, but trying to keep the emotional — the characters' — stakes at the center of what the show is.
KA: I'm curious about the sister character. When did you lop her off?
MW: The first season I had written pretty much the whole season even before they picked us up. I was such a junkyard dog when it came to TV that I wanted to give them the whole season so they could pick it up and be like, "we don't want this," or "we want it." But not pick it up and then try to make it into something it wasn't. I realize now that's not HBO's style. But I had been through that before. So anyway, I had a lot of time to write those episodes. The second season, it was going to be two and a half months before we were in pre-production. So I started writing, and it was halfway through the episode where the sister was going to come live with Helen and Amy that I found out they were reducing our order. And so that was when I kind of scrapped it.
KA: Do you think Amy becomes more likeable, or do you think the viewer just gets used to her?
MW: The first season was really more about her idealism, and falling short of what that is for her in these kind of personal vignettes. This one, it has a little more of a David and Goliath thing going on, so I think by its nature it gets you more on her side. Although people still this morning are writing in after yesterday's episode saying, "She's so stupid."
KA: Wait, why?
MW: If you go on The A.V. Club, there are many comments that are like, "This is supposed to be a sympathetic portrait, but she's a narcissist! She's so self-involved, she doesn't see what's going on right in front of her face." So I don't think she's been sanitized, or made more likeable in a sense. At the time, we never set out — or I never set out — to make a show about someone who's quote-unquote annoying. You know what I mean? It's about somebody who — someone said she's doing the right thing in her heart, but she's doing it for the wrong reasons. For me, no. She has all the right reasons, and sometimes she's doing the wrong things. If she was just a saint, I don't think it would be a show I could relate to or write. She's well-intentioned. Ultimately, she does have sort of delusions of grandeur — she's no saint. After awhile, having done the interviews for two seasons about it, the "annoying" thing? It starts to feel like — it's annoying to me.
KA: Does Laura Dern care about being likeable or not?
MW: I think you'd have to talk to her. She's definitely unlike most actresses I've worked with in the sense that she's not consumed with the likeability of the character. In fact, she wants to play the edges and is completely fearless about being unpleasant or unappealing in moments. Because, I think, Amy is a vessel for a lot of political ideas, it makes me anxious to have somebody taking up those causes and at the same time seeming like a doofus or annoying or shrill or like she's bloviating. I don't want someone to read it, like, someone who's a causer or into Greenpeace or how we're polluting the world is also, like, irritating — that part is touchy. So it's trying to make sure when she starts raging about these things that it doesn't feel like a self-involved narcissist who's using it to dovetail with her own selfish causes.
KA: It does seem like a rare thing for an actor, or more specifically an actress, not to care about being likeable.
MW: Laura is somebody who can do anything as far as her range, do you know what I mean? She can play subtle and nuanced, and she can play big. Laura is totally game to do stuff that most actresses — not most, but many — have anxiety about. I think she likes it. I mean, I don't know if it bothers her to hear that her character is annoying all the time. But I think she also gets props for that.
KA: In the Todd Haynes-directed episode, there's the incredible scene between her and Diane Ladd, her real mother. On the show, they have a fractious relationship, and almost never connect. Does that add a layer that they're actually mother and daughter?
MW: The truth is I don't really know the true dynamic of Laura and Diane's relationship. I think that Laura and Diane are very conscious — they want to be professionals. I think they have a good relationship, but I honestly don't even know. They leave it outside the set.
KA: There's no winking. There's no meta.
MW: I think it's fun to hear them talk about their characters sometimes. Because I think they do have different theoretical approaches to acting. I can relate to it a lot, going on The Amazing Race with my dad. Feeling like your relationship is being scrutinized by a lot of strangers. At the same time, you're also trying to accomplish something. But they've also worked together a lot, so it's not the first time. I think they've figured out how to do it.
KA: There are a lot of producers on the show. But do you write alone? Do you go to an office?
MW: I wrote all these episodes from my home. It was hard for me on shows that had staff, because I felt like — I respect writers, and I know what it's like to be on the other side of it. I would bend over trying to make them feel like they were a part of it, but then I was so greedy personally that it was this weird thing: Like, I'd let them take it so far, and then at the very last minute, I would take it away from them in a sudden panic. Because I had to do it myself. Sue Naegle, thankfully, was my agent, before she became the head of HBO. I think because of that I was able to get away with not having a couple of people on a staff. Because I think even at HBO they want to have a little bit of a sense of protection. They might be frustrated with me that I'm such a one-man band. Because it's harder for them. If they have notes, it's just one person doing it, like, leave me alone!
KA: Do they have notes?
MW: Yeah, they have notes. They always have thoughts. The thoughts aren't, "What will make this more appealing?" It's not like a regular network. It is more, sort of, "How will this story be the most satisfying?" Which I can totally respect. It still doesn't prevent me from — I can be a little bitch when it comes to notes. Especially when you're doing a whole season, and in your mind you see how everything's going to pay off and where it's going, but then when you're asked to sort of calibrate — I can get very, "You don't understand! You don't understand the thing is in my mind!" I'm sure they deal with worse.
KA: Have there been things they've said where you've been like, "Oh, they were right."
MW: Yeah. There's a scene coming up with Krista where they finally have it out. In my mind, the creation of Krista being pregnant was always going to build to Amy just letting it rip right after she had her baby. There's this whole baby envy read of the show you can also play into. We did the scene, and as we shot it, it was really harsh. We pulled back even from what it was. They were right about that. I don't know. Different strokes for different folks. I just love the idea, like, "You fucked me, Krista!" And she's holding her baby.
KA: Luke Wilson. He wasn't on the show as much in the second season.
MW: He had his own episode, and the shooting of it bookended the whole season. So in a way, I felt like I hung out with Luke more this time. Was he on less? The truth is, he comes in, he has some pops. I definitely felt like we used him. I personally think he's outstanding on the show this season. The thing about Luke is he never strikes a false note. He's so dialed in to the character. He is very touching to me. In the episode that's his, I thought he was great. And the episode where he comes back, and all that stuff — I thought he was great. Beyond Laura and the show, that's one of the reasons I would hope people would check out the show, to see what he does.
KA: He must be so into doing it. He's never given those kinds of chances.
MW: The funny thing about Luke is that I think he's actually much more of an eccentric than his screen persona, or the stuff he's given to do. Some of his improvs, not just for his character, but for other characters, they always seem to work. He's a good collaborator.
KA: So your character, Tyler, wasn't in every episode last season, but became a bigger character this year. How did that happen?
MW: "How did you end up writing such a much bigger part for yourself?"
KA: Essentially! Everyone loves Tyler, though. And that Tyler episode was the most beautiful thing.
MW: It was really because of the plot of her hacking, and it seemed like Tyler was the obvious person to be the Ethel to her Lucy in that situation. And because that plot kind of took over more than her personal stuff this season. As I started breaking down the season, I just thought it would be interesting.
KA: With the Tyler character, much more than with the Amy character, there's this idea of people you don't see on television: "the ghost" — people with invisible, sad lives. They work in a basement, even though these are actually "good" jobs. I feel like there's a humanity to that you don't see often: maybe in reality there's more, actually. How conscious are you of that when you're writing, say, the Tyler-focused episode?
MW: When we first turned in the early cuts of the early episodes, HBO was, like, "Gosh, you wouldn't want to be down there — you don't want to be with those people!" And I found that funny, because that's entirely the point in a sense, because that's at first how you perceive them. I think of Woody Allen in Stardust Memories when he sees all the beautiful people on a different train and he's stuck with all the creepy rejects. The show is about compassion as a theme, or at least some of these Buddhist tropes that inspired the idea of Enlightened as a title. That's what's fun about writing TV, honestly. You can create a character that you think is one thing, and then ultimately show more and more dimensions as it goes along. To take some character like Dougie, and he's the dumb guy you've seen in other office comedies. And then suddenly he switches his allegiance, and is heroic in his own goofy way — show, yeah, a humanity to him that you don't really expect. I find as a viewer that's something I really respond to.
That's the part of Amy that I think was always a challenge for people when they first came to the show. I guess they were ready to accept her as a satirical character or something, but then when she would have these voiceovers that were very sort of sincere, and were designed to make you feel something, and she did have these moments of lucidity or vulnerability, people were, like, "What!" It sometimes would be deemed as if, like, "They don't know what they're doing! One minute she's cuckoo and raging, and the next minute she's, you know, on the river. And talking about things that are profound in a sense." That is what I think is true about reality shows. As a writer watching them, you go, "Oh yeah, this person is a joke and she's ridiculous and she's oblivious to her own faults. She's so self-involved." And then there's the moments where someone's sick and they're crying, and you feel a compassion suddenly for somebody you've been making fun of for weeks. That's because that's what real people — I mean, obviously there's an extremism to the casting of some of those people. But that's true in life. As a writer when you want to write something that has dimension, you want to approximate life as much as you can. It's very frustrating to be pushed to always make your character likeable. But then it's also annoying to have to live in a world of satire where you're always pulling the rug out from somebody. And never trying to see the humanity.
KA: The finale feels like a series finale.
MW: Yeah. I wrote it as a series finale in case it was. I was on Freaks & Geeks, and I've done other shows. I did a show, Pasadena, that was a mystery. And we were able to do enough to kind of resolve what that mystery was. It just ended up feeling like more of a complete thing. Even if it doesn't have the life you'd hope that it has, just as a cultural artifact, the fact that it can end I think would bring more people to it. If they think it's just an abortion that ends before it begins, at least for me, I wouldn't want to see that.
KA: So in terms of what's happening now with the fate of the show —
MW: I assume I'm going to find out relatively soon. Last time, we found out the week after our last episode aired. I thought I might find out last week, but I didn't. I think it could go either way. I don't have a strong gut instinct here. I would be excited, certainly, to come back. I feel like next season could only be more interesting, because I feel like we've set up a lot of relationships that are fraught. Complicated characters. I feel like we could keep going. At the same time, I'm used to starting over on things. And coming up with something new. So I'm not afraid of that. I would understand either decision, frankly, from HBO. I do think they like the kind of attention the show gets, certainly within the creative community. And critics and that kind of thing. Maybe this year, certainly if they picked us up, we could have a shot at prizes or whatever. At the same time, I understand it's a bottom-line business. The fact that our numbers are what they are, it would be kind of naïve for me to not see how that makes it difficult to sell it, at least to themselves.
KA: What is your attachment level to the show? Has it varied?
MW: The truth is, it's not easy. You'd think it would be, considering these other shows, where they do 22 episodes a year. Eight episodes doesn't seem like such a huge task. But in the midst of it, it is a lot. Especially if you're writing all of it, and editing all the episodes. By the time I'm done with the actual doing of it, I'm, like, um — dead. There is a part of me that's like, I could go back to movies and just sit in my house and have a different kind of lifestyle. There's a part of me that deals with that. You know, the truth is, the more I think about Enlightened, and think about it as its own thing, I realize it might be the best thing I ever do. Because of the character and the way it's set up, it can talk about a lot of things. Things that are meaningful to me. When I think about what would be next, and what would the next vehicle be for me, even if it's something I feel can be equally — I don't know — complex or layered or whatever, I don't know if it could necessarily talk about all the things Enlightened is talking about. I'm not Lena Dunham. I'm not like a fresh — you know, I've been doing this for, like, 20 years. And I realize this is quite a bird in the hand. I would never be so presumptuous to think, "Oh, I'm going to be able to come back and do something that's equally challenging and bold, and be able to find the resources that HBO gives me. And have the access and support that I have there." The possibility of losing it seems like it would be a loss. For me. Personally. I may not have this again.
KA: What do you feel are the things you've been able to get at with Enlightened that you haven't in your other work?
MW: Just in its form, some of the stuff we were talking about with layering characters, you can't do in a movie. You just have more time. You have hours and hours of content, and because of that, you can make it more novelistic and dimensional. So there's that. But Enlightened really is about how do you live ethically in our certain kind of corporate world? And what does it mean to try to do something meaningful with your life when the world isn't necessarily set up for you to be able to do that?
KA: You love reality TV. And have been on reality TV. Do you have further aspirations?
MW: There's nothing I would rather do than go back on The Amazing Race. I was emailing Bertram van Munster after the premiere, and I was, like, "Do you think it would help for me to be more famous? Or should I be less famous?" There's actually a woman on the Race that won — she was one of these two African American sisters, they won our All-Star race; we ran with them twice. And she's a lesbian, and she's ready to have a kid, and we have been talking about me maybe donating my sperm to have a kid with her. And I was, like, "If this is an angle to get back on the Race together, I'm in!" We don't know each other that well — it could be, should we go forward and have this kid together? I think another Race is in order!
KA: So Real Housewives. Do you watch all of them?
MW: I watch Atlanta, Beverly Hills. Orange County less so. There's one woman on Orange County that makes me want to —
KA: She's gone.
MW: She's gone?
KA: I'm going to miss her.
MW: You are?
KA: I am. I've never seen anyone like her. I've never. Seen. Anyone. Like that.
MW: See, she reminds me, because of the whole religious thing, she reminds me of so many people from my childhood. Where they use their religion to feel better as some sort of tribal thing. It makes me literally crazy. And then sometimes New Jersey gets a little too dark for me. And I have a friend on the New York one. So I watch that. And Miami I got into in the second season; I didn't watch the first season.
KA: Do you watch scripted shows, too?
MW: I don't really watch much. It's not because I don't think it's worthy of my time. Especially when it's the kind of thing everybody loves and everybody is watching, it makes me anxious. It's hard for me, one, to just focus and sit. Because I get very hyper. It isn't a relaxing thing. It's so inside of what I do. But you don't want to be creative in reaction — it makes me more self-conscious about sitting down to write. For better or worse.
KA: Do you sample things?
MW: I do. When I hear something's really great. A lot of times, especially with network television, I feel like it's pumped up so fast, especially with the half-hour comedies, I feel like it's hard to literally follow them for me. I found that with 30 Rock, which I'm sure was a great show. But, like, I'd be like, what's the plot? It's so quick or something. I would have trouble following it.
KA: I have that with some of the teen soaps that are on ABC Family.
MW: Are they, like, rat-tat-tat?
KA: No, there's this show Pretty Little Liars, and it's a mystery, and I actually don't understand what's going on. At all. And I'm, like, are there 14-year-old girls out there who could explain this to me? They're always sending press releases about how it's the most-tweeted show. And I always think, are the tweets, "What's going on? Who is that person? Why do all the male characters look alike?" Because those would be my tweets.
MW: I have a boyfriend who is really into It's Always Sunny and Workaholics. So I've seen all of those. I'm into it. I see Adam DeVine out, and I'm like, "Oh my god, it's the guy from Workaholics. He's so funny." You watch TV because that's what you do, and commenting on it is what you do. I tried to get into The Wire, and I watched four episodes and said, "This show is amazing and I'm stopping now." I can't watch 10 more hours of this, or 40 more hours of this. For whatever reason, it's like looking at someone else's paper and seeing what they're doing, and then saying, "Okay, I've got to get back to my own paper."
KA: What other reality do you watch?
MW: A lot. I watch Survivor and The Amazing Race, I've seen every episode of those.
MW: I don't like audition shows. They make me too anxious. So I don't watch the dancing or the singing. I like the ones where they're more devious, or interacting with each other. I like Real Housewives. I watch stuff like Duck Dynasty.
KA: Any of the other Bravo ones? Or MTV?
MW: No. I watch Tosh.0.
KA: I've seen you tweet about that. Do you really have a crush on him? Or are you taunting?
MW: I just somehow think we could be together. I think we would make a great Hollywood power couple.
KA: So you and Twitter. I notice you delete a lot of things.
MW: I sort of clean the plate. You noticed that? I would delete the whole thing. I say something, and I'm, like, I don't feel that way anymore. I don't want a permanent public record. I was on Terry Gross last week, and she asked me about a tweet: "It says, 'Prescription pill fun fact: Voting for the Oscars on Percoset is —'" whatever. She was asking me about it, and I was, like, "This is why I have to get off Twitter. I do not want to be talking about this on Terry Gross!"
KA: Is it more personally revealing things that make you want to get off? Or is it times when you express dislike for a movie or TV show?
MW: I do have a critic's sensibility, in that there are things that drive me crazy in popular culture, and there are things I really like. But it's much more dangerous in a sense for me to go on — or not dangerous, but I feel like I'm watering my message. I know that this seems like lacking courage, but not liking Zero Dark Thirty — it's hard enough just getting people to watch Enlightened, I don't want to piss someone off because I have some opinion about some random movie that has nothing to do with what I'm doing! Do you know what I mean? In the end, it makes for a more fraudulent Twitter self, or something. But who am I talking to, anyway?
KA: But you could also be a Kurt Sutter-like person. I'm not suggesting this, by the way. But it is an option to do a speaking-truth-to-power thing.
MW: I don't know. It comes back to a basic anxiety that I'm sure you may share. I don't know, maybe you don't.
KA: I'm sure I do. Go on.
MW: At one level, you have very strong opinions about what is valuable and what's good. At the same time, you also value kindness. That's what'll happen: I see something on TV, and I'm, like, "Ucch, I hate that." And then I think, do I really want to leave a permanent record that's, like, he hates this, he likes this?
I also see what it's done. If we do get picked up, I would say most of the credit would be due to Twitter. Because there've been critics that have continued to bang the drum on it. And then other people who have lots of followers have banged the drum on it. I see it every day. People say, "Oh, I saw the show because Emily Nussbaum wrote about it, and now I love it." That's a huge, huge thing for a show like ours. I can't even imagine what it would have been like 15 years ago with a show like this with numbers as they are, I never would have known if it landed for anyone. Even if we didn't get a third season, the reactions I've gotten, just from people not critics — I mean, critics are nice, too — but just from people, that's one of the deep satisfactions of having done it.
I could just see ending my career with some bad tweet.
KA: Is there other stuff we should talk about?
MW: Well, we talked about Daniel Tosh…
KA: You're always outing him!
MW: He outs himself every week! People who constantly want to get naked and wrestle with other guys, you don't do that just for a bit. You do that because you love it. Do you think Daniel Tosh will host the Oscars next year?
This interview has been condensed and rearranged. And! Mike White and I went to Wesleyan University together, and knew each other then. We had — and have —friends in common, but, until recently, we hadn't been in touch nor seen each other in many years.