'Enlightened,' 'Girls' And 'Homeland': Mike White On How His HBO Show Measures Up

02/15/2013 09:06 am ET | Updated Feb 15, 2013

A week after "Enlightened" premiered in 2011, a little show called "Homeland" debuted on Showtime. After a longer-than-usual break, "Enlightened" returned recently for its second second paired with a compatible show, "Girls," which, this year especially, seems to suck up every available molecule of media coverage.

All three shows hinge on the aspirations of difficult women and all three attract passionate positive and negative responses, but "Enlightened" is the only one that hasn't been renewed yet. And it's not as if "Enlightened" co-creator, Mike White, hasn't given these matters some thought.

"It’s like, there’s always something that’s sucking the air up from your moment," he said with a hearty laugh over a recent lunch in Los Angeles. "'Homeland' was such a phenomenon –- there was a critical consensus and an audience consensus. At the same time, I would look at that show and I’d be like, 'Well, that character is just as grating as Amy!'"

He's referring to "Enlightened's" Amy Jellicoe, who's played by the show's fellow co-creator Laura Dern. In the "Enlightened" premiere, Amy returned from a trip to a Hawaiian spiritual center a changed person -- or, more accurately, as a person who wants to change both herself and the world.

In Huffington Post TV's exclusive clip from Sunday's episode, in which Amy's work friend Tyler (White) confesses his doubts about her plan to expose the corporate crimes of their employer, you can see how Amy's narcissism and do-gooder instincts often blind her to the wants and needs of others. In many ways, she's not unlike Hannah Horvath of "Girls."

Though he wouldn't mind it if "Enlightened" got a slightly larger fraction of "Girls'" coverage, he's very grateful for the positive coverage "Enlightened" has received from many critics (and he is a "Girls" fan, just for the record). But White also knows that in order for HBO to renew his program (as it did recently with "Girls"), it'll have to inspire more coverage and garner at least a few more viewers.

"Right now, we’re struggling for our lives," he said.

I certainly hope HBO brings the show back next year. This year's eight-episode season is a series of smart, slyly funny, beautifully crafted short stories that also work extraordinarily well when viewed as a season of television. Dern, White and co-stars Timm Sharp, Luke Wilson, Diane Ladd, Molly Shannon and Dermot Mulroney are giving performances of extraordinary deftness and complexity, and there's something beautifully sincere about "Enlightened's" clear-eyed, bittersweet exploration of both aspiration and disappointment.

Though he's understandably nervous about the future of his show, White is grateful that HBO brought the show back at all, given how low its first-season ratings were. And he's glad that the network is willing to throw its weight behind unpredictable shows and characters that actually do feel new and different.

"The truth is, HBO really should be applauded, because the kinds of risks that a show like 'Enlightened' or 'Girls' are taking are actual risks," White said. "They’re risks in tone. They’re risks in content. They’re not risks like, 'Oh yeah, it’s 'The Sopranos' in politics.'"

This interview has been edited and condensed. Part 2 of the interview will be posted in a couple of weeks; I'll have much more from White then on where the show will go in its third season, if it gets one.

I think one of the reasons that people may have a hard time dealing with "Enlightened" or figuring it out is because it’s asking a very deep questions about what are we trained to want versus what do we actually want. Sometimes the person who asks that awkward question doesn’t get the best response, you know?

So there was kind of a knee-jerk reaction to Amy Jellicoe, similar to how there's often a knee-jerk reaction to certain New Age ideas. Do you think that those two things are related -- that people are just made uncomfortable by the character and what she represents and what she asks about?
Well, you know, I wanted to start with [what some might consider the ending]. At the end of a movie, they get married or they walk off together and you go, “Well, what happens then?” That’s where life really starts. It’s like you can have your numinous experience and you could dramatize that [as the movie "Eat, Pray, Love" did]. But I felt like it would be more interesting to look at what happens when you come back to your reality with all of these evangelistic notions of what goodness is or how to live, and then try to apply it to a world that isn’t really interested.

And honestly, I also think that the fact that it is a woman as the center of the show created a certain kind of [response]. It was just interesting for me to read some responses, because I think there’s something about “that kind of woman," a woman who is this kind of New Age spiritual seeker. You could tell that there was a certain percentage of the audience that, sight unseen, was like, "This is not for me." Or gave it five minutes and were like, “She’s not Julia Roberts.” She’s a woman who is still flailing. And it was interesting how there was this real strong aversion from certain quarters to her character.

In one of the interviews I read, I think it was Laura who said, “You know, there are people on TV who kill and do horrible things, but people are upset by a woman who’s makeup is messed up, who’s kind of a mess?” It’s strange that she’s offending people and yet, violence and a certain kind of aggression are somehow not.
Right. I have a lot of feelings about this, since I’ve written a lot of female leads. I just think there are certain men who feel like engaging in a story told from a female point of view is somehow a feminizing experience. And that itself is something that they’re almost supposed to not want to engage.

So take out just the fact that she could be annoying or [take out] the New Age part -- [it’s] just the fact that it’s a female-centered show and that the subjectivity is from a female perspective and it is about compassion. She’s not an action hero. She’s embracing her female side and that’s what the show, in a sense, is about. It’s about relationships. It’s about her as a woman in the workplace and all those things.

You see how that kind of art sometimes is even marginalized from the get-go. And I don’t necessarily understand it. But it feels like, unless there’s a sort of normative male voice or a normative male centerpiece to a show –- even if the guy’s a murderer or whatever –- [a show is] taken a little less taken seriously.

I just sounds [like a cliche, but the idea was], "Be the change you want to see." With HBO, it was like I could tell that they wanted to make a show with me, and I felt like I, in a sense, had almost carte blanche. [The thought was,] how do I like take some of the ideas of "Curb Your Enthusiasm" without the cynicism of it, or “Sex and the City” -- doing a female story without dating and materialism. [A show] where it’s not about solving your problems with violence.

And part of what "Enlightened" is about is transformation.
Yeah, a transformation of not just the character itself -- that’s a part of it -- but also your way of seeing that person. To me, that’s exciting to take a protagonist [and alter the audience's perceptions of that person]. Whether it’s [White’s movies] “Chuck and Buck” or "Year of the Dog,” you come to it [thinking], "This is the Other, this is someone else, this is not me." And then at some point, hopefully, if I do my job right, you’re like, “Wait a minute, I’m suddenly feeling for this person,” or "Now I sort of see myself in that person and I’m complicit with some of the things that they’re doing and I’m now inside their head."

One of the things I think I responded to most strongly with the show is just that all of your aesthetic and creative choices led me to really feel the emotions deeply. What were the most important choices that you made to create that kind of reaction this season? Was it the production design, the way that you approached the story in the writing of the scripts, or was it in the directing and editing?
To me, as someone who has seen so much TV and movies over time, it’s like you’re trying to crack a certain nut. And not just for the audience, but for yourself. It’s like a weird equation that you’re building for yourself, and so it’s hard to sometimes quantify or put into words.

[I told HBO that] I think about shows like “My So-Called Life” or like “thirtysomething" -- some of those shows I really responded to in my formative teen years, because they felt so emotionally raw and authentic. The smallest things could create a deep emotional response. And I felt like so much of the way cable was going, in my experience, was a kind of colder read, like that some of that emotion was [gone]. The comedies had gotten very cynical. And then some of the dramas were so operatic -- the emotional stakes stopped feeling real to me.

I wanted to do something in the spirit of what we were talking about [Note: Before the interview, we'd discussed the books of Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron]. She talks about trying to keep in that place where your heart is open. It's tender, and there’s a little sadness always in that. It just seemed exciting to try to do something that had a sincere and emotionally sensitive kind of point of view.

At the same time, I didn’t want to do something that felt like treacle. Some of the absurdities of that experience, of [seeking a spiritual transformation], you know, I saw it in myself and I wanted to be true to that too. So it’s like trying to figure out how to have your cake and eat it too: Have some sense of humor about the subject and see the wit and the absurdity, but also affirm the real authentic emotion that is part of that seeking experience.

One thing I really appreciate about the show is it’s very observational. It’s very spare. It breathes, you know what I mean? It doesn’t just come at you in a very dense fashion. And I end up feeling like each episode is like its own short story.
Well, that’s cool. My hope is that each episode would be coming at us like an idea. Even though I want it to work from a serialized point of view, each [episode] was a meditation on a certain kind of theme or an idea. All the characters' point of views would be organized around whatever the idea of the episode was.

Using the voiceover is a tool that I think is helpful to get into a more kind of, I don’t know, clearly into a more poetic state. [But through voiceovers, the show and the characters] come back to this kind of solitary contemplative self, which has melancholy built into it. There is a sense of separateness -- you’re alone with yourself. Certainly, that’s the writer's state.

There’s something very touching to me about someone almost communicating to themselves in some way -- trying to come to some deeper understanding of yourself and having compassion for yourself. And Amy is a perfect vessel, in a sense, for someone who has these grand, grand dreams of what she’s going to accomplish.

But the little victory is what happens. You know, each episode is not some big change, but she comes to some wisdom about what her expectations were. I think of “Annie Hall” at the end, where she walks away. The relationship didn’t work and yet he’s looking at her as she walks away and he says, “I’m lucky to know her and she’s such a great person.”

Something about that feels so true to me. You never in life have that moment of just pure connection with someone else. It’s always, you know, you watch them walk away and you are ruminating on the relationship and how it matters to you. There’s something bittersweet about it because you’re still this separate, solitary person –- [but] there’s something beautiful about how we always come back to ourselves. Being able to be comfortable with that is what I think life is about.

Yeah, and I think that that’s not something that a lot of TV shows are comfortable with exploring. A lot of scripted entertainment is about how people are fooling themselves. It often consists of more ways to you distract you from yourself.
Well, that’s what I think life is ... That’s what salesmanship is. That’s what shopping is and entertainment can be that, too -- fleeing from your feelings, fleeing from the messy emotional-ness of life.

It can be a welcome diversion sometimes.
Yeah, certainly. At the same time, if you can’t buy what they’re selling, then you feel really empty watching that experience.

Last season, people really responded to "Consider Helen" [which focused on Amy's mom, who's played by Dern's mother, Diane Ladd]. This year, you’ve got two episodes that were from different character’s perspectives [that of Amy's ex, Levi, and her friend, Tyler]. Did you do that because "Consider Helen" worked so well, or was it always the plan to give them a turn, so to speak?
Structurally, ["Enlightened"] is different than most shows in that it only has an A-story. When it is Amy’s story, you don’t ever leave her subjective point of view. Because of that, in order to explore the other characters, it felt like it would fit better by just switching the perspective and making them the A-story. And I thought it would be interesting to see Amy then ...

Through their eyes.
You’re suddenly seeing Amy in the way she functions in their story.

For Diane Ladd’s character, she seems so cold and she’s the villain mother. Even though we try the best we can to make her reasoning make sense, to suddenly see [her story] open up and to see that there’s a reason why she’s shut down ... There’s a reason why she probably doesn’t want to have those kinds of conversations with her daughter. There’s a reason why she’s so stressed about [Amy's] flights of fancy and her psychological health and all of those things.

Similarly, I just thought it would be fun to have Levi going through rehab and to have the opposite of the numinous experience [Amy did] -- to have the rehab that's all like farts and snot and all of the sort of ugliness of humans stuck up against each other.

With the Tyler one, it was [examining Amy's] monomania, of her wanting to get the MacGuffin of the [incriminating corporate] emails. I just thought it would be interesting at the moment where we actually give her what she wants, that we suddenly switched the perspective. And now, it’s almost like she’s the villain because she’s going to undermine this relationship that we’re now rooting for. And I just thought that would problematize the story in a satisfying way.

In other interviews, you've talked about how HBO came to you and said could you have a little bit more of an overall plot this season. Was this something you were considering anyway?
You know, the truth was that they didn’t say that. I think [the network] actually did like them. But at the time, the newness [of what the show was doing in Season 1 led to the question of] "Are people going to want to keep coming back to this?"

The truth was, the two seasons really were supposed to be one. It was going to be about a woman becoming a whistleblower after coming back to her workplace. But as I started writing and finding the nooks and crannies of the story, there was too much that I wanted to explore [and the show didn't get to all those things in Season 1].

I feel like I know how to write plot. It was kind of like, I was hoping that people would be down for a more meditative type of show. The first season really is about, like, different kinds of relationships -- friends, parents, different kinds of relationships scrutinized.

And then we came out the same time as “Homeland” and it was a little bit like the way "Girls" is doing now. [Laughs.] It’s like, there’s always something that’s sucking the air up from your moment. "Homeland” was such a phenomenon –- there was a critical consensus and an audience consensus. At the same time, I would look at that show and I’d be like, “Well, that character is just as grating, in a sense, as Amy!” And in a way, there are many parallels. But it’s hung on this very juicy plot that really motors that show. And so I was like, "You know, well we could do [that]." [But] the truth is, in the second season, as much as there is this plot, you can tell that the real inspirations are the digressions, not the plot.

And certainly, you know, if we had another season, it would be fun to ratchet it up even more and see how what she’s done affects everybody. The fallout could be fun to explore.

Lord knows, I’ve done my own share of writing too much about "Girls," so I’m part of the problem. But do you ever sit there and think, "If we only had a tenth of their attention ... "
The truth is, I like ["Girls"] and also, I’m so used to [being on the margins] in my career. You know, to have that kind of attention and scrutiny that "Girls" has, I think would be very disturbing for me. I prefer to be a little bit under the radar, because [then] I feel like I’m not so self-conscious about what I’m doing. I don’t feel the breath of a thousand people over my shoulder.

Right now we’re struggling for our lives and honestly our success sometimes is [in doubt]. The reason we came back had a lot to do with the really beautiful things that some of the critics had said [in Season 1], and that’s meaningful to HBO. So sometimes copy really is a matter of life and death for a show. For me, you know, it’s not just simply, "I like to read my clippings." It’s really more about me trying to affirm that this is valuable. Even if the numbers aren’t huge, it’s worth doing.

And so when a show like “Girls” already has gotten just a huge amount of stuff written about it, you just go, “Well, we’re here.” [Laughs.] It has nothing to do with “Girls.” I actually find the dialogue about “Girls” to be very interesting and I think the show is certainly worthy of the discussion.

"The truth is, HBO really should be applauded, because the kinds of risks that a show like "Enlightened" or "Girls" are taking are actual risks. They’re actual risks. They’re risks in tone. They’re risks in content. They’re not risks like, “Oh yeah, it’s 'The Sopranos' in politics.” There’s a lot of self-congratulatory stuff -- “Oh, this is really edgy” -- that goes on in cable television. When you really parse [some shows], in my opinion, it isn’t edgy, because it’s just different kinds of anti-heroes. It’s just kind of, in its own way, a formula.

"Enlightened" airs on Sundays at 9:30 p.m. EST on HBO.

Also on HuffPost:

Suggest a correction