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An "Enlightened" Mike White Wants to Change TV

The HBO show's creator, like its main character, was born anew after a breakdown.

The current cable television landscape is full of hit shows that are sexy and hip and fun: the urban adventuring of “Girls,” the breakneck momentum of “Homeland,” the slinky nostalgia of “Mad Men,” the pageantry of “Game of Thrones.” But HBO’s stunning, under-watched “Enlightened”—about a mid-level executive at a giant corporation who has a spiritual awakening after a workplace meltdown directed at her boss—is like nothing else on TV. It stands out for its stillness, its unglamorousness, but above all, for its conflicted attitude toward its characters and their world. Its protagonist, Amy Jellicoe, is easily the most complicated heroine on cable. Played by Laura Dern, she is terrible in her selfishness, in her social tone-deafness, and in the vanity of her idealism. But there is also a kernel of urgent nobility in her commitment to self-betterment. And this is what makes her so compelling, even while she irks and unsettles. She has seen wickedness, both in herself and in society, and she is bent on exterminating it. She is a Don Quixote of the corporate world—ridiculous, naive, but fundamentally a force for good.

“Enlightened,” which began its second season on Sunday, revolves around Amy’s quest for fulfillment in the wake of her public disgrace. In season one, she returns from a new-age retreat in Hawaii, refreshed and inspired, only to find that she has been relegated to a basement data-processing department with a bunch of weirdos and nerds. Propelled partly by vengefulness and partly by a new spirit of do-gooderism, Amy starts to dig for dirt on her company, Abaddonn Industries, and uncovers a world of untold corruption with the help of one of those weirdo nerds: Tyler, played by the show’s creator, writer, and executive producer, Mike White. The show also happens to be loosely based on White’s own life. Like Amy, he had a breakdown that transformed his perspective on the meaning of work.

Onscreen, White plays the unhappy misfit so naturally that it is easy to imagine that he is this person: shy, fidgety, passive, trapped in a life he hates. He is slight and pale with a droopy half-smile. His intense blue eyes are rimmed with translucent lashes. He has a creaky, listless way of drawing out his vowels so that he always sounds a bit like he has just woken up. And so it is a jolt to hear White, as himself, describe his vision for the show with energetic confidence and clarity. “Enlightened,” he told me, is a deeply personal project for him. It’s a story about reformation, of both oneself and the world, about “trying to step back from your compulsive, knee-jerk way of looking at life.”

White grew up in Pasadena and was eleven years old when his father, an evangelical minister, came out of the closet and became a gay-rights activist. White graduated from a competitive prep school and headed east for college at Wesleyan University, in Connecticut. Then he moved to Los Angeles, started writing movie scripts, and eventually got a job as a writer on “Dawson’s Creek.” But he hated the politics on set, the negotiating of egos and the constant firings. He vowed to stay away from television. Then he saw the pilot of “Freaks and Geeks,” produced by Judd Apatow, which seemed closer to White’s own dry, off-kilter style. 

He joined the writing staff, but in the end it was also not the dream job he had hoped it would be. “I’m anal retentive, and Judd is the ultimate anal expulsive,” White said. Apatow likes to workshop; his scripts are prodded and tinkered with by many different hands. It drove White crazy. “For someone like me,” he said, “who wants to have a lot of authorial intent, you start to feel like—I can’t.”

White’s own nervous breakdown came in 2004. He was working on a Fox show called—in a stroke of poetic irony—“Cracking Up,” about an aspiring psychologist who moves into a wealthy family’s house when he is hired as a therapist for their son. The network was in the midst of transitioning from the wilder, subversive days of “Married with Children” to a line-up designed to retain the 20 million viewers who were tuning in for “American Idol.” Every day was a power struggle between White and the network. “They kept trying to turn [my show] into something else,” he said—a wholesome family comedy, whereas his own vision was a bit darker and weirder. He was stressed all the time; he had panic attacks.

And then he found out that Fox had tested the pilot against a later episode, and the pilot—more in line with White’s vision for the show—had tested better. But the network, as White tells it, hid the results from him. “I got my hands on this thing and I went crazy,” he recalled. “I felt like they’d made my life hellish under the guise that I was the kooky artist who didn’t know what people wanted.” So he wrote a fax and CC’d all the top network executives involved in the show. You’re liars, he told them. You don’t know what you’re doing. “I was like, you failed!” he said. “You should fire yourselves!”

The fall-out only heightened his anxiety. He heard that he had made the network president cry. Then he had a panic attack so intense he thought he was dying. So he called his father, who encouraged him to get psychiatric help. “Next thing I knew, I was being checked into a real mental health facility, with people shuffling down the hallways,” White said. He jumped into his car and fled. Within days his show was cancelled, and White was left reeling from the suddenness of it, struggling to make sense of what had happened. “The single-mindedness of feeling like my self-worth was wrapped up in the perception of success or failure kind of just spun me out,” he said. “At that point,” he added, “I was like, how could I get so psychologically bad over a failed Fox sitcom?” He started doing yoga and reading Buddhist self-help books. He became a vegan and taught himself to meditate. And the idea for “Enlightened” was born. 

THE REASON "ENLIGHTENED' has gotten such consistently, unjustly low ratings since it premiered in 2011 seems to be that viewers don’t know quite what to make of it. The show can be very funny, and was included in the comedy category at last year’s Golden Globes—but it is not a comedy. The tone is something all its own: It teeters so precariously between earnestness and self-awareness that viewers are left half repulsed by its worldview and half converted to it.

In season two, Amy teams up with an L.A. Times investigative reporter (Dermot Mulroney) and remakes herself as a corporate whistleblower, with White as lackey. When “Enlightened” was renewed—a major vote of confidence from HBO—White says that he set out to affix his fine-boned character study to a “juicier plot.” The heightened drama and quickened pace of the show are an attempt to make it more competitive in a line-up full of serialized dramas that lurch from cliffhanger to cliffhanger. 

But at its heart, “Enlightened” is about portraiture. The ads for the show are a close-up of Amy’s screaming face: mascara streaked, mouth grotesquely twisted. The show has a quietly unnerving quality, a feeling of overexposure—it is uncomfortable to see a woman acting so openly nuts, her demons on full display. In White’s films, melancholy is always the main atmospheric strain. Take Chuck and Buck (2000), The Good Girl (2002), and The Year of the Dog (2007). His characters are losers and oddballs, guilty of trying too hard and caring too much, perpetually pining at a distance for the life they want. Existential disappointment is a quiet, deep current. But there is hope, too: in the distant possibility of escape, in a world of imagined alternatives. And in its charitable depiction of its protagonist’s half-mad worldview and its total absence of irony, “Enlightened” has made the cable landscape a gentler, more generous place. 

THERE IS SOMETHING restful about the series, even in its darkest moments. It takes a vast swath of American life—the self-help movement, with all its ten-step paths and gurus and mystical prescriptions, so easy to mock from the agnostic spires of high culture—and brings you inside the simple, soothing clarity of its worldview, without quite endorsing it. The show offers a glimpse of what it might feel like to embrace this mindset: to cast off irony, to untether your ego from the petty daily stresses of work. Self-help as a kind of spiritual balm is offered up as one way to deal with the disillusionment and the tedium, the stranglehold of routine. 

The office purgatory looms large in cultural mythology. It is often the stuff of comedy—think Milton relegated to the mailroom in Office Space, toiling in obscurity—but also a source of real anxiety and fear. The file clerk job held by Craig (John Cusack) in Being John Malkovich is a particular kind of torture: the dim screens and gray walls, the ghostly fluorescence of the ceiling lights. But “Enlightened” aims higher, condemning both the soul-draining office culture and the corporate executives who engineer it. The basement office occupied by Amy and Tyler is a dingy netherworld sealed off from the sunlit halls of the company’s upper ranks. In the Old Testament, “Abaddon” is the angel of destruction, and by extension an underworld for lost souls. “Enlightened,” White said, “could be seen as critique of the capitalist experience, which is: We become what we do.” 

Amy’s meditation sequences—when she narrates her own thoughts, in voiceover, as a dream-like series of images scroll by onscreen—are a hallmark of “Enlightened,” and the source of much of its lyrical power. In one of the most affecting scenes from the first season, a forlorn and desperate Amy imagines what it would feel like to be her former assistant, Krista, who is married, pregnant, and rising in Abaddonn’s ranks. “Late at night,” she says, “visited by dread and shame, I lie in bed and think of somebody else’s life.” We see Krista and her husband cooking dinner, and caressing each other in bed. Krista’s baby shower materializes in Amy’s bedroom, with Krista encircled by family and friends as Amy looks sourly on. “I imagine the love that they’re getting and the relief that comes from being really known, the private pleasures they share, the friends they have, and the pressures they don’t,” Amy says. Her search for purpose and impact is a constant struggle against her meaner, smaller self. 

Season two has raised the show’s stakes. The voiceovers have changed from interior musings about loneliness and love to majestic ruminations on humanity and the decline of civilization, the camera panning the L.A. skyline. Its more direct attempts at humor stick out like cymbal clashes in a ballad, sharp departures from the show’s reflective mood. But overall, “Enlightened” is as lovely and odd as ever. White is smart to pit the grandiosity of Amy’s ambitions against trivial, material pleasures. “God is a beer on the beach,” says Amy’s ex-husband Levi, played with great sensitivity by Luke Wilson. “Maybe I’m a mole, but I’m a happy mole,” says Tyler. “My aunt just died and I got her timeshare.” So “Enlightened” is not a prescription; there are different ways to be happy, and White nods to them all.

As for White himself, the quest for meaning has been a long road. “My whole life I’ve been a seeker,” he said, “searching for something.” He has found balance; he has learned to focus on the process instead of the results or the ratings. There is a scene in season one of “Enlightened” when Amy walks into the office at the end of a long and terrible week. The sun is out and she is in a yellow dress and suddenly even the concrete sprawl of Abaddonn seems full of promise. “You can change, and you can be an agent of change,” Amy says at one point. Of his own small crusade, White said quietly: “I’m trying to do that for the world of TV.”