Mike White on Creating a TV Show About Personal Growth
Mike White has been a writer and producer, sometimes actor, on many film and TV projects including Dawson’s Creek, Freaks and Geeks, Chuck & Buck, The Good Girl, Orange County, and School of Rock.
His new HBO series Enlightened, created with Laura Dern, is slotted as a comedy, but brings up many issues about personal growth and emotional health.
Dern plays Amy, an ambitious executive who suffers a nervous breakdown at work, and recovers at a rehab center in Hawaii, which includes meditation. She regains better emotional health, along with new interests in self-help books, and an awakening about spiritual and environmental issues.
One of the aspects of the show, and Laura Dern’s outstanding acting, that I really like is that this journey is not presented as something easy or sudden – the title “Enlightened” is clearly ironic. Personal change is pretty much an evolutionary process, and Amy does not return from rehab as a role model of emotional intelligence.
Upon returning to her large corporation to reclaim her job, Amy is relegated to a basement data processing center instead of her previous position – and she views it as a basement full of “circus freaks” and “losers” as she calls them, including a character played by White (photo).
In an interview for the NPR show “Fresh Air” White talked about some of the personal issues and interests that informed his writing and development of the series.
Asked what made him think of this as the idea for a TV series, White said that while working on developing a previous TV show, he had “sort of a nervous breakdown over the whole thing. I was just kind of overworked. I had gone through, like, a period of years where I was just burning my candle at both ends and, you know, made like four movies and two TV shows in the span of like five years. And I realized I had to, like, mellow out a little bit and try not to be such a workaholic, and I didn’t know how to do that… And I also wanted to try to assert to everybody else that I wasn’t crazy.”
Another element of the show I appreciate is its questioning of what mental health or being “disordered” really is, and how people relate to those they consider “crazy.”
White says that when Dern and he started talking about a show together, he “liked the idea of somebody who was – yeah, had kind of come to the edge and then wanted to come back and try to get over themselves, I guess.”
He admits being fascinated with the show Real Housewives of Beverly Hills and its real-life personalities with issues like impulse-control and bullying, which show up in Enlightened.
One way Dern’s character uses to recover some balance is meditation.
White comments, “From my experience, meditating can bring up the most stressful thoughts. To actually try to stop that constant chatter of, ‘I need to do this, I need to do that… this is what’s wrong with me.’ I think that’s the hardest thing for many people to do, especially in our modern, achievement-oriented [environment].”
He notes this created challenges for him as the writer, because “the more quiet, meditative aspects of the show made HBO the most nervous. Because people, especially in TV, first they want their comedies funny, and they want their dramas juicy and kind of operative, and this is very internal. Especially these moments Amy has when she’s going inside and where it slows down a little bit, I think that that’s just something in general that makes a network executive worry that you’re going to lose your audience, and people are going to click off or change the channel.”
Can people really change?
White thinks “there are certain ways that people are always themselves, but I do think people change. I feel like that is the hopefulness I think the show tries to get at… That’s a big question both Laura and I have discussed throughout the entire shooting and writing of the show, you know … how enlightened is Amy? If she’s just a fraud … and in the end …. hasn’t really grown, then I think it is a cynical show. I feel like we’re all human and nobody’s perfect, and we’re all sort of fumbling towards something better. But if we don’t believe that we can change or get over ourselves, it’s a pretty depressing resolution.”
Laura Dern commented: “Mike so beautifully writes about incremental growth, and I think so many film writers want to tackle this enormous growth where this villain becomes a hero in the hour and half that we have with them. In the long form of this season, Mike has this opportunity of Amy having this longing for growth, and longing for some form of self-acceptance … So there’s this complicated and elusive journey toward growth that she takes.”
Eby, D. (2011). Mike White on Creating a TV Show About Personal Growth. Psych Central. Retrieved on June 29, 2017, from https://blogs.psychcentral.com/creative-mind/2011/10/mike-white-on-creating-a-tv-show-about-personal-growth/