Don't read on unless you've seen the season finale of HBO's "Enlightened."
So who is "Enlightened's" Amy Jellicoe?
A brave whistleblower? "An hysteric," in the words of executive Charles Szidon, the man whose corporate misdeeds Amy exposed? Is she just a worker drone in search of personal glory, a well-intentioned person used by an ambitious reporter, or just someone who, in the words of her ex-husband, has "more hope than most people do"?
One of the many accomplishments of this extraordinary season of the HBO show is that it helped us see Amy as all those things and more. She could be blind to other people's needs, even as she put everything she had on the line in service of selfless goals. Her single-mindedness could be both scary and admirable, and watching Amy, her friend Tyler (Mike White) and ex-husband Levi (Luke Wilson) grope toward new aspirations and scattered glimmerings of self-knowledge was by turns funny, bittersweet and profound. Whatever you think of Amy, it was hard not to see the entire second season of the show as a virtuoso turn by all involved.
Despite the widespread accolades the show's second season has received, the future of "Enlightened" is in doubt. HBO hasn't renewed it for a third season, a fact that White, who is also the show's co-creator, writer and frequent director, talked about in Part 1 of a recent interview.
In Part 2 of the interview, which is below, I asked him whether he approached the show's second-season finale as a possible series finale, and White shared a few ideas about what might happen in a potential third season of "Enlightened." He also discussed the show's aesthetic and thematic underpinnings, as well as the whole idea of likability and how that intersects with the commercial needs of TV networks and movie studios.
This interview has been edited and slightly condensed.
Did you write the finale thinking it could be a possible series finale, and wanting to make sure it’s wrapped up as tightly as possible?
It’s not necessarily that I want to wrap it up as tightly as possible, but I’ve had the experience where I was working on something that I really felt was good quality, and then it just ends and it just feels like an abortion. I mean, I can’t expect multiple seasons of the show. So I wanted to make sure that if it did end, that it would feel like there was closure -- enough to feel like its own fully realized piece of work.
There’s so much life beyond first runs for this stuff now. My feeling is that, knowing that it had some conclusion, people would be more inclined to see what we made. So there was a part of me that wanted to have my cake and eat it too. That said, I feel like if we had another season there’s endless avenues to explore as we would proceed into that.
Would Dermot Muloney’s character come back? I liked the character a lot -- he obvious had his ideals, but in a sly way, the show revealed him just as self-serving as anyone else.
So would we see him coming back?
Yeah. The idea for the third season would be an Abbadonn versus Jellicoe lawsuit where all of the people that we have met up to now would take sides. [It may be an] even better "Rashomon" of who Amy is -- is she this manic-depressive, bipolar, crazy person who’s done this unethical thing to this company? Or has she done something heroic and everyone is now [involved] in a legal way? And that includes Jeff, Dermot Mulroney's character, and Tyler and Dougie and Krista. [It would] ultimately be playing with what’s true and whose truth it is, the way that any lawsuit does, and using the same satirical but hopefully observational eye within a new institution and [seeing] how justice is played out in our legal world.
Just going back to the question of whether Amy has something diagnosable or just cares a lot about the world. I think a lot of times through history, people were called mad or crazy if they caused comfortable people to become uncomfortable.
Even now, there are people who would want to call her mentally unstable.
Well, she’s the kind of person a lawyer would have a field day with, as far as her record as an employee, her personal life, her mental health – all of those things. So they could definitely do an easy teardown/hatchet job with her. At the same time, there’s just a lot of juice that you could mine and new characters [you could] bring up and a whole new way to orchestrate the people that we’ve met so far in a way that could be surprising.
Ever since you brought up this idea of Abbadonn versus Amy, I’ve thought about an episode from the point of view of the Charles Szidon, the Abbadonn CEO, who certainly can be a jerk, but in the show, we get to see that he has his own point of view. He's not just a cartoon.
[Actor] James Rebhorn is such a good vessel for that because he’s got such an elegant kind of [presence], he’s not a heavy, you know…
Yeah. I am on the side of the one ruffling the feathers, as opposed to the complacency of power. But I do think it’s important to humanize that because, I mean, there are psychopaths running corporations. But in general, you’ll find that they’re people, and in their own mind, everything they do is justified and for the greater good. I mean, that’s what [Szidon] said, "I’m trying to right the ship and I’m trying to take care of my people and I’m trying to win."
And you know what, how much can I judge, given that I've worked for big corporations for a long time?
I think that’s where we all are -- that’s living in our culture right now. You can either say, "We’re all hypocrites" or you can embrace your hypocrisy and take at least baby steps toward doing something good. Or you can just be totally cynical about trying to make any kind of change.
So going back to the hypothetical third season, ideally, you'd like to have Dermot, Luke, all the series regulars from Season 2 back?
Yeah, I feel like everybody could come back in and have a point of view on this.
And you'd have some new characters?
There would be lawyers and stuff. And we set up in the first season that she has a sister that she’s estranged from. That character coming back would be a new way to get at some of the home life and personal life.
And there’s the whole tragic story of the father as well, which has only been touched on a little bit.
Yeah, there’s a story line [touching on that] that was already kind of cooked up for the season, but there was just so much going on that we couldn’t get to it.
Do you hope to get more episodes so you can fit all this in?
I’m an anal writer, so if I got six, if I got eight, if I got ten -- I would figure out what was necessary to tell the whole arc of the season. And then[depending on the episode order, some] things would have to fall away.
I wanted to ask you about the production design and the look of the show. The aesthetic choices are obviously something that you've put a lot of thought into. Can you talk a bit about that?
I grew up in L.A., or Pasadena, and there’s this southern California thing. When you’re dealing with an existential crisis, which is what Amy’s in, there’s something that I like about the absurdity of the southern California [look]. You know, the deepest, saddest emotions are happening on a beautiful day. And some of those corporate parks can be also so heavenly in a way.
With Amy’s mom’s house -- in a way, she’s like a Miss Havisham. But it’s a '70s southern California tract home, with all this '70s art -- something that seems like it should be perennially new is now old. It’s like this kitschiness but it’s also aesthetically pleasing in some way, and it’s also slightly haunted. It’s pastels that are a little like faded, the plastic swans in the pool and those kinds of little details.You spend so much time in shows in the same locations and even if it is her hell, you want the audience to want to exist within the visuals of the world you’re creating.
And we played a lot with downstairs in Abbadonn, which is this kind of Kubrickian nightmare place to work. From certain angles it’s very design-y -- you just don’t want it to be like, “Eyeww, I don’t want to be there.” It should feel like a kind of a heavenly hell.
So it was about playing with those ideas and trying to create spaces that were dynamic enough, so that if you’re shooting there day in and day out, you can still find new ways to look at it. And that was what was cool this season – well, both seasons. We had different directors – Jonathan Demme or Todd Haynes [among them] -- and you’d see the same sets from someone else’s eye, and it would suddenly have a whole different feel. It’s a tribute to our production designers that something could have enough of a dynamism that that could allow that.
It seems to me that in the 18 episodes you've had, you've really gotten a small but passionate group of people interested in Amy's struggle. I mean, you've gotten them to see that she’s difficult, but if people aren't difficult, then nothing ever happens and nothing ever changes.
We talked about that a little bit in other interviews but, you know, the truth is, the person who really can read the room perfectly and always says the right thing -- they’re not going to be the person that ultimately rattles the cage enough to make change. It’s often the person who [makes you think], “Shut up.” I just saw this documentary called “How to Survive a Plague,” which was nominated for an Oscar and it was about Act Up, about AIDS [activists] in New York. The people, the Larry Kramers of that [group], the protesters -- a lot of those people are very bilious, acerbic. Very strident -- people you don’t necessarily want to take on vacation.
I think Amy falls a little bit into that category. And so, yeah, of course people are going to be like, “Ah, she’s annoying.” At the same time, it’s some of those same qualities give her the courage to say “Fuck it” and “I don’t care about being likable. I want to fight for justice" or fight for what she thinks is right.
Well, being likable is a large part of what our culture trains us to want. We don't want people to have a bad opinion of us.
Right. I think the show gets at this a little bit -- it’s a little bit of a critique of how capitalism turns us into salesman for ourselves. And that ultimately, we become corporate citizens as people. We want to succeed, and being successful means being palatable to as many people as possible.
And that’s my experience as a writer of entertainment -- for so many years it’s drilled into you. So many of the notes that you get from studios and networks or whatever have to do with, "This is what people want to see. This is what people like. This is what is pleasing to people. This is the kind of story that is satisfying to them." And so much of that is about money. It’s because they want as big an audience as possible.
They don’t necessarily want the most interesting story. They don’t necessarily want the most challenging story or the most complicated, certainly. They want a guaranteed thing that will bring a big audience.
And so you start to see the connections between the stories that people say are the commercial stories with how you, yourself, are supposed to behave and how you, yourself, succeed in this business. And that if you play that game and if you pretend like you know [the goal] when you go into those meetings -- like, "I know what people want and I am also a good sport and I will play ball. I will give up my particular wants and my values as reflected through my work to…"
Go with the program.
Yeah, dance for the man. And after a while, you start to start to say, "Am I even a person anymore, or a writer? Or am I just a salesman?" And like I think that’s stuff that I definitely wanted to try to get at with the show.
One of the tensions I really enjoy about the show is that there’s a very controlled approach to how you achieve the tone, but the feeling the show creates can be rapturous or bittersweet -- there's this intensity to my reactions. How do you do that? It’s a really terrible question, I realize I'm phrasing it badly, but can you talk about how you achieve that?
I feel like, as I get older, maybe it’s a cliché, but the things that move me the most are things that are not necessarily the tragedies, but the kindnesses in the face of tragedy. Or acknowledging the pain of life and then finding the little silver linings, the glimmers.
[My own spiritual explorations,] cheesy as they may look on their face, did give me some kind of broader perspective or helped me change. And really believing that you can change is something at the core of the show. And I feel like it’s something that I have to remind myself.
And that's a sincere idea, ultimately. I keep thinking of that scene in the coffee shop, back in the middle of the season, where everyone's on their own laptop or their own device -- but Amy sees a possibility of grace and transcendence in that moment. The show is really earnest that way.
I think that's what makes it somewhat out of step, and I don’t say that as a bad thing. I think there’s a sincerity and earnestness to the show. Even though it’s very funny, it’s very self-aware, it’s very realistic and honest about who the people are, there’s kind of a this earnestness that, I think, is kind of unfashionable in certain realms, not just in pop culture but just in general. I think that’s refreshing though -- that she can even be thinking about grace and possibility in a coffee shop where everyone’s in their own little world. There’s that dream that she’s powered by.
It’s my experience watching TV sometimes -- I mean, there’s great satire, but sometimes I just want to feel something. In a sense, that’s all I was trying to do with the show -- [I didn't want to] lose a modern contemporary sensibility that has an ironic, observational quality, but in the end, the pleasure of the show for me is trying to evoke a kind of hopeful emotional reaction.