Tuned In

Enlightened Watch: Ghost Protocol

Series creator and writer Mike White gives himself a sweet, sad showcase as an actor, as Tyler exposes himself in more ways than one.

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“It’s OK to be a ghost. It has its pleasures. You’re light. You slip in and out, unseen. There’s no love to lose or burden to be. You have so little to hold you down. You are free.”

As an actor, Mike White is what you might call very “specific.” He plays characters who are shy, awkward, tentative–OK, honestly, a little creepy.

Fortunately, Mike White the actor is very good friends with Mike White the writer, who has written him several roles of that very type: as the emotionally arrested stalker in Chuck and Buck, a Bible-studying security guard in The Good Girl, and now, as Tyler in Enlightened. As the whistleblower subplot has developed in the second season, his role has grown, and in “The Ghost Is Seen,” he got, if not a solo episode as Levi did two weeks ago, a showcase for the pale, furtive thing that is his personality.

One thing I love about the way White has written Tyler is that there’s no pity or ennoblement in the depiction, as you might expect of a character who is (a) an underdog and (b) played by the writer. Tyler’s sympathetic, but he’s not a saint or a sweetheart. He frames a coworker to get fired after the guy insults him. He has a one-night stand that goes bad and changes his password to “Julie_bitch.” He resists blowing the whistle on his company’s wrongdoing because he’s comfortable and just inherited a two-week timeshare. He downloads a crapload of illegal music.

Which doesn’t make him a bad person, either: he’s just, like most characters in Enlightened, trying the best he can, and White gives him the dignity of being both a good guy and a jerk at times. His defensiveness and withdrawal are learned mechanisms. And in “The Ghost Is Seen,” he tries to unlearn that, for the sake of the plan and for the sake of joining the living.

White pairs Tyler with a another wallflower, executive assistant Eileen, played by Molly Shannon (whom White directed in Year of the Dog and also starred in Cracking Up, the failed Fox sitcom that led to the breakdown that inspired Enlightened). Eileen is similar but different: a “learned extrovert,” she’s overcome some of the inhibitions Tyler has, but she’s also paid a price; she hints that she’s experienced more, and been hurt more, than he has.

Their date ends up being funny, sweet and sad, as Tyler finds himself opening up in the company of someone who can feel how difficult it is for him. It’s a classic White mashup of awkwardness and tenderness. Tyler’s vulnerability, crawling into be in his tighty-whities, might just be uncomfortable, except for the way Eileen sees his discomfort and helps him to expose himself in an even more difficult way: “Look at me.”

It’s the sort of scene where, if you look at it and see something weird and depressing–well, Enlightened is just not the show for you, and that’s fine. But it’s a perfect example of the show’s commitment to finding the dignity of each of its characters, even in their most undignified moments. Tyler is not out of the woods—in fact, as he learns his date has allowed Amy and Dougie to hack Eileen’s computer for information, it threatens to put him in a horrible ethical position.

But it’s still a triumph for Tyler, for the moment. A frightening triumph too, because as he realizes, when a ghost becomes flesh-and-blood, it means he can hurt and be hurt. “You seem sad and sweet and I like that,” Eileen tells him. “But are you? Are you sweet?” Maybe, maybe not. But he’s willing to learn.

Quick hail of bullets:

* The closing music is “Esme,” by singer-songwriter-harpist Joanna Newsom, who is probably exactly as much of an acquired taste as Enlightened is.

* It’s seriously some kind of feat of acting and characterization, how terribly Tyler and Eileen kiss.

* White wrote and starred in this episode, but he didn’t direct this time out; that was James Bobin, who directed The Muppets and co-created Flight of the Conchords.

* “Maybe lay off my people–but what about me!” Oh, Dougie, you’re a hero!