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Dead Tree Alert: Enlightened Returns; Plus, Mike White on Screenwriters’ Responsibility

The screenwriter and Laura Dern talk about their spiritual quest comedy-drama and about whether art can make a better (or worse) world.

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When Enlightened debuted on HBO in 2011, I was excited about it, having been a fan of Mike White’s weird and weirdly poignant writing from movies like Chuck and Buck and TV shows like Pasadena. I felt a little lost watching the first few episodes, but by episode five, I was firmly on the show’s bandwagon.

It was not a large bandwagon. The series, starring Laura Dern as Amy Jellicoe, an executive who has a spiritual reawakening after a nervous breakdown, was getting a couple hundred thousand viewers for its first-run episodes, low numbers even for HBO. And I can see why: it’s a hard show to adjust to, even for someone like me who’s disposed toward it. It’s a half hour, but neither a traditional comedy or drama. But it’s also not a “comedy-drama” in ways that we’re used to: not a “dramedy” with a heart of sentiment like Parenthood, or a show that alternates between straight comedy and dark drama like Rescue Me. Instead, it has a tone of its own, combining uncomfortable cringe humor with an earnest, meditative treatment of Amy’s quest to fix herself and those around her.

Thanks maybe to critical praise, or the awards recognition (Dern wom a Golden Globe for it last year), or simply a sincere belief that the show was good enough to stay on the air, HBO gave Enlightened a second season anyway. I talked to White and Dern for the print edition of TIME about the second season and the reaction to Amy in the first season:

It’s that pushing, prodding, raw-nerve aspect of Amy–Why won’t she just go away?–that made Season 1 of Enlightened (returning to HBO on Jan. 13) TV’s most fascinating character portrait of 2011. But it also made her a tough sell. The show won Dern a Golden Globe but scored low ratings even for HBO, maybe in part because Amy is not what today’s ambitious cable shows have taught viewers to expect in their antiheroes. Breaking Bad’s Walter White intimidates. Mad Men’s Don Draper dominates. Amy Jellicoe unsettles. She leans in too close. Like Hannah Horvath of Girls, she’s an antiheroine who polarizes viewers in ways her male counterparts don’t. She presses buttons and transgresses; she overshares and overcares.

“I have never experienced such strong reaction to a character,” says Dern, who, please note, played a paint-huffing pregnant drug addict in the 1996 film Citizen Ruth. “I’ve watched men like Tony Soprano, and women say he’s sexy in a scene with his lover where A) he’s cheating on his wife and B) we’ve watched him just decapitate somebody in a bathtub. But the minute Amy had a breakdown in the elevator, people were like, ‘Whoa! Aren’t you afraid people aren’t going to like her? I mean, she’s so awful!’”

The full article is for subscribers only–sorry, the spirit of Om Shantih does not extend to the Time Inc. paywall. But there was some material in my interviews that I wasn’t able to fit into the print spread.

I scheduled a phoner with White last month, and it turned out to be the afternoon of the school massacre in Newtown, Conn. This was sadly related to something that I had planned to ask White about before the shooting ever happened: the artist’s influence and responsibility for the messages he or she sends into the world.

After another mass shooting a few years ago, at Virginia Tech, White was one of the few Hollywood writers to go on record saying that, yes, he believed screenwriters are accountable for gratuitous violence in their works. In a New York Times op ed, he recalled making his first, gory home movie as a teenager and related that to his business today:

What a relief to be told that how we earn that money may be in poor taste, but it’s not irresponsible. The average American teenage boy knows the difference between right and wrong and no twisted, sadistic movie is going to influence him.

My own experience as a teenager tells me otherwise. For my friends and me, movies were a big influence on our clothes and our slang, and on how we thought about and spoke to authority figures, our girlfriends and one another. Movies permeated our fantasy lives and our real lives in subtle and profound ways.

It’s true nobody ever got shot in the face in my backyard, but there were acts of male bravado performed in emulation of our movie anti-heroes that ranged from stupid to cruel. And there were plenty of places where guys my age were shooting one another all the time. There still are. Can we really in good conscience conclude that the violence saturating our popular culture has no impact on our neighborhoods and schools?

Before the Newtown shootings, I thought it was revealing that someone who wrote that–a writer known for often disturbing stories, albeit psychologically–would later co-create an HBO series that earnestly (if with dark humor) was about the challenge of trying to heal the world. So I asked if Enlightened came out of any sense of having a responsibility beyond simply telling a story that interested him. His response:

Honestly, without sounding righteous—I’m not trying to ennoble what I do necessarily, but there is a part of you that feels like if you see things in the culture that you don’t like, as a creator that there’s opportunity at least to be the antidote. One thing about the show that is probably why it has a limited audience is that it’s trying to be more reflective and quiet and contemplative. Some of the values and the characters that it’s exploring I think are ones that I find often in popular culture to be dismissed.

So is that kind of woman, particularly—and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that [Amy] is a woman—who’s more about her sincerity and her mission and her nagginess, and all of those things make people say, ‘Oh, I don’t like that.’ Well, these are the people that do clean up the messes that like these. It’s like, Who goes in and fixes that school?

I don’t completely agree with White about the direct effects of violent culture. But that doesn’t really matter; what does matter is that his belief and passion have allowed him to make a TV series that is like few I’ve seen before it. Enlightened’s second season starts Sunday; the first season is on DVD now. I recommend it. I can’t say that it will make you a better person. But it’s a transfixing experience to watch Amy try to become one.