“Enlightenment”: The Laura Dern and Mike White Orphaned Masterpiece

Interview in 2018: “They’re not fully aware or owning the thing they made”

NOTE 9/4/2021 : This is the worst reads-to-views ratio story I’ve written here. So maybe you want to quit now ;)

Before HBO’s White Lotus there was Enlightenment


I came to Enlightenment from White Lotus, a recent entertaining virtuoso take-down of the wealthy by White and cast on HBO. Unlike the latter, Enlightenment is, at heart, a serious study of our deepest insecurities.

Are we meant to laugh at Amy’s (Laura Dern’s) efforts to find enlightenment, or are we going to see ourselves in her struggle?

Enlightenment is Exhibit A in how Hollywood doesn’t stand up for its more thoughtful creators.

In a 2012 Writers Guild Foundation interview,

Robin Schiff asks White if he think Enlightenment is supposed to be funny.

White: It isn’t something…people..uh..I thought is was funny. When when we gave it to HBO the head of HBO was like ‘ Well it’s beautiful. And it’s a great piece of work — It’s not very funny is it!’ And I was like, (sheepishly) well it’s probably more heavy than some of your comedies. He’s like (exclaims) ‘It’s heavier than our dramas!’

Robin Schiff: It was laugh out loud funny. The opening shot of her sobbing. The way she was sobbing was funny.

White: I think so, yeah, I agree. That’s my sense of humor.

I didn’t laugh out loud watching that scene. Indeed, I never laughed at Amy. There’s a lot of humor in Enlightenment. I did laugh watching it. But I never laughed at the characters when they’re in pain, especially Amy. So was Robin Schiff playing the Hollywood game of selling deep work as comedy, or did she really believe it was funny? If the former, why didn’t White stand up for what he and Dern created?

From HBO marketing:

Maybe that would be funny if it was played this way in the movie

In the actual episode:

Enlightenment begins with Amy at rock-bottom

I suspect Mike White never wrote a scene with Amy for laughs. Dern certainly didn’t play it that way.

I believe Robin Schiff also fibbed about laughing and had the same reaction I had to the first episode of Enlightenment. It was uncomfortable to watch. Indeed, when I had started watching Enlightenment a few years ago I never watched past the first episode. It was only my brother talking it up as a masterpiece that I forced myself to try again. I’m glad I did. I don’t know if I’d call it a masterpiece, but it’s pretty damn close.

Do Laura Dern and Mike White both “own the thing” they made in the same way? It doesn’t seem so from that interview. Should White have corrected Schiff’s portrayal of Enlightenment as a laugh-out-loud comedy?

My reaction was the same as the HBO exec.

At the Academy Awards, Hollywood celebrities champion themselves as those who dare to speak out about social issues, injustices and the marginalized. Yet they cower behind the fear that others will mock them for tackling those same issues with sincerity.

Mike White is very clear in interviews that he has had personal, scarry, meaning-of-life issues, enough to land him in the hospital. White is very clear that the filmmaker “has a responsibility to know what their work is about; that they shouldn’t leave it up to critics to tell them.”

Are we to believe Laura Dern and her mother (Diane Ladd) thought it would be fun together to work in some whatever comedy? Again, Enlightenment may be funny, but it’s no comedy.

How does Mike White write a drama about living a good and virtuous life? Most drama’s need a likeable character and an obstacle, which is easier if it’s simple, like for love or money, etc.

If he writes a totally selfish character, the character will be unlikeable and the viewer most likely leave.

If his character is likeable, on the other hands, and tries to convince others of a better life, the character forces them to recognize and take responsibility of their shortcomings. Does anyone admire judgmental people who believe they have foolproof solutions? Again, the audience leaves.

White could have done what most narratives do, blame an unhappy life on accidental misunderstandings. The only problem with that is a virtuous life would be immune to misunderstandings. We would always ask others before speculating on what they did, thought or felt.

There are no misunderstandings in Enlightenment. Amy is very clear about what she wants and no other character shies away from pointing out her selfishness.

How does White and Dern solve the problem of an unlikeable Amy? They don’t.

They only apply one trick to keep the audience — viewers enjoy feeling superior to others. We can feel superior to the characters in Enlightenment, but only to a point. Anyway, the feel-superior to the character trick is what makes White Lotus a ratings success, but is only used sparingly in Enlightenment (if at all).

When we’re selfish AND trying to convince others of a more spiritual life people cringe, look at us, and think, ‘there but for the grace of God I go’ If we laugh it’s because we are uncomfortable. So why did I keep watching (the 2nd time)?

I reminded myself that I’m interested in the question and must accept that Amy will be painful to watch.

As difficult as the Amy is, I recognize her struggle. She is selfish. She is judgmental. She pushes her quest to the edge of mental illness? But what is mental illness? There is no easy trick to fixing this entertainment no-no that White and Dern take on. They must trust that the audience will, like all Amy’s friends, never give up on her. Never ultimately believe they are better than her.

They must all recognize their selfishness too. They must all be drawn to the answer she seeks.