LOS ANGELES — How many indie film auteurs get the green light to create a series on HBO, then postpone finishing it to compete in “The Amazing Race”? The correct answer is, just one: Mike White.
White has crafted a career out of off-kilter moves. As a screenwriter, he alternates between charming but uncomfortable films about awkward, lonely people (“Chuck&Buck,” “Year of the Dog”) and more mainstream, poppy hits (“School of Rock,” “Nacho Libre”). He got his start as a writer-producer on “Dawson’s Creek” before going on to “Freaks and Geeks” and now has co-created the HBO series “Enlightened” with Laura Dern, who also stars in it.
But he says one of the best things he’s ever done is to compete in “The Amazing Race,” which he did in 2009 with his 70-year-old dad, minister and gay activist Mel White. When the show invited them back for an all-star season earlier this year, just as White was starting post-production on “Enlightened,” he couldn’t say no. Just days into the race, however, his father collapsed and they were eliminated.
“As they were taking us away to the ambulance, I was thinking, ‘How am I going to tell the people at HBO?’” he says between bites of brown rice and veggies at a vegan restaurant in West Hollywood. “They had to furlough our whole post-production team!” But being stranded in reality-TV-loser limbo for two weeks with no phone or computer was kind of nice, he insists, “because I had to let go, accept.”
There’s an element of letting go in “Enlightened,” a 10-episode portrait that began Oct. 10 of Amy Jellicoe (Dern), an executive in her 40s whose life has unraveled, forcing her to step back from her corporate trance and look elsewhere for meaning.
After an affair with her boss goes awry and one of the best workplace breakdowns in the history of television lands her in a new-age healing spa, she returns home hoping to reform her druggy ex-husband (Luke Wilson) and make her company more socially responsible — and is promptly demoted to the basement. That’s where all the freaks have been relegated, among them a sad sack IT guy played by White himself.
“Enlightened” originated with Dern, who had appeared in “Year of the Dog” and was also a neighbor. She had an HBO deal and would ask White to suggest writers for the project; White says he eventually volunteered himself.
They created an utterly unique character for Dern: excruciatingly sincere yet so vulnerable and hopeful, it hurts to mock her. “Enlightened” takes the discomfort levels of shows like “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and “Extras” up several notches — its closest comparison might be Lisa Kudrow’s pioneering mockumentary, “The Comeback.”
White says that earnestness feels radical to him right now. This season, female characters are all over prime time, but “the women they’re putting forward right now are cynical and modern, and they joke about their vaginas. It’s nice to put a spotlight on somebody who embodies some of the values people shy away from, to try to create a character who’s not cool in any way. In this political climate, I wanted to give some of those values their day in the sun again.”
Dern’s character is not aspirational: “She’s trying to find her value in society.” White himself has made a specialty out of playing tongue-tied freaks and ultra-nerds, but in person it’s clear that he is as driven as he is charming and articulate. Having spent his 20s and 30s manically writing and producing, he says he had a meltdown of his own after the cancellation of his short-lived Fox series “Cracking Up.”
“‘Enlightened’ came out of the years that followed, which was me deciding that I needed to have a little more balance in my life after being a workaholic for all my adult life. I started doing yoga and reading Buddhist self-help books,” he says. “You come to a point where you realize your work doesn’t save you.”
His films have always vibrated with personality and intimacy, but White thinks he didn’t always take on projects for the right reasons.
“There was a sign right outside on the street that must’ve been meant for me,” he recalls with a lopsided grin. “It said, ‘A good idea starts when someone says, “That looks fun, I should do that.” A bad idea starts when someone says, “That looks easy, I could do that.”‘ I’ve had a lot of bad ideas, basically.”
“Enlightened” may be a great idea, but White knows that it is not easily digestible prime-time fare — even for HBO, the home of dark, complicated television.
“When they saw the pilot, HBO was like, it’s beautiful — but it’s not very funny, is it?” he says. “This happens to me a lot. When I write something on the page it seems funnier than when it’s mounted, because then the melancholy strains in it become more evident.”
Hearkening back to his early years on “Freaks and Geeks,” White recalls how hard it was to get people to watch that show, now considered a pop culture classic. “I remember my cousin saying, ‘I avoided those people in high school. Why do I want to watch them now?’”
White doesn’t know whether TV audiences really want to watch challenging material. “If the show doesn’t succeed, I don’t have any illusions that it’s HBO’s fault. Maybe people want to watch something more escapist ... like a reality show.”