Mike White on the possibility of bringing back HBO's Enlightened
What’s old is new again. Hollywood has always had an affinity for the familiar. Every summer we are assaulted with sequels, spin-offs, and remakes at the box office. And television has always been a breeding ground for remakes and adaptations of feature films. But something else has been happening in TV over these past few years as former shows have come back to life in their initial form for additional seasons well past their original expiration date.
At first it was Netflix bringing back network programming like Arrested Development and Gilmore Girls, but now the networks themselves have gotten into the act with the likes of Will & Grace (NBC), Roseanne/The Connors (ABC), and Murphy Brown (CBS). In the age of beloved cancelled programming coming back from beyond the grave, we asked the co-creator and star of one such HBO comedy whether there could be life after death for his criminally cancelled show.
Enlightened was never a ratings juggernaut for HBO. In fact, it was closer to a ratings zero than a ratings hero, averaging about 220,000 viewers in his second and last season that ended in 2013. But the people that watched Enlightened LOVED Enlightened. So did critics, praising the story of a woman (Laura Dern) returning to work after a nervous breakdown and then taking down the company (Abaddonn Industries) from within. It was a quirky comedy that refused to be pigeonholed and was equal parts uplifting and heartbreaking.
The TV landscape has changed so much from when Enlightened first went on the air in 2011 when the definition of a “comedy” was far more narrow. Now half-hour shows can tackle darker themes and less obvious emotional territory without viewers struggling to cram the program into some easily-defined category. Enlightened was its own beast. A lot of people simply didn’t get it back then.
So when speaking with Enlightened co-creator Mike White — who also wrote every episode and starred in the show as Tyler — for his current appearance on Survivor: David vs. Goliath (see video above), I couldn’t help but ask if there was any possible chance of bringing Enlightened back. After all, audiences seem to have finally caught up to this type of show, and Dern (who not only starred but co-created it with White) is flying high after roles in projects like Big Little Lies and Star Wars: The Last Jedi.
So what about it, Mike? Ready to reboot Enlightened? “I actually feel like we could do that maybe,” says White, temporarily sending my hopes soaring before dashing them. “But I don’t know. There was a lot of pain with the ending. It’s like going into an old relationship where you’re like… let’s do something new. I may do something and work with HBO again, but I don’t know about another season of Enlightened.”
Of course, Enlightened is not the only ahead-of-its-time program that struggled to find mass appeal yet had a small, devoted group of fans. White also worked on the beloved Freaks & Geeks — which was largely ignored by mainstream audiences as it staggered though a single season on NBC yet is now considered must see TV. “I feel like I’ve had that in my career a couple different times,” says White about the lack of widespread attention when the show was actually on. “That’s a familiar feeling. One day it would be nice to have the huzza happening in real time.”
While White will occasionally be stopped by the spare Enlightened fan, he says when most do people recognize him on the street, they can’t quite place him. “I honestly think I just create confusion,” laughs White. “I create confusion wherever I go. People recognize my face, but then I get a lot of, like, ‘Are you from Indiana?’ Or ‘Did you go to this high school?’ And I’m at the age now where everyone looks vaguely familiar so I think they’re looking at me like, ‘Oh, I should know him.’ And so it’s just one awkward encounter after the next.”
One awkward encounter after the next? Sounds a little like an episode of Enlightened.