Complex Terms of Engagement: On Mike White and "Enlightenment"

So I began watching HBO's series, Enlightenment, and found it difficult. The main character, played by Laura Dern, is annoying. But so is everyone else in the show. But then, after a few weeks, because I found it so difficult that I returned to it thinking there must be something there. And I realized that it's, in fact, astoundingly brilliant.

Why? Because it refuses all the familiar terms of engagement and gives us, in their stead, sophisticated, respectful new ones. There is no character with whom we sympathize; there is no character who is downright bad. Rather, we get relationships and situations in which our sympathies and empathies shift, sometimes moment to moment.

Take the relationship between Laura Dern and her mother (who is also her real life mother). When she first moves in without asking, you're torn. On the one hand, Laura Dern is so assuming — doesn't her mother have a life of her own? On the other hand, isn't Ms. Dern her daughter? Shouldn't she be welcomed?  This play, this ambivalence, this shifting takes place relentlessly between all characters in all situations — in every freakin' scene.

In some sense — in a different sense than we usually use the terms — this is a situation comedy: the situation dictates the terms of our engagement, not the character or some meta-situation.  Take the main character, the character whose voice over we here: at times, we not only hate her, we fear her, we feel for those she assaults and annoys — even though we don't like them, either.  And that leaves us, as viewers, in a rather strange situation as our own emotional responses spin.

And what makes it all more difficult is the naked human emotionality — it's so realistic, so poignant,  all that passive aggression, all those micro-politics between people, between family members, loves, co-workers.  It's all so familiar.

What's unfamiliar is how the show engages us, what it asks from us, how it speaks to us.  It is not there to make us comfortable — on the contrary, it seeks to unsettle us from what it means to watch a drama, to watch television, from what it means to identify with a character or a story. This is not a show you just kick back and enjoy, gently chuckling at Ross' antics. 

This, alas, is what defines so much of Mike White's work — Chuck & Buck and the excellent Year of the Dog. These are understated, difficult movies in that they give us a familiar emotional terrain —loneliness, desire — but deliver them in unfamiliar terms.  They ask strange things of us as our sympathies and identification shift over and over again. And through it all, there is this incredible emotional poignancy that is, at time, unbearable.

All art — all people, all things —  presents us with terms of engagement. They come to us, they come at us, with a certain posture, asking for certain things — our attention, our reactions. Most pop music, most pop movies and TV, ask very little of us.  They confirm the same old hetero-bourgeois nonsense; they confirm what we know and who we are as they conform to the standard terms of engagement. Characters stay the same; we know what to expect of them.  We root for so and so and against that other so and so as we hope Ross and Rachel get together in the end.

But Mike White will have none of that.  He presents us with very different terms of engagement. He understands that life is complex and that art, too, can be complex; that identification and sympathy and empathy may shift, that who we are and what we care about may change as circumstances change.  In Mike White's world, we may like a certain character even while we cringe at his or her behavior. 

And, while perhaps unsettling, these terms of engagement are more respectful — more respectful of life and more respectful of us as viewers. These terms ask us to be grown ups, to embrace the complexity of life and the complexity of viewing. 

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