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It’s tempting to try to pin Mike White as a dark comedy writer.  In School of Rock, one of the funniest parts of the movie is watching Jack Black, a washed-up rockstar-turned elementary school teacher, rant to his high-achieving 12 year old students about how the world is run by “the Man,” how rock and roll is dead, and how, all things considered, they should just give up on all their hopes for life, “because the man’s just going to call you a fat, washed-up loser and crush your soul.” At the point where Black unconsciously starts talking about himself, the audience feels a slight discomfort at the suggestion of that we’re about to veer off the edge of comedy, and into the pit of Black’s self-hatred.

If, in School of Rock, Mike White’s humor puts the audience on edge, in The Good Girl it’s more like he’s standing next to you on the edge of the cliff, nudging you with a stick. This 2002 movie starring Jennifer Anniston and Jake Gyllenhaal is about a small-town girl in an unhappy marriage who has an affair with a sensitive, yet deeply dysfunctional writer, college drop-out, and part-time alcoholic (Gyllenhaal).  On the one hand, Mike White creates a kind of parody of small-town life with the supporting characters: Justine’s buffoonish, stoner-husband Phil, played by John C. Reilly; her obnoxiously preachy friend Gwen, who continually insinuates Justine is infertile due to not being a vegetarian; the teenage girl who enjoys telling the customers at the minimart, “Have a good day, and fuck you very much.”  Even Gyllenhaal’s character, who lives with his parents and calls himself Holden because he insists his birth name, Tom, is a “slave name,” is over-the-top in his pretentious delusions, and consequently funny.

Whereas, in some movies, deprecating humor is used as a way of softening hard situations, Mike White ultimately uses humor to move us in the opposite direction.  Phil’s pot-headed buffoonery becomes savage when he slaps Justine in the face.  Holden’s artistic oddness becomes frightening instability when he has a drunken break down and ends up trapped in a motel with a gun, hiding from the cops outside.  Granted, this devaluation of their world, in which, as Justine puts it, “everything nice turns to shit,” is one of the movie’s main themes.  But this theme is present in some form or other in much of White’s writing, from School of Rock to his later television show Enlightened.  We are always afraid to some degree that the situation we find funny in the moment will turn to shit without due warning.

In The Good Girl, Justine says to Holden, ‘I saw in your eyes that you hate the world.  I hate it too.’  And in a sense, their entire romance is based off of this shared hatred.  It’s also Justine’s tragedy– not just that she hates the world, but that she hates herself— enough to deny herself even the slightest chance of a happy ending.  In the end she goes out of her way to actively betray Holden– her one chance at escape– and traps herself in an unhappy marriage and a small town, where everybody knows her secrets.  She seems to have the choice between an unknown (Mike White doesn’t dare to venture to beautiful) life and a life of known ugliness.  And she chooses the one she knows– even if it means she is stuck facing her past.

Mike White has a keen awareness that the most biting tragedies are the preventable ones– the ones that make you throw your hands up in the air and ask, “Why God? Why?” Or, in this case, “Why, Mike White?  Why?”  Why force us to relate to a character, show them (and us) the chance of a happy future and then proceed to systematically deny them– or worse, have them deny themselves– this happiness?

In Enlightened, as in The Good Girl, Mike White builds a harsh world for his main character, Amy. In the first season, she seems to be under constant emotional assault from her drug addicted husband, her tight-lipped, distant mother, the bullying bosses and former friends at work, in addition to a new sleazy boss in the basement (or more accurately the underworld) of the building. Mike White forces us to face her isolated suffering in the first shot of the series: a close-up on Amy’s, twisted, tear-blotched face, the mascara dripping down her cheeks as she breaks down in a bathroom stall. We watch as she tries to open up to an ex-husband who sits next to her, doing crack.  This world too, seems full of ugliness – enough to make anyone (even an unattached audience member) feel disgusted.

But what’s different here from The Good Girl is Amy’s attitude.  She describes the presence of God, or “something better than that” speaking to her, telling her, “this all for you.  And everything is a gift…even the horrible stuff.”  What sets Enlightened apart from Mike White’s earlier pieces is the recognition of not just life’s shittiness, but its value.  In the beginning, as Amy scuba dives in the deep blue tropical ocean at her therapeutic retreat, we see a sea turtle, gliding serenely above us.  The camera devours its image, allows it to fill up the screen as it passes over. Every few episodes Mike White will give us these moments, allowing us to revel in their beauty.

Another way to think of the shift in attitude is by comparing two quotes: In The Good Girl, “You hate the world. I hate it too,” is the mentality that dominates the story, and seems ultimately to win out.  The line seeks solidarity in hatred. Compare this with the later quote from the second season of Enlightened, where a young drug addict, coming down from a coke-bender, laments, “I look at people and I think… I just hate people.  There’s so much that I just fuckin’ hate and so little that I love.”

Unlike the first quote, in which the speaker seeks to arm herself against the world, the latter is self-reflective.  All the speaker’s hatred is turned inward onto himself.  “I don’t even want to wake up tomorrow, I’m such a piece of shit.”  In a way this line is just as hopeless as the end of The Good Girl. This character has burned his bridges and is most likely going to jail. Yet, embedded in the statement, “there is so much in the world that I hate, and so little that I love” is a fragment of hope.  There may be very “little…love” in the world of Enlightened, but at least there is a glimmer of it.  Not only that– there’s remorse.  He wants to change.

This desire to change is present at one point or another in nearly all of the characters in Enlightened.  It’s what makes them human, and vulnerable.  It’s also what gives us hope, gives us a reason to stay invested in the characters.  We know better than to assume a happy ending is guaranteed, or even likely, if Mike White has anything to do with it.  But at least in his most recent work, there is the possibility of fulfillment.  And in the face of Justine’s static, self-inflicted misery, a possibility is enough.