TV Club

Enlightened character profile: Tyler, played by Mike White.

Consider Tyler.

Mike White as Tyler.
Mike White as Tyler.

Lacey Terrell/HBO

As Amy’s manic effort to bring down Abaddon kicked in during Enlightened’s season premiere, so did Tyler’s reluctance to get drawn deeper into her game. Amy’s perennial sidekick—even after she rebuffed his fumbling advances—Tyler often seems even more hapless than our ostensible heroine. Amy tries to plunder more private emails of Abaddon’s higher-ups, but he balks, as only Tyler can: “My aunt died and I just found out I got her timeshare, so I’m going to go to the Bahamas for two weeks a year!”

Tyler’s objections are at once pathetic and hilarious, as so much in Enlightened is. But when he finds out that he will lose his job whether or not he helps Amy, he allows himself to be drawn back into her grandiose, self-centered scheme, apparently because he detects a loneliness in Amy that mirrors his own. “I don’t know anything else,” he tells her when she asks if he wants to stop feeling invisible. When Amy suggests that Tyler could become Time’s Person of the Year, he shares an eye roll with us, but his lingering stare also betrays a sense of longing that clearly gets his wheels turning.

If there is any real hero in Enlightened, Tyler has to be it. Amy’s enthusiasm for crushing Abaddon arises from a self-professed sense of “obligation” that’s clearly her own need for self-renewal. She fits the self-righteous profile we often associate with whistleblowers, but Tyler is a complicated figure that may have more in common with whistleblowers in reality: He’s so used to being marginal that the alternative no longer seems appealing to him. He’s exactly the sort of broken-down drone Amy hopes to liberate, a fact that escapes them both. Not only does Tyler supply the means to bring down Abaddon (even with the password, Amy can’t figure out how to print the files), he also seems to embody the soul of the effort—and, crucially, provide an abiding reason they deserve to succeed.

Series co-creator Mike White cast himself in the role almost as an act of pity; he spares other actors the grim duty of playing a guy so broken that he accepts regular humiliation because his employee card helped get him a gym membership. White—a gaunt, pallid writer who occasionally acts—tends to write roles for himself that involve peripheral characters with a detached, sometimes ominous edge (if you haven’t caught his most famous role, in Chuck & Buck, do so immediately). That persona couldn’t be further from the man himself, if his unlikely bid on reality TV with his dad is to be believed, and yet he plays on his naturally eerie screen presence to revealing effect. The performance is so insistently unshowy that it’s easy to overlook the quiet, dutiful compass Tyler has become—both for Amy and for us.