Despite Cancellation, 'Enlightened' Was a Win for HBO and Viewers (Analysis)

Mike White's noble effort was TV as art, and the bold experimentation at the network should be applauded.
Mike White and Laura Dern in HBO's "Enlightened."

I remember watching the first episode of Enlightened -- the Mike White-created series starring Laura Dern as a woman who breaks down (badly), goes to rehab and comes back all sunshine and rainbows trying to be a positive influence on the rest of the world -- and thinking: "Hmmm. That was interesting. Whatever that was."

Then I immediately watched the second episode and became more intrigued, not only by the writing and acting, which were great (Dern won a Golden Globe for her performance in that first season), but also by the tonal shifts White was trying to bring to the small screen. I still hadn't quite figured out what it wanted to be, or what it was trying to say. Pleasantly surprised, I didn't know how to react to Enlightened. Let me tell you -- that's rare.

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Then I watched the third and fourth episodes in an ever-more-intrigued state of mind and came away incredibly impressed. After four episodes in two hours, it was pretty clear that there was nothing like Enlightened on television. It was like a 30-minute indie movie every week. There was no easily referenced predecessor to the series. And I liked that very much.

Of course, not a lot of people were watching Enlightened then. But like most cable series, it saw its audience grow in the second season -- and there was that strange phenomenon where people were talking about it a lot more on social media. In the first season, I would talk about Enlightened and rave about it, and even people who watch a lot of television had no idea what it was. This year, that recognition was much greater, but the numbers were never really there to make it a hit. And yet, that's not really HBO's business model anyway. It likes buzz, which leads to awards, which lead to a sense of something special you're not getting unless you're getting HBO. So you subscribe.

That's the business model.

But even in that environment, an audience of 200,000 to 300,000 is not sustainable unless there's a critical cacophony a la Girls. So it's not quite a surprise that HBO canceled Enlightened on Tuesday. I would make the argument that if the pay cable channel didn't have a handful of comedies in the pipeline, it probably would have stuck with the show for a third season.

This is the positive part, even for fans of Enlightened. Sad to see it go? Sure. But give HBO credit for trying something that, particularly in that first season, was an entirely different animal. People who love great television need to champion that kind of experimentation. HBO hasn't been afraid to do that, even though, for its efforts, the channel hasn't produced an enormous number of half-hour comedy hits.

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Very rarely are you going to see a channel greenlight a show like Enlightened and then stick with it when it goes almost undetected in Season 1. (I suppose you could argue here, and probably rightly, that HBO really didn't know how to promote the show. I mean, even after the first four episodes, it was a series still blooming and taking new shapes, and you can't fault an audience that maybe wanted something more immediately identifiable.) 

But I was heartened to hear that Enlightened got a second season and even more so to see the show pop up on Twitter chatter pretty regularly. When television approaches art -- and the best cable series often are just that -- there are going to be pieces of it that are incredibly respected but just don't translate. I think that's what Enlightened was in season one. And then it was the weird piece in the museum that people start chattering about in season two, and word of mouth starts to create bigger packs of people standing in front of it, gazing with open eyes and minds.

That was a hell of an effort, Mike White. Thank you for having a unique vision.

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Now HBO has five other comedies in the works, including Family Tree, from Christopher Guest, coming in May. Mike Judge (Beavis and Butt-head, King of the Hill), has a new series called Silicon Valley; Lorne Michaels has People in New Jersey, etc. That means there will be five big swings from HBO, which is a whole lot different than saying there are five big swings from CBS. Meaning, hell, we could get something truly amazing, utterly unique and a concept as fresh as ever. Those are the kinds of expectations you create when you're the channel that isn't afraid to try out an original idea from a creative mind.

That's how we got the excellent and peculiar Enlightened, even if it ultimately didn't work out. You can certainly cry like Amy, Dern's character, but no need for the messy rage. Enlightened was a noble effort. Let's see what's next.


Twitter: @BastardMachine