'Enlightened' or Not?: How HBO Learned to Trust Its Viewers But Not Its Shows

Curator's Note

HBO and flashier rival Showtime became powerhouses by programming series so provocative or pedigreed that non-subscribers sign up to tune in. Game of Thrones, Girls, and The L Word are such shows; Enlightened is not.

Enlightened is the low concept, low profile series subscribers happen upon, warm to, then incrementally, intimately, embrace. Hence why Enlightened, which after premiering last October became the lone survivor of HBO’s pre-holiday massacre (see yesterday’s post by Maya Montañez Smukler), needs saving from the fate that befell older shows with more viewers but no award nominations Bored to Death, How to Make It in America, and Hung. Whereas the broadcast networks’ draconian ratings-and-sponsorship gods, as Jennifer Porst will discuss tomorrow, likely would have axed it too, Enlightened was granted a second season with which to score more viewers and accolades…or else, is the implication. The irony being that Enlightened’s magnetism stems from its slow build, tonal alchemy, startlingly human characters, and realistically restrained drama. Denying its dramatic series the opportunity to unfold over time, HBO is forsaking the second part of its successful model: having lured subscribers in, keeping them devoted (The Sopranos and Sex and the City, anyone?).

Satirical but un-ironic, outrageous without being over the top, Enlightened is a pitching nightmare precisely because it is so compassionate and true to life. Growing out of his own experiences in treatment following a Tinsel Town meltdown, Enlightened proved as inspirational for writer-creator Mike White as David Lynch’s comparable debacle was for Mulholland Drive. Luckily for us, White also followed Lynch’s lead in recognizing the too rarely exploited talents of Laura Dern, who plays disgraced executive-turned-cog-turned-whistleblower Amy Jellicoe, and re-matching her with real-life mother Diane Ladd as the chilly widow reluctantly receiving her daughter back into the maternal fold. Amy’s only other allies, her drug-addled ex-husband (Luke Wilson) and a nebbish co-worker (White), are equally wary of the havoc Amy’s born-again idealism could wreak. They should be. Earnestly seeking to be an Obama-era agent of change, Amy defies contemporary American apathy and corporate greed, doggedly intent on becoming her better self even as she confronts the difficulty of self-reinvention and shaping a just world. Season 1 ends with the ominous suggestion that change won’t emerge through political protests or in the boardrooms, but only with a revolutionary spark. Or is that just what it takes to remain on HBO?


You've hit on all the major points about the show - low profile, slow build, and human characters. But while these are what may make the show great, as a thoughtful, subtle satire, perhaps it is also what makes the show unremarkable compared to other premium cable hot-button, tantalizing, attention grabbing shows like the ones you mentioned at the start. Maybe you're right - that to remain on the HBO schedule, something revolutionary will have to happen, or something more buzz worthy will have to happen (is that what you are suggesting)? It is odd that this show remains while the shows mentioned in yesterday's post are out. On a personal taste note, I never quite got into this show, finding Amy's idealisim to be too sincere to stand. But maybe a revolutionary spark, breaking the somewhat realistic narrative and crossing over into absurdity will do the trick.

Thanks for your comment, Lauren. HBO definitely seems less concerned with alienating viewers than with boring them, if the abrupt beheading of the lead character of a certain hit series' season 1 finale was any indication...

Yesterday’s and today’s posts bring home how different the world of ad-supported TV is from premium cable. I think I’m remembering correctly that, as the friends are pitching their “show about nothing” in the origin story episode of Seinfeld, one of the suits asks “why am I watching this,” to which George triumphantly responds “because it’s on TV!” That, ultimately, seems to be the logic of ad-supported TV: viewers are going to watch something. Thus the shallow engagement and distraction that are often noted as characteristics of the TV-viewing experience. On premium cable, viewers have to be given a reason to subscribe, and so the viewing experience needs to be in some way intensive; the viewer must be motivated to seek it out. Perhaps the distinction bears some resemblance to the difference between movie-going before and after TV. In the 30s and 40s, people were already going to go to the movies; you just had to convince them to see your movie rather than another. Once TV had achieved sufficient penetration, viewers had to be given a reason to go to the movies at all; the audience for every film had to be assembled from scratch. For a time, Hollywood managed to attract audiences by a combination of quality and nudity: many American films of the 70s achieved success by importing from European cinema its greater maturity and complexity on one hand, and its greater sexual explicitness on the other. The combination of quality and nudity (or at least explicit talk about sex) has been crucial to the success of premium cable as well. Eventually, Hollywood figured out that familiarity trumped quality when it came to turning out viewers; thus our current age of sequels, prequels, and adaptations (if you’d told me back when I was a kid that someday there’d be a big-screen version of the board game Battleship, I’d have thought you were out of your mind). Will we some day look back to Game of Thrones as the Star Wars moment of premium cable?


I would agree that shows like Enlightened keep me devoted to HBO.  I love the show, and would watch and re-watch each episode through the week before a new one aired. The mix of dry comedy, drama, and philosophy that the show manages to balance so well would not have a chance on any other channel, and I love that HBO was willing to give it a shot. Now if they would just leave it on the air!

I think Vernon Shetley's comparison between ad supported television before and after the introduction of premium cable, and movies before and after the introduction of television is extremely interesting; and now that television and film are struggling to find their place in a digital world, what will they look like in ten years? Especially if television moves beyond its block booking phase of cable packages, will Enlightened have more or less a chance to be the kind of show that survives and is profitable in the long tail?


One of the reasons I stick with Showtime longer than HBO is because it has the shows I love that star interesting and tragically underused actresses like Mary Louise Parker (Weeds), Edie Falco (Nurse Jackie), and Laura Linney (The Big C).  I switched to HBO early this year because I was thrilled that Laura Dern was starring in a show like this.  (Was HBO following the Showtime model for using complicated and underused actresses and tweaking the formula to make it more subtle and human with Enlightened ?).  But when I switched over, HBO took Enlightened out of HBO On Demand.  Does anyone know why?  

HBO is the withholding network, it seems, and they're very controlling and it's true that they definitely don't care about alienating viewers.  They release a new show once every year, and they also wait a year to release the DVD of that show after it ends.  Shows are arbitrarily pulled from their On Demand station and this is confusing.  I want to see Enlightened.  It sounds like an incredible show and just the sort of thing that I'd really love to see more of (although I understand how it'd be hard to pitch). 

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