Hung Out to Dry: HBO’s Cancellation Habit

Curator's Note

Premiering in June 2009, HBO’s half-hour comedy Hung embodied in its leading character a recession mania sweeping the country, as American Everyman Ray Drecker (Thomas Jane) takes the emasculating downturn of his present day life—divorce, unemployment, homelessness—by the balls. Strutting through the depleted streets of Detroit in time to The Black Keys’ cranking anthem “I’ll Be Your Man,” Ray strips his way through the opening credits, a gesture that serves both as a surrender to dire straits and an act of dissidence—he may be broke, but he can still turn heads. Hung, a show about an unemployed high school teacher making the most of his best asset—a large penis—becomes a sex worker in order to provide for his family, garnered 9 million viewers per episode during its first season, ranking it as the channel’s most popular comedy program in five years.

Last December HBO cancelled Hung, along with Bored to Death (2009--2011) and How to Make it in America (2010--2011). Speculation that the channel’s roster was stacked with new shows, compounded by HBO airing programs only on Sunday nights, pushed out existing series. Hung’s numbers dropped from 6.9 million during 2010 to 3.9 million in 2011, its third and last season, but still it ranked higher than its peers. In their final seasons both Bored and How to Make it in America clocked 2.3 million viewers each, a 25% drop from the previous year. In the case of Enlightened (October 2011--), which aired to 1.5 million viewers and was picked up for a second season, ratings seem arbitrary in HBO’s drastic cuts.

What does seems clear, as Maria San Filippo suggests in tomorrow’s post, is the network’s proclivity for understated yet provocative content without being wholly committed to letting series run their course. Ray’s sexcapades paired him with Tanya (Jane Adams), a feminist poet turned pimp. The scrappy duo begin by mixing business with pleasure and at program’s end find true friendship. As a narrative, Hung’s “orgasmic living” may have been cut short, but it stands out—both series and storyline--as an example of the “It’s Not TV” brand of impressive American entrepreneurship. Regrettably, HBO seems to be selling out its own as mercilessly as U.S. big business has done. Taking our lead from Ray, this week’s theme tackles the elusive politics of staying on the air and the constant threat of cancellation.


Thank you, Maya, for leading off the week with such an insightful if bittersweet ode to this dearly departed show. For all the many reasons it’s regrettable that Hung is no longer airing, the one that stands out most for me is its bravery in depicting marginalized sexualities and gender identities – from the distinctly non-cougaresque treatment given Ray’s older female clientele, to his queer teenage son Damon’s (Charlie Saxton) grappling with coming out, to MTF client Kyla (Jamie Clayton), whom Ray escorts to her high school reunion in the season 3 episode “What’s Going on Downstairs? or Don’t Eat Prince Eric!” (11/13/2011). The latter should go down in history as one of the most compassionate, courageous explorations of trans issues in English-language television drama.

On behalf of my co-organizer and myself, we hope IMR readers will join the conversation this week to advocate for shows that need saving and to eulogize those that now, sadly, R.I.P.


Thank you for writing about this great show that hasn’t received the attention it deserves! I was surprised when HBO cancelled Hung, especially, as you pointed out, before they had allowed the show to run its course. Both Hung and Bored to Death seemed to be just hitting their strides when HBO pulled their plugs (I was never a fan of How to Make it in America – I think that show might have been more appropriately named Bored to Death), but what was more surprising was that the shows were not allowed one final, even abbreviated, season to wrap up their storylines.

Even though HBO clearly does not have to concern themselves with ratings since they rely on their abundant subscriber dollars, you would think HBO would want to give these shows a chance to have a better life in DVD sales.  Or perhaps with HBO Go allowing subscribers access to so much of HBO’s content, and the limited potential for these shows in syndication, the ancillary market is no longer a real concern? Is it possible that HBO just has more money than they know what to do with? It will be interesting to watch the fate of the new 30 minute shows HBO recently debuted (Girls, VEEP, etc.), and see if they meet such a hasty demise.  

Maria--Agreed that the show's hook--sex--was narratively explored in titillating and meaningful ways. That they often were one in the same speaks to the series' skill in drawing viewers in with sexy to then engage them with the complexities of that primal urge (physical, emotional and economical). I think what made those numerous subplots with customers work so well, whether they were comical Lydia (Ana Ortiz) the abusive cop or heartfelt as with the accidental "john" Mike (Gregg Henry) and "trick" Frances (Roxanne Hart), were the characters of Ray and Tanya. Ray's attempt at male bravado via his large penis, Tanya ridiculed as the woman who "comes a lot," these two balanced the male/female perspectives within the show sometimes through their camaraderie, often by their conflict, but also equally through each character's changing sexual needs and evolving personal identity. Everyone has a lot of sex in this show (for better or worse) with the exception of Jessica (Anne Heche) who I had a feeling, next season, would have finally gotten her share. We'll never know!

I usually only have one premium channel at a time and I've been inclined lately to keep Showtime until the new season of True Blood airs, and then I switch to HBO for the summer.  After reading this fascinating post about Hung, I'll have to go back and watch the series!  

I feel like HBO cancels shows because the network is (maybe) unnecessarily catering to a younger community of digital natives with a shorter collective attention span (e.g. the 20-something Girls demographic).  HBO is constantly looking for "the next big thing," although they also inexplicably cancel a lot of high-profile TV shows before they even start (e.g. the TV adaptation of Jonathan Franzen's book, The Corrections). Click here for a list of amazing HBO shows that will never air.  This creates buzz for the network and makes them seem even more exclusive.

I think HBO would prefer to keep the programming on a loop -- with new shows always in development and moving along the assembly line.  It's almost like they'd rather hook new subscribers with new shows, than stick with a solid show like Hung after a few seasons (cancel the show at its peak, before the material starts to deteriorate?).  I wonder if this signals a shift from quality to quantity, if "event" television (the buzz surrounding a show's premiere) and the constant influx of newness will keep new people subscribing.  Even if a more faithful, reliable audience unsubscribes when a good show is canceled, HBO is constantly putting out a new product (at an alarming rate) and thus pulling a new and bigger crowd of attention-challenged subscribers? 

It's also interesting how the Internet and Netflix/Hulu have changed the definition of "subscribe."  I used to subscribe to a premium channel with a price tag, and now I watch most of my television either in bulk via DVD marathons, or on the web.  I subscribe to channels belonging to individuals (or even to Hulu and Netflix) and I watch my "TV" for free or at greatly reduced rates on mobile devices, like my iPad.  

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