This afternoon’s HBO announcement that “Enlightened” had been renewed while “Bored to Death,” “Hung” and “How to Make It in America” had been canceled was like a case study in how to manage the release of bad news.
HBO does not like to cancel shows – specifically, to admit to canceling shows. Canceling shows is what other TV networks do, and as we know, HBO does not see itself as TV. So shows tend to run for as long as their creators want them to. This is the channel that let “Arli$$” run forever, and that’s going to let David Simon and Eric Overmyer make at least three seasons of “Treme.” In the rare cases where HBO pulls the plug before the creative team is ready, it tends to be because the show has become prohibitively expensive and/or has completely failed to generate buzz among critics or viewers. “Deadwood” and “Rome” ultimately cost too much, for instance, and even in the case of “Deadwood,” HBO tried to sell it as a decision David Milch had made to focus on “John From Cincinnati” (even though he wanted to do that fourth season of “Deadwood” first) and then promised that the series would wrap up with a pair of movies (which everyone knew would never logistically be feasible, and which no one at HBO has talked about for a long time).
The problem is, HBO had way too much series inventory as the day began. Returning next year (along with “The Life & Times of Tim,” whose season will continue into the new year) are “Eastbound & Down,” “Game of Thrones,” “True Blood,” “Boardwalk Empire” and “Treme” – and, if Larry David decides he wants to do another season and can get it done in time to air in 2012, “Curb Your Enthusiasm” – and there are a flood of new shows including Dustin Hoffman in Milch’s horse racing drama “Luck,” Aaron Sorkin’s untitled drama about cable news, Julia Louis-Dreyfus in Armando Iannucci’s political satire “Veep, Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s “Life’s Too Short,” Chris Lilley’s “Angry Boys” and the Judd Apatow/Lena Dunham comedy “Girls.” That’s more than enough to fill out a year-round programming slate for a network that doesn’t like to program outside of Sundays when at all possible. As it is, the inventory overload in 2011 meant that “Bored to Death” and “Enlightened” had to air on Mondays, where virtually nobody watched.
So HBO had to start eliminating shows, and then it comes down to what exactly HBO values most. It’s not ratings, since “Enlightened” was the least-watched of the four. HBO’s not an advertiser-supported channel, so a show’s ratings only matter in so much as it suggests people might be subscribing for this show or that. Really, it’s about image – about making the HBO brand seem so relevant and valuable that people will want to subscribe for the whole package. And in that case, “Enlightened” – which I didn’t love, but which a number of my fellow critics put on their Top 10 lists for the year – arguably had more cachet than “Hung” (which had a relatively strong year but has generally taken a beating from critics and fans alike over its run), “How to Make It in America” (which never seemed to catch on as “Entourage East,” despite having the catchiest theme song on television) and “Bored to Death,” which drew pockets of critical praise but was viewed overall as a kind of curiosity.(*)
(*) I also imagine that Ted Danson signing the “CSI” deal played a role. While everyone said that Danson would be able to do both shows, that was easy to say when there was an entire “Bored” season in the can. I have a much harder time imagining CBS letting him do a fourth season of “Bored” on his hiatus, and/or Danson having the time and energy to do so. Maybe it could have been worked out, but without all three guys together, there’s no show.
Again, not a lot of people watched “Enlightened,” but those who did all the way through were for the most part extremely passionate about it, and that – along with continuing a relationship with a guy like Mike White, who has done a lot of interesting (if not always commercially successful) projects in the past – has more value to HBO than a show with bigger numbers that people watch casually because it happens to be on after “Boardwalk Empire.”
So HBO paired the good news of a show adored by certain members of the press being renewed in spite of horrific ratings with the bad news of canceling three shows that had varying degrees of support but no real obsession. And they made both announcements at a time of year where no one is paying much attention to the TV business – and only a few weeks before bright and shiny new HBO shows like “Luck” debut. If you have to take out the trash, news-wise, this is how you do it.
I won’t exactly miss any of the canceled shows. As I said when the “Hung” season wrapped, it was an improvement on what came before, but never something that compelled me to leap to the next episode. And I enjoyed both “Bored” and “How to Make It” to varying degrees, yet never went out of my way to catch up after seeing the first few episodes of their respective seasons. As a TV critic trying to keep up with interesting programming, it felt to me like HBO had a glut of shows that were just good enough to try to pay attention to but not good enough to always follow through on.
For viewers without my workload who liked one or more of those shows, though, I imagine today’s news feels lousy, even if “Enlightened” was ultimately spared. So fire away. Which cancellation disappoints or surprises you most? Or does the continued existence of “Enligthened” – or that promising slate of new and returning shows in 2012 – mitigate the fact that you’re never going to see Crisp turn into a national fashion brand or watch Jonathan, George and Ray get high together again?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org