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Agents of Channel Change: HBO Cancels Enlightened

Fans got some closure and two gorgeous seasons. HBO has its reputation as the network who makes one-of-a-kind shows--but within limits.

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How much postage does it take to mail a sea turtle to a TV network? The very few fans of Enlightened may get that reference, and because there are so very, very few of us, HBO announced yesterday that it was canceling the brilliant spiritual-dark-comedy series after two seasons, most likely putting it beyond the help of any mail-in Save Our Show campaign.

It’s not exactly a stunner that a network would cancel a show with Enlightened’s ratings, which were in the low six figures for its first-run showings, miniscule even by pay-cable standards. What’s rarer, honestly, is that the show would get a second season to begin with, as an acknowledgement of what a fine thing Laura Dern and Mike White created: a poetic story of personal growth, earnest yet shot through with unflinching humor. Rarer still is that an acclaimed, low-rated show would get a fitting ending; White, no stranger to the cold facts of ratings, ended the nigh-perfect second season resolving Amy Jellicoe’s story of blowing the whistle on her corporate employer.

So for Enlightened fans, this is sad, but it’s sadness with closure, which in the TV business counts as something of a win. But has HBO lost something here, in its reputation as a network that–within the bounds of a for-profit business–makes great shows that no one else will, and keeps them alive because they deserve it?

Not here–not yet. After all, HBO did make Enlightened, and who else would have, much less made a second season? The network issued a pained statement on the cancellation, and call me naive but having followed the network for years I have no reason to believe it insincere: “It was a very difficult decision.  We’ve decided not to continue Enlightened for a third season.  We’re proud of the show and we look forward to working with Mike White and Laura Dern in the future.”

(Disclosure: HBO is TIME’s sister company in Time Warner, though the companies will be separated under the terms of the Time Inc. spinoff deal in process.)

HBO takes chances on art, but with limits. It renewed the low-rated Luck–which had to cost a good bit more than Enlightened to make–though the racetrack drama’s second season ended up dying with one of its horses in a production mishap. It’s keeping Treme alive for one last, shortened season.

If there’s an unusual difference here, it’s that HBO rarely cancels shows at the peak of their acclaim. (The murky story behind the end of Deadwood notwithstanding.) Shows like Bored to Death, Hung or How to Make It in America had their fans, but their reception was mixed at best. I can’t imagine Enlightened not being near the top of my best-of-2013 list, and I bet it will be on many others. And it’s not just critics like me: its fanbase is small but loud, and it gets hosannas within Hollywood.

HBO, however, seems to have decided as Amy’s practical mother Helen might have said to her: good reviews won’t put a roof over your head. Now, HBO has long had to balance its commercial hits with its labors of love. And it could reasonably say it made a creative decision here too: that White gave the show a satisfying ending and it had told its story. That’s defensible, if disappointing.

The question is if this becomes a pattern: an HBO that shows, going forward, that it is only in the hit business now would be a different HBO. That HBO might do well for itself, but as I wrote in my review of Enlightened’s finale, part of its business success stems from its willingness to support uncommercial projects. You believe you need HBO in part because you want to see TV that wouldn’t exist otherwise—even if you don’t watch all those shows. That kind of halo effect is intangible, but that doesn’t mean it’s inconsequential. Canceling Enlightened doesn’t mean that HBO has changed and betrayed that philosophy; but it’s worth keeping an eye on.

In the meantime, sincere thanks to HBO for making the show–and moreso to Dern and White for creating it. The last thing we will have seen of Enlightened–spoilers for those of you still waiting to watch–was Amy winning a small victory over her corporation. In real life, Enlightened lived and died by the corporation. Whether you call that a victory or defeat is, appropriately enough, a philosophical question now.