Hung Out to Dry: HBO’s Cancellation Habit
by Maya Montanez Smukler — UCLA & The New School University
May 14, 2012 – 00:00
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.
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