'Enlightened' or Not?: How HBO Learned to Trust Its Viewers But Not Its Shows
by Maria San Filippo — Harvard University | Wellesley College | Five College Women's Studies Research Center
May 15, 2012 – 00:00
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?