We still don't know whether "Enlightened," one of television's finest shows, will get a third season. And rather than go into another rhapsody about how wonderful the show is, I decided to think like a brand manager and offer HBO a few thoughts on why canceling the show would be a terrible idea from a business perspective. Amy Jellicoe (Laura Dern) may spend her days fighting her status as a cog in a corporate machine, but "Enlightened" is just one small part of HBO's roster, and canceling it would be relatively easy for the network's executives.
It would also be a terrible idea, and not just because the show's sure to turn up on a lot of Top 10 lists later this year.
Here are a few reasons HBO should keep this show around. Eight reasons, in fact -- one for every episode of the show's outstanding second season.
- The fan outcry will very loud. When HBO canceled "Deadwood" seven years ago, that news was processed by a radically different Internet ecosystem. On blogs and such, there was much rending of garments from Al Swearingen fans, but social media was still in its early days. Now fans can and do regularly take to Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr and many other outlets to register their dismay at how their favorite media properties are treated -- and there's no reason to think they'll let up in a timely fashion should "Enlightened" go away. For a network that lives on buzz, angry anti-HBO chatter that lasts a long time and blankets social networks is something to fear.
The media backlash won't be pretty. Few shows have won over critics like "Enlightened" has, and the bond that people have with this show feels deep and profound. I don't think I'm just speaking for myself when I say that many critics will feel personally wounded if this show goes away, and even the most rational media types will likely be steamed by HBO's nonchalant waste of the show's potential. Sure, HBO could probably withstand the ongoing wrath of fans venting via social media and blogs and critics thundering disapproval through various outlets, but the question is, does it want to? No good can come of any of that. Cancelation would be bad for HBO's brand. When it comes to scripted entertainment, HBO is known for a few things: intelligent takes on well-known genres (gangster chronicle, fantasy epic, political satire), lushly appointed period pieces and star vehicles, and -- most importantly for the purposes of this discussion -- shows that explore new territory and help set the creative agenda for the rest of the TV industry. Part of the reason some HBO shows get people talking is because they experiment, they break boundaries and they shake up preconceptions. These experiments don't always work (hello, "John from Cincinnati"), but shows like "Girls" and "Enlightened" are absolutely critical to how people perceive the network. I agree with "Enlightened" co-creator Mike White that the show is taking real risks with its complex portrayal of the difficult, obtuse and gloriously brave Amy Jellicoe. Aesthetically and narratively, "Enlightened" is doing something distinctive, important and new, and people come to HBO for that kind of risk-taking. Without shows like this, HBO runs the risk of seeming, frankly, a bit stodgy and predictable. Shows live for much longer on many more platforms. If "Enlightened" goes away now, people will be discovering it for years to come via OnDemand and HBO Go and the like. The constant drumbeat of "Why did HBO cancel this show?" will never really go away -- it'll be like an ever-present, low-grade fever. Executives will continually have to answer questions about why the show wasn't renewed and whether they'll let Mike White and Laura Dern revive it themselves. Look at the success of the "Veronica Mars" Kickstarter campaign, which means now that fans of unceremoniously canceled shows will never, ever stop trying to revive them. People have jokingly talked about a "Deadwood" Kickstarter, but everyone knows that isn't really possible. An "Enlightened" Kickstarter revival is actually feasible -- but does HBO really want an endless discussion about why it canceled the show and the campaign to bring it back? Why not just renew it so the network can look like the good guy? If we're going to talk about ratings, what about "Girls"? The first run of most "Girls" episodes pulls in well under 1 million viewers (sometimes less than half of that), and on average, ratings for "Girls" are down this season compared to last year -- yet that show was renewed. I know that "Enlightened's" ratings are even smaller, but it hasn't had a chance to build on the raves it garnered in its second season, especially as the Season 2 finale approached. For a while there, "Enlightened" did the impossible -- it was getting more press than "Girls." It'd be nuts to squander that momentum and positive press, which could help grow the show's audience in a third season. Dear HBO (which pretends not to care about ratings anyway), please don't pull another "Rome" -- i.e., cancel a show in its second season just as it is beginning to garner positive buzz and awards-show heat. A renewal is realistic, financially speaking. For the love of Abaddonn, "Enlightened" costs a lot less than "Rome"; the half-hour program has to be one of the cheapest shows HBO has on the air. The cost of an entire season of "Enlightened" is probably a fraction of the "Game of Thrones" catering budget. You'd really cancel a buzzed-about show with a budget that's essentially an HBO rounding error? Would all the bad publicity be worth the relatively paltry sum you'd save? It appeals to younger generations of potential HBO subscribers. I speak to a lot of college classes, and I always ask students about their viewing habits. Whether they're using their parents' HBO Go account or finding less legal methods, the fact is, almost none of them are paying for HBO. But here's the good news: They might, someday. When I ask students if they see themselves subscribing to HBO in a few years, quite a few hands shoot up. But they're not going to pay for your products now or think about paying for them in the future if they don't think the network is for them and doesn't speak to their millennial concerns about the planet, society and the difficulty of starting out on your chosen path in an unforgiving world. "Enlightened" is about all those things, and again, speaking anecdotally, I hear from a lot of people in their 20s and 30s who see themselves in Amy's struggles to stay grounded and hopeful while battling the cynicism and spiritual poverty of corporate life. Does HBO want to be seen as the "Shows My Parents Like" network, full of tasteful programs that speak to the lives of well-to-do people who already have their lives somewhat figured out? Or does it want to expand what its brand stands for -- and grow its present and future subscriber base as well? How about something for the ladies? There's been a rise in the number of complex, contradictory, fascinating female characters on television, but there still aren't nearly enough of them, for my money. And Amy isn't important simply because she's a lady; "Enlightened" is important because it speaks to a whole different set of concerns. The show is not about how a dude negotiates status or intimacy in a world where the definition of masculinity is changing. A lot of great television has come from stories told from that point of view, but it's time for something different, something fresh and challenging, and a character who's truly interested in rattling the status quo, not conquering it. Amy's "a woman who's over it," as she so memorably put it in the Season 2 finale. She burns with an earnest fire to change the world, and because of all her flaws (not despite them), her desire to change herself is ultimately admirable and even noble. She's a different kind of TV character for a post-"Sopranos" age, and losing her would be mean that TV wouldn't just be less diverse, it'd be sadder and less exciting. Does HBO want to be known for depriving us of one of TV's most compelling women?
Against all odds, because it believed in "Enlightened," HBO executives renewed the show once before. There are even more reasons to renew it this time around.