I was glad to see Enlightened get picked up for a second season even as HBO canceled most of its other half-hours: Hung, Bored to Death, and How to Make It In America. (I praised Enlightened on this blog a few weeks back, but I admit that this is pure correlation, not causation.) Enlightened didn’t get any viewers, but its reviews were very good once people realized that it had improved on the pilot, and Laura Dern is likely to get some Emmy attention. So for a network that is willing to renew a low-rated show, at least for two or three years, if it’s a “brand enhancer,” this may not have been a tough call – especially since none of its half-hour shows are getting a lot of viewers.
That’s where HBO is in a weak position, even as it has shored up its position in hour-long drama (with at least three successful shows – Game of Thrones, Boardwalk Empire, and, one must reluctantly admit, True Blood). It used to have half-hours that attracted a lot of people to the network: first Larry Sanders, then especially Sex and the City, and Curb Your Enthusiasm, and then the first few years of Entourage. But all the half-hours after Entourage have been shows that are there, and sometimes very good, but not a lot of people know they’re there, and there’s nothing much HBO’s promotional machine can do to make them the centre of attention. The good and bad half-hours alike have been small, quirky shows that get lost on a network that specializes in epic melodrama. (Treme isn’t a half-hour, but it has the same problem: it is basically small, and HBO is a network for big shows.) Hung managed to get some attention because of its central gimmick, which made it easier to publicize than Eastbound & Down or even Flight of the Conchords, but by the end, it was hard to be particularly aware that it was around.
The thing about half-hour shows, especially now that more people consume TV whenever they like, is that it’s easier to consume than an hour-long show – it takes half as much time, obviously, and doesn’t have as many subplots and twists (even if it has a serialized plot, and some of them, like Curb, have only a whisper of that). Most half-hours require less commitment than an hour, and are perfect for watching when you want something fun or interesting. (People watch a Curb for some laughs, and a Louie to be intrigued or dazzled, but they don’t watch these shows on the edge of their seats wondering what will happen next week.) For a network like FX, half-hour shows work because they’re cheap, they’re well-received, they’re fun, and they appeal to a young audience. HBO has had trouble developing “fun” half-hours, and has instead focused a lot of its attention on using the half-hour format as an outlet for smaller stories than it could tell in dramas. Bored to Death could have been done as a one-hour show, but it would have been too small in scale and episodic to work on HBO as it currently stands. Now it’s gone, and HBO is left looking for a successor to Sex and the City and Entourage – shows that, whatever their problems, offered audiences something they wanted to believe in and couldn’t see in that exact form outside of HBO. Escapist shows, basically. Maybe the rise of escapist half-hours on the networks has cut off that avenue for HBO, but I doubt it. I think they just wanted to do some different things with their half-hours, and sometimes it worked artistically, but it left them without a real hit in that form. For the moment at least, the network is doing best with shows that demand a complete and total investment, namely hour-long serialized dramas. Half-hour shows can get passionate investment too, but in a different way, the Louie sort of way where people want to see what he’s up to this week.