The penultimate episode of "Enlightened's" first season — which aired Dec. 4 — was almost certainly the program's best. For starters, it contained a moment of such poignant awkwardness as to be worth the price of HBO for a month all its own. In that scene, the mother of the central character played by Laura Dern — as portrayed by her real-life mom, Diane Ladd — has an uncomfortable run-in with an old friend, swapping "So what are your kids up to?" stories.
Only in the case of Ladd's pained mom, her daughter got divorced from that handsome athlete and wound up moving back home. Oh yeah, and as for her own late husband, well….
Alas, this Sunday's season finale doesn't measure up, although it does lay some interesting groundwork for a second season. That said, renewing "Enlightened" would almost amount to an act of stubbornness — HBO's way of telling the TV world, as it has before, "It's only a failure if we say so."
That's because by almost any commercial measure, "Enlightened" has been a failure. Asked to attract an audience Mondays, the series is simply too narrow to connect with viewers, testing whether there's a TV equivalent for off-off-off-Broadway.
While the program certainly has its admirers among critics, there's almost no case for keeping it on aside from the goodwill HBO engenders by treating such scribes like they're really, really important. (See "Treme," for starters.)
While there are aspects of the show I liked, my own original take was considerably less generous, in part because the series felt so pig-headedly determined to adhere to a vision that would alienate and baffle much of the audience. I'm all for shows that dare to be different and cater to a discerning niche, but there's something to be said for networks helping those who are willing to help themselves, if only a little.
Perhaps the Golden Globes will intervene — they have a way of singling out unorthodox properties, especially in TV when film talent like Dern and producer Mike White are involved – offering hope of more acclaim and honors down the road. But honestly, "Enlightened" is neither fish nor fowl from that perspective too – a half-hour that isn't funny, but lacking the grit to compete alongside an embarrassment of quality hours.
As I've stated before, HBO pieces together a programming quilt, and individual patches don't have to appeal to the entire array of the pay channel's subscribers; rather, shows need only bond passionately with a subset of them.
Even so, taking the premium label beyond denoting "quality" to something akin to "narrower than any art house" strikes me as questionable. Or at least, not an especially enlightened strategy.
So will "Enlightened' be afforded the opportunity to keep the lights on? It will be interesting to see what HBO ultimately decides.