How HBO can produce good comedies again

Last week HBO cancelled How to Make it in America,Bored to Death, and Hung. This is surprising, not because the shows had decent ratings or much of any critical respect, but because HBO is not known for canceling anything.

HBO, supposedly, is known for being premium, for producing the kind of quality programming worth paying for. The subscription base could allow HBO to escape commercial pressures and create shows that CBS and ABC audiences were too plebian to get.

And, in drama, often, HBO succeeded. It produced The Sopranos, The Wire, andTreme — all shows that, in some ways, broke ground (let’s ignore True Bloodfor now.)

But comedy, for the most part, has been pretty dismal at HBO. The days of developing shows like Curb Your Enthusiasm or The Larry Sanders Show appeared to be over (though Curb continues to exist.)

Entourage ran entirely on smirk, and Hung ran entirely on smug. Neither were fueled by jokes or creativity or guts. The reviews ofBored to Death were mixed – but few were talking about how brave, innovative, or particularly clever it was. The praise for How to Make it In America (also from Entourage’s executive producer, Mark Wahlberg) mainly focused on its credit sequence.

In fact, the best comedy that fits HBO’s supposed brand of risk and quality is Louie, and that airs on FX.

But now HBO has cleaned house. It’s spared Enlightened, the new HBO comedy about a woman who, after a nervous breakdown leads to a New Age conversion, returns to her corporate job. Enlightened’s made several end-of-the-year best-of lists, and for good reason. It treats every character with the right degree of respect and mockery for a comedy, and the portrayal of corporate hell feels almost Office Space-worthy.

All this bodes well for HBO. With comedy, it appears to have suddenly remembered that quality matters, that lazy shows like Hung andEntourage damage their brand and shows like Enlightened help. But I’d like to see the network go further: Adopt the Louie model,adopt the model of Curb Your Enthusiasm. Give visionary showrunners and passionate comedians a small budget and total creative control. And see what happens.

The power of pay-cable is the power to take insane risks. Mark Wahlberg won’t take advantage of that. But there are many who could.