HBO’s internal dialogue about the dark, half-hour series could be summed up similarly as: “Watch me. Watch me.”
In its first season, “Enlightened,”created by Mike White and Ms. Dern, won some critical acclaim. Ms. Dern received a Golden Globe award for best actress for her portrayal of a midlevel corporate executive who has a nervous breakdown after a messy office affair and returns from rehab spouting self-help platitudes.
But the show failed to gain an audience. By Nielsen’s figures, 210,000 viewers watched the Season 1 premiere. The audience sank to 190,000 viewers in its second episode, making it among the lowest-rated shows on HBO.
Since HBO relies on subscriptions rather than advertising dollars, it has typically valued critical acclaim and awards over nightly ratings. Still, there’s a distinct feeling at the channel that “Enlightened,” like its striving-for-attention protagonist, just hasn’t gotten the notice it deserves. “We feel very, very strongly about it,” said Sue Naegle, president of HBO Entertainment. She said crowd pleasers like “Game of Thrones” and “True Blood” allow the network to stick with a less popular, experimental series.
Recently, however, the supply of high-end cable series has exploded, creating more competition for HBO. The channel has rankled some fans by canceling shows with devoted but small followings like “Bored to Death” “Hung”and “In Treatment.” Last March, HBO canceled the expensive drama, “Luck,” after only a handful of episodes. But executives have stuck by Mr. White’s quixotic tale of workplace suffocation.
“Sometimes shows don’t get good numbers and it’s because the message is cloudy or they struggled creatively,” Ms. Naegle said. “But this one deserved another year, another chance.”
Rather than the poetic character vignettes of Season 1, the second season of “Enlightened” takes viewers on a serialized ride as Amy plots to take down Abaddonn Industries, the generically evil corporation that has demoted her to a basement job in a data processing department.
Part of the difficulty for “Enlightened” is that even among experimental cable shows, it’s a tough series to define. Billed as a comedy, the show has a polarizing protagonist and touches on dark, existential themes with lots of Mr. White’s brand of often hard-to-watch humor (the kind he displayed in the 2000 film “Chuck and Buck”) mixed in. Last year the series was nominated for best comedy at the Golden Globes alongside “Modern Family” and “New Girl.”
“HBO had us trot out in a panel of comedy show runners and I was thinking, ‘Why am I here? I feel like an impostor,’ ” Mr. White said. Ms. Dern said she thought of the show as “a half-hour study of an individual” and compared it to other projects she’s worked on with the filmmakers David Lynch, Alexander Payne and Robert Altman.
Mr. White, who stars in the series as Tyler, Amy’s obsequious computer-whiz colleague, said he was hopeful that the David and Goliath plot in the second season would draw more viewers. Amy teams up with an investigative reporter for The Los Angeles Times played by Dermot Mulroney to blow the whistle on Abaddonn for corrupt practices.
“I was watching ‘Homeland’ last year and people were nuts for that show and I was thinking, ‘She’s as annoying as Amy,’ ” Mr. White said, referring to the character played by Claire Danes. The difference, though, is “there’s so much plot” in “Homeland,” he said.
HBO agreed that a meatier plot might make the series appeal to a broader audience. “They weren’t so worried about her character being polarizing as the meditative quality of the show last season,” Mr. White said. “At the same time, when I turned in the scripts that were plotty and juicy, they said, ‘Don’t get away from the melancholy.’ ”
Friendly reminder: Enlightened season 2 premiers this Sunday at 9:30 on HBO!