'Enlightened' and the Lessons of Letting Go of a Great TV Show

The Atlantic

So, Enlightened was canceled. HBO announced last night that the beloved show was just not beloved by enough people, so the plug has been pulled after two glorious and too-brief seasons. It's a shame and a disappointment, absolutely. Like The Comeback before it, Enlightened was a brilliant show that was underappreciated and thus under-promoted by HBO. Good stuff like this should not struggle to stay alive! And yet it did, and it died. But, in the spirit of the show, let's not get angry. Let's just let it go.

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Sometimes television shows end when they are supposed to. Ultimately once the initial sting wears off, it can start to seem like a good thing, like a strange blessing, that a favorite show ended when it did. I remember the fight back in 1994 and 1995 to keep My So-Called Life on the air, and it was a noble one. Of course it ultimately proved futile, but while bitter feelings lingered for a bit, a new sort of worship slowly began to crystallize. Is MSCL not even more perfect for its short, tragic life? What if Angela had ended up with Brian Krakow and it was weird? What if Ricky was given a boyfriend and he was really annoying? Television is an uncertain medium, perhaps never more so than in a show's second season. Things could have gone disastrously! 

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Of course they also could have gone beautifully. Enlightened's second season was even better than the first, so there was no indication that creator Mike White or his star Laura Dern were losing steam. But the chance was there, there were odds in play, so we did potentially dodge the bullet of a show sinking into muddled confusion or misguided diversions. It's probably a pessimistic way to look at TV, but too many once-good shows have been ruined by hobbling on too long for us to not accept that the potential is there. Even for something as good as Enlightened. So we should not be angry that it's gone. Sad, sure. Disappointed, of course. But the most productive way to work through those feelings is not to beat our chests and scream at HBO. Rather we should simply continue to evangelize about the Enlightened that exists. Not in the hopes of resurrecting it, but to spread the good world and clue more people in on what a wonderful thing it was.

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I'm sure some people out there are far more passionate than I am. I know they are. When that Veronica Mars Kickstarter thing went supernova, I found it mind-boggling. I simply do not understand that level of fandom. So there are probably at least a few people right now drafting angry letters to HBO, or creating petitions, or thinking about starting their own fundraising campaign. And I suppose that's fine. But ultimately doesn't all that clatter distract from the thing that was? People seemed to forget about Veronica Mars's only so-so third season when throwing money at the movie. What if the new Arrested Development episodes are pale imitators of the originals? Remember the fight to keep Community alive? People aren't too happy with the new season, are they. Again it's probably pessimism to think this way, but it seems like people spend too much time wanting more of a thing instead of appreciating what they already have. Which isn't the Enlightened way! "You can try to escape the story of your life but you can’t," Amy Jellicoe says in one of the show's finest moments. "It happened, the baby died, the dog died, the heart broke." It did happen. And we need to move on.

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Hopefully White and Dern aren't too burned by this experience to work with HBO again. Maybe they will come up with something else grand and wonderful! I'm sure they're disappointed too, and yeah I don't really think a third season of the show would have been anything but wonderful, but hopefully they too can accept the loss and grow from it and appreciate what they made. It was a wonderful thing! And now it's over. On to the next.

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