Whither the HBO Comedy?
The network just canceled three half-hour comedies. Where are their replacements?
Last night Bored to Death creator Jonathan Ames held a little goodbye toast at the Brooklyn Inn for fans of the show, which, along with two other HBO shows, Hung and How to Make It in America, was canceled earlier this week. So, goodbye Bored to Death! And the other two. The question now is, where does HBO go from here?
Long gone are the heady HBO comedy days of Sex and the City. Even their LA boy version of that fantasy, Entourage, ended its run earlier this year. And Larry David is, as is his wont, still deliberating over whether to do another, ninth season of Curb Your Enthusiasm. And with these three cancellations, HBO now has a lot of room on its comedy slate. Its two biggest hopes right now seem to be Lena "Tiny Furniture" Dunham's Judd Apatow-produced Girls, about post-college millennials tooling around New York in the pursuit of careers and relationships all that grownup stuff, and political satirist Armando Iannucci's Veep, which stars Julia Louis-Dreyfus as a somewhat reluctant Vice President. Both shows are promising in their own ways, but do they have the broad appeal that, against some obvious demographic odds, SATC and Entourage managed to take advantage of?
We've seen the pilot for Girls, and while it's clever, it's very specific and small. Smaller in focus than even How to Make It in America, another show about young things in New York tryin' to make it. But whereas America had a slightly more outward-facing sense of humor to it, Girls is really particular in its satire. (Well, it's not quite satire, not like Portlandia is for example, but they're both sort of aiming at the same target.) HBO has often had smaller shows that they've let linger for a while, but typically there were other, bigger series around to help make the network's nut. And while True Blood, Game of Thrones, and Boardwalk Empire all perform strongly, the comedy side of things seems almost entirely made up of the small stuff. Two other upcoming comedies are Angry Boys, from Australian cult favorite Chris Lilley (Summer Heights High), and Life's Too Short, a show produced by Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, but starring Warwick Davis, the little person actor mostly known as Willow from Willow and the leprechaun from Leprechaun. It promises to be a funny look at backstage show business, but like The Comeback and Extras proved before it, those comedies tend to only achieve small devoted followings at best. Much like Lilley's terrific, but less-than-huge work.
Armando Iannucci, mostly known in the US for his film In the Loop, is the same kind of comedy creator, so while Veep certainly is promising with its creative pedigree and exciting cast (Louis-Dreyfus, Arrested Development's Tony Hale, Upright Citizens Brigade's Matt Walsh), might it also be a bit too niche to be the kind of popular watercooler comedy HBO's been lacking so noticeably in the past couple of seasons? Sure Curb Your Enthusiasm had higher ratings in its last go-around than it had in years, so maybe that's a very late-blooming certified hit, but really HBO has never been able to come even within striking distance of SATC's must-watch heat.
It'd be hard to argue that any of the recently canceled shows, neither Hung nor Bored to Death nor How to Make It in America, were really ever supposed to get quite that big, but it's probably safe to say that the network at least hoped for more than three only-slightly-buzzed-about seasons. Bored to Death was sometimes too quirky and cerebrally absurd, How to Make It in America too alienatingly about a particular culture, and Hung tended to yaw a bit too much toward Showtime territory. (Meaning, it was about the fun-seedy underbelly of something, the secret life of, the way Showtime's less-nuanced-than-HBO shows like Weeds, Nurse Jackie and The Big C have been. Despite its polished, pretty look there was always something a bit cheap, or at least cheap for HBO, about the show. It was crude in a way that HBO rarely is. Sure SATC and Entourage could be bawdy, but the setups themselves weren't lame dick jokes. Hung was, in concept at least, predicated on just such a thing.) HBO never gave these shows quite the same marketing oomph, probably because they knew from the get-go that they would be smaller programs.
If you think of HBO as having a tiered system, with an A level and a B level, these were all B-level comedies. They'd be on the same plane as respected but lesser heralded shows like Treme, In Treatment, and Flight of the Conchords. Then there's the A-level, where dwell the golden children of the network, Game of Thrones, Boardwalk Empire, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and True Blood. HBO needs more comedies on that top shelf, or else we fear we're doomed for short runs of smaller shows that some us come to love, only to quickly lose. Like Bored to Death. We didn't go to Ames' toast, but we'll raise a glass of white wine to it the next chance we get. In the meantime, figure it out, HBO. All this stuff is good, but a big ol' comedy hit would be nice too. Maybe Jonathan Ames, P.I. can help you find one.