THE BACK APGES

Is it time to declare HBOver?

It used to be the only place to go for daring unconventional shows. Not anymore.

JAIME J. WEINMAN April 3 2006
THE BACK APGES

Is it time to declare HBOver?

It used to be the only place to go for daring unconventional shows. Not anymore.

JAIME J. WEINMAN April 3 2006

Is it time to declare HBOver?

It used to be the only place to go for daring unconventional shows. Not anymore.

tv

JAIME J. WEINMAN

The Sopranos re-

cently began its sixth and final season on the HBO network (the episodes are carried in Canada by The Movie Network). TV critics cheered, and audiences argued over who got shot when and what was up with that dream sequence. But all the media and audience attention pointed up one problem: HBO doesn’t have any new shows that get that kind of attention. And when The Sopranos is gone, they may not have any at all.

When it comes to original programming, HBO has never recaptured the high of 2004, the year the network won 32 Emmys for shows like The Sopranos and Curb Your Enthusiasm. Since then, HBO’s audience has declined, most of its hit shows are ending, and its new shows have not taken off, with the possible exception of the inside-Hollywood comedy Entourage. Deadwood, a revisionist western, is respected but not a pop-culture phenomenon to match The Sopranos. Big Love, about a man with three wives, inspired jokes about how it made polygamy look boring. Many of HBO’s other recent shows have been ambitious failures like Carnivàle, a sort of dust bowl version of Twin Peaks.

What most of these didn’t have was what HBO founder Chris Albrecht sought to bring to his shows: a sense of superiority to “regular” network shows. In developing original programming, Albrecht took advantage of pay TV’s freedom: without interference from advertisers or censors, he could try unusual things. By inverting the usual TV rules, HBO came into its own with shows like The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, and The Larry Sanders Show. Instead of likeable heroes, HBO presented screwed-up protagonists; instead of traditional stories, HBO charmed critics with non-linear storytelling and bleak endings.

The rule-breaking wasn’t just to please the critics; there was business sense in setting HBO

shows apart—or as the network slogan put it, “It’s not TV, it’s HBO.” Writer Larry Brody, who produced the short-lived HBO animated series Spawn, described the rationale behind the formula: “[Albrecht] wanted the downbeat endings because they would be in such sharp contrast to network fare and therefore have an impact on critics. He wanted the ‘backwards’ storytelling because... the hope was that the more difficult a show was to understand the more times a viewer would watch it and try to figure everything out.”

But this formula only works if the shows really are different from other TV. Recently,

Lost has the kind of deliberately confusing storylines HBO pioneered. But Lost is on ABC/Disney.

other networks, inspired by the success of HBO, have adopted Albrecht’s formula and made it conventional. The Shield, a brutal and amoral cop show, is exactly the sort of dark drama HBO was known for—but it’s produced by Fox’s FX Networks. The remake of Battlestar Galáctica has the things the HBO hits had: rave reviews, a loyal fan base, discussions of social significance. But it’s produced for the Sci Fi Channel. Even the home of Star Trek reruns is muscling in on HBO.

Broadcast networks have also produced their own HBO-esque shows. With the fragmentation of the TV audience into various

niche markets, networks are free to make shows that appeal to the young, affluent viewers who make up HBO’s core audience. ABC/Disney’s Lost has the kind of deliberately confusing storylines that keep audiences debating what happened last week, while Fox’s 24 takes darkness and brutality as far as a network can between commercial breaks.

All this means HBO is no longer the only place to go for a daring, unconventional show, and may actually be losing that battle to other networks and production companies. Arrested Development, which has the kind of cult following and critical acclaim HBO’s best shows had, spent two seasons on the Fox network, and is now reportedly moving to cable— but to HBO’s competitor, the CBS-owned Showtime network. One episode of Arrested Development even made a joke about the fact that HBO wouldn’t want the show.

HBO still has enough subscribers to keep it profitable, but to stay edgy, Albrecht will need to adjust to the fact that his formula is now mainstream, and find other ways to set HBO apart. One tactic may be to revive genres that other networks have abandoned: Deadwood revived the western, and Lucky Louie, premiering this year, will be a throwback to hardedged domestic sitcoms like Rosearme. As other networks make a splash by doing things HBO used to do, HBO is responding by doing things its competitors used to do. With the departure of its flagship show, The Sopranos, however, that may not be enough. M