The Golden Age of Television: Whither HBO?

HBO True Detective

I’ve said it before: The Golden Age of TV, which has spilled over from premium cable into network and streaming services, is responsible for the surge in quality of award-season theatrical releases. And Netflix and company have created an income stream for indie features that ten years ago would have died after a festival run and never been seen. And that stream is critical to bottom-line projections that help close film-financing deals, which in turn get alternative content made in the first place. It’s a seller’s market out there for writers and creators; we no longer have to shovel crap that enables delusional, ditzy execs into thinking they are mitigating risk. So whither HBO, the channel that sparked this welcome revolution with The Sopranos?

Now that I’ve appeased my inner life coach by not being tangential and writing a proper intro paragraph germane to the title, let me dovetail into a side comment. I’ve never been entirely convinced by the pundits on the business side of filmmaking who have been saying that movie theaters are dying, that many will close. Those that remain open will scale their admission prices to be more in line with live theaters: blockbusters with high production values and gimmicks like 3D and theater-shaking Dolby Atmos will charge considerably more, like Broadway shows, and cheaper-made indie films less, like Off-Broadway. I might agree with the scaling of prices, and actually think that’s reasonable and a good thing in the end for indies, but I don’t agree with widespread theater closures. Movies will always be a part of the mating ritual, an affordable one. Not only do you get to sit in the dark and touch or not touch, but you lay the foundations with a potential partner for shared tastes. Movie theaters aren’t going away any more that restaurants are; people need to get out of the house. Going for dinner on initial dates and then inviting a person home for Netflix just isn’t going to catch on. That’s not even happening in quick-fuck Homolandia any more.

Okay, back to my regularly scheduled topic.

HBO has gone a bit soggy cabage recently. The Newsroom won’t be renewed after next season, nor will Boardwalk Empire. The former I think is so well written, and revisiting recent socio-political history with a realistic behind-the-scenes view of how that history was reported is a solid, engaging idea. But I need to correct myself: it’s not realistic per se, it’s an insider’s look via a portrayal so idealistic it’s braggadocio. The way the show is directed and performed is too smug and detached for realism. These are characters with whom it is difficult to identify; they are pleasurably New Yorker smart but just way too glib and bantery. Most lines are delivered with a willfully insouciant deadpan that is too robotic to form a connection with the viewer. They come off as a bunch of quippy Spocks from Star Trek trying to find love and honor at an Asperger’s convention. In spirit the characters remind me of successful indie film producers on a festival panel, as well as almost every slithery rep at the major talent agencies. That’s never been the kind of person I can tolerate for more than an hour-long meeting, and I suspect most viewers feel the same.

Emily Mortimer Newsroom

Emily Mortimer leads the pack in one-note, robotic acting on NEWSROOM.

I couldn’t get past the first season and a half of Boardwalk Empire. Too much Scorsese? Yes, that too. It’s beautifully made, decently scripted, but at this point in the revolution of filmed content there is so much else out there that qualifies as must-see TV that people don’t have the space for a show that is so repetitive, not like they might have ten years ago.

The groundbreaking, somewhat-repetitive Mad Men is on its way out, too. Unlike True Blood, which has overstayed its welcome with me — if it ever had a welcome with me — by about ten seasons (or it feels like ten seasons), Mad Men will bow gracefully, finish the last swig of scotch and stagger out the door. It shall be missed. I’m not going to sing the praises of a show that has had so many sung that there’s nothing fresh to add, except to say that when I need to explain my rarified childhood I can now sum it up in a log-line pitch: “I’m the son of characters from Mad Men, the age of Don and Betty’s youngest, born in New York City but raised in Italy.” It works. Thank you, Matt Weiner.

It’s true that True Blood is still HBO’s most-successful show. It’s the most popular pirated show on the Internet, too. This is one of those disconnects that I experience occasionally with popular culture. I never liked Michael Jackson, either; he always gave me the creeps — that squeaky voice of his made my scalp tingle with alarm. I never got Buffy, either. I’m a terrible Ghey, often: I will never connect with that campy creature-feature shtick. Indeed, True Blood is just an endless video for “Thiller.” Don’t get me started on the acting style; it’s not acting, it’s hamming. However, I’m not immune to hypcrisy: I’m completely caught up with True Blood and will likely sit down one weekend after the end of the next season and catch up on all the episodes at once. It’s still crap, though, and unworthy of the same station that gave birth to The Sopranos and Alan Ball’s Six Feet Under, the show that turned the spark ignited by Sopranos into wildfire.

As I said in a tweet after the season premiere on Sunday, Girls has sadly jumped the shark and smashed its teeth on the dorsal fin. I’m not sure I want to watch another episode. The correct thing to have done is break it out, move the action somewhere else, ratchet up the drama and action. Or maybe not. I’m not sure how it could have been saved from this cul-de-sac of mid-twenties ennui in which it is stuck. I am saying this as a huge Lena Dunham fan and supporter. Is mine tough love? It’s inevitable that she will go from this to better, eventually. I don’t think I could have delivered to expectations consistently at such a young age.

Jemima Kirke as Jessa

Jemima Kirke as Jessa

After seeing the first episode of this season’s Girls I thought that Jessa deserved a spin-off show of her own, but that’s entirely personal: she is the first Ameropean that I can think of to be represented realistically on the screen. A great deal of my own work features Ameropeans; I find us fascinating, but I’m also chronically self-absorbed. After the second episode I cancelled that thought; she’s as tedious and unworthy of further examination as the rest of the Girls cast. (Please, please kill off that dreadful Mamet girl soon. Thanks.)

It’s probably just cyclical. HBO will bounce back because they are the smartest, most tasteful people in the room. It’s just that the competition has cottoned on to the formula for quality content — extended-play Sundance fare, boom, done — and has trained up to beat HBO at its own game. That only means the bar has been raised, just as it has now in the cinemas. (By the way, I’m convinced the level of movies released in this extraordinary season will be de rigeur going forward. But that’s another post.)

Much as I liked director Andrew Haigh’s Weekend, I don’t know that I’m ready for a “gay Girls,” which is how everyone is describing Looking. From the trailer it actually feels like Tales of the City meets Girls. It might just be my mood this week, but I said to my roommate yesterday, “I wish I could just have sex with men without being gay.” I’m so, so done with gay. Even Ellen is done with it. Still, I’ll tune in to Looking at some point, but not enthusiastically.

I can see an HBO exec blinking at my irrational concerns and saying, “Um, three words: Game of Thrones.” True, it looks from the trailer that this will be the best-crafted season yet. But that’s Lord of the Rings, and you know I’m talking David Copperfield.

I’m not sure what HBO has in the pipeline, but what’s up there right now is good but nowhere near the level viewers have come to expect from the venerable leader of premium-cable content. Hands down their best new show is Getting On, a half-hour comedy about nurses in an all-woman geriatric ward that a producer friend of mine from a different show tweeted is “just everything.” If old age isn’t for sissies, caring for geriatrics is for heroes.

I’ve seen the first episode of True Detective, which premiered last Sunday. The writing by novelist Nic Pizzolatto is some of the best on either the big or small screen. It might be a game changer. Pizzolatto has written the entire first season himself, an unusual thing. It was also directed by a single director, Cary Fukunaga, whose Sin Nombre and Jane Eyre I was dazzled by; his filmmaking style is similar to my own: equal focus on script, stylishness and authentic performance. Writing or directing a full season is now what the big boys do. It must nearly destroy you, but it makes so much sense in terms of the premium-cable production model.

Matthew Mcconaughey Woody Harrelson True Detective

Matthew McConaughey, who plays the essential unstable detective, proves once and for all that his early career, which The New Yorker today likened to sweet tea, was a series of mistakes. I’m not too sure about Woody Harrelson as his stable foil and partner, however. But I’ve never been sure about Woody Harrelson. This is one of those shows that will shift into high gear in the fifth or sixth episode. I’m not on HBO’s screener list so I haven’t been able to see that far into the future, but I’m reasonably confident we’re in for some gut-wrenching stuff.

The problem with True Detective is it lifts motifs from my friend Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal, which is on NBC. I mean, this isn’t even a case of being similar — the motifs are exactly the same: the serial killer arranges his corpses artistically with the use of totems and deer antlers. And the hero is a brilliant unstable detective who is losing his shit. However, Hannibal is considerably more visually arresting and less macho.

HBO clearly has a winner with True Detective, but I doubt it’s going to be on a par with The Sopranos or Six Feet Under or Mad Men or True Blood or Game of Thrones, and it needs a new show at that level to remain the leader.

Breaking Bad was the natural-born heir to The Sopranos. If I were in programming at HBO, I would look at the elements coursing the umbilical cord that links both shows and try to apply them to something fresh set in an environment that hasn’t been seen before. Yeah, maybe a show about Ameropeans set in London. You know I have the script, guys. Call me.



Comment: 1

  • Gil Alan January 19, 20145:53 pm

    Great piece!!!  I’m going to check out True Detective soon.  :)

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