September 13, 2007

These Things Matter: Where Have You Gone, HBO?

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Almost as important as the return of the NFL last weekend was the return of Larry David. Curb Your Enthusiasm has returned for its sixth season, and HBO desperately needs it. Not only is HBO under a frontal assault from networks like Showtime and FX, but it is also undergoing a near-crisis internally.
What was once the unquestioned best collection of TV is now in danger of becoming just like all the other networks it tries to distance itself from: one or two hits surrounded by failed series after failed series.
The Sopranos is no longer coming back. Six Feet Under is long gone. Deadwood is in perpetual limbo, as the previously planned “final four episodes” now might not even happen at all. As a result, HBO is forced to rely on Curb Your Enthusiasm, Entourage and Big Love to continue to drive its subscriptions. This is a risky bet though, because as great as the adventures of Larry David and Vinnie Chase are, it’s tough for a half-hour show to spur a $15 per month subscription. Big Love is a mild success at best, with a niche audience — so much so that for the first time HBO made new episodes of a series debut on a day other than their traditional Sunday.
What makes matters worse for HBO is that their series don’t get cancelled midseason. There are no advertising dollars that they must rely on, revenue that usually forces a network’s hand to cancel a series if it is slow to pick up viewers. When HBO cancels a series, it is after a full season (at least) and is a direct message that nobody was watching. This made the cancellation of John from Cincinnati such an embarrassment. HBO focused a major advertising campaign on the show, putting its entire summer hopes on the series. It even got a cushy debut slot directly after the final episode of The Sopranos. What the executives didn’t bank on was that the show was terrible. Advertise all you want, but when the show sucks, the viewers will disappear.
In addition to the return of Curb, HBO is now banking on their new drama Tell Me You Love Me to carry them through the fall. This is their riskiest move yet. The show features explicit sex (both the organs and the acts), so much so that the network has been forced to cite their use of “prosthetics” to try to deflect some of the controversy surrounding the graphic content.
While many of you are now undoubtedly frantically programming your DVR to record the show (OK, myself included), the show makes for a very uncharacteristic ploy by HBO. HBO never has relied solely on gimmicks like “too much sex or violence” as the sole attractive feature of a show. It’s nice that they are not constrained by the restrictions of network television, but some of their series’ more shocking moments only enhanced the plot or the characters; they didn’t serve as the main reason for watching in the first place. The fact that what most people know about the new series is that it features lots of sex, and not what it’s about (couples in therapy, for those interested), is a major warning sign that HBO has hit a major bump in the road.
While I might sound overly critical, it’s because I hope that in the end HBO will once again find the right creative voices that made it the best collection of TV on the planet.
Just like Showtime and FX have used HBO as a model for their collective rises, HBO should use those networks as a reminder of how they did it in the first place.
This top 5 list shows my nostalgia for these past glory days, as I present the all-time top 5 HBO shows. I desperately await the next show that will join this list.

5. The Wire: The most socially topical show on the network; often difficult to watch, but in an important way.

4. The Larry Sanders Show: The first indication that HBO could be a gold mine for great shows.

3. Six Feet Under: Great characters, black comedy and bleak and bizarre storylines made for the most unique show on television.

2. Curb Your Enthusiasm: One of the five funniest comedies in TV history. Larry David says what all of us think (especially me).

1. The Sopranos: It is completely impossible to sum up in one brief sentence just how great this show was.