HBO – WHAT HAPPENED? I’ll be writing my 1,000th column here in a couple of months, but it still seems like I’ve been covering TV for the briefest of periods. It’s only recently that it occurred to me that it’s been more than a few months, when for not the first time, I found myself reporting on impending season-end ratings rumours that Fox would once again best the more venerable old school trio of U.S. networks in not only certain key demographics, but across the board, forcing CBS to pass on the top network crown.
Another sign that time – indeed, a whole epoch in TV history – has passed is the dismal state of HBO, which was the apex of quality programming when I started this job in 2004. As I took up the TV critic’s pen at Metro, Oz was over and Sex And The City was coming to an end, but Deadwood was on the horizon, The Wire finishing its first season, Curb Your Enthusiasm was slowly emerging from the shadow of Seinfeld, and The Sopranos was a cultural phenomenon in full bloom. All the attention paid to the long denouement of The Sopranos, as well as the brief but vivid run of Rome, did a lot to hide HBO’s lack of a long game.
Even today, it’s HBO shows that get name-checked more than any others when people try to talk about the unprecedented quality of the best TV these days – or when they’re the latest evolutionary offspring of the PBS snob, trying to buff up their own impeccable taste, with the implication that they haven’t a clue what this Biggest Loser thing is that you’re talking about. It’s worth noting that Big Love, Entourage, The Conchords and especially John From Cincinnati never get mentioned in this list, a fact that was underlined for me when the box set for David Milch’s short-lived follow-up to Deadwood slipped through my mail slot yesterday morning.
The slide into irrelevance has been noting by everyone, apparently, but the execs at Time-Warner who might do something about HBO’s sinking ship. That changed this week with the news that Carolyn Strauss had been given her pink slip last week, after over 20 years at the network. Strauss had been head of entertainment for HBO since just before I started writing this column, so it’s hard not to escape the conclusion that the lack of a game plan was squarely her fault, and that the firing was overdue, even though, as Nikki Finke of the L.A. Weekly pointed out, “the pay channel took great pains to claim she would get a fat production deal.”
As Finke points out, Showtime is the new HBO right now, thanks to shows like Dexter and Weeds, both of which seem like natural fits for HBO; hell, with just two original dramas – Mad Men and Breaking Bad – AMC is beating HBO at its own game. Finke thinks that nothing short of scorched earth is called for to rouse HBO from its self-satisfied slumber: “I say shake up the place, get rid of /everybody/, and start all over.” All I know is that it has to be possible to find something better than In Treatment or Tell Me You Love Me, even if it means reviving Tales From The Crypt.