HBO: The Cool Kids With Nothing To Say Anymore
When it comes to original, scripted programming, HBO has firmly secured its place in the echelon of “television do-gooders”. A beautiful list of groundbreaking dramas and comedies have been birthed by this pay-channel that once had insight and, well, balls, along with the censor-less freedom to tackle any subject matter they desired. It’s the beast of this latter ability, however, alongside with general cool-hunting that has reared its ratings-hungry head in the face of what once made the channel’s original programming so wonderful and subsequently, let if fall by the wayside.
It comes as absolutely no surprise that in the past eight weeks HBO has renewed Girls for its third season and cancelled Enlightened after its tour-de-force second. Obviously, television exists in a Gladiator-esque forum wherein the bloodthirsty masses thrust gut-reaction thumbs by way of ad sales and ratings figures. The once-virgin beauty of HBO, however, eschewed this system—not only by existing as a subscription service that forewent traditional commercial breaks, but also in their creative direction to push forward with well-written, unflinching, and remarkable stories about, basically, being human. That’s what has so often worked in their favor. Maybe not always for their ratings but if not there then definitely in esteemed accolades (which then inflated their amount of subscribers anyway).
The oxygen-soaked spark of this punk television attitude came about during a post-Reagan era of strange, late-late shows. They aired, successfully, oddballs like Tales from the Crypt, Real Sex, Def Comedy Jam, The Kids in the Hall, and the seminal The Larry Sanders Show— which would bring their programming out of the midnight cult scene and pave the way for many more realistic and sharp narratives. They got in with the weird and then started refining themselves.
Throughout the mid-nineties this alternative comedy edge stayed sharp and gave us Arliss, Tenacious D, Tracy Takes On..., and the brilliant Mr. Show. Then, HBO almost completely ended their sketch sensibilities with their first hour-long drama: Oz, a chillingly realistic and deftly written tragedy about life, or lack thereof, in prison (a particularly violent show that my parents, who held strictly true to the age limits of the MPAA, actually made me watch to deter me from a life of crime—I was fifteen; it worked). Oz was the harbinger of HBO’s golden age. In the next five years earth-shattering shows such as Sex and the City, The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, and The Wire would leave their imprints in television history alongside well-tailored and beautiful mini-series like Angels in America and Band of Brothers. The amount of Emmys this half-decade period produced would be enough to melt down and fund a new space program.
If the early 90s was HBO’s “Cult” period then afterward came the period of “Storytelling,” with an intermediate phase that had a logistical crossover between them. They took steps to get there and they took them well. On the tail end of their golden age, however, another intermediate period began to develop crossing an emphasis on storytelling with what was working so well for their ratings: edgy ideas. And so were born Entourage, Deadwood, Extras*, Big Love, Flight of The Concords*, and True Blood [*although these only lasted two seasons, it’s important to note that, unlike Enlightened, they chose to cancel themselves]. These shows were still interesting enough outside of their “quirky” settings by handling their scenarios just as well as continuing to tell good, and sometimes great, stories (even if Entourage and True Blood devolved into mindless garbage over the years, both had substantial and promising beginnings that lasted more than two seasons). These shows were the tipping point, and the tail end of the “storytelling” era, that brought us into the current state of affairs at HBO: the era of “Cool”.
Concerned more with bringing in viewers in a climate of rapidly decreasing television viewership than dedicating themselves to excellent craftsmanship, HBO seemed to seek out a large amount of salacious and surprising material, with an eye on the modern youth who was more into downloading than buying premium packages through their cable provider. Hung (a show that never knew which tone it wanted to convey), How To Make It In America (a show that had most of the puzzle pieces of Girls but focused more on achieving success than on absurd confessional-ism), and Bored to Death (the only one that seemed to harbor sharp writing and a sense of fresh modernity) all failed early on. Instead of rethinking their rubric, they pushed for more ratings-bait ideas— where now the popularity of a show won over its quality.
Now, this is not to say that some shows still exist on the channel that juggle both: Game of Thrones is a masterfully handled storytelling experience, but it also had a largely built-in fanbase to begin with and has filled a fantasy void in most television viewers’ schedules. Girls and Eastbound and Down both had subtle, heart-examining first seasons worthy of many merits, but soon after started focusing more on shock with nearly robotic human interactions. But the ratings were still there, so they got to stay. Veep is too early to call and The Newsroom is too Sorkinese of a wild card.
Unfortunately, this is just how it seems to go when you have a good thing on your hands. If HBO was the punk in a Stooges jacket it was only a matter of time until he traded in his safety pins and liberty spikes for a 401k and a house in the suburbs. Maybe FX, with its shining light Louie (hey! remember when HBO fucked this up all those years ago?!), is the young-blood following in its footsteps.
This current model, this cool-huntin, is bound to fail. If I learned anything in high school it’s that trying to convince anyone else that you’re cool will tell them just the opposite. Jonah Hill’s character says in 21 Jump Street, about the current state of coolness: “liking comic books is popular, environmental awareness, being tolerant…” So does that, coupled with its complete lack of trying to be so, make Enlightened the coolest show around? Then good riddance, HBO, because House of Cards, Cougar Town, Arrested Development, and Friday Night Lights have shown us that there is life off the networks and life after cancellation.
Alan Hanson is a writer who can be found here.