It's Only Television
HBO is very good at telling us it's very good
By P.J. Bednarski, Editor -- Broadcasting & Cable, 7/6/2003 8:00:00 PM
If you watch HBO, you know you can depend on seeing some pretty good television. Some of the television is better than most of the movies. But I would like to calm you down. Despite what they say, HBO is television.
I feel almost unclean in saying this, but HBO has done such a spectacular job telling us over and over it is "critically acclaimed" (I can hear the HBO music in my head as I type the word) that its virtually 34 million viewers or so believe it, unswervingly. People seemed to have made such an effort to like Arli$$ and, if they couldn't, admitted it the way you might if you tried and tried but couldn't master a card trick.
No one gives that much effort to anything on broadcast-network television, because broadcast TV has taught them that it has a load of flotsam in the truck and, hey, if you don't like this one, maybe the next one will do.
That's not like HBO. There are no commercials on HBO; there are, between programs, sometimes 15 or 20 minutes of pure promo, all of which makes its point over and over again.
You know the slogan, and, to everybody's credit at HBO, you believe it.
HBO is adored and gets publicity as good as it gives. The day after the season premiere of Sex and the City, a New York newspaper owned by a man whose two-syllable last name contains one that rhymes with "schlock" called it "Best Sex Ever." On the front page.
Well, it wasn't. Sex and the City has been so predictable that, for the first time in its history, I don't even want to see Kim Cattrall naked, very much.
True, her breasts are not like others you see on broadcast television, because sometimes they're uncovered.
And, altogether, the language isn't like what you hear on television. But, assuming you've reached a certain age, you've heard salty, funny bad language before, told stories about sexual exploits, and seen naked most or all of the parts of the sexual creatures that interest you.
So, as in life, as Carrie Bradshaw might say, that leaves the storyline. This year, Sex and the City isn't cutting it for me. And that has made me realize that, if HBO can't sell a cleaned-up version in syndication, it'll be because, stripped of its raw language and raw scenes, Sex and the City is really rather ordinary.
I have been in awe of The Sopranos in the past, but the last batch didn't connect. It seemed almost deliberately unfocused. Plot lines evaporated. It wasn't must-see. It wasn't must-speculate. It wasn't must-talk-about. Likewise, Six Feet Under, utterly brilliant in the beginning, seems now to be a better idea than it is a weekly program. That series and The Sopranos might have been more consistent if they knew that they were ending and stuck to the original plan. David Chase, go home.
But it's also true that nobody at a commercial network would accept the idea of a drama set in a funeral home (though, oddly enough, I think they could see it as a sitcom). Yet, for all this grousing, I admit: HBO is different enough that good, unusual ideas get turned into great, sometimes spectacular television. For that, the network deserves most of the praise it gets.
I also think it gets so much praise because viewers and critics have become accustomed to watching HBO less critically. In fact, HBO's success as a brand relates directly to the fact that it delivers most of what it promises. It is not like Showtime because its executives decided that HBO really could be better than average.
It's not like the broadcast networks either. They announce series based on a need to fill a full schedule and satisfy a ridiculously diverse audience. They schedule those shows based on one little old pilot episode. Promotion of a show depends on its place on the schedule. You don't see, even in the summer, the kind of movie-length trailers HBO gives its own shows. And if a series doesn't last four or five seasons on a broadcast network, it is, bottom line, a failure.
Nothing on network television says it's special.
So HBO, sensibly, says it. But really, it's just television.
Bednarski may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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