Author Archive

Stage Set

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Behind-The-Scenes, Internet TV, TV Acting, TV Culture, TV History on March 29, 2017 by Tom Steward

Stage 1

I’ve spent a lot of time away from this blog because I’m building a career in theatre. However, I’m finding that the playwrights I come across when I’m reading plays or looking for audition monologues are many of the same names I’m seeing in the writing credits of the TV shows I watch. In a previous career as a TV historian, I observed many instances of theatre artists crossing over into American TV – or vice versa – and each time emigres were brought in to help shape or re-define the medium, carrying with them the necessary cultural cache to do it.

And here they are doing it again. Louis C.K’s web experiment Horace and Pete used the internet to deliver a fusion of TV and theatre which was hitherto unseen in the US, and he enlisted the help of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Annie Baker in the process. While Baker declined the offer to be a staff writer on the project, the author of The Flick and The Aliens was instrumental in bringing her trademark edge of masochistic naturalism to the third episode of the mini-series (which begins with a 12-minute monologue by Laurie Metcalf), where she is loosely credited as consultant.

Louis C.K. eventually succeeded in getting an award-winning playwright to join his writing staff when he hired author of The Whale and A Bright New Boise Samuel D. Hunter to pen episodes of Baskets, a dramedy starring Zach Galafianakis that he produces for FX. Though far more conventional than Horace and Pete in form, Baskets nonetheless confounds expectations of tone for a series which led strongly with broad physical comedy before existentially breaking down each of the absurd characters. Hunter’s episodes go a long way towards this analytical deepening of the (sometimes literally) massive stereotypes established in the opening episodes.

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Orange is the New Black writer Jordan Harrison is also a renowned playwright, with Pulitzer Prize finalist Marjorie Prime under his belt. It’s interesting that a playwright concerned with digital technologies which change human-machine relations should be involved with a series that’s at the cutting edge of the electronic televisual experience. Having seen the play along with his Amazons and their Men, I can see how (for better or worse) the clipped art of TV writing has affected his theatre pieces, with both feeling like they cut away from a scene too early or, more importantly, that they need follow-ups.

Gina Gionfriddo is the playwright of Becky Shaw and Rapture, Blister, Burn. She also wrote for Law & Order and Cold Case. Given the obscenity and offensiveness of her plays, it’s a safe bet she had to self-censor when it comes to satisfying the still-draconian standards of network television, at least where words were concerned. However, if you follow John Mulaney’s thinking (and who wouldn’t?), the two procedurals with their graphic depictions and explications of heinous crimes would be the perfect dwelling place for a writer concerned with the underside of human behaviour. But these are by no means pioneers.

The play format of early American television resulted in the employment of writers who both came from and subsequently went to the theatre, including Horton Foote, Tad Mosel, Paddy Chayefsky and Reginald Rose. Much of the immediacy we still associate with television came from it being written as a live, continuous experience by theatre-savvy artists in those years. Even when TV eschewed theatrical trappings, playwrights continued to enter the medium, such as Neil Simon, who worked on comedy vehicles for Phil Silvers and Sid Caesar in the late 1950s. Simon would later theatricalize this for Laughter on the 23rd Floor.

Stage 3

While we’re used to talking about writers from the movies coming to TV, we’ve traditionally overlooked stage playwrights who moonlight in the medium. In the 1980s, another Pulitzer Prize-winner David Mamet, author of American Buffalo and Glengarry Glen Ross, was ahead of the game when he penned an episode of the transformative cop show Hill Street Blues, before following this up decades later with military drama The Unit, which he co-created with Shawn Ryan of The Shield. The Hill Street Blues episode was before Mamet made the jump to cinema and well before great writers flocked to US quality TV. It’s easy to see playwrights who come to TV as Greek Gods who deign to push us mere mortals in the right direction, but the truth is much messier and speaks to exchanges of ideas between the two art forms which have always been around and are still in development.

 

 

Trump TV

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Reality TV, TV History, TV News on January 20, 2017 by Tom Steward

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Following Barack Obama’s consecutive election triumphs, cultural commentators lined up to congratulate American TV for paving the way towards national acceptance of an African-American President. Among those frequently cited were 24’s David Palmer (played by Dennis Haysbert), TV’s first African-American President outside of a comedy skit or cartoon. Though Hispanic, The West Wing’s Matt Santos (played by Jimmy Smits) represented a minority rising to the Presidency with producers claiming (retrospectively) the character was based on Obama. As Donald Trump takes office, which TV portrayals will be deemed responsible for his ascension to power? Here are some of my personal predictions.

Though only a few weeks into its pilot season, ABC’s Designated Survivor projected that someone who was drastically under-qualified for the Presidency coming from outside the Washington establishment could successfully take office. Given that the 2016 election went right down to the wire and polls were offset in the final couple of weeks before voting, it’s not unthinkable that this fish-out-of-water political drama normalized the idea of a Trump presidency for some swing voters. Although since Tom Kirkman’s lack of fit with the job derives from his liberal bent and academic background, this is where any resemblance to Trump ends.

24 should not be let off the hook either. Palmer had become President by the show’s second year, yet subsequent seasons undercut the legitimacy of his administration, much as Republicans and their affiliated media outlets would eventually do to Obama. Dead-in-the-water after one term, Palmer’s administration is mired in scandal while the Democrat is deemed incapable of handling rising national security threats, and capitulates to an ignominious, seemingly inevitable assassination. As many have viewed 24’s later seasons as a (more) fictional extension of Fox News, the synonymy of their respective rhetoric for debunking an African-American Commander-in-Chief cannot be a coincidence.

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24 may have overreached in its predictions of Palmer being succeeded by Romney-clone John Keeler (whose fate, thanks to uneven storytelling, we remain unsure of) and later the first female President, Alison Taylor. Although, to be fair, Romney was a close call and Hillary Clinton was twice a foregone conclusion for the office. But the series was right on the money when it prophesized that the US Presidency would fall into the hands of a treasonous, spineless egomaniac engaged in a criminal conspiracy with Russia who demonstrated a reckless regard for weapons of mass destruction. Charles Logan was a trailblazer.

Indeed it’s hard to believe that 24 didn’t have a psychic consultant on staff when it aired scenes of a newly sworn-in Logan rushing former President Palmer into his office to advise the new Commander-in-Chief how to do the job in spite of utter incompetence and inconsistency, before shunning his predecessor and claiming all the credit for their successes.  While many looked back to Nixon (especially considering actor Gregory Itzin’s astounding physical resemblance to the man himself), Logan looked into a Trump crystal ball, which is not only a metaphor but an actual domestic good produced by the Trump brand.

With his rank outsider status, any consideration of what brought Trump into office must also consider what kept Hillary Clinton out of it. CBS’s The Good Wife had a lot to say about that. In the latter seasons of the hit legal drama, Alicia Florrick runs for the political office of Illinois State’s Attorney, having witnessed her husband Peter’s consecutive electoral victories which propelled him to Governor. Despite winning outright, Alicia is forced to resign her office after an election fraught with allegations of vote tampering and concerns about the integrity of the Democratic Party image. Starting to sound familiar?

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What The Good Wife saw, that most in politics would not, was the inevitability of a woman failing to succeed to the offices that their male peers had risen to against worst odds. Peter is an adulterous ex-con with a reputation as one of Illinois’s most corrupt politicians, yet he glides effortlessly from State’s Attorney to Governor, and even runs for President. Alicia is an outstanding lawyer with no stain on her character, and yet is forced to be the fall guy for a party at war with itself, despite her achievement. Similarly, Hillary Clinton shoulders two unsuccessful bids for the Presidency in the shadow of her philandering, ethically dubious two-term President husband while the marital indiscretions of former Congressman Anthony Weiner provided the impetus for the FBI to besmirch her name just prior to election day. She lost to an inexperienced African-American male and won to an internet troll.

 

 

The Schmidt Girl

Posted in American TV Shows, Behind-The-Scenes, Internet TV, Reviews, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 10, 2016 by Tom Steward

Netflix is a revolution in television delivery, but the same can’t be said for content. Until very recently, that is. The ability to watch an entire season of a program as soon it was released made dramas like Orange is the New Black and House of Cards seem tremendously interesting and complex. But if the same derivative, underwritten and overacted series were offered as weekly recurring fare, they would simply never invite comparison to the original dramatic achievements of HBO, FX and AMC (ranked in order and not accidentally, by the way) or even video-on-demand rivals (and successors) Amazon Prime and Hulu. But now Netflix has something that can genuinely rival the very best of television. It’s not a drama nor did it begin life on the web. In fact, it’s a series that remains indebted to its pre-history as a major network show and its esteemed lineage in television.

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Mr. and Mrs. Robot

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is a sitcom originally developed by NBC that was eventually sold to Netflix following concerns about the network’s intentions for and confidence in the project. Created by 30 Rock alumni Tina Fey and Robert Carlock, it also features many of the cast from the endlessly brilliant sitcom that savaged the world of network television. Part of the success of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is its elevation to star billing of actors who were bit players in NBC’s now sadly-burst bubble of sitcom genius in the noughties and its strategic placing of the legends of that era on a dream subs bench of scene-stealers. Ellie Kemper, who played the naïve receptionist Erin in The Office, is the titular character here, and Titus Burgess, seen as PA D’Fwan in the weak Bravo parody episodes of 30 Rock, looms large as roommate Titus (Andromedon) with Tina Fey and Jane Krakowski foils.

Whoever at NBC made Tina Fey look elsewhere for a home deserves a sitcom to be written about them but since Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt was conceived within network censorship standards, it streamed on Netflix with little of the obscenity you might expect from a service that competes with unregulated cable and VOD. Again, this quirk is crucial to the appeal of the series. It developed a family audience because of its (surface) suitability to all viewers which only served to reinforce an already-existing sweet, sentimental streak that is much rarer in the adult sitcom domain than in network primetime. The calibre and reputation of antecedent 30 Rock precedes Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, but doesn’t eclipse it. As innovative and creative as it was, 30 Rock was looking back to something that had been lost, whether in TV or the culture, while its successor seems rooted in the problems of our times.

But Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt builds on what 30 Rock did to make live-action sitcom a limitless art form, something that previously had only been achieved and been possible in animated comedy. Nothing is too far, near, high or low for Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. Cartoons, meta-musicals and puppets are not out of place here. Lowest-common-denominator gags and obscure, elitist sniggers sit side-by-side in a harmony that never looks imbalanced. There are a whole bunch of sub-worlds which permeate whole episodes and seasons, from a counter-factual Great American Songbook to realities intruding on other TV universes. Find me another sitcom that could make Mad Men’s Don Draper and The Reverend Wayne Gary Wayne the same person. And that’s before taking into account what the show has to say about the world we live in, be it auto-tuned viral videos of human atrocity or the ubiquity of Robert Durst as an urban pedestrian.

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Mama Dolmio

So why do I think of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt as the bedfellow of series like The Sopranos, Deadwood or Breaking Bad? Sure, they all have sitcom-like elements but that’s not the reason. It’s because these shows are the only points of comparison for the kind of in-depth archetype-deconstruction, devastating cultural commentary, and sublime stylistic reinvention that Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt achieves in the sitcom genre. The only antipathy the show has engendered has come with its sophisticated signification of social caricatures – mainly racial and ethnic – which, even though any shortcomings are quickly asked-and-answered, seem to convey actual racism to some viewers. Whereas typically such problems are a result of the laziness of the writing, in this instance it is a testament to how complex and multi-faceted the show’s representations of stereotype and cultural attitudes are. This is not sitcom doing good badly; it’s a sitcom raising the bar on what’s good.

Garry Under Wood

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Americans watching British TV, Reality TV, TV Acting, TV advertising, TV History, Uncategorized, Watching TV with tags , , , , , , , on April 22, 2016 by Tom Steward

2016 has been the Year of Death…or so clickbaiters will have you believe. I’m sure at any given moment there is a steady stream of celebrities dying but what’s so remarkable about the glut of passings we’ve witnessed since the beginning of this year is that it’s concentrated around the great innovators of pop culture. Comedy and music have been hit the hardest and key artists have been dying with such frequency that two of the most significant names in television comedy on either side of the Atlantic, namely Garry Shandling and Victoria Wood, died within weeks of each other.

It occurred to me while taking in that Garry Shandling and Victoria Wood are both gone from the world that the pair were almost counterparts in their understanding and reinvention of television in America and Britain. Though both took fairly traditional career routes into the TV of their native lands – with Shandling a sitcom writer and Wood a variety star – they mastered the medium by keenly observing its conventions and then satirically reproducing them. The self-reflexive sitcom It’s Garry Shandling’s Show and talk-show set The Larry Sanders Show both featured note-perfect facsimiles of longstanding TV formats with a knowing (distinctively buck-toothed) smile at their absurdities. Wood’s As Seen on TV featured a myriad of TV flow pastiches including commercials and soap operas, the latter of which was Acorn Antiques, a devastating summation of the budget-constrained, storm-in-a-teacup melodrama that had been commonplace in regional daytime dramas in Britain since the seventies.

Wood and Shandling were also too overflowing with brilliance and creativity to accept their place in the TV hierarchy. Wood began her TV career as winner of the talent show New Faces performing her own comic songs on the piano, earning her a place as a novelty act on the consumer affairs and erotically shaped vegetable discussion programme That’s Life. Rather than continue to plug the remaining – and increasingly unlikely – spaces for traditional vaudeville performance in a changing TV ecology, she diversified into playwriting, sketch comedy, character stand-up and pop culture parody. Her focus on the latter meant that Wood was ahead of a curve of self-referential television comedy that is typically seen as coming into existence when it became male. As Seen on TV first aired in 1985 which significantly pre-dates the supposed watershed moment of televisual self-awareness with Armando Iannucci and Chris Morris’s The Day Today in 1994.

Shandling’s career could have gone two ways. Instead it went a third that was almost the same as the first two. After writing for sitcoms such as Sanford & Son as well as a successful stint guest-hosting for Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show, Shandling seem destined to graduate either to an eponymous sitcom or late-night talk vehicle. He did both and neither. Shandling sold It’s Garry Shandling’s Show to cable station Showtime after networks balked at the idea of a show that actively drew attention to the mechanics and artifice of the studio audience sitcom. It was a revolution in TV form. As Shandling once explained to Ricky Gervais: ‘Either I did a talk show or a sitcom about a talk show.’ Of course he did the latter. The result was The Larry Sanders Show, set behind the scenes of a continually fledging late-night talk show, while commenting wittily upon it.

Their commitment to raising the bar of television comedy was so wide-ranging that neither stopped at satire. Both Shandling and Wood embraced comedy that was as real as it could be, and that eschewed the synthetic qualities of much comic material on TV. In Shandling’s The Larry Sanders Show, the naturalism of both visual style and performance was staggering and well beyond what audiences were used to seeing. Needless to say, The Office and its mock-doc ilk would never have existed without this breakthrough. Wood’s comic characters were drawn with such observational realism their dialogue could have been telegraphed from an encounter on public transport and she frequently emulated the fly-on-the-wall documentary but as a route to pathos rather than irony or sneer, something Shandling also achieved with The Larry Sanders Show. In particular, the ‘Swim the Channel’ segment of an As Seen on TV episode has rarely been bettered.

Of course, there are massive differences. Wood is far less cruel to and awkward with her characters, and Shandling much more provocative in his humour. But it’s hard to imagine we’d be watching half (and that’s being generous) of the comedies we currently do without either of these two colossuses.

The Cast Members

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Behind-The-Scenes, Local TV, TV Acting, Unsung Heroes with tags , , , , , , , on April 7, 2016 by Tom Steward

It’s not often I ask you to do something – except look up words (or so G tells me). But at the end of this post, I’m going to ask you for money. It’s not going to me (not for a long time anyway) instead to a group of talented and ambitious individuals who want to shape the future of television sitcoms. But they need your help to do it!

The true test of a great sitcom idea is this. If you hear it and your first thought is ‘why haven’t they done that before?’, it’s a winner. If you ask that question and get the reply ‘it has’ it’s a loser. Aaron Roberts, Executive Producer of The Cast Members, needn’t worry because his sitcom about a rag tag group of movie theater employees is one of the most original yet obvious (in a good way) premises we’ve had in television comedy for years. In fact, Aaron is hoping to breathe fresh air into the comedy world:

‘Television is at its golden age with dramas, most people believe it is consistently better than the films that flood the box office week after week. But, television sitcoms? The last great ones to go off the air left what was NBC’s comedy block in shambles a few years ago. The bad outweigh good and most networks continue to rehash old premises with new faces or even worse – straight rebooting old IP’

The Cast Members is a grassroots project from independent production company Blue Vision Entertainment, who have already scripted 6 episodes and are ready to shoot an initial season with an insanely talented ensemble cast already assembled (ensembled?!) and an award-winning crew behind-the-scenes. The Cast Members is on Indiegogo to raise funds for a pilot from the 1600+ strong audience they’ve found on social media and actors and crew even got together to shoot some promo videos introducing the ensemble cast in separate scenes to really showcase all the talent attached to the project and obtain a picture of what audiences would expect to find in full length episodes.

What Aaron is doing is highly ambitious, but not unprecedented in television comedy:

‘This is the beginning of another Always Sunny or Broad City type of story; the small production that started on the web that will mark the precipice of some great comedy careers’

Nor is this a flash-in-the-pan. It’s a show that has been evolving in independent development for over 2 years and that – Aaron guarantees – will eventually air somewhere. As for content, Aaron is confident of the sitcom’s broad appeal:

‘With performers from all ethnicities and walks of life…the story has heart and speaks to anyone who has ever held a minimum wage, first employment that they sort of ‘had’ to work’

Aaron is, however, under no delusions as to what the main selling point of the sitcom is; the cast members…appropriately enough:

‘The best possible cast of the rise acting talent possible from California was assembled. Multiple NYT award nominees and recipients. Actors with credits list such as The Daily Show, Modern Family, Faking It, Tangerine and more are finally ready to break out from bit roles and showcase their true comedic chops. Two actors are currently starring in theater productions in New York and San Diego that are receiving rave reviews. Not to mention the couple working stand-up comedians portraying different characters on the show’

I’m glad Aaron said all that, so I didn’t have to. You see, I’m in the cast of this show, playing (movie) theater (concessions) veteran Peter Peterman, who thanks to Aaron’s keen sense of comedic resource exploitation developed an English accent and gained a wife between drafts. I’m even in one of the crowdfunding videos, which you can watch below. See if you can spot me. I do rather blend in:

So take a chance on this production. It’s got an interesting story to tell and 20 absolutely talented actors to do it. If you need more proof for your purchase, you can watch all ten superbly written and performed crowdfunding videos for free via the show’s Facebook page or on Indiegogo, where you can also send your donation. The amount doesn’t matter (but don’t hold back if you don’t have to!) just be sure to help us out and you can say you were a part of sitcom history before anyone else. And – if you need a closer – just remember how critical I’ve been of TV on this blog then re-read this post!

 

Time for TV

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Reality TV, TV channels, TV History with tags , , , , , , , on March 7, 2016 by Tom Steward

As Fuller House demonstrates, TV is always eager to flex its nostalgia muscles but recent programs have shown that it’s still the timeliness of the medium that puts it above others. While Donald Trump scapegoats Mexican immigration for America’s problems and builds his “policies” (and I use that word as broadly as it will stretch) around a wall dividing America and Mexico, Fox is airing an animated sitcom about a racist border agent living in a town called ‘Mexifornia’ who remains oblivious to the generous spirit of his Latino neighbor. Meanwhile in the post-Snowden age, a basic cable drama explores the anti-heroism of the hacker terrorist. But television can never shed anachronism completely and while these shows might be current they are far from new.

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Deport thy neighbor!

Bordertown is a blatant callback to the ‘bad neighbor’ sitcom that has been one of the most common formats for the genre and usually the vehicle for discussing vast social, racial and political differences between characters. The British sitcom Love Thy Neighbour in which a working-class racist white man lives next door to a middle-class African-Briton is perhaps the best (if that word can ever be used in conjunction with the show) example of this, though Hitler-Jewish couple neighbour sitcom Heil! Honey I’m Home is certainly the most extreme. Previous animated Fox comedies have used this device, forging dynamics between church-hating slob Homer Simpson and God-loving puritan Ned Flanders in The Simpsons or button-downed Texan Hank and extravagant Laotian Kahn in King of the Hill.

The ethics of hacking may not have been addressed as cogently as they have in USA’s Mr. Robot but the act itself has traditionally been a means to an end in TV drama. State-sanctioned hackers like Chloe in 24 helped to move the plot along in real-time, even when the character was faced with the drudgery of coffee shop Wi-Fi. On CBS, there’s a CSI about hacking (the only one left, believe it or not) and something called Scorpion which puts hacking at the centre of story development, even though the show seems designed to make tech people seethe with rage at the inaccuracies. Plus whoever made this has a raging Fight Club fetish, with a delusional loner embroiled in terrorist activities as social protest.

To fight the hate-fuelled bile of Trump’s anti-immigration rhetoric, we need an alternative that doesn’t pull its punches when it comes to condemning the Caucasian culture that engendered his political triumphs. In that sense, the bigotry and ignorance (#bignorance) of white characters in Bordertown is more of an antidote than the polite questioning of Trump on news programming, which ensures their ratings cow remains sacred. While partisan liberal news networks like MSNBC can be counter-attacked for projecting ideology, Mark Hentemann and Seth MacFarlane’s politically incorrect comedy cannot, since it extends its satire to the left and Latino culture, rather than cowering from it. The lack of controversy may be because it is little-watched, but it also could be a sign the public accept its truth.

Like its pre-9/11 cinematic predecessor, Mr. Robot may not have a political perspective as much as simply throwing around politically charged words and ideas. That’s fine, as drama shouldn’t be propaganda, but there’s no doubt it captures our ambivalence as a culture about digital whistleblowers. I’m pushing through the first season slowly so excuse me if I’ve already been debunked but hacker Elliot has neither been confirmed as a hero or villain, nor has his direct action yet been given moral deniability for us as an audience. I’m not sure it’s because the writers can’t make their minds up, but rather that we can’t. They may not have predicted the Apple terrorist phone unlocking crisis but they can count on its like in the news.

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Domo arigot!

Not that I want to draw a false equivalence between the two shows. Mr. Robot is a huge departure for USA, who have typically relied on a bunch of slick ricks to fill their original programming vacuum. Bordertown is familiar territory for Fox, who are the leaders in mainstream adult animation (though Adult Swim is snapping at their heels) and will only enhance a pre-existing reputation. But they are united in their contemporaneity, and the ability to deliver that in a style that seems like it’s always been with us. Because it nearly always has. Both programs test the limits of modern-day American culture, straddling its violent past and technological future. But crucially they also know how to appeal to our overriding sense of nostalgia.

On Your Marks…Set…HBO!

Posted in American TV (General), Behind-The-Scenes, Internet TV, TV channels, TV Culture, TV History with tags , , , , , on February 22, 2016 by Tom Steward

I hate to use the word adulting – primarily because it’s not a word – but it now seems that every major TV network in America has at least one program that is mature and sophisticated in content, execution or both (except NBC, who are labouring under the delusion that a Ryan Seacrest police procedural is somehow acceptable). It may be true that the best (non-pornographic) adult programming these days comes from basic cable networks like FX (Fargo, The Americans) and AMC (Better Call Saul, The Walking Dead) but that doesn’t mean they got there first. Subscription network – and Adam Sandler movie buyer – HBO has been adulting since the late nineties, when arty prison drama Oz and revolutionary crime drama The Sopranos heralded a wave of complex, experimental and provocative television that has yet to subside. This was politically and artistically reinforced by Six Feet Under and The Wire in the naughties, but overall the network that is an alternative to itself has re-defined just about every genre of TV you can think of, from post-feminist rom-com to news satire. But is it possible that HBO is finally entering a period of arrested development, and might that actually be a good thing?

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Well, people would have liked it a lot more!

HBO now looks to re-define quality television for children, mostly by making parents pay – or wait – for it. Last year the network struck a deal with PBS to co-produce the  iconic educational television show Sesame Street so that the show would air first on the subscription-based provider and then on free-to-air TV months later. It’s perhaps the only time I can think of (maybe you can do better) that HBO has exploited an established commodity rather than making an improved version of it and it’s one of the few signature series the network has that doesn’t rely on obscenity to make audiences spend to see it. HBO has now added the football-themed Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson vehicle Ballers to its roster of original series, which seems to be playing to the Fast and Furious-watching, sports-loving element of its demographic. Even a critic’s darling like Game of Thrones which is certainly distinguished by heavy and explicit levels of sex, violence and offensive language resembles the kind of mediaevalesque fantasy stories beloved by the nerdy young and is perhaps the first time that a HBO series with a continuous narrative arc has seemed more like a children’s matinee serial than a novel.

It’s rare that a HBO series goes over its audience’s head – though we all remember the debacle of John from Cincinnati – but last year the high-profile misfire of True Detective Season Two suggested that viewers weren’t always going to lap up the most extreme, idiosyncratic television that the network could produce. Vinyl is just beginning but it’s hard to see where this Scorsese creation detailing the record industry of the seventies will go in exploring the organized criminal elements of historical American leisure that Boardwalk Empire didn’t. The network has cancelled Looking and put a time limit on Girls, which will curb its claim to have the most socially incisive, funniest and best-written comedy-dramas on TV. If it is to continue its unwritten policy of having a maximum of six seasons of every show, then we know that Game of Thrones can’t last much longer, though the saga’s literary predecessor suggests otherwise. So what is the future of HBO? Will the network start to polarise its appeal by producing television that is either infantile or avant-garde, with nothing inbetween? Perhaps the open access of HBO GO and HBO NOW is doing something irrevocable to the adult remit of the network.

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‘Finish the series, George, I have indie movies to make!’

I’m sure many have written these ‘death of HBO’ articles before, and I’m sure they were as premature then as this is now. But I’m worried about the point of HBO changing, not the quality. Game of Thrones is wonderfully compelling and I admired True Detective a great deal, but at its best HBO always gave us innovative, game-changing television that never seemed too slight or too weighty. That balance may be in jeopardy as HBO diversifies into a Netflix-style online video service, or perhaps FX and AMC have found the mean when it comes to quality television, without needing to resort to pornographic shock tactics or take too much cash out of viewers’ pockets. Last Week Tonight and Silicon Valley suggest that a change in direction is not necessarily a bad thing, and that HBO is still finding the best people and concepts in television. But for how long?

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