Archive for the TV History Category

Cable Cars

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Behind-The-Scenes, Internet TV, TV channels, TV History with tags , , , , , , , on July 13, 2017 by Tom Steward

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I heard the news that a television adaptation of Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City was in development at Netflix a matter of weeks after seeing the West Coast Premiere of The Untold Tales of Armistead Maupin in San Diego (shame on you, San Francisco!) which documented the author’s life and work. Much lamented in the film were the circumstances surrounding the PBS broadcast of the miniseries version of the original Tales collection which subsequently prevented future adaptations of all the books in the series. Aided by a selectively salacious highlight reel of the first miniseries – which in some markets would be the best possible trailer – Senator Jesse Helms (Maupin’s former boss, in a Dickensian coincidence worthy of the author’s serial fiction) led a campaign against taxpayer funding of a series which he argued was an affront to family values (of the homophobic, ultra-conservative, religious fundamentalist variety, of course), resulting in PBS dropping the show. The subsequent two collections were later televised by Showtime, but in dramatically ineffective and (eventually) severely truncated formats that tipped the balance into TV movie-esque melodrama. Getting even three of the collections televised was a notable success – especially in the nineties – but somehow still unsatisfactory.

I’d suggest that the latent disappointment stems not just from completism but the natural home in television for the Tales of the City books. First published in a format copacetic to television’s repeated regularity, the newspaper serial, the continuing episodic storytelling that drives much TV fiction is inbuilt. Tales derived from the tradition of newspaper-based serial fiction written by authors such as Charles Dickens, which would later inspire the broadcast soap opera (so much so, in fact, that the very title was chosen by Maupin over alternatives because of its Dickensian quality). It’s a lineage that the BBC’s successful radio serial adaptation of recent years only serves to reinforce. You only have to look at how many times the characters in the Channel 4/PBS original miniseries are caught watching the late 1970s daily satirical soap opera Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman to see how much the producers felt this was a convergence waiting to happen. In a TV “binge” culture, the sheer amount of literary material available for adaptation becomes a selling point for the franchise rather than the drawback it had been in previous decades. But Netflix will still encounter problems of adaptation due to the period of time elapsed.

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It’s been reported that the stars of the original three TV adaptations Laura Linney and Olympia Dukakis will be returning, which raises a lot of difficult questions about what the new series will be. A good quarter-century has passed since Further Tales of the City aired on Showtime, which limits what can be done with the characters in certain age ranges. Their casting strongly suggests that we will pick up the series from Michael Tolliver Lives, a belated sequel from 2007 that spawned a (supposedly) final trilogy of Tales novels, since this timeline would find Mary Ann Singleton and Anna Madrigal somewhere near the same age as the actors playing them (in all but appearance). Of course, it’s entirely possible Linney and Dukakis will be playing different characters, as is conventional in a remake. This seems unlikely to me, as, unlike other (frequently re-cast) characters in the canon, the Tales of the City fanbase tends to find the two leads inseparable from their performers. It was, after all, Laura Linney (albeit dressed as Mary Ann Singleton) who rode alongside Grand Marshal Armistead Maupin in the San Francisco Gay and Lesbian Pride in 2003. Re-casting these actors would be highly problematic.

If my suspicions are correct, a (more or less) contemporaneous Tales of the City TV series is in the works. There are gains and losses here. TV thrives on being able to hold up a (broken and vaselined) mirror to current events, and the original Tales serials had that very cultural commentary in mind. It would then be the first time that a television version of Tales of the City played the same role in society as the original literature. Viewers would, however, miss out on three novels’ worth of character and story development. They will particularly feel the absence of Babycakes, the first novel to discuss AIDS. Though, with its vacation vibe and self-standing storylines, the third in the series is probably the only Tales of the City novel that would work as a feature film. Either way, Looking is the modern-day heir to Maupin’s San Francisco no more.

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Nineties Degree

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Internet TV, TV channels, TV History with tags , , , , , , , on June 12, 2017 by Tom Steward

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This isn’t the first post I’ve written about nineties nostalgia in television but at the time of writing I had no idea how contagious it would be. Consider the evidence. The most innovative program on TV remains Twin Peaks (I’ll hold off on saying the best until it’s over). There is a television revival of Fargo which not only seems determined to re-capture every iconic moment from the golden decade of The Coen Brothers, but also currently stars Trainspotting’s Ewan McGregor (incidentally, this is too much for someone who once owned VHS of both movies with the other film’s trailer before them). Louis C.K’s experiments with television comedy, both on and off the air, channel nineties indie cinema auteurs like Jim Jarmusch, and what is Horace & Pete but a serialised soundstage version of star Steve Buscemi’s Trees Lounge? Factor in a Friends revival and you couldn’t be more nineties.

The best of nineties nostalgia TV is also a cultural commentary on it. Netflix’s transcendent sitcom The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt uses the device of a woman kidnapped and secluded for fifteen years in a bunker to retrofit the majority of the program’s points of reference to nineties pop culture. There are so many I’ve lost track but imagine an alternate universe where the apotheosis of pop culture remains Kelsey Grammer. It’s a satire of our arrested development that also manages to capture the (albeit anachronistic) zeitgeist, as any successful sitcom must. Though not specifically aimed at the early nineties, Twin Peaks processes its nostalgic appeal in fittingly gothic ways. In the reboot, the Sherriff’s Department receptionist Lucy has a debilitating phobia of cell phone use, which she regards as some kind of witchcraft, while her son Wally Brando (an unusually well-used Michael Cera) delivers an eerie ventriloquism of namesake Marlon.

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In some sense, it was only a matter of time. We’re about as far now from the nineties as we were from the fifties when movies and TV shows romanticising the decade like American Graffiti and Happy Days started to dominate pop culture. We may be waiting a while for the nineties-set equivalent of the explicit love letter to the fifties that is Back in the Future, which is to say this phase probably hasn’t peaked yet, but it can’t be far from saturation point. Enough time has passed that any piece of media dealing with the nineties can now legitimately be seen as a work of history. Indeed, this very Summer CNN premieres the graduation of its decade-based documentary series The Nineties, the trailer for which positions the CD player as the relic of a bygone era and The Backstreet Boys as detached from the present as The Beatles.

Nineties nostalgia is also a by-product of a TV ecology where the past is always present. Though claiming to revolutionize the reception of television, Video-On-Demand platforms like Netflix and Hulu have done more to take TV content back in time than any oldies station ever did. Entire canons of popular (and not so) TV shows from the 1950s onwards are now instantly accessible to a vast viewership, and without the bitter pill of catheter commercials to swallow. The appeal of such platforms is as much being able to binge on Cheers as House of Cards. If lifespan permits, such extensive replay creates a natural demand for revival, which the VOD platform’s business models are always more-than-happy to accommodate, with a slew of fannish resurrections. Done so routinely online, the on-air networks are now spicing their season line-ups with revivals of nineties properties, as shown by the upcoming return of Roseanne.

The 2017-2018 ABC Television Upfront Presentation

I was a teenager in the nineties and those were my formative cultural years. At the time, I thought the best of film, TV and music had been and gone, though it turns out that’s a very nineties way of looking at things. Now I fetishistically relish what came out of that decade, and regard it as a far more sophisticated era in mainstream media arts than we are currently experiencing. I think I’m pretty typical of my generation, if we can be uniformly tantalised by the prospect of a Minnesota-based police procedural coming to primetime or react excitedly when one of the most belaboured sitcoms of all time returns to network TV. There’s no doubt we’re the demographic that television executives are targeting with their retroactive approach to commissioning, and that producers find common ground with their fragmented audience based on a shared love of the decade’s cultural output.

 

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

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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.

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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.

 

 

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.

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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