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?
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.
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?