The veteran American actress, Helen Hayes, once observed that one of the advantages of being a celebrity is that, when you’re boring, the audience thinks it’s their fault. Could this same criterion also apply to Home Box Office (HBO)?
Let’s be clear: No one is suggesting that HBO doesn’t deliver the goods. Indeed, when television is being done well, nobody does it better. All one has to do is examine the record — The Wire, Sex in the City, John Adams, Band of Brothers, The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, Angels in America, et al — to see that HBO has an extraordinary history.
Not only does HBO dare to take on original and provocative subject matter — and hire top writing and acting talent to get the job done — but, as a subscription channel, it has the additional virtue of not inundating us with those infuriating commercials. We get to enjoy these programs without interruption, which, alone, is almost worth the subscription fee.
But when television isn’t being done well, when television is overwrought or forced, or is being done weirdly or insincerely or self-indulgently (e.g., Big Love, John From Cincinnati, How to Make It in America, Carnivale, Mind of the Married Man), the case can be made that no one is more pretentious, preening, or self-referential than HBO.
Understandably, critics and producers tend to conflate HBO’s nudity, sexual explicitness and profanity with artistic achievement, as if the startling lack of censorship is, by itself, evidence of a gushing fountain of creativity. But shows don’t require raw exhibitionism to hit their mark. Consider: West Wing, Seinfeld, 30 Rock, and The Office were/are outstanding network shows, even with the censor’s boot on their necks.
Yet, you hear comedians open their HBO comedy specials by enthusiastically stoking the audience with, “This is HBO, right?? That means we can say Fuck, right?!” And, of course, they’re greeted by delirious cheers from the crowd, as if the word “fuck” was, even at this late date, just about the coolest thing anyone had ever heard.
A particularly annoying feature of HBO is the number of promos it runs. Granted, all networks, regular and cable, run promos for their upcoming shows, but HBO ramps it up several notches. Because they have no paid commercials, they can put on anything they want without having to worry about finding sponsors willing to pay for the spot. The air time belongs to them.
As a consequence, we’re barraged not only by promo after promo, but by these self-aggrandizing “The Making Of….” presentations, where we’re shown a behind-the-scenes look at how HBO programs get made. It’s like going on a date with a woman and having her show you a video of the steps she took to get ready. No commercial sponsor would dream of paying for such inbred tripe.
HBO recently subjected viewers to an endless string of promos (as well as a “Making Of….” supplement) for its newest series, Boardwalk Empire, a splashy, prohibition-era drama set in Atlantic City. There were so many promos for this thing, by the time the show finally debuted (Sunday, September 19), we felt that we’d already seen it.
And, of course, the critical response was predictably over the top. After only one episode the cultural pundits were already referring to the series as a “landmark” in television history, as “one of the best shows ever made,” etc. Really? They could extrapolate all this from one show? Remarkable.
The premiere was decent, but hardly ground-breaking; the same can be said for the following episode. In truth, this modest, period-piece gangster story is suspiciously similar to other period-piece gangster stories. That’s not a criticism, merely a simple observation about a genre. Despite the attractive sets and Steve Buscemi’s excellent acting, gangster movies happen to be a well-traveled road.
But who’s to say? Given time, Boardwalk Empire may evolve into another outstanding HBO series. But we shouldn’t be jumping the gun. People are already comparing this thing to the Sopranos, which is absurd. Shouldn’t we pace ourselves a bit, catch a few shows — maybe the first full season? — before christening it a “television classic”?
Again, no one’s claiming that HBO doesn’t offer excellent television fare. But even Babe Ruth didn’t hit a home run every time at bat. And neither does HBO. John From Cincinnati and Carnivale proved that.