Enough With the Gushing

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.

David Macaray is a playwright and author, whose latest book is How to Win Friends and Avoid Sacred Cows: Weird Adventures in India: Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims When the Peace Corps was New. Everything you ever wanted to know about India but were afraid to ask. He can be reached at: dmacaray@gmail.com. Read other articles by David.

11 comments on this article so far ...

Comments RSS feed

  1. Deadbeat said on October 9th, 2010 at 1:20pm #

    You call the shows listed on HBO “quality”. I don’t.

    The Soprano is the same old Italian mob stereotype.

    The Wire is yet more racist stereotypical garbage.

    Six Feet Under made women feel guilty about abortions and stereotyped gays as promiscuous.

    Band of Brothers is Combat retread with more shocking language and images and selling the “Great War” myth.

    The show I’d like to see is the one that hasn’t been made and probably won’t make it on the air.

    Here’s the premise:

    How Jewish Zionists control much of the media and their power and influence on the U.S. political economy and government especially foreign policy starring the one and only Rick Sanchez. It’ll even expose how “the Left” is on the take to major foundations which are money laundering tax shelters and the “Left’s” role in manipulating the masses in a “good cop” fashion. You can even hire James Petras and Jeffrey Blankfort as consultants to the series.

    There’s a huge resource of material out there and it’ll be totally fresh because Americans are so unaware of this reality. This will definitely be a big hit (or someone will get hit).

  2. kanomi said on October 9th, 2010 at 3:06pm #

    Uh, well I don’t agree with Deadbeat up there. The Wire was perhaps the best cable series ever made.

    I think rather than complaining about HBO the way this article does, we should ask why entertainment is now being stratified: incredibly well created, mature, deep dramas exist only now on pay per view channels like HBO, for the entertainment of the professional, ‘disciplined minds,’ while the bankrupt masses who can barely afford basic cable are given a steady diet of reality show shit, dumb jock sports, and propagandistic skewed news.

    Unravel that conundrum and you will be on your way.

  3. Deadbeat said on October 9th, 2010 at 3:59pm #

    My take initially on the Wire which aired right after the Supranos was why aren’t the Black thugs glamorized like the White thugs in the previous show? I wasn’t impressed by the Wire. I’m more in agreement with Ishmael Reed’s critique of the show.


  4. Deadbeat said on October 9th, 2010 at 4:03pm #

    And speaking of TV …

  5. Deadbeat said on October 9th, 2010 at 4:05pm #

    oops forgot the link …

    RT as Public Enemy? Top US media boss ready to fight ‘enemies’

    And looks who is complaining.

  6. teafoe2 said on October 9th, 2010 at 5:34pm #

    uh, Band of Brothers? praise for war propaganda “recruiting” garbage? weird.

  7. teafoe2 said on October 9th, 2010 at 5:41pm #

    the Sopranos? Tony Soprano may be the most disgusting character ever brought to the screen. Mafia psychopaths as heros with Family Values, with a little psychiatry thrown in to help rot the viewer’s brain even faster.

  8. hayate said on October 9th, 2010 at 8:10pm #

    Back when I last looked at cable, hbo had the least variety of the major subscription cable channels and had the fewest number of different films of all of them. As for their homemade stuff, some was equal to film, but a lot was crap, just like what one finds on the broadcast network. Adding a bit of swearing and nudity doesn’t make a show any better than the heavily censored broadcast pap if it’s same regurgitated polemics. It is the dearth of worthwhile programming on american television, cable and broadcast, that is why I don’t bother with it any more.

  9. beverly said on October 11th, 2010 at 5:40pm #

    Love your premise for a truly “new” TV show. Right you are that anyone even proposing such an idea risks being whacked. Rick Sanchez better be glad he got off with just being fired. If anyone needs more convincing of the Jewish control of the media, look no further than the Sanchez – Stewart dust up. I wonder if Sanchez (and Helen Thomas) had made negative comments about a non-Jew would he have been fired or just asked to apologize? Further, it’s getting absurd that simply calling someone a bigot is grounds for dismissal; Stewart calls people douchebags and worst on his show all the time. Sanchez might have dodged the pink slip bullet if he’d just called Stewart a bigot; the fatal utterance was his questioning of Jews as an ethnic group.

  10. Deadbeat said on October 11th, 2010 at 7:00pm #

    Unga_Khan you couldn’t possibly have seen the show I described since Jeffery Blankfort and James Petras were not affiliated with the Discovery Channel production you saw. Missing from that show were AIPAC, Haim Saban, Les Moonves, Steven Spielberg, J Street, and the Presidents of the top Jewish organizations.

    But I can understand your confusion since White Supremacy is so similar (kissing cousins you might say) to Zionism.

  11. Deadbeat said on October 11th, 2010 at 7:14pm #

    kudos beverly you got that right.