In my lifetime, there is no contest about who has dominated quality television — programs that push the medium, that reinvent what TV can be, shows that have a shelf life beyond the buzz and first viewing: HBO. For me, it started with The Larry Sanders Show which premiered in 1992. Since then, consider the shows it has helped create and bring to the world:
- Oz, Six Feet Under, Carnivale, and Big Love — all of which, even with their flaws, reveled in complexity of story and character and humor
- A series of David Milch series which introduced a level of writing that TV may never see again including the draw dropping visual and literary prowess of Deadwood along with the short-lived but ambitious John from Cincinnati and the Michael Mann co-created, Luck
- The Leftovers, an often overlooked mini-masterpiece of beauty, pathos, and madness (which I wrote about here >)
- The Sopranos — about which it is difficult not to wax on with its baseline complexity, the devastating acting of both James Gandolfini and Edie Falco, the impossible commixture of sentiment and comedy
- All the great David Simon programs from the revolutionary The Wire to Treme, The Deuce, Generation Kill, and others — all of which operate with a basic respect for the intelligence of the audience as Simon refuses exposition, thrusting us into stories mid-stream as characters toss about obscure jargon that is never explained
- Enlightened, the Laura Dern vehicle driven by the devilish intelligence of Mike White, a show that enjoys a voice you can never place, somewhere between satire, melodrama, and sitcom — an HBO signature
- Sex and the City — say what you will, the show remains brilliant in its form and use of conceptual personae
- The over the top brilliance of writing, character, production, and definition of a zeitgeist, Girls
- Curb Your Enthusiasm which, alas, is one of the few things in the public eye that makes me feel less alone in this world — and that ups the ante on the ground altering Seinfeld
- Veep! What is there to say? The velocity, complexity, and depth of its humor is self-evident — and showcases the astounding genius of Julia-Louise Dreyfus in a way that is simply unparalleled.
- Silicon Valley, Tenacious D, Bored to Death, and High Maintenance (more about that in a moment), to name a few of its sparkling comedies, each proffering a rarely seen sophistication in both form and content
I mean c’mon: That is a ridiculous list for one network to produce! And what makes it so striking is a conspicuous through line that shows a method at work: an unabashed, even aggressive, demand for complexity that is based in a respect for its audience and a deep understanding of the multiple and ever moving contours of life and television.
Take two programs that began life elsewhere, High Maintenance and The Leftovers. High Maintenance was a web series of short, punchy episodes that highlighted quirk and a cool set up — a guy delivering pot to funky New Yorkers. Once HBO got their hands on it, they turned it into experimental cinema, as quirk and story took a distinct backseat to affect and visual beauty.
They did the same thing with The Leftovers: they started with the source material, a book, that they then blew wide open into sprawling, epic, poetic beauty and madness. As Tom Perrotta, author of The Leftovers, writes, “It’s been an amazing experience working on the show, watching The Leftovers expand beyond the boundaries of the novel. The show’s becoming increasingly rich and deep and wild over the years — it’s starting to make my book feel like an acorn that’s blossomed into a huge and majestic oak tree.”
How often does that happen? Isn’t it almost always the other way around — filmmakers take novels and reduce their complexity? Not in the hands of HBO during its great run.
Consider the programming of HBO’s would-be rival, Showtime. A show like Dexter is high concept, for sure, but in execution the show runners reduce complexity as they flesh the concept out. For the most part, the characters in the show who aren’t Dexter are cardboard or just plain old banal. The same goes for Showtime’s Weeds — another high concept that, in execution, gets less complex. Compare it to HBO’s The Wire in which every single character, regardless of how short their screen time, is an inflection point of note — a rich life.
When I was a blossoming late teen in college, I stumbled on a record label called 4AD. It was my first awareness that among all the artists, there was another force at work: the label. Of course, usually a label has little discernment other than a profit motive. 4AD was clearly of another nature. From a quick review of bands they release, you can see taste at work — from Bauhaus, This Mortal Coil, and Dead Can Dance through to the Pixies, Throwing Muses, and The Breeders to today’s Deerhunter, Big Thief, and Purity Ring. When I’d be perusing albums back in the day, if I saw the 4AD logo, I was inclined to give it a shot because I trusted their taste.
HBO has been just such a label for television programs. They no doubt produce some crappy movies and sensationalist documentaries (it was not surprising that, for a bit, they partnered with Vice). But when it came to TV shows, they were consistently great. They invested time and money into creating shows that are astoundingly complex, that demand a lot of the audience, that are not for casual watching. Even a less financially expensive show such as Veep operates with a tone of such subtlety, multivalences, and a baseline complexity. It’s never that VP Meyers is incompetent or cruel or stupid or even just ambitious even if, at times, she is all of those things. Where Veep could easily have become slapstick or the banal satire of, say, Prime’s Boys, it instead dances and plays as it moves between and among humor, pathos, satire, slapstick, and insight.
And then there was the straight up financial investment. During its first few seasons, an episode of Game of Thrones averaged six million dollars; in the final season, that average was 15 million. And while there are plenty of possible critiques of the show, the fact is Game of Thrones remains not only outrageously beautiful but, as was the HBO imperative, the show is downright labyrinthine in its plot as it presents a wealth of characters rife with complexity.
But all that is gone now. HBO has changed its model, phasing out HBO proper and launching HBO Max in its stead. This is a new business model. The HBO of old was a premier cable add on that had a small rotation of hit movies alongside its ever growing and startling original catalogue. You got HBO to watch The Sopranos or Curb or Game of Thrones. Not anymore. HBO Max is designed to compete with all the other streaming services, leveraging its Warner Brothers catalogue (WB owns HBO) so now rather than just HBO’s unique shows, you get a back catalogue of all kinds of things — including the forever addictively vapid Friends.
That could be great — HBO’s TV with Warner’s movies. But that’s not what HBO Max offers. We’ve witnessed a fundamental shift in business model and hence production. The once great label no longer seeks to create unique programs with long shelf lives that watchers will pay for. Now it’s incentivized to create quick and easy programs while buying up popular shows from elsewhere to keep its audience paying that monthly subscription.
Look at what Netflix creates — nicely produced shows with moments of grace, such as Sex Education or The End of the Fucking World, but that are fundamentally driven to distract people from their miserable lives. Those shows are driven by plot: you don’t watch for the characters or insight into life but to find out what happens next, an effective yet easy and finally unsavory tactic. Because once you know what happened, its value is gone. It’s disposable TV.
Like the other streaming services, HBO Max has launched several original series. They are, to say the least, a disappointment. Take two such shows, Search Party and The Flight Attendant. Neither is terrible. In fact, at times both show glimmers of intelligence and some respect for its audience (especially the early seasons of Search Party as it behaves like a very dark satire and send up of millennials as every character is horrible). But the fact is these shows are throwaways. They are driven by narrative cliffhangers, not by the strength of their characters, acting, writing, production, or intelligence. They seem created for the binge generation as each episode leaves you wanting to know what happens next (or not, I suppose). So rather than spending huge amounts of money to create compelling, sophisticated programs, HBO Max creates disposable programs that people will binge and promptly forget.
This is not just my opinion (although it is also my opinion). I am sure no one at HBO Max believes that The Flight Attendant is great TV that will live on for generations the way The Sopranos, The Wire, or Curb Your Enthusiasm have. I’d say their hearts just aren’t in it anymore but it’s more than that: they had a heart transplant. And this new heart has one goal: quick, easy, disposable TV that will keep subscribers watching as they scroll Instagram.
As Terrence McKenna argues, television is a powerful drug: “Television is by nature the dominator drug par excellence. Control of content, uniformity of content, repeatability of content make it inevitably a tool of coercion, brainwashing, and manipulation.” What McKenna doesn’t recognize is what Marshall McLuhan did: an artist operating in a medium has the power to expose and shift the very environment of life, the very terms in which we live. That’s what the HBO of old did — created shows that didn’t let us go blindly into the abyss. That challenged who we are and what we believe. By refusing to offer reductive exposition, shows like The Sopranos and The Wire incorporate the audience into their very fabric. We, the audience, are a site that holds the complexity.
But this new wave of disposable TV — that may have better production than the sitcoms of old and may enjoy more frank discussions of sex — functions as a drug to calm the masses amid the increasing madness of our times. We all work so much that, come the end of the day, we just want to watch easy TV — and all the better if it compels us to watch the next one, leaving us hanging and wanting more so it feels like we’re living — when, in fact, it’s a kind of living death. Which is one reason zombies have become such a popular subject: we are becoming-zombie in the very act of watching these programs (and yet AMC’s wildly popular zombie vehicle, The Walking Dead, is actually anti-zombie as it proliferates complexity and beauty, waking us up from the dead as we watch; indeed, AMC has been a notable label as it’s produced the brilliant Mad Men, the at times sharp Breaking Bad, the smarter Better Call Saul, among others).
I admit that I use TV as just such a drug. I watch mediocre programs that engage me just enough but still let me space out, text my friends, do some online shopping. Deadwood does not let you do that. Nor does The Leftovers or The Wire. Tune out for a bit and you’ve missed it all — not just because you’ve missed plot points but because you’ve missed Ian McShane’s impossibly subtle shift in timbre as he utters a seemingly simple please to Trixie that reveals the intricacies of their relationship. In other hands, Ian McShane’s Swearengen would just be evil rather than a distinctive mode of frontier ethicist and world builder. In any case, the HBO of old rarely offered exposition. To watch those shows, you had to be engaged. And, in todays frantic world, we often just want to tune out, not tune in.
And so I find HBO’s surrender to the will of disposable TV, and its entire business model, upsetting. The shift in logos says it all. The old logo and slogan promised something different, a rupture and reinvention of the very medium itself. The new one just throws colored glitter in our faces.