It’s Not TV: HBO, The Company That Changed Television: Golden Age: Part 3

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It said something about HBO’s elevating stature as a programmer that the company strategy was no longer catch-as-catch-can. HBO now found itself in the enviable position of being able to afford to turn shows down based on its view the project was – in the phrase I was coming to hear more and more often – “an HBO show.” Like the old joke about art, nobody could define what that meant, but they knew it when they saw it.

Case in point:

In 1996, HBO rolled out Arli$$ (1996-2002). Like The Larry Sanders Show, Arli$$ came from the off-kilter imagination of a stand-up comic, in this case Robert Wuhl, who also starred. In synopsis – and no doubt why HBO was interested – Arli$$ sounded like a sports version of The Larry Sanders Show. Wuhl played Arliss Michaels, a top-flight sports agent with the integrity of a hired killer moving through the circles of big dollar sports the way talk show host Larry Sanders moved through the glittering echelons of show business. Sanders often showcased real life movie and TV stars as they cameoed their way through Larry’s talk show, while Arli$$ did the same for big names from the sports and sports broadcasting worlds i.e. the likes of Bob Costas, Barry Bonds, Kobe Bryant, etc.

The big difference between the shows was that, unlike Larry Sanders, the critical consensus was Arli$$ sucked. Big time. Entertainment Weekly (a sister company of HBO) regularly blasted the show as one of the worst on TV, and that was hardly a singular view.

For that reason, there were those in the programming division of the company who wanted to cancel the show because it wasn’t “an HBO show.” For the most part, the TV press thought the show was awful, quite a few inside the company thought the show was awful, and it wasn’t the kind of sharp, smart programming the company felt was brag-worthy and marketable in a it’s-not-TV-it’s-HBO kind of way.

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On the other hand, as despised as the show was in critical and company programming circles, the show’s numbers were better than those of The Larry Sanders Show.

It makes sense. Sanders was a show that attracted viewers interested in smart, edgy TV programming. The humor was often subtle, just as often “inside” for those up on who was who and what was what in the entertainment business, and rarely about gags and punchlines. Arli$$ attracted people who liked sports. Simple. The humor was more obvious, broader, louder, and Arli$$ fans liked seeing famous sports figures whether they could handle comic dialogue or not.

When Wuhl got wind HBO was considering pulling the plug on the show, he asked for a show of fan support during a radio appearance and that’s what he got. Calls and letters cascaded into the company with the same kind of fire behind them that those callers and letter-writers gave to their favorite sports teams.

Thus a corporate quandary: cancel one of the more popular shows on the channel and tick off a horde of militantly devoted fans who often claimed Arli$$ was the only reason they subscribed to HBO; or keep the show and compromise the brand’s artistic integrity.

HBO held its collective nose and kept the show, the series ultimately filling out seven seasons. It may not have been the noblest choice for the company, but it was easily the pragmatic one. Still, the fact that that discussion was taking place at all, however, said something not only about the company’s sense of what it’s brand was coming to mean, but that that meaning was something worth cultivating and protecting.

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In 1998, the service began taking on the programming configuration most people today recognize as quintessentially HBO and within the span of a few short years, had given itself something it hadn’t had since the days when running uncut movies was all the company needed to sell itself: a brand identity..

Tom Hanks was still hot off his 1995 big screen, Oscar-nominated hit Apollo 13 when he turned his enthusiasm for the country’s 1960s space program into the $68 million 12-part miniseries, From the Earth to the Moon, working with fellow executive producers Apollo 13 director Ron Howard, and Howard’s producing partner, Brian Grazer.

It was not HBO’s first miniseries. The channel had given the format a couple of whirls back in its early original programming days. The three-part The Far Pavilions (1984) had been a – for its time – lavish period piece ($12 million budget, shot on location in India with stars Ben Cross and Amy Irving), but it had come off as little more than a dramatically bland period soap. More popular though no more memorable was the four-part All the Rivers Run (1983), a cheaper, less-hyped pick-up from Australian TV.

It was 14 years before HBO placed a big bet on the format again, but not only was Earth/Moon radically different from Pavilions and Rivers, it cut against the grain of what the TV audience had come to expect from a miniseries since it had been introduced in the early 1970s with QB VII. There was no continuing plot threads, no recurring characters, and rather than the typical cast juiced with big star cameos, the Earth/Moon ensemble consisted of talented ranks of barely familiar faces. The biggest names attached to the program were behind the camera: Hanks, Howard and Gracer.

Based on Andrew Chaikin’s book, A Man on the Moon, the miniseries, like Chaikin’s account, traced the American space program from the earliest days of the U.S./U.S.S.R. space race through the Apollo 17 mission, the last moon landing. Rather than an all-star cast, Earth/Moon’s $68 million was spent on capturing the period, and in the still-impressive special effects used to capture the space missions. But the dramatic component was equally strong, and the miniseries was universally lauded and would go on to cop the Emmy for Outstanding Miniseries.

It would also serve as a template for a series of similar high profile, richly produced, history-inspired miniseries like Band of Brothers (2001), John Adams (2008), Generation Kill (2008) and The Pacific (2010); offering that became one of the maturing channel’s signatures.

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That same year also saw the debut of one of HBO’s most successful series: Sex and the City (1998-2004) from producer Darren Star whose previous credits included Beverly Hills, 90210 and Melrose Place. Based on Candace Bushnell’s book which was, in turn, based on her column for The New York Observer, and SATC followed the lives and loves of four young women (Sarah Jessica Parker, Kim Cattrall, Kristin Davis, Cynthia Nixon) set against the high fashion and glitzy good times distinct to New York City.

Though the series would eventually run up a score of 50 Emmy nominations including a 2001 win for Outstanding Comedy Series, spin off two feature films and become a pop culture touchstone, it was not a universally beloved series, particularly in its early years. TV critics blasted characters who seemed to have no interests beyond good sex, a well-mixed Cosmo, and high-priced Manolo Blahniks. Some women writers were particular off-put by the show, considering its characters’ quests for romance and high fashion hardly the goals decades of feminist struggle had been for.

But over the course of its six seasons, the show, like its characters, matured, and it became both a mix of youthful fantasy fulfillment (great times in one of the most glamorous cities in the world), a paean to female friendship, and a tribute, in its post 9/11 seasons, to a stricken yet resilient and still entrancing Gotham.

Even before SATC could get past its growing pains, its accomplishments were soon overshadowed by The Sopranos; not only one of HBO’s all-time best series, but often listed among the greatest TV series ever to hit the airwaves.

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The series was conceived by David Chase, a veteran producer and already an Emmy-winner for his work on The Rockford Files. Chase had shopped the project to the broadcast networks who were balky about a series where nearly all of the characters were unsympathetic hoods. It was clear only a pay-TV channel would provide Chase with the creative latitude to tell his story the way he felt the story needed to be told, and the project found a home at HBO.

The Sopranos would be HBO’s first monster hit, generating numbers within the small universe of HBO homes that were comparable to what many broadcast network shows were pulling nationally. By its second season, critics were describing it as a tragedy of Shakespearean quality, and the show had become a towering spire in the pop culture skyline.

Not bad for a show the company had modest hopes for.

“Anybody (in HBO) who tells you they knew The Sopranos was going to be a hit,” one company exec once told me, “is a liar! I know! I was in those meetings! They didn’t even like the title!” The expectation, that same exec said, was that because of the show’s Mob themes, it would probably “do ok,” but not much more. Jump in your time machine and go back and watch the promo campaign behind the series: The Sopranos wasn’t getting about as much push as the typical HBO original.

With its promotable elements – neurotic Mafioso sees a shrink to deal with the stresses of being a Mob boss – echoing those of the more broadly comic big screen Analyze This released earlier that year, there was some worry the show would be dismissed as a TV knock off.

Before the first season was over, the company realized it had an atomic-powered engine on its hand, and the promo push for the show grew more massive season by season. The acclaim was universal, and The Sopranos would be nominated for the Outstanding Drama Series Emmy each year it was eligible, winning in 2004 and 2007.

The show also illustrated the difficulty in allowing a creative artist the leeway to pursue his vision in a mass medium that, season by season, demonstrated a limited tolerance for artistic ambition. Part of what made HBO attractive to people like David Chase and Darren Star and Garry Shandling etc. was the HBO policy of keeping its nose out of the creative end of programming. If it believed in a show and the people behind it enough to commit to it, then it believed in it enough to allow the creative team to follow its creative nose. After its rather violent first season, The Sopranos focused more on the interior drama of its characters than on body counts, and that wasn’t always what fans wanted. One of the running complains in subsequent seasons that regularly came across my desk was, “Not enough people are getting whacked” (trust me; that’s exactly how they put it).

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Fan frustration with Chase’s adamant refusal to throw viewers some cathartic bones and follow what he believed to be a truer dramatic line was never more pronounced that over the series’ provocative, controversial final episode. There were viewers who clearly stuck with the series expecting an apocalyptic finale. Instead, the closing scene of the last episode had Mob boss Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) waiting for his family in a Jersey diner. A guy comes in the diner – a hitman delivering Tony’s final comeuppance? – then disappears into the bathroom. The scene cuts between Tony in his booth, his daughter outside awkwardly trying to park her car, his family gathering at the table, and then…blackout. Actually, an extended blackout. Ten full seconds of nothing before the end credits roll. Hundreds of subscribers called the next day who had turned their sets off before the end credits wanting to know how the show had ended thinking their cable systems had lost the signal. They weren’t any happier about the answer they got then those who had stuck out the 10 seconds.

In time, the artistry of that finale – which David Chase has steadfastly refused to explain – would come to be appreciated and the show’s close rated as one of TV’s best (if not most satisfying). But the monumental amount of fan pissed-offedness generated by Chase’s daring storytelling was the first – but not the last – time HBO confronted the price of its creative laissez-faire policy.

In 2000, the year after The Sopranos debuted, the company scored their third huge hit in a row with Six Feet Under. There’s a certain amount of confusion (and a lawsuit) over the origin of the series, but the story I heard in the company was that our original programming division approached Alan Ball, fresh off his Best Original Screenplay Oscar win for the 1999 feature American Beauty, with the idea of working with HBO on a show about a family-owned funeral parlor. Ball didn’t connect with the original idea, but came back with his own take on the concept and that was Six Feet Under.

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Although SFU would always trail The Sopranos and Sex and the City in ratings, it is, arguably, the better example of the creative possibilities HBO was promising. Any attempt to synopsize or encapsulate the show does it a disservice. There were times it was darkly comic, and others when it was heavily dramatic, and sometimes wincingly soap operatic, and yet other times dauntingly philosophical and existential. The “hook” of the show – two contrasting brothers running the family funeral business after the death of their father – became more distant and irrelevant as the show increasingly followed the separate dramatic arcs of the various central characters. All these elements made Six Feet Under one of the more creatively erratic of what some of us in the company referred to as The Big Three, but also one of its most unique.

And when the show was at its best, it was brilliant television, and never more so than during its finale, often cited as one of the best in the history of television. The family’s youngest member Clare (Lauren Ambrose), after five seasons of her own trials and travails, has finally found her feet and is heading east for a job as a photographer’s assistant. As her car cuts across the arid plains of the southwest to the haunting strains of Sia’s “Breathe Me,” there are flash forwards (her own fantasies?) to the deaths of each of the major characters, some heartbreaking, some marked by gratifying closure, until finally Clare sees her own last moments on her deathbed, surrounded by the photographs of the family and friends who meant so much to her. Six Feet Under’s closing moments are that rare occasion when TV rises to a cinematic poetry, visually and thematically eloquent, as good as TV can ever be.

Up until the mid ’00s, when The Big Three began to close out their runs, HBO was TV as good as TV could be. Behind The Sopranos, Sex and the City, and Six Feet Under were niche shows like Dennis Miller Live, The Wire, and Deadwood, Oz was still running, there were the channel’s ace boxing coverage, Inside the NFL, music and comedy specials, documentaries and family programming, late night erotica… The service had a deep bench of acclaimed, award-winning, and popular programming that TV writers regularly pointed to as an example of what TV could be rather than what it too often was.

And within a few short years, through circumstance, hubris, and plain bad luck, the channel which, for a while, looked as if it could do no wrong, seemed to suddenly become one that couldn’t do anything right.

  • Bill Mesce

Next: Fall…and Resurrection

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Click here to read every article in this series!

Preface

Introduction 

Towards Felix The Cat

Baby Steps

In The Beginning Was The Word: Radio

The Numbers Racket

Wasteland 

Greener Grass

Walson’s Mountain

The Green Channel 

Into The Skies, Junior Birdmen!

 Title Fights: The King of Pay-TV

The Movie Duels

The Wall

An Original Voice

Expanding the Brand Part 1

Expanding the Brand Part 2

Golden Age Part 1

Golden Age Part 2

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By Bill Mesce

Bill Mesce, Jr. is a produced screenwriter and playwright, and a published author of fiction and nonfiction, including Overkill: The Rise and Fall of Thriller Cinema. He spent 27 years with pay-TV giant Home Box Office, and now teaches at several universities in his native New Jersey.

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