Lena Dunham, HBO's poster girl
I guess I should explain.
Ellenberg was HBO's executive in charge of drama, replaced in January by someone named Casey Bloys, formerly HBO's executive in charge of comedy. (Got that?) And Lombardo is/was HBO's programming president. I'm not sure what these three guys do exactly, but from where I sit, none of them was doing an impressive job. For about two years now, I've been burdening my wife with complaints about HBO, specifically its erratic, largely unsatisfying programming and the anemic number of episodes aired for each show - usually 6 or 7, tops, for its comedies.
I'm using the word "comedies" loosely here because precious few HBO comedies of late have been funny. They've mostly been "edgy," a quality which has become the new porn for the average TV viewer. (But more about that later.) Anyway, despite gobbling up umpteen undeserving Emmy awards every year, HBO has become a dim shadow of itself, coasting on the dusty credentials created in its heyday by "The Sopranos" and "Sex and the City" (and, much later, "Curb Your Enthusiasm") and pushing the "edge" envelope instead of anything remotely creative.
Its shows have become naggingly similiar.
It's difficult to pinpoint when the decline started but I trace it back to such shows as "Big Love," essentially little more than a trendy re-do of "The Sopranos." and "Hung," a puerile, one-joke affair about a guy's infamously huge penis which, for some reason, HBO refused to show. Yes, HBO!
But let's move to the present. Beyond "Games of Throne," which has become something of a franchise (if there is such a thing in the world of cable TV), and the initial season of "True Detective" (which was terrific on every level), what else is there on HBO? There's Bill Maher shamelessly pontificating (and, much worse, generally repeating himself), an occasional worthwhile film (the current "All the Way") and a collection of recurring sitcoms, each of which, at best, was worthy of one good season.
"Girls," by wunderkind Lena Dunham, got off to an edgy start (there's that word again) but has been stale for about three years now - although its enthusiastic depiction of nasty, dirty sex sets it apart from anything else on TV or even in movie theaters. (Virtually no one is modern film has sex anymore and, when they do, the woman usually wears a brassiere. Huh?) The Duplas Brothers' "Togetherness" was smart and had promise but actually disintegrated during its painful second and final season. And the mercifully short-lived "Looking" only confirmed every bad idea that homophobes have about gay men. Did it really intend to do that?
Then there's "Ballers," a show whose humor is limited to that dubious title. (Real mature, HBO.) Mike Judge had a good idea with "Silicon Valley," but after season one, it went on an endless loop with the same storyline repeated ad infinitum (i.e., some heartless shark is always trying to steal the clueless techies' progressive ideas and bastardize them). And "Veep" has been so reduced that it now exists as an excuse for the talented Julia Louis-Dreyfuss to end every lame joke with the word "cock," or "balls," or "pussy" or worse. This is Emmy-worthy? What happened to the sophisticated humor that "Veep" promised and delivered in its first season?
Laura Dern's now-forgotten "Enlightened" was a true original, a tiny gem, but even that went on one season too long. TV has yet to learn when to call it quits, a good case in point being CBS's "The Big Bang Theory," a once-oddball delight which has been neutered into a conventional sitcom success.
Aaron Sorkins' "The Newsroom" kept getting renewed, even though one season was quite enough, thank you. And, this year, the much-touted "Vinyl" was an unwatchable mess, despite the behind-the-scenes, high-powered presence of Martin Scorsese and Mick Jagger (or perhaps because of it).
But it had "edge," something that AMC successfully introduced (and milked) with "Mad Men" and "Breaking Bad," hooking viewers on bad behavior and rationalized amorality - and inspiring the three tired major networks to do the same with the likes of "Scandal" and "The Good Wife."
The negative result of the network's lazy preoccupation with edginess is that it has conditioned the average TV viewer to except and accept nothing less.
"Nashville," an exceptional, old-fashioned piece of serial storytelling which refreshingly eschewed "edge," never received much love from ABC, which continually showed its preference for the aforementioned "Scandal," and it was prematurely canceled this week. Its audience was reportedly smaller than "Scandal's" but I'd wager that it was a lot more intelligent and discerning. (ABC's earlier obsession was the overrated sitcom, "Modern Family," which despite a bit of diversity, isn't modern at all but rather retro and dated, what with its doofus dads and self-satisfied, know-it-all moms.)
Perhaps viewers picked up on ABC's disinterest. The Emmy voters certainly did, ignoring "Nashville" every year of its four seasons. But kudos to Connie Britton (pictured above with Charles Esten), Hayden Panettiere and their leader Callie Khouri for fearlessly remaining true to their mission, namely telling an on-going story straight, with no frills. Or edge.
The same Emmy disinterest seems to have plagued A&E's exceptional "Bates Motel," which, week-in and week-out, boasted world-class performances by stars Vera Farmiga and Freddie Highmore (pictured below), whose strange, intricate acting duet has very carefully prepared us for events that will take us (in its fifth and final season) to the Hitchcock film that inspired it, "Psycho." So, why has this show been ignored?
Perhaps because A&E lacks Emmy credibility?
Who knows. All I know is that both it and "Nashville" have acquired loyal cult followings that a more responsible, astute television executive would have nurtured and exploited to the advantage of both show and network.
But those days - and those men (yes, they're mostly men) - are gone.
Still it was a joy to encounter the intelligence and rare adventurousness of "Bates Motel" and "Nashville," both more satisfying than the edginess that the networks now covet to the extreme and that HBO sells as high art.
Note in Passing: The media have been deeply invested in the rise of "edge" on television, particularly the Arts & Leisure section of The New York Times, which provides recaps of only the trendiest shows, the usual suspects. Can't get enough of "Scandal" or "Girls"? Well, check out the Times, which has been complicit in the hasty elevation of such shows.