Tuesday, May 24, 2016

HBO and the bane of 'edge'

Lena Dunham, HBO's poster girl

It came as little surprise to learn this week that Michael Lombardo is leaving his current post, or that his exit comes on the heels of his colleague Michael Ellenberg doing the exact same thing last January. And until this week, I had no idea that Lombardo and Ellenberg even existed.

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.


Glenn said...

Great, Joe, just great. Re "Bates Motel," I decided to watch the first episode just out of curiosity, not planning on watching any others. But I was immediately hooked. It surprised me. Its level of writing, as you have pointed out, is really impressive. But none of it would work without Vera Farmiga. That's a tricky character she's playing, but somehow she manages to make Norma both unsypmathetic and very attractive at the same time

your wife said...

i enjoy and agree with all of your HBO rants

Charlotte said...

Joe! The nasty, dirty sex on "Girls" is atypical today, as you say, but it's all so unappealing. That's the problem with HBO. It's turned pleasures into something creepy. It didn't used to be that way. But I agree with you that the actresses who wear bras in sex scenes in today's films are ridiculous. Just don't agree to do sex scenes if you don't want to be authentic!

joe baltake said...

To my dear wife: Thank you - I think.

To Charlotte: Why can't these actresses simply drape a bed sheet around their breasts if they don't want them seen? That would be more realistic than wearing a brassiere, right?

Charlotte said...


paul r. said...

Paradoxically, one of the great things about Farmiga is that she doesn't opt for camp but seems to make smart decisions the way a smart director would. Her Norma is a very well-thought-out characterization, with the result being that the viewer makes new discoveries every week.

Off topic, I must add that your site has expanded this passionate moviegoer's retinue of filmic interests with your unexpected takes on overlooked films and careers. I appreciate your enthusiasm for the obscure.

Tim K. said...

Joe- Re HBO, why are these sorry shows always being renewed? That's what I'd like to know!

Kiki said...

Here I am again -- totally agreeing with everything you wrote but without the investigation of who was who behind it. I've wanted to ask: "Joe,did it all end with The Sopranos? " (which I still watch on reruns) and was lamenting the state of HBO. I never got "Girls" .. in fact, despise it. Same with "Sex and the City." Not to mention "The Comeback." But I like "Ray Donovan" a lot and think that, even tho his career was more successful, Dustin Hoffman was jealous of Jon Voight's Mick Donovan while he got stuck with "Luck." Thanks for this!

Edward Champion said...

Thoughtful post, but TOGETHERNESS had only two seasons.

joe baltake said...

Edward! You're correct. Thanks! I was fairly certain it had three seasons. Perhaps it just felt like three seasons. If so, it was a long haul for a nifty show that started off so well. By the final episode, I had enough. Apologies to Mark! -J

Kevin Barry said...

I am so happy that you called attention to Bates Motel and the splendid, complex and elegant performances of Freddie Highmore (a British lad!) and the incomparable Vera Farmiga, who I have been in love with since her Oscar nominated performance in Up in the Air. Nestor Carbonell is also wonderful in the show (I am fascinated by his resemblance to Anthony Perkins). Do you think Marion Crane's car will arrive on a stormy night in the final episode? I hate to see it end!

joe baltake said...

Kevin- Farmiga is a revelation, shrewdly playing Norma Bates with a wink and an appreciation of nuttiness. Somehow, Farmiga's rapturous beauty both clashes with and compliments the deep-seated troubled soul that drives the willful Norma.

And, yes, Nestor Carbonell (an excellent actor) is one of the show's solid supporting structures and, yes, his resemblance to Perkins hasn't escaped me either.

As for Highmore, I can't say enough about his amazing (and amazingly subtle) performance. -J

Tim K. said...

Joe- Re HBO, why are these sorry shows always being renewed? That's what I'd like to know!

joe baltake said...

Tim- It's called creative bankruptcy. It's easier to renew something old than creative something new. That's why so many sequels and remakes litter movie theaters more than ever. -J

Sheila said...

I'd also like to add a hearty "Hear! Hear!" for your acknowledgement of "Nashville," a show that is intelligently done and unbelievably entertaining. Connie Britton is a goddess!

McK said...

"Veep" has become "fucking boring," to quote Selena Meyer.

joe baltake said...

McK: Selena has said a lot worse that that this season! -J