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Is HBO Losing Its Edge?

April 14th, 2008 10:57am EDT
The SopranosRemember the slogan, "It's not TV, It's HBO?" Well, up until a couple months ago this marketing ploy actually rang true. HBO has long been the trendsetter of original series that break all boundaries and push audiences' perception of what television is and should be.

Unfortunately, thanks to the culminations of the network's most beloved quartet of series - Sex and the City, Six Feet Under, The Sopranos, and most recently The Wire - the Crown Royal of premium cable programming is in threat of losing its edge over the best of the rest.

There was a time when HBO stood for first-run Hollywood blockbusters uncut and sans commercials and live boxing events. While the network dabbled in original series during its early years (anyone remember a certain kids show about a village of colorful, vegetarian humanoids named Fraggle Rock?) it wasn't until it launched two groundbreaking series - the often overlooked gritty prison drama Oz and, of course, "The Sopranos" - that it became a leader in a trend of unprecedented television programs.

The Sopranos

While "The Sopranos" will inevitably go down as one of most important series in television history, it was "Oz" that initially raised the bar. The advent of shows based on multi-dimensional characters that, despite their wrong doings, manage to captivate the audience paved the way for the gamut of most popular series today. Thanks to the inmates on "Oz" and later the more popularized Tony Soprano it was suddenly okay to sympathize and get sucked into the lives of the bad guys.

After "Sopranos" fever HBO was able to launch other hit dramas. There was the show that tackled death and a family of undertakers ("Six Feet Under," which was renewed for a second season right after the first episode aired), the risqué comedy about New York women living in a fantasy world ("Sex and the City") and the hilarious but painful to watch day in the life of Larry David (Curb Your Enthusiasm). The network even managed to launch some fairly well-received niche dramas such as the Shakespearean Western Deadwood, the Dust Bowl era Twin Peaksesque series Carnivalé, and the history buff's dream show Rome.

Then there was "The Wire," the socially conscious, anti-cop show that was the last truly great series on HBO. The series wrapped its fifth and final season this past month leaving fans of the network wondering, what's next?

The Wire

Let's look at the current slate of shows at HBO: There is the respectable but hardly hit series about Mormonism and Polygamists (Big Love) ready to start its third season. There was the failed spiritual surfing drama (John From Cincinnati) that followed "The Sopranos'" fade to black finale; an erotic show about relationships and intimacy (Tell Me You Love Me), a new five-night a week drama about a shrink and his patients (In Treatment) and a slew of questionable upcoming series.

Take, for example, Alan Ball's (the creator of "Six Feet Under") new vampire series, "True Blood," based on a series of popular mystery novels. A proposed new comedic series "12 Miles of Bad Road" about Texas a wealthy real-estate matriarch (the lovely Lily Tomlin) and her dysfunctional family was set to air but was caught up in the writers strike and may end up at another network.

Add this to, sigh, potentially more seasons of "Curb Your Enthusiasm," which officially jumped the shark around the fourth or fifth season, the consistently funny news talk show "Real Time With Bill Maher" and the entertaining but fluffy Entourage and you have the fairly uninspired future lineup for HBO.

"True Blood" may be the most intriguing project in the works mainly due to the success of "Six Feet Under." It's difficult to imagine Alan Ball not delivering another hit series. Then again, "Deadwood" creator David Milch proved that follow-up shows ("John from Cincinnati") can also bomb. The vampire premise is a bit curious, but then again pitching a show about a family of funeral home owners probably sounded equally as questionable when "Six Feet Under" was first proposed.

Six Feet Under

The most promising projects in HBO's gamut are its original films and mini-series. Currently the network is airing the seven-part "John Adams" screen adaptation, a fascinating look at the birth of our nation starring Paul Giamatti as our nation's second President. There is also an upcoming Iraq war mini-series ("Generation Kill") from David Simon, the creator of "The Wire" (sigh of relief for "Wire" fans out there) and an ambitious 10-part mini-series about the World War II Pacific theater from the creators of Band of Brothers set for a 2009 release.

Still, while these smaller projects will undoubtedly be worth the hour or so on Sunday nights, the network is lacking a major series to anchor its standing with other networks like F/X or Showtime, both of which have gained momentum with their programming over the past couple years on the heels of HBO's success.

It will be interesting to see where HBO is headed and which shows in the future (if any) can captivate a nation as much as "The Sopranos" or its other landmark series did during their run. Only time will tell whether HBO remains something new and exciting or really is just TV.

Story By C. Warner Sills
Starpulse contributing writer


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