HBO at TCA: Story, Genre and Scheduling
August 8th, 2010
I’ve been following along with the news out of the Television Critics Association Press Tour through Twitter, but to be honest there hasn’t really been anything that’s caught my attention: while I’m incredibly wary of the changes being made to Human Target, I’ll save any judgment until I actually see them in action, and since I haven’t seen the fall pilots I can’t really offer any opinion on how the panels seems to have changed my view on each series.
However, on the final day the HBO executive session ended up being a really interesting one: not only did HBO programming guru Michael Lombardo confirm that Entourage’s next season will be its last, but he also offered up some intriguing quotes about their planned Spring launch of Game of Thrones as well as a curious statement regarding the network’s approach to scheduling. With the networks, there’s this sense that they’re there to sell the critics on their already announced lineups, but with HBO there’s a laid-back confidence which could be read as cockiness, and it makes for a more interesting environment in terms of the kinds of discussion it creates.
So, let’s take a gander at what an Entourage movie and a question of genre vs. storytelling tell us about the channel’s approach as compared with its pay cable counterparts.
By the sound of it, Entourage will be getting a shortened eighth season in order to bring its storylines (or, in the case of Entourage, non-storylines) to their televisual conclusions before potentially branching off into a feature-length film. This was actually a trend during the HBO conference, as Lombardo also suggested that The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency could return in the form of television movies, and there was a lot of talk during the Boardwalk Empire panel about the notion of “cinematic television” (which is a problematic term in that it suggests that television becomes great when it becomes more like cinema, rather than by simply becoming great television). In the case of No. 1 Ladies, the switch makes sense: I think BBC, HBO’s co-producer on the first series, would be interested in bringing Jill Scott and Anika Noni Rose back for another go-around, perhaps as summer specials not dissimilar to the Sherlock series currently airing in the U.K.
However, I can’t imagine an Entourage movie: the show is incapable of creating actual drama, and most of its drama relies on brief moments at the end of an episode where everything goes wrong. The movie would be nothing but cameo after cameo with some gratuitous female nudity thrown in to break things up, and the idea that this is something worth of a feature film is laughable. Mind you, I’d be intensely curious to see what it is that Doug Ellin thinks could fill 90 minutes, and the idea of a (relatively) long-form Entourage narrative is something that I’d tune in to see, but it’s not something I see people paying to see in a movie theatre. It seems like a bizarre choice, although the idea of a six-episode season to bring things to a point of relative closure is a smart way to let the series have its final hour while acknowledging that it is its time to go.
One senses that HBO stuck with Entourage for its escapist glimpse of the celebrity lifestyle rather than its storytelling, which is more or less the precise opposite of its approach with drama: Boardwalk Empire is apparently spectacular, and Game of Thrones is getting a strong vote of confidence with the network sticking to its plans for a Spring launch. This is good news for the fantasy series, although it’s interesting to read that Lombardo apparently said that “It wasn’t the genre we responded to, it was the storytelling.”
Now, this is ultimately a compliment: A Song of Ice and Fire is much more focused on character and story than on genre, and its connections with Fantasy are more cultural than they are magical (which is a statement I should really unpack more, but I don’t want to get into spoilers). My one concern is that they need to understand how much the genre of the novels informs the fanbase: fantasy series like this one create strong connections not in terms of readers who only appreciate magic or other fantastical elements, but in terms of fan art and other paratexts which encourage engagement with the text itself. Lombardo does mention how fans, collecting on sites like Winter is Coming, are putting pressure on them and they know how important it is to “get it right,” but I think genre is a powerful influence with the fanbase, and while it won’t be the dominant mode of the series I do think it needs to be present.
However, the idea of HBO focusing on storytelling over genre is particularly interesting is that it is the exact opposite approach to Starz, who was also onstage at TCA yesterday. Starz is a network which is now building itself around genre, with historical epics like Pillars of the Earth and Spartacus, science fiction epics like Torchwood: The New World (a 10-part mini-series), and magical epics like Camelot. I’m very excited for Torchwood after hearing that they intend on sticking with the contained serialized narrative format of Children of Earth, and my research work with the Arthurian legend has me curious about Camelot, but I do get the sense that Starz’s direction (away from projects like Party Down, towards projects like Spartacus) is somewhat at odds with my interests and, at times, at odds with storytelling.
The issue, I think, is that HBO is not so much tied to the idea of genre: the only thing which links Boardwalk Empire to Treme, or Big Love to True Blood, or Game of Thrones to any of the above, is the fact that they’re on HBO. Their comedies are similarly divided, and while you can see some patterns (like Entourage and How to Make it In America coming from the same producers), there isn’t that clear sense of brand identity beyond what HBO considers to be “quality television.” It was a point that was raised when a critic asked Lombardo about pairing Bored to Death, the quirky Jonathan Ames comedy, with the over-the-top Eastbound and Down – based on traditional notions of lead-ins and lead-outs, the pairing makes absolutely no sense. However, Lombardo suggested that they don’t look at scheduling that way, and that since a majority of their viewers will watch the series after it airs (either on DVR or in one of the numerous airings of an episode later in the week) they are less concerned about where it airs first than the other networks. As Tim Goodman of the San Francisco Chronicle tweeted, this raises an interesting point:
“Basically what HBO just said is, “We don’t care about flow.” Which is interesting. That means each HBO series must be appointment television.”
There’s an element of cockiness in their statement, and I don’t entirely believe it: while it’s true that the Bored to Death/Eastbound and Down pairing exists only because they had two half-hour comedies ready to go and airing them together was their only real option, their current Sunday schedule (True Blood/Hung/Entourage) is clearly designed for the newer series, Hung, to benefit the most from the substantial True Blood lead-in. However, while we could chalk this us to the network’s usual desire to emphasize that they are not only better than everyone else but different than everyone else, I think they can’t be as preoccupied with lead-ins as the networks. Their lineup is built around its diversity, and so they cannot afford to be slaves to compatible lead-ins or else they will be forced to direct their development in specific areas. HBO loves its freedom, whether it involves its continued commitment to the dying art of the Miniseries or its willingness to step out on a limb with uniquely schedule half-hour dramas like In Treatment, and losing that wouldn’t be worth it for thematic continuity.
And yet, its main rival in pay cable doesn’t look at things the same way: compared to HBO, Showtime is much more interested in logical thematic pairings, which explains why they were able to hold a panel at Comic-Con featuring their stable of anti-heroes. Dexter, Californication, Weeds, Nurse Jackie, United States of Tara and The Big C all revolve around flawed protagonists, and even Secret Diary of a Call Girl (a British co-production) fits the bill. There’s a wealth of female protagonists to pair together, along with some male figures who fit comfortably into the same image: Dan Fienberg observed in his live blog of the HBO presentation that Enlightened, a new Laura Dern-half hour from Mike White (School of Rock), “sure looks like a Showtime series,” which shows how pervasive this has become. With The Tudors ending its run, the network’s lineup is actually shockingly one-dimensional on the surface: I like a number of these shows, and look forward to checking out The Big C, but you can’t deny that HBO is a far more diverse lineup.
However, it allows Showtime to focus more on creating lead-ins, using a series like Weeds to launch their newest comedy or potentially using Dexter as a launching pad for another series in the future. While I wouldn’t say that Showtime’s brand is entirely defined by genre, as character would probably be the first element which comes to mind, they are nonetheless much more driven to homogeneity within their scheduling practices, which is possible for them in a way it is impossible for HBO. As Starz tries to stake their own claim, you can see them looking for a way to make their stamp and it seems like they’re moving more towards Showtime’s consistency than HBO’s diversity, which should make for an interesting test case as they make their move in the years ahead.
- I’m curious to hear if Lombardo thinks the same about True Blood as he does about Game of Thrones: while he’s arguing that GoT was picked up in spite of its genre, True Blood is an interesting case in that I feel its genre is all it really has going for it. Alan Ball is a strong writer, but the storytelling on the show has been pretty inconsistent, which makes me wonder if the project started as a writerly one but has grown into a genre project in response to the rabid fanbase.
- I’m very curious to see the early chapters of Malory’s Le Morte Darthur come to life in Starz’s Camelot – it’s got a strong cast, and the idea that James Purefoy is playing King Lot makes me really curious to see how the early parts of the Morte are captured. I wrote about my trepidation with any and all adaptations of the Arthurian Legend earlier this year, but I’m certainly still going to check it out.
- It seems like a tired joke to keep talking about how HBO Miniseries are like a crystal ball for the next year’s Emmy nominations, but this year is the same: The Sunset Limited (an adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s play starring Tommy Lee Jones and Samuel L. Jackson) and Mildred Pierce (starring Kate Winslet, Evan Rachel Wood, Guy Pearce, Melissa Leo and Hope Davis) are going to be huge in the Spring, and if Cinema Verite (starring Diane Lane, Tim Robbins and James Gandolfini) lands within the Emmy window things become that much more crowded.