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Opinion: The Fall and Rise Of HBO (2007-2014)

In the Summer of 2007, HBO found itself in a curious position. Since 1999, the network had been making programs so groundbreaking and revolutionary that they transcended the medium and launched television into a new golden age, in many ways eclipsing what the film industry was capable of. While other networks were following in their footsteps, HBO was still so far ahead of the rest of the pack that their tagline “It’s not TV, It’s HBO” wasn’t viewed as a marketing gimmick so much as an irrefutable fact.

While this was still true in 2007, the first wave of shows that had founded HBO’s dynasty were all but gone.  Sex and the City ended in 2004, 6 Feet Under bowed out in 2005, and, in a rare miscue, HBO had prematurely pulled the plug on Deadwood in 2006. The Wire would stay on until early 2008, but very few people recognized the show’s greatness at the time, and while Curb Your Enthusiasm remains active to this day, HBO has always been at the whim of Larry David’s muse, leading to an unreliable production schedule. This left only The Sopranos, the show that had started it all, whose final episode was set to air on June 10th. The executives at HBO knew that in order to maintain their position as the undisputed king of quality television, they would need a new flagship drama to replace it.

This is where HBO made one of the great blunders in television history. Matt Weiner had been a key writer for The Sopranos during it’s later seasons, a job he got with a spec script he had written years earlier about advertising executives in the 1960’s. With his current job on The Sopranos ending, he was looking to get it made. While HBO considered producing Mad Men as a replacement for The Sopranos, they knew they owed David Milch a huge favor for the way they had abruptly ended his Deadwood a few years earlier. So it was that the night of June 10th 2007, as a still record 11.9 million viewers came to terms with The Sopranos finale, HBO followed it with the pilot of it’s next great drama; John From Cincinnati. I’m going to assume the name John From Cincinnati invokes one of two reactions, those being either “wait…what?” or “oh yeah, that show I forgot existed”. While John had some interesting ideas, it was ultimately a complete disaster, a meandering miss mosh of stoner mysticism and aimless plotting, it was cancelled after one season.

Meanwhile, Matt Weiner was approached by AMC, a network best known at the time for airing the edited versions of middlebrow prestige films. They were looking to get into the original programming racket, and decided Weiner’s Mad Men was the show they wanted to use to start it all. Mad Men went on to become one of the defining drama’s of the ’00s, and coupled with Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead, launched AMC to the pinnacle of the cable world. At the same time FX, and to a certain extent Showtime, were following the HBO mold and building a reputation as the new homes of daring, groundbreaking television. Suddenly HBO was no longer the only game in town.

As the rest of cable caught up to HBO in the late ’00s, the network that had redefined television was struggling with new programming. They received critical praise with a few under appreciated comedies (Flight of the Concords, Eastbound & Down), but the quality of their dramatic programming had diminished, and there is no better example of this than True Blood. While True Blood has at times delivered moments of transcendent, John Waters level uber-camp, as a complete series the show is a guilty pleasure at best, but more often just plain boring, with poorly defined characters and painfully cheesy dialogue. Even those who defend the show will have to admit that it’s a far cry from The Sopranos. HBO made another stab at a great drama in 2010 with Boardwalk Empire, and while that show has had it’s moments, it’s never been able to live up to the sum of it’s parts, with a dream cast and production crew never being able to put together a show that rises above gorgeously appointed banality.

With the understanding that their network was desperately lacking in water cooler cache, the executives took a major gamble. They poured a huge amount of money and promotion into adapting the moderately popular fantasy series A Song Of Ice and Fire into a series, retitling it Game Of Thrones, after the first book in the saga. The gamble payed off, and HBO soon had a run away hit that was both a cultural phenomenon and a critical home run. A year later they would debut three more shows, the political satire Veep, the current(ish) events drama The Newsroom, and the quirky Millennial dramedy Girls. While Girls and The Newsroom have both gotten sharply polarized receptions (full disclosure; I love Girls and hate The Newsroom), the important thing is that people have strong opinions about them, which is more than anyone can say for Tell Me You Love Me, or In Treatment. Further, all four of these shows have won multiple Emmy’s for HBO, solidifying their rediscovered ability to balance critical approval with large viewership.

7 years after The Sopranos ended, HBO seems to have regained it’s title as the go to place for exciting, groundbreaking drama, and if the recent success of True Detective is any indication, they won’t be hitting another fallow period any time soon. Meanwhile, AMC and FX, the networks who stole much of HBO’s cache, have been dealing with their own growing pains. After Mad Men ends next year, AMC will only have The Walking Dead, a ratings giant that has always been problematic, with no can’t miss prospects in the pipeline. Meanwhile, while FX still has Louie and the underrated Americans, it has never found a flagship drama to replace The Shield, and the fact that they keep producing episodes of Charlie Sheen’s Anger Management years after his moment in the zeitgeist has expired, points to a lack of forward thinking amongst some of their executives. Ultimately HBO will probably never be leaps and bounds ahead of the rest of cable like it was in the early-mid 00’s, but that is only because others have copied their mold, and it hasn’t stopped them from regaining their reputation as the best place to go for truly exciting programming.

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