[3 August 2009]
Contra Costa Times (MCT)
PASADENA, Calif. — Unless you dumped your subscription in disgust, or to just save a few bucks, you may have noticed that HBO is worth watching again.
There was a time, of course, when it seemed that the pay-cable titan could do no wrong. The hits kept coming and so did the buzz. And in the process, television’s bar was jacked up several notches.
But then HBO sort of lost its way. And when it came to water-cooler mojo, it often found itself outdone by arch-rival Showtime and even basic cable outlets like FX and AMC. The critics naturally pounced.
“Two years ago we were feeling beat up,” HBO executive Quentin Schaffer admitted in front of a horde of journalists at television’s summer press tour. “Now we’re feeling upbeat.”
Credit an infusion of fresh blood — or “True Blood,” to be exact. Alan Ball’s vampire drama has become the network’s most popular show, attracting more than 10 million viewers per week on a cumulative basis. Equally important: It reeks of buzz — something shows like “The Sopranos” and “Sex and the City” used to bring HBO in its glory days.
And then there’s “Big Love,” which achieved new creative heights in its third season and has received an Emmy nomination for best drama. Cult favorite “Flight of the Conchords” also was honored with its first Emmy nomination for top comedy.
HBO announced the renewals of “True Blood,” “Entourage” and “Hung” during a raucous press-tour session filled with laughter, thanks to the presence of, among others, funnymen Robin Williams and Larry David.
Williams was on hand to hawk an HBO stand-up special that will be filmed during an upcoming tour, his first since undergoing heart surgery in March.
“I’ve run out of money from ‘Bicentennial Man’ merchandise,” he joked, explaining why he’s hitting the road again.
Meanwhile, David dropped by to promote the new season of his sitcom, “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” launching on Sept. 20. The fun chatter on that front was the much-anticipated reunion of the entire “Seinfeld” cast, to be played out over five episodes.
“For years I’ve been asked about a ‘Seinfeld’ reunion. I said I’d never do that. It’s a lame idea,” he revealed. “But then I thought, but it might be funny to do on ‘Curb.’ I started to think of different scenarios and how we might pull it off.”
Lots of guffaws and giggles also fueled press conferences for the upcoming sitcom “Bored to Death” and “Hung.” The latter session essentially evolved into a junior high phys-ed class as it was teeming with below-the-waist jokes about the show’s well-endowed lead character.
Yes, there’s joy in HBO land again. It’s good to laugh. But make no mistake, there’s plenty of serious drama on tap, too.
In the works at HBO are “The Pacific,” an epic World War II miniseries, and “Treme,” a New Orleans-set series from David Simon, acclaimed producer of “The Wire.” We’re also still awaiting word on whether HBO will go forward with “Gentlemen of Leisure,” an Oakland, Calif.-based drama series about a middle-aged pimp struggling with the responsibilities of fatherhood and family life.
HBO programming chief Michael Lombardo, who attained his position two years ago, informed us after the press conferences that the script has recently been revised and that he’s still high on the project.
“It’s at the top of my list of the next group of pilots we want to shoot,” he said. “I have a personal allegiance to it.”
Not as high on “Gentlemen” is Oakland mayor Ron Dellums and a few city council members, who said several months ago that they don’t want the show filmed in Oakland because of its edgy subject matter.
Lombardo, however, insists their concerns are unfounded.
“They haven’t even read the script,” he said. “This is not a show about Oakland-bashing. Actually, it’s a bit of a love letter to the city. We want to show many faces of Oakland — not just the poverty, but its beauty and a community working hard to care for it.”
Another HBO hit in the making? Guess that might depend on whether Oakland is ready for its close-up.