Has HBO become edgy PBS?

[27 March 2008]

By Aaron Barnhart

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

12 Miles of Bad Road

12 Miles of Bad Road

It’s a new day at HBO, and right now nobody is more aware of that than Harry Thomason and Linda Bloodworth. The Bloodworth-Thomasons were the go-to couple for CBS in the early 1990s, producing sitcom hits such as “Designing Women” and “Evening Shade.”

But lately, these BFFs of Bill and Hillary Clinton have been having as much success as ... well, Bill and Hillary Clinton.

So you can imagine their excitement when HBO decided to develop a one-hour comedy of theirs, “12 Miles of Bad Road,” starring Lily Tomlin as a tart-tongued, high-powered real estate broker to the rich and spoiled of Texas.

According to Thomason, HBO poured $25 million into the project, and several episodes were made. Then HBO’s longtime chief Chris Albrecht left last year, after an altercation with his girlfriend in Las Vegas made the news. And earlier this month, a stack of DVDs showed up in my mailbox, with a note from Harry.

“We feel the current regime (at HBO) has been and remains uncomfortable with this new, inherited terrain,” Thomason wrote. “We are hoping that some critical reassurance might prompt them to reconsider their decision or at least help us move the show to a more receptive environment.”

Translation: Our show is toast at HBO.

Now, nobody knows for sure if “12 Miles of Bad Road” ever belonged on the same channel as “The Sopranos” and “The Wire,” but the recent string of series greenlighted by HBO have not exactly inspired confidence that the folks over there know where Albrecht kept the recipe to the special sauce.

HBO’s entertainment chief Carolyn Strauss, who has been with the company 22 years, just left, which is being widely seen as a sign that times are changing over at the No. 1 pay cable channel, though the troubles started long before her departure. David Milch was allowed to stop doing “Deadwood” for no good reason and squander his talent on the bizarre surfer drama “John From Cincinnati.” David Chase was bribed to keep churning out new episodes of “The Sopranos,” even though it was clear by Season 5 that he was creatively tapped out.

Two comedy programs I enjoyed, “Lucky Louie” and “Assume the Position,” were abandoned because they didn’t generate the kind of buzz among New York TV critics that HBO lives for. Meanwhile, the dreadful soft-porn drama “Tell Me You Love Me” was renewed for a second season, I suspect because it reminded these same Manhattanites of their own relationships.

Perhaps nothing speaks more to these dual problems - creative stagnation and obeisance to critics on the coasts - than the news that HBO had renewed its over-the-hill, Hollywood-cameo-studded comedy “Entourage” ... for two years.

In fairness, HBO has a new management team that was thrust into place rather abruptly. And there are a lot of basic-cable channels now willing to take on the kind of high-end series that only HBO was taking a chance on 10 years ago. But that doesn’t give HBO a free pass, nor does the fact that Time Warner is squeezing budgets companywide, including HBO’s, despite the fact that it generates $1 billion in annual profit for the mother ship.

So, until the Next Big Thing comes along, HBO will try to generate short-run buzz by using Sunday nights to showcase events produced by its films division. “John Adams” is currently playing, followed by “Recount” in May (about the Florida election in 2000, starring Kevin Spacey) and “Generation Kill” in July (an Iraq war miniseries from the creators of “The Wire”).

I’m not objecting. I’ve felt for some time that HBO Films is unjustly overlooked by critics. But then, not everyone shares my view.

“Boring” is a word I’m hearing tossed around a lot about “John Adams.” Just the other day I was talking with a colleague of mine. I was describing some of the wonderful little stabs at authenticity throughout “John Adams”: the hideous tar-and-feather scene, or the doctor inoculating Abigail and her children from smallpox with pus from the boil of a sick patient, or Adams at Philadelphia, about to launch into an impassioned argument when he suddenly realizes he doesn’t have his wig on ... great stuff.

Unimpressed, my colleague said, “That’s what HBO has become these days. Edgy PBS.”

Oooh. Harsh but, I’ve got to admit, true. The films and the documentaries, like this week’s “Autism: The Musical,” are what I love most about HBO. But that’s kind of what they make HBO ... an edgy PBS.

Actually, they’re PBS if PBS made money. Lots of money. Twenty-five-million-to-blow-on-a-Harry-and-Linda-pilot money.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/article/has-hbo-become-edgy-pbs/