A few years back, when HBO had Deadwood, Six Feet Under, The Sopranos, and Curb Your Enthusiasm all going at the same time, it was a magical time for the pay network. These shows were all among the Top 20 best in the history of television. Adding to this wealth of quality, Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel, Real Time with Bill Maher, and other great documentary programming were at their peak at HBO. It was the finest collection of programming any network has ever had during one time period. This is no longer the case.
While many of you have missed it, SHOWTIME has become the best network for original programming. It really began in 2006, with the Mary Louise Parker comedy Weeds. Weeds is a quirky comedy, but it does a remarkable thing in that it gives as fair and balanced a view of the marijuana culture as a drama could accomplish. The show explores the silliness of US Pot laws, while at the same time showing how even Weed can cause your life to spiral out of control. Weeds features a great ensemble cast, but it is the talents of Parker that really make the show special. Parker has always had this smart, sexy, seductive quality that she brings to her work, but in Weeds she really gets her full opportunity to shine. The show did have Jump the Shark moments this season, but the overall quality of the show still is far above most on television.
Paired with Weeds during this fall was Californication. Starring David Duchovny, Californication was the best new show I watched this year. (It should be noted that I never saw Mad Men.) I’ve always liked Duchovny, but since I’m not a big science fiction guy, I never went nuts for his work on X-Files. I first noticed him on Zalman King’s Skinemax series, Red Shoe Diaries and around the same time in a supporting part in the Mimi Roger’s film vehicle, The Rapture. He was good in both of them. Where he really first shined for me, though, was his hilarious turn on the Larry Sanders Show, playing himself as a guy with a crush on Sanders. His scene in the robe with Larry is one of my favorite comic scenes. Duchovny finally found the perfect role for himself in the new series, Californication, as he plays possibly the coolest part ever in TV history. His character, Hank Moody is a novelist who is self-aware of how his best work is in the rear-view mirror. Hank is an East Coast guy, who lives in LA, despite seemingly hating everything about the vacuous nature of the place. The key to the character is that Hank is filled with self-loathing, but at the same time still believes he is better than every one else he comes into contact with. A truer self-absorbed artist portrait has not been seen. Oh and one great major bonus is that the guy beds women like he is in a porn film. Amazingly, I never have a problem believing it could happen, though, because his character is so damn witty and charming. No show since Dream On has had so much random boning, but unlike the gratuitous nature of much of its skin, Californication’s sex always seems perfectly natural. A major bonus on this front was the full-on scene with Duchovny and Paula Marshall which happened in one of the first few episodes. It was erotic, clumsy, and pathetic all at the same time. Much like how real sex is.
The best show of 2006 has almost been as good in 2007. I’m speaking of Showtime’s Dexter. I’m not going to give much depth on the show, as I would hate to wreck the show for anyone who hasn’t seen it. Just the basics. The story is about a Miami Police blood splatter expert named Dexter Morgan, who just happens to be a serial killer during his free-time. Played beautifully by Micheal C. Hall (David from Six Feet Under), Morgan has a code he follows in his kills, which is that his victims need to have been despicable human beings who have killed others themselves. Dexter is not easy to root for, as his anti-hero is no Chuck Bronson vigilante, but instead a cold-blooded, psychopath. Despite this very dark theme, the show has a great dry sense of humor which is aided greatly by Dexter’s narration. His voice-over give an inner thought process that is so cold, yet humorous that it reminds me of Malcom McDowell in A Clockwork Orange. The only bright spot that I’ve heard come out of the writer’s strike is that CBS (part of the same Viacom family that Showtime is part of) might show Dexter on its network in 2008. If you don’t want to wait or have to watch a watered down version of the show, go out and buy the first season on DVD. Unlike most HBO releases, the price is very reasonable to catch the best drama on television. Quit watching the formula that is CSI and check-out a forensic show with real edge and spark.
I have in the past praised Showtime’s Penn and Teller’s Bullshit, which puts a magnifying glass to lots of New Age malarkey. Showtime’s new drama, Brotherhood is pretty good in its own right. The L Word is too often a lesbian soap opera, but any show that features women making out has artistic credibility to me.
As I mentioned at the beginning of the piece, HBO is going through a transition period.
The Soprano’s wrapped up this year, but I had felt the show was a shell of itself the past few years, anyway.
John from Cincinnati sadly didn’t work. I guess even David Milch is capable of a dud.
Rome is too Masterpiece Theatre for me and it would seem for most of its subscribers.
Entourage lost steam quickly, as Jeremy Piven carried the show as far as he could.
Big Love is solid, but the topic seemed much more promising than it has delivered.
Tell Me You Love Me is a hard watch, but I do appreciate the documentary style it brings to relationships. While it is far from perfect, it is the best drama that HBO can point to for the future, as The Wire’s last season is coming upon us.
Extras is another show with some great moments, but it is nowhere in the league of Gervais’ brilliant British original of The Office.
Fortunately for HBO, Curb Your Enthusiasm made a return to greatness in many of its Season 7 episodes. The impending divorce of Larry David from his wife in real-life has bled over to Curb and it has seemed to reinvigorate the show bringing more nastiness and hate to the program. These are 2 qualities that give Curb much of its energy, so it has been a major benefit. It regained the Juice Blog’s crown of best comedy on TV.
I have kept HBO on my satellite package because of its excellent documentaries, great sports programming headlined by Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel and Inside the NFL, plus the best talk show around, Real Time with Bill Maher. Even with these quality shows, Showtime has eaten HBO’s lunch in 2007. It will be interesting to see what happens with HBO in 2008, as they clearly seem to be in a rebuilding phase. Considering the creative freedom that pay cable offers original dramas, I hope HBO does a better job selecting the next batch of new programming.