How SHOWTIME is Eating HBO’s Lunch

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.

19 thoughts on “How SHOWTIME is Eating HBO’s Lunch

  1. 1.  All I want for Christmas is to wake up Xmas morning and read the news that David Simon and HBO have given up the notion that this will be the last season of The Wire, and have agreed to do, oh, five more seasons.

    I haven’t watched a tremendous amount of TV in my life. But I feel very comfortable in asserting that The Wire is, hands down, the best show in the history of television. Without a close runner-up.

  2. 2.  I don’t get Showtime anymore, so although I have enjoyed Weeds and Dexter, I haven’t seen the most recent seasons. However, the 2006 season finale of Dexter was extremely off-putting for me. It was appallingly bad and such a huge departure from the rest of the series. Abominably written, poorly directed and, worst of all, cringe-worthy acting performances. It’s like everybody who works on the show just decided to take a couple of weeks off when they were filming that episode.

  3. 4.  Get rid of Six Feet Under from your first sentence and I agree with most everything you said.

  4. 6.  your missing out Enders, Californication absolutely rocks although I have to admit that I didn’t like the last 2 episodes but all ‘n all I can’t wait for season 2. Nice piece Scott Long.

  5. 8.  I completely agree with Bluebleeder on the last 2 episodes, but I’m hoping that will be better explained in year 2. The show rocked and Duchovny should get some acting award, as he was brilliant.

    Flight of the Concords has it moments for me, but it had too much irony and was very slow. I recognize that all the cool kids love it, but I’m generally a bit skeptical of that type of comedy, as I think it is much more impressive to make a larger group laugh and still be smart.

    Jon, Do you not have Showtime, as its shows are the one group that I’ve not see you weigh in on?

  6. 9.  Not one mention of The Wire? tsk. tsk.

    Easily the best show – better than any listed on the page above. (Mad Men would be second, followed by Deadwood).

    Of course, this upcoming season five (early January) is the final season . . .

  7. 10.  5. Because the other things that I don’t necessarily agree with are about Californication, but that is because I’ve never seen the show so I can’t agree or disagree with anything he said. Thus I didn’t think it was worth commenting on, unlike the obscene overratedness of Six Feet Under.

  8. 11.  I was this close to canceling HBO and subscribing to Showtime, but “Flight of the Conchords” and the COMPLETE collapse of “Weeds” (you’ve really understated it above) changed my mind. Honestly it’s not on the basis of the shows now, but on the basis of the movies they have On Demand — HBO has “The Departed,” Showtime has “Failure to Launch.” But it’s surprising the run of just flat-out loser shows HBO has produced while Showtime has had the first couple of legit hits in its history (“Dexter” and the first two seasons of “Weeds” in particular.)

  9. 12.  8 – No, I don’t have it. I’d like to see those shows, but I just need to cut corners somewhere. And I have a history of not liking Showtime shows, at least up to about three years ago.

  10. 13.  Also, I’m more satisfied with HBO than I think you are. I love Big Love, loved Sopranos to the end, like Extras and Flight and thought TMYLM and Curb improved as their seasons went on. And I tolerate Entourage even though it’s flawed. So I was able to write off JFC.

    That being said, HBO has nothing right this very minute.

  11. 14.  I’m definitely concerned about HBO. They haven’t debuted a great show since Deadwood, and that was, what, six years ago? (I am not a FOTC fan; in fact, I really disliked it, and TMYLM was even worse.)

    HBO has had, basically, four really fantastic shows: The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, Deadwood, and The Wire. The last of those shows has now ended, and HBO is basically in a five-year slump. Big Love is good, but not of a quality to hang your network’s hat on.

    My theory is that HBO has started acting more like a normal network, with network execs supervising content and exercising control over the content of shows, trying to apply their hitmaking formula. But the reason HBO shows were great to begin with is that there was NO formula; they just placed a show in the hands of creative people like Milch, Simon, Ball, and Chase, and let them do their thing. What was once a cutting-edge approach to television has been co-opted by the network hierarchy and remade in the image of the other networks.

  12. 15.  I agree completely with Eric. The loss of Chris Albrecht I doubt will help things.

    I did mention in my piece about how the Wire is ending its time, when discussing Tell You that You Love Me.

    I have mentioned in the past that I didn’t watch the Wire’s first season. I’ve been waiting for a time to start watching them on DVD, as I’m kind of a completist about TV shows, wanting to watch them from the beginning. I’m spoiled in the world of DVR’s and DVD’s. I know I’ve really missed out on seeing the Wire and look forward to checking it out from my public library soon.

    I understand the cost cutting element to life, Jon, oh to well. Since I transistioned to the Direct TV high def package, I pay 10 more dollars a month and get 1 high def HBO, SHOWTIME. and The Movie Channel as part of its group of channels. Great value.

  13. 16.  HD channels are free on Time Warner to my chigrin (sp) I recently got Dish Network (I had Time Warner) & a High Def. T.V. with NO high definition equipment, I’m thinking of going back to time warner. I still have high speed internet with them.

  14. 17.  “Deadwood, Six Feet Under, The Sopranos, and Curb Your Enthusiasm…were all among the Top 20 best in the history of television.”

    That’s a bold statement. Care to name the other 16?

    HLOTS was better than all of ’em, though.

    Also, I find it interesting that your criticism of Big Love is with the topic. Eff the topic: if a show can’t deliver characters and storylines for their development, then the show is dead. Was the Sopranos a good show b/c it was about the mob or because it was about that particular group of mobsters (i.e., characters)? I’d argue the latter.

  15. 18.  A unique topic is something which makes it more exciting to me than just doing another typical crime, hospital, or legal show. The situations that would come out of a polygamist lifestyle I think is ripe for interesting action. I just haven’t been that knocked out by the writing.
    This is why I wrote what the very small capsule comment I did.

  16. 19.  14 – “My theory is that HBO has started acting more like a normal network, with network execs supervising content and exercising control over the content of shows, trying to apply their hitmaking formula.”

    That theory, basically, would be wrong. HBO let Milch fly on JFC and didn’t steer TMYLM or FOC at all – those shows were very un-HBO like, whether you liked them or not. Showrunners extoll the creative freedom at HBO to this day. Big Love is the most traditional, if I can use that word, of the current HBO shows, yet it operates freely. And it’s great.

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