Friday, June 15, 2007

TV: Showtime vs. HBO

Holy crap, I thought this day would never come. I've long been confident in the perpetual also-ran, inessential status of Showtime as a network -- I've written about it more than once. But with last Sunday's series finale of The Sopranos, it looks like the end of an era for HBO. And it looks like, as far as original programming goes, mirabile dictu: Showtime has surpassed HBO.

I'm not saying that The Sopranos was all HBO had to offer, nor am I completely dismissing the channel as it stands now. For example, there is still to come the final season of The Wire, which many fans and critics consider to be the best show on television, period. (I still have yet to really get into it; I promise I will rent the DVDs one of these days!) But the ending of The Sopranos feels like, and is largely being reported as, the closing of HBO's golden age; it is the end of HBO's reputation-making, identity-defining string of mass brilliance.

The Sopranos joins on the slag heap quite an impressive list of series which were A) incredibly popular, B) lavishly praised by critics, C) touchstones of popular culture, or D) all of the above. Among the recently departed: Deadwood (which I personally think was the best of the crop, and one of the best shows ever aired), Rome, Six Feet Under, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Da Ali G Show, Oz, Carnivàle, Extras, and Sex and the City (which, if you're a long-time reader, you know I did not care for at all, but which, I must admit, gets filed under "all of the above").

The controversial, and widely-unsatisfying, finale to The Sopranos didn't do HBO any favors. I said a few days ago that I don't have HBO anymore, and did not watch the finale, but I could not avoid hearing about it, try as I might. So I broke down, and watched that much-talked about, much-misunderstood, much-maligned final scene on You Tube. I thought it was excellent, a perfectly ambiguous, non-gift wrapped ending; it gave me chills. I may be in the minority on this. Oh well. My point is, the majority of viewers seem put off by it, to say the least; many are expressing resentment for having invested so much time in a series and its characters, only to be disappointed by such a poor ending. (Honestly, a part of me finds it hard to blame them -- after all, I'm still pissed off about the last episode of Seinfeld!)

That bit of HBO backlash in the offing was compounded by the show airing immediately afterward: the premiere of John from Cincinnati. I haven't seen it (again, no HBO), but it's being derided by critics and fans almost unanimously as a mishmash of mystical nonsense. The best reviews I've read are the ones which don't come right out and say, "This is what HBO cancelled Deadwood for???" (David Milch, creator of both Deadwood and John, basically abandoned the former to devote his efforts to the latter.) And, now that I think about it, I'm not 100% sure there has been a review which hasn't said, "This is what HBO cancelled Deadwood for???"

And what else has HBO got to offer? There are two returning scripted series: Big Love, the Mormon polygamy drama starring local hero Bill Paxton (Ojai's favorite adopted son!), which I got sick of midway through the first season, and which is not exactly setting the world on fire; and Entourage, which I enjoy a great deal, but which, despite the luminous presence of former OoMA Carla Gugino, was having a mediocre third season before I parted ways with HBO, and which is not really a prestige program HBO can hang its hat on in the first place.

And joining John as a new series, there's Flight of the Conchords, whose first episode I was able to watch in its entirety on HBO's website. It's a comedy about an unsuccessful acoustic music duo who live together, sing humorous songs relevant to the plot, have one rabidly devoted fan, and have wacky misadventures largely culminating in failure. So, basically, it's exactly like HBO's Tenacious D series, except with lead characters from New Zealand. And much less funny.

Summation: HBO is hurtin'.

Now, let's look at Showtime. For a long while, they were like the Network That Couldn't Shoot Straight. Every decision they made was wrong. Failing to turn Spike Lee's brilliant pilot Sucker Free City into a regular series? Wrong! Cancelling Dead Like Me, their best program, prematurely? Wrong! Allowing Fat Actress to exist? Wrong, wrong, wrong!!!

But they've gotten things on track in a big way. Their highest profile program right now looks to be Weeds; soon to enter its third season, it continues to be a big hit, critically and popularly. And the first season of Dexter was a buzzworthy, groundbreaking success; the second season will air later this year. (I caught a couple episodes of each during a free Showtime preview weekend; Weeds didn't wow me, but I thought Dexter was amazing, and I can't wait to check out the DVD of the first season when it's released in August.)

The terrorism drama, Sleeper Cell, which has finished its second mini-series, and the recently completed premiere season of historical drama The Tudors have both garnered critical worship (though not, I think, huge ratings success; it's kind of hard to tell, with a premium channel like Showtime). Brotherhood, about an Irish family in Providence split between politics and crime, has also been highly praised. Masters of Horror, an anthology series showcasing new work from acclaimed genre directors, has grabbed a lot of attention; I've rented a few episodes on DVD, and, while I found them to be wildly uneven in quality, I admire and appreciate the boldness and creativity Showtime has shown by backing up such an endeavor. And two of the network's longest-running shows appear to be rolling along quite nicely: Penn & Teller: Bullshit! just completed its fifth season, and The L Word is about to begin its fifth.

That's a hefty roster of existing talent, and Showtime is adding to that list two new shows debuting this summer. I watched the pilot of the first, Meadowlands, on the Showtime website, and was intrigued and impressed. It's about a family which, for mostly unexplained reasons, changes their names from the Foyes to the Brogans and moves into the mysterious, isolated community of Meadowlands, part Witness Protection haven and part "The Village" from The Prisoner. It turns out that everyone in Meadowlands is in Witness Protection, but only the Brogans know this little fact (along with Wintersgill,who serves as the "police force" for Meadowlands, and who is prone to shocking violence). And what a seedy, strange, and scary lot they all are. Interesting premise, with the hint of plenty of dark secrets yet to be revealed. I'd like to see where it goes from here.

The other promising new show is Californication, which heralds David Duchovny's return to a regular TV series. I don't know much about it, other than it also stars the lovely Natascha McElhone, and Evan Handler, who is always awesome. And that Duchovny plays a popular but self-destructive novelist struggling to straighten out his life. Early buzz is good, and I'd like to check it out when it debuts.

Which brings us to the final comparison test: as things stand right now, would I rather subscribe to HBO or Showtime? As of this moment, HBO doesn't have a lot to offer me. I can wait for Entourage on DVD, and I'm not interested in the remainder of their scripted programming (though I will miss the excellent talk show Real Time With Bill Maher). So HBO is out. But would I pay money for Showtime? Honestly... I still don't think so -- but it's close. Very close. To me, Dexter has the most appeal, but it's not quite Deadwood, which was what actually got me to sign up for HBO. There's nothing on Showtime that demands to be watched immediately; rather than shell out for fresh episodes weekly, I think I can wait for the DVD of any show that catches my eye. In fact, taking into consideration the virtual guarantee that any pay cable program will eventually wind up on DVD, I don't think I'll ever feel the need to pay for a premium channel again.

But if I had to pick, if I had to spend that money, it would be Showtime in a walk. No contest. Wow! What a crazy, upside-down world we're living in!

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