It can be argued that while the evolution of television into this its “Golden Age” has been on the backs of several groundbreaking shows, it can also be argued that no single force has contributed to this evolution greater than HBO.
There had always been original programming at the premium cable network – early examples include PHILIP MARLOWE PRIVATE EYE, THE RAY BRADBURY THEATER and THE HITCHHIKER – but in the early 90’s they really kicked it into high gear with series like DREAM ON, THE LARRY SANDERS SHOW, and David Lynch’s HOTEL ROOM. Given their pay status and thus fewer broadcast restrictions in terms of sex, language and violence, HBO was able to tackle subjects and tell stories in ways no one else in the medium could, and it through this narrative freedom that the television series began to merge with cinema not just in terms of story, but character, tone, and aesthetically as well.
Then, in 1996 and 1997, HBO released the pair of shows that would change not just their programming demographic, but that of pretty much everyone else in the game. Those shows were prison drama OZ, and bawdy, female-centric comedy SEX AND THE CITY. Both would become the model for other groundbreaking shows produced by the network: the balance of beauty in ugly places found in OZ was found again in THE SOPRANOS, SIX FEET UNDER, and DEADWOOD; the practical side of modern sexuality espoused in SEX AND THE CITY resonated in other comedies like THE MIND OF THE MARRIED MAN, TELL ME YOU LOVE ME, and HUNG. HBO put an adult spin on television that wasn’t just about sex and nudity – though certainly that’s sold some subscriptions over the years – but was more so about tackling adult subjects in an adult fashion. Life isn’t for general audiences, but that’s what network TV was showing us. Even when the networks initially tried to copy HBO’s success – the list of female foursome sitcoms that came and went is too exhaustive to mention here, and if I had a nickel for every time the word “gritty” was applied to a network drama between 2000 and today I’d be richer than Scrooge McDuck – their own standards and restrictions held them back from being truly honest with the subject matter, so what you ended up with were a lot of flat, rote, unmemorable poseur-programming.
Things changed when cable networks got into the original series game – those networks between pay and broadcast, your AMCs, your FXs, your TNTs. These are the networks that successfully adapted the HBO model for a broader audience, and as a result, over time content restrictions have loosened to the point MR. ROBOT gets to drop the occasional “fuck” (in a non-sexual context) on air, and after 10 o’clock at night all the standards & practices watchdogs go to sleep.
But HBO still reigns supreme. GAME OF THRONES was the most nominated program at this year’s Emmy’s, and for the umpteenth time HBO was the most nominated network. And as the medium of television continues to draw greater and greater talents both behind the camera and in front of it, HBO remains at the head of the pack with shows like WESTWORD, DIVORCE, INSECURE, and HIGH MAINTENANCE waiting in the wings to be our culture’s next great obsession.
In what he says is his final video before returning to the world of narrative film, one of the most talented essayists we know, Fernando Andres, has made his masterpiece: an eight-minute visual survey of the evolution of HBO, and what Andres so poignantly calls “The Rise of TV as Film.” It is the perfect encapsulation of the HBO experience until now, and showcases not only how the network has continually helped to shape and force forward the medium, but also the technical and narrative prowess of a filmmaker in Andres who I have no doubt will soon be making remarkable features for global audiences.
Until then, enjoy this most eloquent of swan songs and a serenade to the bold, innovative, and fearless vision of HBO.
HBO | The Rise of TV as Film from Fernando Andrés on Vimeo.