By Dantzler Smith

In the early-90s HBO adjusted its business model. Instead of almost exclusively showing commercial free movies on TV, HBO waded into the waters of original programming. HBO did this with the understanding that as a subscription cable channel they didn’t have to adhere to same standards as networks, which are beholden to advertisers, affiliates, and a watchful FCC. This meant HBO could be edgy. That was the gap in the market they could exploit.

At first HBO tread lightly by venturing into comedy. The Larry Sanders Show (1992-98) was HBO’s first real success, though it was so far ahead of its time that HBO didn’t attempt to repeat its deadpan comedic realism for nearly a decade. The critical acclaim of The Larry Sanders Show prompted HBO to pursue more edgy comedy acts, though instead of opting for the complex comedy of a faux late night talk show, HBO dove into sketch based programming and, ironically, an actual late night talk shows hosted by a comedian. Mr. Show with Bob and David (1995-98) and Tracey Takes On … (1996-99) were the sort of screwball sketch shows you’d typically see at a local improv club, but HBO gave them a healthy budget to augment their acts and was televising them to a national audience. This nod to absurdist humor was revolutionary at the time, as was HBO’s decision to give the frequently foul-mouthed master of obscure references, Dennis Miller, a late night talk show. In both these decisions HBO was taking something new and hip and cool and pushing it to the next level and in both cases they were way ahead of the curve. Miller was an extreme version of the late night network talk shows and HBO’s sketch comedies were hardcore versions of Saturday Night Live. Ultimately, both HBO’s bold decisions paid off as the 90s turned out to be the dawn on modern comedy, which emphasized many of the tenets of improv and the sketch format, and Miller enjoyed a nice long and critically well received run (5 Emmy wins) by essentially doing a precursor to The Daily Show.

In 1997, with its credentials for pushing the limits of television entrenched, HBO opted to make the foray into original drama with the one-hour show Oz (97-03). Oz was unlike anything on television to that point. Even its very premise was unheard of; a realistic depiction of what goes on inside a maximum security prison. The episodes themselves of course were off the charts as they depicted the graphic nature of a tumultuous life behind bars with as much realism as possible. It was the sort of thing the networks couldn’t even dream of doing. Even today that show would be considered edgy. As a teenager I got drawn into this show and I think it spawned my love affair with HBO and dramatic realism. Cheers, Murphy Brown, and Seinfeld were great but sometimes you want a show that doesn’t pull any punches and isn’t afraid to depict the truth of a situation even if that truth is unsavory. That’s what HBO was for. That’s why you needed to have HBO on you cable subscription. That’s how HBO started making boat loads of money.

Two years after Oz began its run, HBO launched The Sopranos (99-07). The following year HBO showed the David Simon miniseries The Corner (2000). Two years after The Corner, Simon was back with The Wire (02-08), which in my opinion is the greatest show ever televised. The Sopranos, The Corner, and The Wire all focused on modern life, but particularly emphasized the aspects of modern life that aren’t glamorous, the aspect we tend to ignore or typically reject as immoral. And while The Sopranos got a little off track in the later seasons, the core of these shows was to bluntly confront the viewer with uncensored realism and believable situations that questioned morality and in some respects human nature. In all three shows the viewers ended up loving and relating to characters that were either criminals or morally questionable. Deadwood (04-06) and Rome (05-07) had similar themes and effects though both were set in a historical context, and while Band of Brothers (2001) didn’t cast the same questioning eye toward society or try to create bad guy characters that were likable, it certainly did portray the brutal honesty of war in a no holds barred fashion.

So from 1997 to 2007 HBO had a one-hour drama or miniseries running that perfectly utilized the network’s competitive advantage of being a premier cable channel. They shunned all the sugarcoating and lightheartedness that oozes from too many network shows and instead gave its viewers the ugly truth. It made for fascinating TV and as a result HBO grew into the behemoth that it is now thanks in large part to the success of the one hour dramas and miniseries that were uncanny artistic representations of reality.

But now, after all that great television, the channel that got famous for holding a mirror up to society has decided to, for the most part, eschew realism in order to belch forth campy shows like Big Love and True Blood.

Other than John Adams (2008), Generation Kill (2008), and The Pacific (2010), which are all miniseries rather than one hour dramas, the post-Deadwood era of HBO has been lacking in serious television. 2006 can be considered the line of demarcation as that’s the year that Deadwood ended and Big Love premiered. Maybe the first year of Big Love was intriguing, possibly even the second year was compelling, but as it stands now Big Love is nothing more than an incomprehensible jumble of outrageous plotlines and scheming characters who try to play each other off one another to the point that they all essentially become double and triple agents. Meanwhile, True Blood more or less got on board early with the whole vampire craze and has ridden the wave of that strange cultural phenomenon to the upper echelons of success. To its credit, True Blood does attempt to make their vampires act the way that most people assume an actual vampire would behave (ie unlike some cinematic vampires they don’t avoid premarital sex with the vigor a Jonas Brother) and it can be argued that the vampires in True Blood and their vilification is just an allegory for the way homosexuals are treated. However, whatever allegorical realism may exist, the fact remains that True Blood’s primary engine is the flagrant lusting of the characters for one another and incessant plot twists and revelations that are on par with a common soap opera.

After an entire decade of resolute commitment to realism, HBO’s current lineup showcases nothing more than guilty pleasures. True Blood is just a bevy of gorgeous people parading around in between spats of gory violence, Big Love hasn’t had a discernable or coherent plot since its first season, and then there’s the disaster that is Entourage; a half-hour commercial for LA ‘hot spots’, cameo making celebrities who have a real life product coming out, and whatever brand of tequila Vince is pushing this season.

In such a landscape, there is intense pressure that Boardwalk Empire turns out to be on par with HBO’s one hour dramas of the good old days. If it doesn’t draw success both commercially and critically, then what impetus will HBO execs have to continue to push forward in the direction of dramatic realism?

Now I’m not saying that HBO has totally given up on intellectual shows that shoot for realism. Of course Spike Lee’s documentary return to New Orleans is authentic to the core. And Sure Bill Maher has taken up HBO’s old cause of pushing the limits of late night talk shows, and David Simon seems to have Treme on the right track. But while those shows and HBO’s myriad of documentaries have quality in spades, they lack quantity in terms of viewership. True Blood may be flighty, but it rakes in viewers in key demographics.

As I mentioned at the beginning, in the early 90s, when HBO first started moving toward original programming, they did so because a gap in the market existed and if they could exploit it correctly they could make tons of money. As always, money is the bottom line. So if Boardwalk Empire doesn’t catch on with a large swath of the TV viewing public, if it only manages to draw the passionate but numerically lean viewership of Treme or Real Time, then there is a very real danger that HBO takes its original programming in the direction that is proving to be the most profitable instead of the direct that is the most artistically valuable.

In the end, HBO has another key decision to make. Either they can return to pushing the limits of television by going for increasingly edgy and new ideas or they can push the limits of how long they can continue to put out subpar rating-grabbing shows and get away with it by resting on their laurels.