From 'Watchmen' to 'Big Little Lies,' the pay channel no longer challenges the culture like 'The Sopranos' did.
HBO’s cultural hegemony is in decline.
The shockingly negative reaction to “Game of Thrones’” final season is just the most vulgar sign of its faded fortunes.
The proliferation of all sorts of streaming services highlights how the pay channel may no longer have anything to offer. Or at least their offerings are far from unique or compelling. But that raises the question, how bright did HBO’s star ever really shine?
Were they ever really the industry standard bearer as many presume?
“The Sopranos” turned 20 this year, and the requisite boring think pieces shared how amazing and seminal it was. There’s no denying David Chase’s violent, voluptuous crime melodrama changed TV forever.
TV history is divided into ante & post “Sopranos.” There’s a difference between what a series means and whether it was any good. Overall, “The Sopranos” is simply not very good.
The first two seasons are excellent. After that it ran on borrowed credit for 66 mostly unbearable episodes. Once it becomes clear that Tony’s character truly isn’t going anywhere the show collapsed. Audiences stuck around, in part, because there was nothing else in serious competition at the time.
The quality of acting alone made it enticing. HBO’s shows are always very well produced, but the content has rarely matched the production.
“The Sopranos” did things that no one thought you could do on TV. Its main contribution wasn’t sex or violence but something even more superficial.
“The Sopranos” proved that if you spend the same kind of money on a TV show that you’d drop on a movie you create a new kind of programming: prestige television.
Before “The Sopranos” prestige TV in America was mostly miniseries events imported from England that played on PBS.
HBO changed that forever.
“The Sopranos” does deserve its hallowed place. Not because it’s a truly great series but rather due to its importance. In this regard it’s filmic counterpart is obviously “Citizen Kane.” There is no way to deny both of these icons of visual storytelling were groundbreaking. But breaking ground is just the beginning, unless a house is eventually built upon that ground, all you have is dirt.
HBO’s groundbreaking nature remains its core selling point. From its origins in the early ’70s to today it’s always tried to be the first TV channel to do the next big thing. Or if they couldn’t be the first then to do it better than everyone else.
Unfortunately for them, and fortunately for us, Netflix happened. Netflix changed TV forever in a far more fundamental way than “The Sopranos.”
Netflix’s filmic counterpart isn’t “Citizen Kane.” Netflix’s counterparts are “The Jazz Singer,” “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves” and the creation of film and TV itself. They didn’t just up the ante. Netflix completely changed the game.
Most business wars aren’t won or lost due to inferior vs superior products. They’re determined by innovation vs stagnation. They’re determined by creative destruction. That is exactly what Netflix has done.
HBO keeps trying to play catch up, but the harsh truth is that if all they ever had to offer was “ground breaking” then they’ve been broken.
“The Sopranos” may have been the greatest TV crime saga for a brief moment in the 2000s but then “Breaking Bad” came along. Not only is “Breaking Bad” a far better show it’s better then every other show with the exception of its spinoff, “Better Call Saul.” Vince Gilligan, virtually by himself, created an unparalleled epic tragedy with the two AMC shows.
HBO kicked in the door and then other better qualified storytellers came into play.
In general, HBO’s comedies have consistently been the channel’s most unique content. There’s nothing like “VEEP,” “Silicon Valley,” “Curb your Enthusiasm” (Seinfeld excepted), or the truly excellent “Barry” available anywhere else.
The HBO comedy brand is bizarre and complex. But outside of the channel’s stand-up specials this is not what the brand was built on. The whole “it’s not TV it’s HBO” slogan is based on prestige shows, and those have never been as substantially excellent as they’re made out to be.
“Big Little Lies’s” second season is a perfect example.
The first season was excellent, but it was clear the story had been told. Critical acclaim, in no small part due to #metoo and a bevy of heavy-hitting actresses, convinced the channel to try it again with lackluster results.
The lure of being politically relevant to the wokesters is an especially destructive vice for HBO. It’s the main reason we’re still seeing the horrendous “Westworld.” The combination of cultural Marxism with AI is just too tempting for them to deny.
“Westworld” remains poorly written and ineptly directed.
Compare this to the amazing, but mostly ignored, “Vice Principals.” This show let Danny McBride and Walton Goggins completely off the comedic chain. It was totally over the top and absolutely hilarious, with the comedy grounded in character and plot.
When the narrative was resolved after two seasons so was the show. “Vice Principals” cost a fraction of what it takes to make a single “Westworld” episode but this isn’t enough for HBO. They’re still chasing that prestige dragon.
Apparently excellent comedy isn’t enough for them.
The pay channel’s latest endeavor, “Watchmen,” is indicative of just how far they’ve fallen behind.
The other major streaming platforms already have excellent, dark superhero sagas. Netflix offers “Daredevil,” “Jessica Jones” and “The Umbrella Academy.” DC’s streaming service has “Swamp Thing” (sadly already canceled), “Titans” and “Doom Patrol.”
Amazon Prime beat HBO to market with its spectacular adaptation of “The Boys,” a strange alternative superhero universe that deals with similar themes as “Watchmen.”
So far the early “Watchmen” episodes look like it will probably be an interesting and complicated show, but not necessarily good. It’ll depend on how the various bizarre story threads pan out.
Even if it reaches that potential it will probably only be “HBO good.” Its high production values will entice, but its characters and story will not be as effective or memorable as its contemporaries, let alone the original source material.