It’s not TV, Its HBO. Remember when that meant something? Remember when every Sunday night you where parked in front of the TV, watching HBO? Now, one could care less. When it comes down to it, HBO has become a series of retreads, unlikeable characters, and boring episodes. How did a network that could seemingly do no wrong get like this?
Maybe it’s just that other networks have surpassed HBO. They have developed fresh takes on the tried concepts and succeeded through great chemistry and effective story-telling devices. Let’s face it, THERE IS NOTHING OUT THERE that is completely original. Everything these days borrows something from someone at some point. Whether it is a certain character archetype or common plot element. Nothing is new, and while some people try changing traditional story telling, everyone still falls the same true narrative arch. There is an exposition or an introduction, then rising actions, which leads to a climax, followed by the falling action, and finally a resolution. Give me any story, movie, TV show, book, or play and I guarantee that in some way you can get it to follow that basic structure. Why? Human nature craves each of these elements. If you are not introduced to the characters, then you have no connection or reason to care what the hell happens to them in the story. You have go through their struggle to relate to them so that when the climax happens, you reach it with them. These are the basic building blocks to any story and completely essentially to successful entertainment.
So why does this matter? One of the main reasons why HBO sucks now is because it has fallen so hard in their use of story arcs. In the past, they were the first to develop series where the story arch was not self contained in one episode. In fact, they had several running story lines that would last throughout a whole season. This made you have to watch every episode, so that you could keep up. Think about it; in the Soprano’s there would be about 5 to 10 different things going on over the course of the season. Some you cared about and some you could care less about, but there was always something happening. This strategy worked out brilliantly and made some episodes incredible, especially when 4 or 5 of the story lines were approaching the climax. However this also brought about episodes that you could sleep through, while all of the stories were in the relative infancy. Yet, back then no one cared, because we had never seen anything like this. They were the first to adapt this model, looking at the full season as your entire narrative arc and telling these long drawn out stories. Since then, it has become common place and now feels stale.
We are looking for more instant gratification. We do not have time for these things to develop over the course of months. We want it now! When it takes a show a while to get started, people lose interest. Am I saying that TV should always cater towards these people, and that all shows need to have instant satisfaction? That there is no place for a show like Mad Men, which carefully weaves a long intricate narrative yarn? No, not at all, but you have to adapt and change.
This is why I prefer a new style of series. “Mini arcing,” (not sure about the name, but I’m open to suggestions). This is the best of both worlds. Each episode has its own mini story arch that revolves around a small problem or piece of a larger season long story arch. Each of these mini arches offer the viewer the satisfaction of a completed narrative within a given hour and also provides momentum to drive a much larger arch for the whole season. You can now watch the episode out of context and it will still be enjoyable and entertaining, however, it also hints at other much larger elements that keep you excited for next week.
The first show I can really remember doing a basic form of this was Entourage, the early seasons. Yes, HBO had the formula right, and then bashed the shit out of it, until it was boring dramedy that Judd Apatow would crap out. Each episode would have an event or problem that our boys would have to deal with (bad script, buying a house, movie premieres, Playboy Mansion party, etc.), and in the end it would drive towards a larger story. All of these smaller mini arches added up to a season. You could watch one and be completely happy and not need to see what happened the week before. At the same time, you wanted to watch the next one, because it drove you towards the ultimate climax (Vince choosing Billy to be the director in Queens Blvd., Mandy Moore crushing Vince, and buying Medellín).
Now all of the HBO shows are stuck on the long game. Very rarely do single episodes yield exciting results or conclusions, with notable exceptions being the two or three episodes before the season finale (the climax episodes). It also makes them very hard to follow. Take Game of Thrones, which I am sure is a great show, but I tried to watch the first episode and fell asleep on five different occasions. It takes soooo long to get going, that unless you are committed to it, or read the books, you might flake. Also jumping in mid-season, you would be as hopeless as trying to figure out what happened in Lost. Why should you be punished for missing an episode? Even with Trueblood, you get stuck with episodes that are just boring. Nothing happens because they are still building the story lines. I literally watched an entire episode and the next day had completely forgotten I’d even watch it. It was just that blah. I am not calling all HBO shows complete crap, because they still do produce some of the highest quality TV around, it is just sadly not nearly as entertaining. They are like an old lion walking through the safari, stuck with their same old bag of tricks, rehashing the same old shit. He’s still the King of the Jungle and your supposed to watch, but you can’t help feeling like the best days are over.
So, what do I suggest for summer time TV watching? Nothing. Enjoy the weather, the beach, the pool, what-ever. Have fun, but if you must watch something, check out the following shows (mostly because they have mastered my “mini arching” style and they just plain fun). Now I went on the lighter side of things, but I do hear good things about AMC original programming. They are more likely to be of the long arc variety and not great for summer fun viewing.
Suits on USA. Yes, Characters Welcome. USA used to be a joke. I never thought I would say that my favorite show on TV is on USA, but I am here, and I am saying that 3 of my favorite shows are on USA. Suits has mastered the mini arch and it has a completely ridiculous premise that some how you have no problem accepting. Quick overview, a savant-like genius, who remembers and can recall anything he has ever read (ridiculous I know) convinces a hot shot NY lawyer to hire him as his associate. So each week you are treated to usually one or two cases which introduce new characters and interesting situations, which are conveniently wrapped up by the end of the show. This provides us with our mini arch. We have been told a full tale and are now happy and satisfied. However, where Suits differs from every other boring ass court room procedural, is that over the course of each week they are also telling parts of the season long story line. So while the week’s case’s might be concluded, you still want to know if Jessica (the law firm’s managing partner) is going to find out Mike’s Secret (Mike is the savant genius). Or if his drug dealer best friend, whose girl he stole, is going to ruin his life. I will say that you have to watch the show to really understand what makes it so good, because while the mini-arching drives the narrative along extremely well, it is the outstanding performance of Gabriel Macht, as Harvey Spector, that makes the shows outstanding.
White Collar on USA. Yes, Characters Welcome again. This time it’s White Collar, which has been around for a bit, but is still one of the better shows on TV. It has all of the same characters and concepts as Suits, just with our hero as a bad ass con-man, with a heart of gold. Each season, they developed a mystery that lasted throughout, while also providing weekly cases to provide instant gratification. The whole time they give pieces of a much larger puzzle (1st season: where’s Kate? 2nd: who killed Kate? 3rd: nazi treasure, and so on). Besides, watch the show once, and tell me who would not want to be Neil Cafferty? C’mon, he’s almost as cool as Spector, maybe even cooler.
USA uses my formula for several other shows with varying degrees of success, in Royal Pains and Covert Affairs (Doctors and CIA versions of White Collar). They lack the same chemistry from the cast, making them less enjoyable.
This emphasizes just how important chemistry is in a successful TV show. How many shows have you watched and thought, there is no way any of these people would actually be friends in real life, much less hang out and spend time with each other. It looks like work, like they are there just to get a paycheck, and it shows. These shows NEVER last, period. You show me a successful show that last more than 3 seasons, with a cast that doesn’t get along? Besides Desperate Housewives, and that show was terrible after the first two seasons. This was partly because they all started to hate each other. In HBO’s credit, the reason Trueblood is so successful is because you can actually buy the relationships between Sookie, Bill, and Eric. If you didn’t, it would have been another John From Cincinnati (go ahead and google that HBO winner). I am not just talking about sexual chemistry either, a good understanding between male leads is also incredibly important. The audience must grow some sort of attachment to the characters. You think people watched Cheers back in the day for Shelley Long or Kristie Alley? Na, they watched for camaraderie of the guys at the bar, to hear Sam and Norm go back and forth (and not sure I could have picked any older of a show to reference, but it works for just about every other successful show since then).
That reminds me about one of the best shows that no watched. Seriously, everyone should try and find a way to watch the one and only season of Terriers. I know, it was on FX, advertised terribly, and starred the serial killer cook from the first season of Trueblood and the dad from Grounded For Life. However, it was the best 13 episodes of TV I have watched in a long time. It had an incredibly original feel to it, every episode had a new case that was also a piece for a season long conspiracy as to who killed Hank’s (the lead PI’s) ex-partner. It is hard to explain just how good this show was, but after you watched just about every episode, you could not wait until the next one. At the same time, you did not want it to be over. Check it out if you can find it, because it is completely worth your time.
Showtime also puts together some quality shows. Californication and House of Lies are both great shows. They take depravity to new levels that HBO does not dare touch. They also both feature likable leads that can more than carry a show. Homeland is phenomenal. A realistic 24, although it does have some HBO-itus. You have to watch it from the beginning and there are some painfully slow episodes, but in the end, it’s enthralling.
So if you must escape the heat and cool off this summer, do not be afraid to look else where. HBO used to be the king of the summer TV schedule, but now there is quality every where. Just for the love of everything, stay away from reality TV. Watch something with a script and a purpose, not morons being ass clowns, unless its Hard Knocks, then that is alright on all counts.
Author’s Note: Newsroom, Girls, VEEP, Boardwalk Empire, you all escaped because I have already seen them in better versions (West Wing, Sex and the City, Curb, and the Soprano’s) and I don’t feel like wasting my time with you lot.