In praise of HBO: “It’s not TV,” and that’s a good thing

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One of the best branding slogans is, “It’s Not TV. It’s HBO.” It’s clever and direct and has worked wonders since it was first unveiled in 1996. HBO (Home Box Office) seemed to discover very early on that with a cable channel you did not have to necessarily show movies day and night. In the late 70s, HBO started shows like Inside the NFL and Race for the Pennant, and had also shown Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier’s “Thriller in Manila” boxing match in 1975, making it the first pay cable channel to air a program via satellite. It was also home to Wimbledon for close to 25 years, before the tournament went to TNT in 1999.

These programs may not mean much to those who aren’t sports fans, but some of these programs aired even before the existence of ESPN, “The Worldwide Leader in Sports” channel, started up in 1979, and HBO still airs sports-related programming including boxing matches, Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel, and Hard Knocks, which documents a NFL team going through training camp. The Miami Dolphins will be the featured team for Hard Knocks in 2012 with episodes starting to air in early fall.

I remember as a kid stumbling onto HBO and discovering the horror anthology, Tales From the Crypt; I was mortified at what was on TV. HBO did and still does have the freedom of being more adult-friendly than broadcast TV; its original scripted shows have more swearing, graphic violence, sexual situations, and strange plots than most regular network TV shows. (In recent years, though, shows such as CSI: Revenge and Law & Order: SVU have had a fair amount of episodes that have pushed the boundaries of broadcast content.) What HBO has done over the years has been to give American cable audiences and even worldwide audiences the chance to see some of the best original programming, original documentaries, sporting events, musical concerts, and comedy specials on TV.

Once I returned back to my parents’ house after college, I embraced all the programming that HBO had to offer. Right around 1999, the biggest show HBO has ever had, The Sopranos, premiered, and it was right around then that cable television changed. Sopranos creator David Chase had a simple enough story: middle-age gangster Tony Soprano (perfectly embodied by James Gandolfini) trying to balance his business life, his family, and his own neuroses while trying to stay alive and protect his legacy. The Sopranos changed television forever and set a new bar. I’m aware of other television shows that had unique visions, but I cannot think of another show in recent years that got people interested in smart, compelling, scripted television like The Sopranos did.

A few years later, David Simon, a former police reporter and author, flipped cable television again with the utterly brilliant The Wire, based on the illegal drug trade in Baltimore, Maryland. To this day, I still hold The Wire as my favorite television show of all time; it is still as perplexing and challenging as it was when I first saw it over ten years ago. The show as only on air for five seasons, each season representing a different aspect of the show’s subject. Each episode plays out like a novel, unwrapping characters and situations and linking all of them to previous seasons, or characters we have yet to meet. All 60 episodes were fantastic, and I still revisit them every year. 

Since The Wire premiered there have been plenty of HBO shows I have watched every Sunday and have followed from beginning to end. There was the dust-bowl era drama Carnivale, which was weird enough to draw comparisons to Twin Peaks; and there was David Milch’s epic western Deadwood, which had enough intrigue to keep that series going much longer than three seasons and ended on somewhat of a sour-note leaving too many loose ends behind. As for comedy series, Larry David’s hysterical Curb Your Enthusiasm is still on the air and continues to push the envelope of awkward and deranged situations; sometimes I am left speechless, but it might be the funniest show to ever be on television. I was also caught up in Entourage and its depiction of film star Vincent Chase in his pursuit to rise to Hollywood fame along with his three best friends, but the show grew tiresome after two seasons and is one of the few shows on HBO that I gave up on.

I could go on and on about other great series HBO has produced since The Sopranos, but the point of this is that I do not think I could ever get rid of HBO; the extra $17 I spend each month to watch the original programming alone is worth every penny. After finishing up on the second season of George R. R. Martin’s fantasy series Game of Thrones, HBO will produce a series based on Neil Gaiman’s American Gods novel, and if it is anything like Game of Thrones, it will be spectacular. True Blood, now in its fifth season, is based on Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse novels, which Academy Award winner Alan Ball (American Beauty) turned into a crazy mix of vampires, werewolves, and fairies—with plenty of sex, horror, and wonderment—has already been renewed for a sixth season, which will begin next June. 

After True Blood is over in September, HBO will be premiering the third season of the completely underrated show, Boardwalk Empire, created by former writer/producer of the The Sopranos Terence Winter starring Steve Buscemi as Nucky Thompson, a political figure during the Prohibition era, who not only controls parts of the city through government but has a very profitable “bootlegger” business on the side. Boardwalk Empire was based on Nelson Johnson’s novel, Boardwalk Empire: The Birth, High Times and Corruption of Atlantic City, and once again I will be glued to my chair every Sunday night to find out what happened after its shocking season two finale where one of the show’s main characters was killed.

As the slogan once said, “It’s Not TV. It’s HBO.“ The channel’s original program is worth staying up late for, even if it means being a little tired on that drive to work every Monday morning.