Why Can’t TV Be More Like HBO?

By Rob Patterson

“It’s not TV, it’s HBO,” declared past promos for the premium cable channel. I’d say instead that HBO is what TV should be.

Again and again and yet again, HBO wows me with its myriad offerings. As far as series go, the mere fact that it has created The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, The Wire and Big Love alone is impressive enough — TV that is as well-written and acted as film, and within the series format, character development that can’t fit within the strictures of a movie. Yeah, sometimes they come up stuff that misses the mark with me (Flight of the Conchords was just too nerdy and not funny enough). But I’m now currently being pulled in by How To Make It In America and its tale of two lovable screw-up young New York City hustlers. I cannot wait for its two Louisiana-based shows: Treme, the New Orleans music series by The Wire creator David Simon (which debuts about the time this is published), and the third season of the ever-more wild and bizarre True Blood. Plus there are other hits like Sex and the City and Curb Your Enthusiasm I’ve yet to really watch.

Its mini-series are just as notable: The superb John Adams and the especially relevant Iraq War journal Generation Kill (also created by Simon) are notable slices of American history, from early to recent. Band of Brothers followed a World War II Army Airborne platoon from training through D-Day to VE Day to give a notion of what it may have been like to serve in that conflict, and now its executive producers Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks bring the other theater to life with The Pacific, which hooked me in is first episode.

And if there’s a better political show on TV than Real Time with Bill Maher, I have yet to see it. The host can both crack funny on the subject and is a sharp interviewer as well as cogent discussion leader every week with his panel of guests.

The channel has also been a driving force for giving political and topical documentaries wide airing. It has given canny filmmaker Alexandra Pelosi the opportunity to look inside worlds we on the left don’t know with her religious works Friends of God and the genuinely sensitive The Trials of Ted Haggard plus her 2008 election film Right America: Feeling Wronged — Some Voices from the Campaign Trail. It’s not afraid to take on closeted gay politicians with Outrage or China’s Stolen Children. The conflicts of living in Nazi Germany were made human with Blind Spot: Hitler’s Secretary and Hitler’s Pawn: The Margaret Lambert Story. And Spike Lee has weighed in with 4 Little Girls about the 1963 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Ala., and the effect of Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans with When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts. From the beauty of Christo’s The Gates in Central Park to the chilling Ghosts of Abu Ghraib, it’s all informative and often provocative entertainment.

HBO’s sports documentaries like Breaking The Huddle: The Integration of College Football and Joe Louis: America’s Hero Betrayed look at race in our nation. And even more general overviews like the basketball histories Battle for Tobacco Road: Duke vs. Carolina and The UCLA Dynasty look at sports from within the racial and other cultural dynamics they are a part of.

The movies it produces are almost a bonus after all that, and HBO Films has come up with many winners of its own like Grey Gardens, RKO 281 (about the making of Citizen Kane) and House of Saddam, to name only a few. Plus there’s comedy specials like the hilarious recent Robin Williams: Weapons of Self Destruction and much more.

It’s no wonder that HBO has led the TV industry in Emmy Awards. So if you’re an intelligent and politically astute TV viewer, it’s worth the cost of premium cable or satellite alone. And if only the rest of television had such high aim.

Rob Patterson is a music and entertainment writer in Austin, Texas. Email orca@io.com.

From The Progressive Populist, May 1, 2010


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