HBO: Where the Action Is

By Rob Patterson

It’s nice to sometimes get affirmation for what I write in this space, and learn that the opinions I hold and offer are expressed by others. So when I came across a Financial Times article rerun on saying “How HBO revolutionized television,” it was welcome confirmation. It came just at the right time.

It also aligned with my recent contention that TV is where far more of the real creative and cutting edge action is in visual entertainment rather then theatrical release movies.

And HBO has been the spark that fired the shift back in the 1990s. Early in the decade I turned off my cable account after spending far too much time with the remote control in hand flipping from channel to channel and finding little that held my interest. In the years that followed, I nearly cut a rut between my home and the nearby indie video store. Then by the change of the century I turned cable back on, almost solely due to the groundbreaking HBO series The Sopranos. Since then I’ve become tuned ever more increasingly to HBO and followed the revolution it spawned to other channels.

Nowhere else on TV are so many pressing issues of our times addressed in a way that comes down on the correct side of the matters. Nowhere is that more evident than in the documentaries that it produces and airs. As an example, I will cite two environmental docs that I have recently written about here: Gasland, which called my attention to the clear and present danger of hydraulic fracturing, a.k.a. fracking, and Mann v. Ford, which reminds us how corporate polluters show little regard for humans and their communities and that our government continues to do a poor job of protecting our citizenry and natural resources. And that realm is but one area that HBO’s docs address alongside electoral politics, education, health and medicine, crime, international affairs … you name it, really. And almost always from a progressive viewpoint that seeks to uncover the truth and stress moral and ethical correctness.

Its dramatic series also display a progressive sensibility and raise issues that need to be addressed. One instance is the series Oz, which examined our American system of imprisonment and corrections while it also offered crackling drama. Nowhere else has urban blight, drugs and crime been examined with such unflinching truthfulness as on The Wire. A wider indication can be found in how those shows as well as other series like Six Feet Under and The Sopranos have all included gay characters and spotlighted the issues and struggles of homosexuality both individually and in wider social contexts.

The Financial Times article was headlined with the HBO slogan “It’s Not Just TV.” I’d also say that the network is where reality and truth triumph on TV, even when the fare is fictional.

And HBO’s progressivism brings even greater irony to the right-wing campaign to bring down PBS, where controversy is far more limited and most of the programming has a largely mainstream slant. Their far more powerful opponent is HBO. And I’m thankful it’s there to serve as a bulwark against and corrective to ignorance, prejudice and the forces of repression and regression. Plus it’s a place where fine entertainment can always be found. Subscribing to it isn’t just worth the price of admission for what’s there to be enjoyed. It’s also putting money into an entertainment venture that serves a higher and better purpose.

Rob Patterson is a music and entertainment writer in Austin, Texas. Email

From The Progressive Populist, December 15, 2011

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