Show passes baton to eclectic slate
Call June 11 the first day of the rest of HBO’s life — that is, of life after Tony.On that day, the Monday morning after “The Sopranos” takes its final bow, the net will for the first time in eight years no longer be guaranteed the subscriber buzz, press accolades and general goodwill that came with the mob phenom. Which leaves a big question: What next? Among other things, the net’s response is to create a range of smaller, sometimes less-expensive series. If the odds aren’t high that any will replicate the success of a tentpole show like “The Sopranos,” execs hope that by gathering so many niches of the HBO viewership, the blitzkrieg of programming can collectively replace the David Chase drama. “We’re trying to be craftier about things we can do,” says programming topper Carolyn Strauss. “That will give us the opportunity to target smaller groups with a broader range of shows.” Network chief Chris Albrecht thinks this diversity will have a specific appeal to subscribers. “I’m excited about the volume because you’re going to get a lot for your money,” he says. The final season of “The Sopranos” — which launches with a splashy and expensive preem at Radio City Music Hall this week — figures to go out with a bang. And the new run of comedy “Entourage,” another pricey, male-oriented show into which “The Sopranos” will lead when it premieres April 8, is almost a shoo-in for more success. But HBO finds itself in an unusual position: reveling in one of the triumphs in the history of television at the exact moment it frets over what to do when that triumph ends. ” ‘The Sopranos’ is a once-in-a-lifetime show,” Strauss says, a hint of nostalgia in her voice. “To be able to capture the imagination of a very big audience these days is fairly elusive.” Where HBO once owned the summer and fall with shows like “Sex and the City,” “Six Feet Under” and the denizens of Bada-Bing, these are chancier times for the pay net powerhouse. “We happen to be coming up on a time when not just ‘The Sopranos’ but ‘Deadwood,’ ‘The Wire,’ ‘Rome’ and lots of things are reaching their conclusions,” Albrecht says. This June, HBO will embark on a furiously active schedule, even putting a returning show, “Big Love,” at 8 p.m. on Sundays, the first time it’s had a firstrun series in that slot. But where “The Sopranos” was designed as a big show in the tradition of mob dramas — with elaborate promotion and considerable budgets — the summer and seasons beyond look different. The crammed slate is full of quirky genres and unexpected programs and formats. Comedy will come in the cult variety (“Flight of the Conchords”). Half hours will be dramatic (“In Treatment”). Hourlongs will be funny (“12 Miles of Bad Road”). Relationship-drama “Tell Me You Love Me” is said to be so explicit it makes “Sex and the City” look like a Saturday morning cartoon. Later on, Alan Ball will take on Southern vampires with “True Blood,” based on a popular lit series. But fans of the nuanced drama of “Six Feet Under” beware: “It’s a very different show than I’ve done before; it’s much more popcorn,” Ball says. Ball has written nearly three episodes, and last week was casting for the pilot in New York; though it hasn’t been greenlit, Albrecht says he “would be very surprised” if it didn’t go to series. Unquestionably the net’s biggest bet for the summer is the David Milch surfer-drama “John from Cincinnati,” on which the net has bestowed high honors by debuting it in the slot following “The Sopranos” finale June 10. “John” — about three generations of surfers, shady corporate sponsors and a bevy of colorful sidekicks, hit men, moteliers and junkies — is a family drama, a subcultural exploration and a mystery all rolled into one. Milch and co-creator Kem Nunn nod to the surfer genre, but also playfully use red herrings and supernaturalism — “Twin Peaks” by way of “Beverly Hills 90210.” The most enigmatic personality is the title character, whose real name, one quickly suspects, is not actually John and whose origins are likely nowhere near the state of Ohio. Yet HBO and the creators are hoping fans will also recognize the Milchian trademarks of layered drama and unstinting complexity. “I’d regret if ‘John’ was held hostage to any residual resentment there might be about ‘Deadwood,’ ” Milch quips. But then he adds that both contain “themes that have preoccupied me for a long time.” The diversity of the HBO slate isn’t strictly informed by creative concerns. With so many homes equipped with cable and satellite, and system ops marketing the pay nets less, HBO knows it won’t grow subs by the millions anymore. So it is going wider — and instead of seeking the water cooler, it is going after, perhaps, many smaller water fountains. “Not everything has to be made on a big budget,” Strauss says, noting that the net has even undertaken autopilots–low-cost pilots for which the net might make a bigger production commitment. With the exception of “John,” all the net’s new summer series come with relatively lower budgets and less celeb-driven casts. It’s a departure for a net whose series hours typically rival or even exceed the cost of network shows. (The net still has some glossy productions, especially in longform — e.g., period-drama “John Adams,” currently in production in Virginia.) It also hopes to go younger with “Conchords,” based on the youthful comedy of Kelly Taffe, Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie, as well and the teenagers (and man-children) at the heart of “John.” “The people that are coming into the category are younger people,” Albrecht says. “They’re making choices for the first time, and it can’t just be their father’s choices. So we need to make sure we’re not their father’s HBO.” An acid test could be “In Treatment.” The taut, intimate dramas of the series, an adaptation of the Israeli show “B’Tipul,” may earn it critical plaudits as a compelling and subtle work. In it, Gabriel Byrne’s character does little but listen and ask questions of his patients. It’s a show that cycles through a different patient in four successive episodes. (In the fifth episode of the cycle, Byrne visits his own shrink.) Then it repeats the cycle. But the show’s pleasures are understated and highly verbal. The fact that one has to wait four episodes to follow a character’s next move will require dedication even from the patient HBO audience. “There are few things I can think of that are more difficult than a high-quality, long-running successful series,” Albrecht acknowledges. But as the era of its biggest franchise ends, he’s also confident the net can continue to resonate with viewers not despite but because of its experimentation. “We take more chances than anyone on television. All of that makes us worth paying for.”
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