HBO's rejection says much about network

As famous friends of the Clintons who produced the former president’s biographical video “The Man From Hope” as well as CBS’ “Designing Women,” Harry Thomason and Linda Bloodworth-Thomason have tasted success and controversy in both Washington and Hollywood.

Their latest campaign, however, is more mundane, designed to revive a TV series that HBO has improbably left for dead.

HBO opted to junk “12 Miles of Bad Road,” created by Bloodworth-Thomason, after the couple produced six hourlong episodes at a cost of more than $25 million. Although the pay channel has every right to deem which programs fulfill that haughty “It’s not TV. It’s HBO” marketing boast, flushing the show down the toilet instead of rolling the dice by exposing it to an unsuspecting public sounds a trifle extreme.

Having watched those episodes, here’s a capsule review of a program you might never see: “12 Miles” isn’t great, but it hardly represents the embarrassment one would expect from a project scuttled at this late stage of the game. Put simply, there’s definitely worse stuff on TV.

The aborted run thus says as much about the current HBO — always the most image-conscious of networks — and risk-aversive nature of the TV business as it does the series itself.

On its face, the program is a hybrid — a comedy/primetime soap with an impressive ensemble cast, focusing on a wealthy Texas real-estate family, the Shakespeares, promising “Epic Homes for Epic Lives.”

Not surprisingly, the Shakespeares’ oversized bank accounts yield equally excessive appetites, in the “Dallas” tradition. One housewife keeps writing checks to causes she sees on “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” much to the chagrin of her philandering husband (Gary Cole). Another Shakespeare shares a mansion with her soon-to-be-ex-husband and his Eastern European fiancé, enduring the raucous animal grunts of Tantric sex emanating from their quarters.

A la “Designing Women,” the Shakespeare gals are also prone to awkwardly detouring into political speech-making, allowing Bloodworth-Thomason to vent her spleen. Indeed, President Bush is not only mentioned but makes a strained cameo, courtesy of a celebrity impersonator.

Overall, “12 Miles” works too hard at being politically incorrect and exploiting the freedom that cable provides. Nevertheless, there is a strong, clear voice — and the occasional memorable moment — here, one that receives scant exposure in primetime. So when one Shakespeare tells her pious sister, “You’re the reason liberal assholes in Hollywood make fun of us,” the line resonates, as do scenes where Lily Tomlin’s matriarch huffs, “I simply cannot attend church in a sports arena,” and her sister (Mary Kay Place) delivers a riotously crude initiation to a bunch of “Dallas debs.”

So why scrub the show completely? Internal politics played a part. HBO has undergone a management shift, and the channel is chafing over perceptions that the rest of the TV world has caught up with it. Because “12 Miles” isn’t an obvious fit, execs thought it better to bite the bullet now than brave another potential disappointment — a “Lucky Louie” or “John From Cincinnati,” letting critics tee up for additional batting practice.

The Thomasons, meanwhile, are back on a different kind of campaign trail. They sent copies of “12 Miles” to selected members of the press, saying they hoped “critical reassurance” might prompt HBO to “reconsider their decision, or at least help us move the show to a more receptive environment.” Other networks have been approached, but the show is so broad in tone and expensive that so far, there have been no takers.

So the series could remain in TV’s discard bin — an ignominious fate given the talent involved. HBO will surely move on, but not without bearing a few lingering bruises to its reputation: Painting yourself as Hollywood’s most creative-friendly shop requires providing people the latitude to spectacularly fail once in awhile.

As for the Thomasons, like the Clintons, in hindsight they might regret their hardball tactics. For now, though, they’re again musing about a disconnect between TV’s New York and L.A. elites and the “flyover” states — places like Poplar Bluff, Mo., and Hampton, Ark., Linda and Harry’s respective hometowns, which they enshrined by naming their company Mozark Prods.

“Our lives are very eclectic,” Bloodworth-Thomason conceded, insisting that she and her husband are trying to maintain a sense of humor and perspective about the situation. After all, she says, “We lived in the White House during Monica Lewinsky and impeachment, so no, this is not that stressful.”

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