TCA: HBO in hunt for more dramas

Execs field range of development to expand slate in 2013

Though HBO has a solid slate of drama skeins, programming president Michael Lombardo said one of the goals for 2013 is to add more hourlong original series to the pay cabler.

HBO presented its wares on the first day of the Television Critics Assn. tour in Pasadena on Friday. The net showed off some star power by announcing that Julia Roberts and Mark Ruffalo are set to star in an adaptation of Larry Kramer’s “The Normal Heart,” penned by Kramer and directed by Ryan Murphy.

HBO is still feeling the affects of losing “Luck,” the David Milch horse racing series that was suddenly canceled last year after three horses died during production. “Luck’s” early demise left a hole in HBO’s first quarter calender. Lombardo and HBO entertainment prexy Sue Naegle are considering series and pilot orders in the coming months from a wide range of development prospects.

Lombardo is waiting to see a cut of the pilot for “Criminal Justice,” which is loosely based on the 2008 BBC series of the same name. HBO vet James Gandolfini is starring in a script from Richard Price, with Steve Zaillian directing.

There’s also Cold War spy thriller pilot “The Missionary,” with Benjamin Walker and Jesse Plemons. Stephen Levinson and Mark Wahlberg are on board to produce.

Given a straight-to-series order late last year was “True Detective,” with Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey, though a launch date for that seems way off.

Coming back to the net on the drama side are “True Blood,” “Game of Thrones,” “The Newsroom” and “Boardwalk Empire.” Also returning is the final season of David Simon’s New Orleans-set “Treme.”

Although “True Blood” will be starting its sixth season, Lombardo said he believes the series that remains HBO’s most watched still has plenty of creative life and he doesn’t see an end date in the near future.

On the comedy side, HBO has the Stephen Merchant series “Hello Ladies” upcoming as well as Christopher Guest’s “Family Tree.” “Life’s Too Short,” the laffer created by Merchant

and Ricky Gervais, will end its two-season run this year with a wrap-up special.

Lombardo had high praise for the sophomore seasons of laffers “Girls” and “Enlightened,” both of which launch Jan. 13.

“I think they are better this year, which is not necessarily the pattern for the second year of a show,” he said. “It was particularly challenging for Lena (Dunham) when you have a show that had the critical acclaim in its first year. It can be overwhelming. There’s a built-in urge to duplicate what you’ve done but you have to fight against that, and she did. She took it a step up.”

Another priority is making Cinemax a viable entity and Lombardo says new series “Banshee” marks the first Cinemax original series that is not a co-production. Airing wholly owned fare on Cinemax is important for HBO’s bottom line.

As for how his working relationship has changed with newly promoted CEO Richard Plepler, Lombardo laughed and said, “He’s harder to get on the phone. Other than that, not much.”

Upcoming TV movie “The Normal Heart” centers on the AIDS epidemic in New York in the early 1980s. Lead character Ned Weeks, who is based on Kramer’s life, employs a very vocal approach to combating and raising awareness to the disease, which was largely mysterious at the time.

Following an Off-Brodaway run in 1985, “The Normal Heart” finally arrived on Broadway in 2011.

Production is set to begin in New York later this year, with a 2014 air date.

Roberts will play a paraplegic physician who treats some of the earliest AIDS patients. Ruffalo portrays Weeks and “White Collar” star Matt Bomer tackles the character of Felix Turner, a reporter who becomes Weeks’ lover.

Network announced premiere dates and months for a handful of projects.

Five-part miniseries “Parade’s End,” starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Rebecca Hall, will debut Feb. 26 and run for three nights. British love story is set during the period from the twilight years of the Edwardian era to the conclusion of World War I.

Mini was adapted from a series of Ford Madox Ford novels by Tom Stoppard and directed by Susanna White.

Docs “American Winter” (March), about the current economic crisis; “50 Children: The Rescue Mission of Mr. and Mrs. Kraus” (April), which focuses on a couple who saved children during the Holocaust; and “Which Way Is the Frontline From Here?: The Life and Times of Tim Hetherington” (April), about the war photographer and filmmaker who was killed in 2011.

One of the cabler’s afternoon highlights was the sesh with Guest, who is co-creator with Jim Piddock of the improv laffer “Family Tree.” The “Waiting for Guffman” thesp-director spoke in droll tones about his show that addresses the lead character’s lineage.

Also engaging in a back and forth with crix were David Mamet, Al Pacino and Helen Mirren for “Phil Spector,” Mamet’s narrative take on the legendary music producer while on trial for the murder. Matt Damon, Michael Douglas, director Steven Soderbergh and producer Jerry Weintraub also charmed the TCA crowd in pitching “Behind the Candelabra,” the story of Liberace.

Damon plays Liberace’s lover Scott Thorson, who falls for the over-the-top lifestyle presented to him by the famed pianist.

Said Damon about preparing for the role: “I probably spent more time in wardrobe fittings that I had in the previous 15 projects. I really enjoyed it.”

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