HBO is widely considered to have set the benchmark for contemporary television drama. With series like The Sopranos, Six Feet Under and The Wire, the network married intellectually engaging entertainment with meticulous production value. It was a combination that struck a cultural nerve and changed the way we think about (and consume) television.
Recently though, Ryan McGee over at AV Club wrote a thoughtful piece about the impact of HBO on TV culture. He takes a less populist look at the cultural impact of HBO and poses the question, has the HBO approach to television production done more harm than good?
HBO justly gets credit for pushing the medium of television forward. Broadly speaking, you can pinpoint the start of the modern TV era with The Sopranos, a show wildly hailed for taking a novelistic approach to the small screen. Back then, the word “novelistic” was used in a metaphorical sense. It wasn’t that David Chase literally applied the techniques used to construct a novel to his show. Rather, The Sopranos took a patient approach that rewarded sustained viewing. The promise that payoffs down the line would be that much sweeter for the journey didn’t originate with the HBO mob drama, but the series turned into the boilerplate for what passes as critically relevant television.
But is this a good thing? The Sopranos opened up what was possible on television. But it also limited it. It seems silly to state that the addition of ambition to the medium has somehow hindered its growth, but making HBO the gold standard against which quality programming is judged has hurt television more than it’s helped it.
HBO isn’t in the business of producing episodes in the traditional manner. Rather, it airs equal slices of an overall story over a fixed series of weeks. If I may put words into his mouth: HBO doesn’t air episodes of television, it airs installments.
Here’s the problem: A television show is not a novel. That’s not to put one above the other. It’s simply meant to illuminate that each piece of art has to accomplish different things. HBO’s apparent lack of awareness of this difference has filtered into its product, and also filtered into the product of nearly every other network as well.
Food for thought – read McGee’s full article here.