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Call It Must-Buy TV

At the home of 'The Sopranos,' the payoff isn't huge and neither are the ratings. But HBO sure has cachet. Can it hold onto that and add new series?

February 25, 2001|PAUL BROWNFIELD | Paul Brownfield is a Times staff writer

With "The Sopranos," TV's Great American Novel, and "Sex and the City," a hit comedy of manners, orgasms and women's shoes, HBO has become the literary magazine of series television. Serialized within its pages are "Oz," Tom Fontana's innovative, brutal look at prison life, and "Curb Your Enthusiasm," an improvised piece of whimsy from Larry David, the author of "Seinfeld."

As the pay cable network's ad campaign now tells us: "It's not TV, it's HBO." Embedded in this slogan is another message: If it's not HBO, it's TV--TV in all its pandering, compromised glory. These are good times to be arguing for artistic bankruptcy among the major networks, whose latest achievements don't even include professional actors or actual scripts. Brands have given way to quick-fix schemes--whether it's NBC investing in the high-jiggle football league the XFL or ABC papering over its dearth of scripted development with a game show, "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire." Because most of the economic forces that push the networks toward creative panhandling--namely, censors and the drive to capture the biggest audience--don't exist at HBO, the writer-producer of a series there can actually claim to be doing art for art's sake. The freedom implies a certain arrogance--you're not in the TV business, you're in the HBO business.

It's an image that continues to gall many in the broadcast television business who marvel at the no-strings-attached buzz that HBO generates. Have the media become conditioned to perceive an HBO series as inherently better, responding more to the pay channel's attractive packaging than the series' actual content? The critical fawning over HBO series was spoofed last year on "Saturday Night Live," with a commercial intoning mock blurbs for "The Sopranos": "If I had a choice between having all the mysteries of the universe revealed to me in a glorious flash of light or watching one episode of 'The Sopranos,' I'd hesitate, then I'd watch 'The Sopranos.' "

Meanwhile, network rivals gnash their teeth when "The Sopranos" or "Sex and the City" claims an Emmy or Golden Globe. HBO may be hitting home runs, the argument goes, but how come nobody points out it's playing with aluminum bats?

"If NBC only had to schedule 'The West Wing,' 'Law & Order,' 'ER' and 'Friends,' you'd say, 'Wow, they're the boutique network,' " says a veteran TV writer who declined to be named, echoing a commonly held view. Indeed, with uncut movies filling up the lion's share of HBO's broadcast day, the channel is at liberty to be thoughtful and exclusive, ordering 10 or 13 episodes of a series and calling it a season. All the while, its commercial network counterparts scramble each year to fill out schedules, ordering series they only half-believe in and deficit-financing star vehicles that end up being expensive embarrassments.

These days, thanks in large measure to three series--"The Sopranos," "Sex and the City" and "The Larry Sanders Show," which still airs on HBO in reruns--an increasing number of writers and performers are seeking admission to the HBO club, where the reward is more cachet than cash, because HBO series have yet to prove they can reap financial windfalls in syndication, a la "Seinfeld" or "Friends."

But what, finally, makes for an HBO series? And who fits the brand?

You could argue that the prototypical HBO writer-producer is Alan Ball, Oscar-winning screenwriter of "American Beauty," and the prototypical HBO subject is death--something the broadcast networks wouldn't touch. Ball's new HBO series, "Six Feet Under," premiering in June, is about the business of burying people, seen through a family-run funeral service. The darkly comic pedigree of the series matches Ball's pedigree, which in turn fits the HBO brand: jaded former playwright who grew frustrated with his high-paying, joke-to-joke-to-joke jobs in network TV and wrote what became a mainstream literary hit at the box office.

HBO says it has about 40 scripts in development--everything from a series about hip-hop culture by novelist John Ridley to a comedy about an upscale Los Angeles Realtor (the project, based on the Manhattan Transfers column in the New York Observer, had Janeane Garofalo attached to star, but she has since backed out). There is also a domestic-sitcom idea from comedian Damon Wayans. The script was pitched as a realistic version of the false, feel-good stories conventional network sitcoms churn out, which is interesting given that Wayans stars in one of those, "My Wife and Kids," a midseason entry on ABC.

Both hip-hop and high-stakes real estate epitomize the HBO milieu. Marry such a subculture and a flawed, dynamic main character, and you evidently approximate the HBO brand. One writer in development there summed up the feedback he got on his pilot script this way: Make your main character less likable, and don't worry about premise. "Just plop us in the world and we'll find our way," he was told.

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