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HBO as underdog

It used to always be the premium of the premiums. Now the cable pack's catching up.

April 19, 2008|Mary McNamara | Times Television Critic

Revolution is a frightening, heady and often fatal business, but it's what happens afterward that matters most. No one knows this better than the folks at HBO. "John Adams," which comes to a close Sunday night, has devoted seven beautifully shot hours to defying the often overly patriotic legends of our past with a toothache-and-all portrait of a man who helped define modern democracy, albeit grumbling every step of the way.

In his portrayal of our second president, Paul Giamatti creates a man perpetually dissatisfied, disgusted by the preening ambition of politics even as he is infected by it. If his relentless crankiness was a bit hard for some of us to take in early episodes, in the second half of the series it makes much more sense. While exhorting angry men to throw off the shackles of tyranny offers many opportunities for rhetorical fabulousness, setting up a new government is a bureaucratic nightmare, with oversized personalities disagreeing over things both petty and fundamental. George Washington (David Morse) so quickly tired of the infighting among his Cabinet and vagaries of public opinion that he stepped down from the presidency after a single term. "I know now what it is like to be disliked," he says to Adams, his perpetually disliked vice president.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday, April 22, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 30 words Type of Material: Correction
HBO: A critic's notebook in Saturday's Calendar section that mentioned "John Adams" and other HBO shows said that George Washington served only one term as president. He served two terms.

It was a line that may well have resonated bitterly over at HBO, where a steady drumbeat of finales, bombs, scandal and management restructuring has turned the once-mighty cable network into an object of speculation and derision. For the last couple of years, calling the time of death (Was it the cancellation of "Deadwood"? Passing on "Mad Men"? Green-lighting "John From Cincinnati"?) has been a TV industry pastime, with representatives of hot-hot Showtime and even TNT doing their best to quash the desire to do a victory dance, at least in public.

But as the honorable Mr. Adams could have told them, it's all about the long haul. Just because you start a revolution, don't expect the teeming masses to like you every day for the rest of your life. For one thing, the successful revolutionary inevitably changes from underdog to Big Dog, and you know how mercurial Americans are about Big Dogs. So, sure, we rooted for HBO when it challenged the stodgy networks, giving us uncut versions of R-rated movies and original programming that blew open the boundaries of sex and politics, language and violence. But that was a while ago, and for years, HBO was the New York Yankees of television -- yeah, they're really good, but don't we all love it when the Yankees go into a slump?

It's been much cooler to pull for Showtime, the once-scrappy competitor. There's also FX and TNT, and even AMC has burst out of the classic video box with "Mad Men" and "Breaking Bad."

All of which is terrific for television, but not so great for HBO. Because it's not just competition for viewers' eyeballs. It's competition for viewers' hearts. Ask yourself, and be brutally honest, would the whole "guilty pleasure" delight that has fueled "The Tudors" be quite as ubiquitous if it were on HBO? Wouldn't there be a tiny bit more eye-rolling over the bodice-ripping and scenery chewing? And what about "Mad Men," last season's darling of every critic, including this one? Yes, it had a near-perfect pilot and much of what followed was terrific. But the whole Don Draper identity theft subplot? Or the idea of a woman going through an entire pregnancy without knowing it? If that had run on HBO, we would have been All Over It, just like we would have screaming accusations of a through-the-mirror-darkly "Weeds" ripoff if "Breaking Bad" had been the anointed "Sopranos" replacement. But we overlooked such things because both shows were mostly amazing, and, admit it, it was so great to see old AMC having two good ones. "

There's also that pesky law of increased expectations. Once upon a time, HBO was the only place you could find an empathetic exploration of a sociopath or a beautifully graphic portrayal of drug dealers, a hilarious take-down of Hollywood or just some righteous sex scenes. Nowadays, you can find that sort of thing just about anywhere. "Dexter," the good-guy serial killer, reigns at Showtime (and more recently in repeats at CBS), while USA gave us Malibu on a platter in "The Starter Wife."

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