HBO as underdog
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.
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.”
David Milch’s “John From Cincinnati” wasn’t just irritating and bewildering, it was also seen as an inferior replacement for his cultishly adored “Deadwood” (and, for some, the even more abruptly discontinued “Carnivale”). Final seasons of “The Sopranos” and, on a smaller scale, “The Wire” naturally evoked doomsday predictions of a Downward Spiral. Never mind that “Big Love,” though ruptured this season by the writers strike, is both a critical and ratings hit or that people still love “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” Never mind that “John Adams” has done well, especially considering that it’s a historical drama composed, mostly, of men in waistcoats talking politics. HBO is perceived as being in full-blown midlife crisis, with the recent decision to replace Carolyn Strauss with Sue Naegle as chief of entertainment as its attempt at marriage counseling (the inexplicably low numbers for “In Treatment” notwithstanding).
As always, the first step is admitting there is a problem. “12 Miles of Bad Road,” which HBO recently ditched despite its price and pedigree -- Lily Tomlin; Mary Kay Place; the Thomasons, Linda Bloodworth and Harry -- may provide the key to cracking the what-the-heck-happened-here conundrum. Sent out to critics by its creators, who hoped to prove that HBO was making a grave mistake, “12 Miles” is a nightmare tug of war between the bold, the brilliant and the really, truly terrible. The tale of a Texas real estate dynasty, it cries out not for a review but a psychiatric diagnosis -- schizophrenia? Bipolar disorder? Never have so many Emmy-deserving performances been trapped in such a muddled mess of a more than occasionally offensive storyline. It’s the kind of mess that HBO, at its peak, would have never let happen, or could probably have fixed. Somehow. But now, it’s just extra weight on a listing ship, and over it goes. Which, if nothing else, proves that HBO is no longer guilty of smug complacency.
Amid such Sturm und Drang, the success of “John Adams” is that much more poignant. The reviews were mixed (I myself remained underwhelmed), but the ratings were solid. And the message is wonderfully fitting: A real legacy comes with the passing of time, and you’ll save yourself a lot of grief if you just don’t think about it.
Certainly, in hindsight, the passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts was not among Adams’ finest hours but, like “John From Cincinnati,” it seemed like a good idea at the time. That HBO has changed the nature of television is inarguable, but say something like that too many times and it becomes not only a bore but a gauntlet. And while legacies play well on historical timelines, they do not guarantee anyone good seats on the entertainment industry’s perpetual motion machine of rank and perception. So what will HBO do next? Declare war on France (or Showtime)? Continue rearranging the Cabinet? Or reject the fickle affections of history and, like Mr. Adams, just try to find the original dream amid all the heckling and prognosticating, visions and revisions.
That’s the thing about revolutions. No matter how final the proclamations or declarations may seem, they’re ongoing, with problems and permutations far beyond the founders’ wildest dreams. And if you stick around long enough, you may find yourself going from Big Dog back to underdog. Welcome back to the bleacher seats, HBO.