When Alan Taylor is directing your HBO television pilot, it’s usually a sign the program is a lock to get on the air. The Emmy-award winning director has put his imprint on nearly every one of the network’s major series, including “The Sopranos,” “Sex and the City,” “Six Feet Under,” “Big Love” and “Deadwood.”
But Taylor’s latest HBO project, “Bored to Death,” is up against stiffer competition than usual. Penned by novelist Jonathan Ames, the quirky comedy about a frustrated young New York writer who moonlights as a hard-boiled detective is just one of nine pilots HBO currently has in the works. Dozens of other shows from the likes of actor Jim Carrey, author Tom Wolfe and “The Squid and the Whale” screenwriter Noah Baumbach are in various stages of development.
“It will be a survival of what they consider the fittest,” Taylor said on a recent cold fall night, as he prepared to shoot a scene in a brightly lit TriBeCa art gallery. “You’d rather be their only one, but fair enough, if you have to sort of win your place.”
The intensive production marks a departure for the premium cable channel, which in recent years hadn’t even used its full development budget. But confronted with an urgent need for new series, HBO has hurtled into its most significant creative reboot since it began making original programs in the 1980s. In doing so, it’s testing shows that represent a sharp departure from the sweeping family sagas that have most recently defined the network.
“I think we’re more pregnant with talent and with ideas and with development than we’ve ever been in our history,” said Richard Plepler, HBO’s co-president. “It’s not an exaggeration to say that we’re as excited about the future of this place as we’ve been in a long time.”
Part of that is due to the performance of “True Blood,” the first new series that has performed strongly for HBO in quite a while. Since its premiere in September, the first five episodes of the Southern vampire drama have averaged about 6.5 million viewers across a week, putting it on track to be HBO’s third-most-watched series, after “The Sopranos” and “Sex and the City.”
Network executives are now hoping that among the raft of new projects they’re considering, they’ll find the kind of unorthodox and compelling series that long made HBO the undisputed king of zeitgeist television.
Of course, others are vying for that crown. As FX and AMC bask in critical praise for programs like “Damages” and “Mad Men,” HBO has spent the last few years trying to fend off the perception that it had lost its mojo.
Esoteric surfer series “John From Cincinnati,” the first big launch after “The Sopranos” concluded its run, quickly flopped. Relationship drama “Tell Me You Love Me” was canceled after one low-rated season, and the Lily Tomlin comedy “12 Miles of Bad Road” was scuttled before it made it on the air after executives were disappointed by the early episodes. (The fallow period has not appeared to affect subscriptions. Through June, the network had almost 29 million subscribers, up slightly from the same period last year, according to media research firm SNL Kagan Research.)
“Replacing a slate that was arguably at the time the best in television is very difficult to do,” said Charlie Collier, AMC’s general manager. “I think they’re doing what all of us are trying to do, which is find the next big thing.”
The unfamiliar string of misses came as HBO was undergoing an internal transition following the abrupt departure in May 2007 of its chief executive, Chris Albrecht. This year, two HBO veterans announced they were leaving as well: Entertainment President Carolyn Strauss and Film President Colin Callender.
Thinking outside the box
The changes ushered in a period of introspection at the famously insular network. Plepler and Michael Lombardo, president of the programming group, said one of the first things they realized when they took the helm last year was how few new series HBO had in the works.
“Part of the great thing about HBO is we don’t have pilot seasons, so really things can percolate until they’re ready,” Lombardo said. “The flip side of that is things can percolate for a very long time. What we found when we stepped into our positions was that there was a lot that was percolating, but not really ready.”
So the two executives have been aggressively courting the industry, soliciting pitches -- a dramatic reversal from the way HBO conducted business in the past.
“I do think we had become, by virtue of our success, a little passive in the development process,” Lombardo said. “There was an expectation that if someone had a good project, they would bring it to us. That’s not necessarily the best way of developing. And so we just became more proactive. We started knocking on doors.”
Their mission is not necessarily to find the next “Sopranos,” a cultural phenomenon that executives argue is impossible to replicate. Instead, they said, they’re looking for the kind of distinct series that has come to define HBO.
“Point of view, differentiation, quality,” Plepler said. “It’s not a secret sauce, per se, but you do know it when you see it.”
To bolster their effort, they made an unexpected choice in Strauss’ replacement, passing over eager entertainment executives at other networks for longtime talent agent Sue Naegle.
“It was very clear that we were speaking with somebody who shared our sense of what made HBO, at its best, unique,” Plepler said.
Naegle’s mission in searching for new projects, she said, has been to ask, “Who do you think has something interesting to say?”
“The benefit of being an agent for a long time is that I know a lot of these people personally,” she added. “I know their work, I know the pilots they’ve written in the past. I know the things that maybe they’ve always wanted to do but weren’t able to do.”
One of her first acts was to snap up “Hung,” a dark comedy from “The Riches” creator Dmitry Lipkin and his wife and writing partner, Colette Burson, about a middle-aged high school coach who tries to be a gigolo in the Michigan suburbs.
Her interest surprised and delighted the show’s creators, who said that before her arrival, HBO hadn’t even wanted to hear their pitch.
“Everybody always wants to work with HBO because they have no commercials and because of their track record, but it felt like the door was shut,” Burson said. “Now it feels like the door is open.”
Production on the pilot, directed by “Sideways’ ” Alexander Payne, finished last month. It’s made for a busy fall for HBO, which has been functioning like a studio this season. The number of pilots (essentially, test episodes of potential series) that the network is making far exceeds the handful typically done by most cable networks in a year.
“We were like kids in a candy store,” said Lombardo, stressing that the network does not expect to do this much development every year. “There were so many exciting projects, we just decided to go forward in piloting them.”
This fall, that’s included “Last of the Ninth,” David Milch’s drama about the 1970s-era New York Police Department; “Suburban Shootout,” a BBC-based comedy about two gangs of homicidal housewives; “Washingtonienne,” a comedy about young women who work on Capitol Hill; and “How to Make It in America,” about three determined twentysomethings living in downtown New York.
A-list stars and directors
Next year, HBO will shoot “Boardwalk Empire,” a drama about 1920s Atlantic City, directed by Martin Scorsese, and “Treme,” a story about local musicians in post-Katrina New Orleans from “The Wire’s” David Simon and Eric Overmyer. Also likely to go to pilot: “The Wonderful Maladys,” a comedy about three adult siblings who lost their parents at an early age, starring Sarah Michelle Gellar.
HBO’s buying spree has not gone unnoticed by its competitors, who say the network is bidding on projects they wouldn’t have in the past.
“It seems like they’re casting a wider net,” said an executive at a rival cable network, who did not want to be named discussing the channel’s strategy. “And I get it: You have a lot of money, you have new management and you need to rebrand your brand, in a way. They’re looking for that show that puts them back on top.”
Many of the projects represent a break from the trope that has long characterized HBO series: the exploration of family through the lens of a subculture, whether it be mobsters, undertakers or polygamists.
“I think they may feel they have to change what they’re known for,” Taylor said. “They may feel like they need to make more bang than they did before, because they don’t have the territory to themselves anymore. Just doing a brilliant show like ‘The Sopranos’ may not be enough. They have to fight through the other brilliant shows being made on other cable networks.”
“Bored to Death,” based on a short story Ames published in McSweeney’s, attempts to merge angsty comedy with noir detective fiction.
“My humor is based on nervousness and insecurity, so I kind of see it as ‘noireurotic,’ ” said the writer, who seemed happily dazed by the bustle on the set on a recent night.
His unique voice attracted actors Jason Schwartzman (“Rushmore”) and Ted Danson, who was looking for another juicy part after his critically acclaimed run on “Damages.”
“This was explained to me as a wonderful experiment, and right away that interested me, because most things on networks are not experiments,” said Danson, who plays editor to Schwartzman’s writer. “To be able to be part of something not familiar and quirky and different tickles me to death.”
By the end of the year, HBO executives will pick some pilots that will go to series -- as many as seven could ultimately make it -- with the aim of having new programs on the air by next summer or fall. That’s on top of “Eastbound & Down,” a new comedy set to air in February about a burned-out major leaguer who takes a job as a gym teacher at his old middle school.
The hope, Lombardo said, is that every Sunday, “we’re going to have an evening we’re proud of of quality original television.”
Right now, he added, “we have a lot of Sundays to fill.”