Cable vs. broadcast: TV’s different mindsets

Back in May 2001, then- NBC President Robert Wright was fuming. He fired off a bristling letter to producers and executives throughout broadcast television, complaining that HBO was changing the rules of their medium. Wright’s immediate gripe was an episode of “The Sopranos” where a young stripper was beaten to death by a berserk Mafioso. But his larger claim was that broadcast television was having a hard time competing with the cable network because it had the license of unexpurgated language, nudity and bloody violence that were proscribed to NBC. If only his network had the freedom of HBO, well . . .

Wright might have honestly believed that the difference between NBC and HBO was a matter of cussing and graphic violence, but he could not have been more wrong, then or now. The real difference between broadcast television and cable is not that the Federal Communications Commission restricts one from doing what the other can. It’s a matter of cosmology -- the way they perceive the universe. Cable TV and broadcast TV purvey different worlds, and cable’s is darker, bleaker, more complicated and less forgiving.

This shouldn’t be too surprising. Broadcast television was devised in the late 1940s to reach the broadest possible audience in order to sell sponsors’ products. Because it would eventually enter nearly every living room in America, it was compelled both by government regulation and its own sense of decorum to behave like a proper guest. From its earliest variety shows, which were direct descendants of vaudeville and shared vaudeville’s family appeal, to its earliest sitcoms, which were descendants of radio and shared radio’s disinclination to offend, to its earliest dramas, which descended from the movies and made a similar appeal to the middle, television felt safe.

Broadcast TV operated within a world vision that was also comforting. Television shows invariably had closure. The basic principle of broadcast TV, whether a program was comic or dramatic, was that a situation would arise in one act only to be resolved in the next. Nowadays, there are longer story arcs -- " Lost’s” has lasted six seasons -- but the same idea obtains. Nothing is open-ended on broadcast television. Nothing is intractable. It is a form without anxiety -- a form of reassurance.

What is true of broadcast TV’s narrative technique is also true of its protagonists. The likable hero -- “The Mentalist,” the investigators on “NCIS,” the detectives and lawyers on the various “Law & Orders” -- is so much a commonplace that it is easy to overlook just how much he or she constitutes a complete attitude, especially since the source of his or her likability, aside from appearance, is typically his or her basic decency. Broadcast TV trades in a good world filled with good people -- a world in which evil is an aberration and not a condition of life. Think of " Criminal Minds,” in which a team of profilers tracks down a vicious serial killer each week without the whole world ever seeming awry.

The heroes may be conflicted or idiosyncratic or errant, but we never doubt their fundamental morality, just as we never really believe in their complexity. On broadcast TV, cops exist to fight evil, doctors to save lives, Moms and Dads to love their families, and twenty- and thirtysomethings to love their friends.

Cable television purveys a very different world view -- at least in many of its precincts.

On the USA network (“Characters Welcome”), characters are likely to be either eccentrics -- to wit, the obsessive-compulsive detective Monk -- or individuals who have suffered a setback -- a CIA agent who is suddenly dropped on “Burn Notice,” a young doctor whose practice goes belly up on “Royal Pains” -- and then must adjust. They don’t make the world right. They try to make the best of things.

It gets a tad more interesting with TNT (“We Know Drama”), though the network’s characters and their world are not radical departures from broadcast TV either, just less overtly good in a world slightly less redeemable at show’s end. What is different from NBC, CBS, ABC or Fox on shows such as “Dark Blue” or “The Closer” or “Southland,” which was pitched overboard by NBC precisely because it didn’t seem like a crowd pleaser, is the darkness of hue, the whack-a-mole persistence of the bad that begins to bring into question whether evil is limited to the social margins.

AMC goes further. Don Draper, the creative adman extraordinaire on " Mad Men,” isn’t just not overtly good; he is so deeply flawed that both his likability and his possible redemption are seriously in question. A serial philanderer, a bottom-line boss who fires a gay employee for not succumbing to the advances of a client, a man whose entire life, including his name, is a lie, Draper is a cunning man in a mendacious, predatory world of images. There are no happy endings here, only triumphs of guile and will.

Yet even “Mad Men” falls short of what can only be called the cosmic depravity, duplicity and damnation of FX. Programs such as “Nip/Tuck,” “Damages” and “Rescue Me” show a world that is irredeemably ugly and people who are just plain irredeemable. Forget likability, goodness, safety and order.

“Nip/Tuck,” which followed two wealthy plastic surgeons and which just wound up its six-year run, is a series about superficiality -- a world in which how one looks is far more important than who one is. Were “Nip/Tuck” on broadcast television, the protagonists would undoubtedly serve at best as moral guides and at worst as guilt-stricken flagellants who would find their way back to decency by recognizing the emptiness around them. But on FX, they are essentially rotten to the core -- even more superficial than their patients. At series’ end, far from having the requisite epiphany that leads to goodness, one of them, a body attached to a reproductive organ, simply embraces his narcissism and goes unapologetically on his self-centered way.

Similarly, the aptly named “Damages,” perhaps the most Kafkaesque program ever, gives us a crusading attorney played by Glenn Close, who has an opacity that broadcast television wouldn’t tolerate, not to mention the ethics of a barracuda. She can’t be trusted, but then neither can anyone else on the show. The world “Damages” depicts is all convolutions, sharp angles, mirrors and dead ends. Nothing is what it seems, and decency and self-interest are so commingled that one can’t tell them apart. But to the series’ credit, it only untangles the plot, never the twisted universe in which the plot plays out.

Which brings us to HBO, the network that once accurately boasted, “It’s not TV, it’s HBO.” It was a slogan that recognized HBO was not beholden to the soothing verities of broadcast TV; HBO’s characters, such as Tony Soprano, are invariably corrupted and compromised, the needles on their moral compasses spinning wildly.

While Showtime has “Dexter” with its likable serial killer who only murders deserving victims, “Weeds” with its likable hausfrau driven to drug dealing, and “Californication” with its likable promiscuous scamp, HBO doesn’t just bend conventions; it breaks them. Tony Soprano is a vicious killer. Bill on “Big Love” is a self-justifying polygamist. Larry David is a politically incorrect man-boy who is practically solipsistic and Ricky Gervais’ character is an egomaniac whose self-regard blocks everything else. Like them, theirs is a world without clear moral bearings -- a world that is far too complex for the simple bromides of broadcast TV. In fact, these shows don’t even have closure, as those who protested the “Sopranos” conclusion can attest. Things don’t end on HBO. They just keep drifting toward entropy.

None of this is to say that cable’s gloomy world won’t veer into parody, as “Nip/Tuck” came dangerously close to doing, or that it won’t stagnate through repetition. And of course, broadcast TV has occasionally tried to steal cable’s thunder -- NBC had its own “Sopranos” manque, “Kingpin” -- but its heart and mission don’t seem to be in it.

Maybe that is what Bob Wright really detected underneath the sex and violence when he fretted about HBO’s effect on television. The cosmology of HBO, FX and AMC is fierce and unrelentingly grim. It is a cosmology for a different America in a different television age than the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s, when things seemed so much simpler. It speaks to our doubts and our debits, to our anxieties and apprehensions. It tells us that we are not necessarily good and that neither is our world. It tells us that not everything can be made right in the end. It is a journey into the American heart of darkness.

And it’s not television. It’s life.