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MAY
23
3 YEARS

Time for a Change of Direction at Showtime

Dumping "United States of Tara" is just the start if the pay channel wants to catch HBO, writes Tim Goodman.

United States of Tara
Showtime
United States of Tara

It appears that Showtime has pushed itself out the side of its own ballsy envelope.

The pay cable channel that had always been a distant second behind HBO has come to the end of an era, and the quicker that relatively new entertainment president David Nevins figures this out, the better. What he inherited from Robert Greenblatt, who stepped away to run NBC, is basically the aftermath of used parts from a very impressive revolution. Honestly, you can't give Greenblatt enough credit for turning Showtime from a movie channel that focused its original material money on movies to a movie channel that focused on original series instead, a la HBO. Movies are fine. But scripted series -- very good ones -- are the currency of high-end cable channels, particularly those that require a subscription. What Greenblatt got right was figuring out what HBO wasn't doing -- that which was aggressively  politically incorrect -- and went for it. The results? Nothing short of a reversal of fortune.

Look, Showtime had a few wonderful stabs at series -- Resurrection Blvd., Queer as Folk, Dead Like Me, Huff, The L Word, Brotherhood -- but its current legacy rests with Weeds, Dexter, Californication, The Tudors, Secret Diary of a Call Girl, Nurse Jackie, United States of Tara and The Big C. Which, if you're keeping score at home, is drug-selling mom, serial killer, sex addict, sex-addicted, killing-addicted king, unrepentant prostitute, unrepentant drug addicted nurse, woman with multiple personalities and cancer victim. That bleeding edge that Greenblatt loved so much really started to stain the rug at Showtime.

But before that, guess what it did? That aggressively non-mainstream, daredevil programming revitalized the channel precisely at the moment when HBO was going through executive rank turmoil and when there was an inexcusable drought in its pipeline of shows. People don't like to pay for something they're not getting on a regular basis and -- right at that moment -- Showtime surpassed HBO as a need-to-have-it channel. For several years, when people would ask -- "HBO or Showtime?" -- the answer was the latter. But not anymore.

And it's not even a difficult decision. Which is why Nevins needs to kick Showtime into gear and move it somewhere else. That whole bleak comedy thing is over. Mostly because there wasn't much humor in it. Now it's just unlikable people showing off.

On Monday, Showtime announced that it was canceling United States of Tara, starring the wonderful Toni Collette. This was a good decision because, as brilliant as Collette is as an actress, Tara had become annoying and wearisome. The channel also announced Monday that it had renewed Nurse Jackie, starring the equally wonderful Edie Falco. This, unfortunately, was a bad idea. Even though Jackie was always the stronger show to Tara, it had become no less annoying and one-dimensional. Jackie has a drug problem. It clouds her judgment. Yes, we get that. There needs to be evolution in a series, or you might as well be animated.

Lost in those announcements was the renewal on Monday of freshman series The Borgias, from director-writer Neil Jordan. The Borgias finished its first season Sunday night and proved that as a costume drama it was better and more substantial than Camelot on Starz (another pay channel in the original series game) and even better than Showtime's previous hit, The Tudors

This is a direction that Nevins should encourage. In its first season, The Borgias has proven it has more story lines and thus more options for storytelling than Tara and Jackie combined. It also managed to evade the historical accuracy problems and sudsy detours that The Tudors loved so much.

Though Nevins has previously said that Showtime will broaden its approach, the renewal of Jackie doesn't quite mesh with that, particularly since its season will be followed up by Weeds and Californication, two series well past their sell-by dates; plus The Big C which was, like Tara and Jackie before it, a welcome vehicle to show off the immense talents of a female actress who might not be getting movie offers that befit her talent. Laura Linney, like Falco and Collette, can do almost no wrong, but The Big C is a series that just never got the tone right in its first season and seems destined to be confined to that ghetto of limited and/or repetitive story angles.

And that's the problem facing Showtime at this juncture. If you look at its lineup, much of it seems played out. Dexter has been fantastic, but the time has come for the near misses and narrow escapes to end. I'm voting no on Weeds (a series I used to love), Californication, Tara, Jackie and Big C. I'm still on board with Shameless, Episodes (and Dexter, at least to start this season), and I like the looks of the Homeland previews (and, bias alert, will probably soak in the glory of The Franchise).

However, in addition to a lot of the excellent miniseries and movies that HBO continues to churn out, the channel has in its stable Game of Thrones, Boardwalk Empire, Treme, True Blood, Bored to Death, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Eastbound & Down, The Life & Times of Tim, The Ricky Gervais Show, Hung and, from a slate of upcoming series, Lucky, which certainly looks promising. In any case, the first three series outweigh anything currently on Showtime. 

And that makes the question, "HBO or Showtime?" far too easy to answer. Nevins and Showtime have their work cut out for them.

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com
Twitter: @BastardMachine