The Business: Learning to Love Slow TV

In Treatment
In Treatment
 HBO

There are moments on HBO’s therapy drama In Treatment when the pauses seem interminable and the cloistered atmosphere feels as constricting as an air duct. Finally, to cut the tension — or to remind people that their television isn’t accidentally on pause — star Gabriel Byrne will raise an eyebrow.

A cynic might say there’s a reason the ratings for In Treatment make “abysmal” seem too upbeat a description — the show is, charitably, really slow.

Rubicon, AMC’s conspiracy series that recently ended its first (and only?) season, had even its most ardent supporters (numbering about 1 million by the finale but fewer in the middle) joking about the glacial pacing. Isn’t espionage supposed to be thrilling, not composed of long shots of people talking cryptically or poring over massive stacks of gathered intelligence? It’s like half of each Rubicon episode was filmed in a library.

And yet, both of these are wonderful series. The writing is often superb, the acting exceptional. Although there’s not much variation on the visual style of In Treatment — it’s essentially a stage play with two people talking — there’s real beauty in the exterior shots of Rubicon, set in New York.

These shows are the ultimate examples of what can best be described as Slow TV. It’s not quite a fad or a revolution — and given the dismal ratings, no one involved should feel comfortable about their futures — but you can’t give HBO and AMC enough credit for making shows like this in the first place.

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A Slow TV series is more than a passion project or a brand-enhancing stab at quality. AMC already has the two best dramas on television in Mad Men and Breaking Bad. Even better, from a ratings standpoint, the channel recently launched zombie series The Walking Dead to 5.3 million viewers, which means it just ate its competition’s brains.

Why did HBO bother bringing back In Treatment for a third season when the first two pulled in what might generously be described as a cult audience? Who knows? Especially now that Season 3 has the kind of numbers similar to public-access city council meetings (first runs of less than 250,000 viewers and nary a blip in the adults 18-49 demographic; if those numbers rise after cumulative airings, it’s only because people are using CB radios to get the word out).

HBO could just as easily spin off a vamp from True Blood and cash in with Nielsen. But so far, it has loyally and consistently put on — and renewed — series that attract niche audiences (In Treatment, Bored to Death, Hung, etc.). True, the subscription model for the premium channel allows it to stress the importance of quality — and the Emmy nominations certainly don’t dull the patina of the brand. Still, when you’ve got Boardwalk Empire, why do In Treatment? Everybody knows that guns, booze and tits pay off better than psychobabble and hugs.

AMC and FX have brought premium-channel-quality shows to basic cable, but FX doesn’t really do the Slow TV thing. You could argue that TNT dipped its toe in the Slow TV pool with Men of a Certain Age, one of last season’s great dramatic surprises. But there was nothing quite like Rubicon when it came to jettisoning action and flash in favor of languid pacing and prolonged, odd-tempo silence. And that’s a good thing. Because it’s rare. It’s daringly novelistic and thoughtful. It’s lovingly … slow.

What does AMC have to prove anymore by renewing Rubicon? The channel is drowning in quality, and now it has found millions of people and critical raves from Walking Dead,  which has already been picked up for a second season. See, there’s money in zombies, not complicated patterns written in crossword puzzles and on the back of duct tape. So if AMC cancels Rubicon, it might enrage half a million people who don’t like quick-cuts and easy answers, but it probably will delight the bean counters.

It would be a shame, though. HBO and Showtime probably will always gamble on something that moves like a tortoise on Xanax. But if AMC renews Rubicon, it would be like a public service that engenders good will in the basic cable world. Yes, it’s hard to fathom. But maybe FX will follow by renewing Terriers, probably its closest entrant in the Slow TV category. Maybe some other basic cable channel will come up with a smart, introspective drama about something or other that moves like molasses. And a phalanx — albeit a meager phalanx — of viewers will sit and watch it, with no regard for how it pays for itself but with great appreciation for the channel that put it on.

Let the movement grow.

E-mail Tim Goodman at 
tim.goodman@thr.com.

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