Critic's Notebook: Why the Return of HBO's Best Shows Actually Spells Doom

The former king of prestige television has all its greatest current shows — 'Veep,' 'Silicon Valley' and 'Game of Thrones' — premiering tonight. But then what?
Courtesy of HBO
Is this a metaphor for HBO?

Today, April 24, is a bittersweet Sunday for HBO.

Tonight, its three best properties now and for the near future have their premieres. Total running time: Two hours.

One night, two hours, one channel, in a very precarious position in the most challenging television landscape ever.

Game of Thrones, Veep and Silicon Valley are arguably the brightest lights in the HBO scripted stable. Two others lights are fading out — The Leftovers and Girls. Both are unique: The first is a critical darling that needs more viewers but is unlikely to get them as it heads into its third and final season; the latter is a reminder of HBO's glory days, when it could launch a provocative, original little gem and let it grow creatively and become a lightning rod for critical think-pieces and awards consideration.

Now shows like that are on Amazon and Netflix and seemingly everywhere else, the latest reminder that HBO doesn't own the creative universe like it once did.

But before going down that dark and depressing alley (for HBO), let's linger in this cul-de-sac a little bit longer and consider this notable Sunday.

HBO is in the subscription business — just like premium cable competitors Showtime and Starz, plus streaming services Netflix, Amazon and Hulu. For the business model to work, people need to want your service badly enough to spend money on it. Right at this moment, this very Sunday, HBO has Game of Thrones, Veep and Silicon Valley sitting in the window trying to lure potential subscribers (and keep the existing ones).

That's pretty much it. Three shows. Two hours. One night.

Despite the fact that Game of Thrones is the reigning Emmy winner for best drama and Veep and Silicon Valley comprise the best comedy hour on television, it's not like Netflix or anyone else is freaking out about HBO's power and clout right now. In fact, all of the streaming services are probably looking at HBO and thinking one word: opportunity.

It's not like HBO can't turn things around — despite enormous competition, the channel is still a premiere destination for creative talent. But right now it's caught up in a flood of low-wattage current programming, series that are ending and a large, completely unproven pipeline of future series that absolutely cannot be counted on to be anything worth "the price of admission" until they are.

That is, HBO is in the ultimate hard spot of "prove it," while most of its competitors (Netflix and Amazon especially) are seen as sexier (and mostly cheaper) destinations. That's not the position you want to sell from.

With The Leftovers leaving in 2016 (third and final season) and Girls leaving in 2017 (sixth and final season), HBO's scripted world is being fronted by Sunday's gems and then, in a steep drop-off after that: Ballers (popular but not acclaimed Emmy bait); Vinyl (virtually ignored despite the high-profile everything about it); the derailed and troubled Westworld (which has yet to premiere and thus can't be counted on); a completely imploded franchise in True Detective; a show almost nobody watches in Doll & Em; an animated series called Animals that has no real pulse for the channel; and a fantastic comedy in Curb Your Enthusiasm that may or may not ever return, depending on the whims of Larry David.

Or, if you prefer a much shorter version of all of that, HBO has Sunday and a bunch of unanswered prayers.

Also the brilliant Last Week Tonight With John Oliver, which isn't scripted so it doesn't count in this conversation.

If your job is selling that, Godspeed.

Again, fortunes turn. Perhaps the super-exciting prospect of The Deuce, the David Simon and James Franco porn drama, or Divorce, the Sarah Jessica Parker comedy, will alter the channel's current condition, but that was what Vinyl and Westworld were supposed to do. And so far haven't.

All of HBO's high-profile series either picked up, in development or in the pilot phase — and there are lots of them, as there should be given the current state of the bench — are wonderful gambits loaded with potential, until they aren't. And that's the bottom line or, as David Nevins from Showtime might argue, birds in the bush that might be dead before they fly, so why not come over to my channel instead?

And Nevins might have a point. Last summer, coming on the heels of what I thought was a good but not great pilot I'd just watched for Billions, coupled with some long-in-the-tooth Showtime series like Homeland, Shameless and House Of Lies, two super exciting HBO trailers for Vinyl and Westworld seemed to hint at a brighter future for Nevins' rival. Especially since I was not on board with The Affair and Masters Of Sex was becoming unwatchable.

Nevins wanted to meet to make his point — that Homeland was resurgent (true), that Ray Donovan was at its creative best and extremely popular for the channel and that Billions would pan out (there was no need to sell me on Penny Dreadful, which I think was and is Showtime's best).

If you look at HBO right now, with Vinyl in wreckage, Westworld stalled, series preparing their farewells, others failing to shine and a pipeline that has yet to produce anything, well, yeah, he was completely right.

Better still, if Cameron Crowe's music-centric Roadies hits before Vinyl tries to course correct season two, it might be a neon exclamation mark for Nevins.

And yet, while that's arguably true, we don't live in an HBO vs. Showtime world anymore (and haven't for a while). That's your father's premium-cable battle. I'm pretty sure Chris Albrecht over at Starz wouldn't trade his channel for either of them and would tout many reasons people should put their subscription money there.

Yet the bigger picture for all of these players, but especially for HBO, is that the ultimate destination address is no longer singular. It's no longer HBO, which surely must realize that the days of solo ownership of top-tier shows in the "It's Not TV, It's HBO" days is now the stuff of a History documentary.

The brave new world of prestige television that you pay for is Netflix and Amazon and even Hulu and for that matter Acorn (Brit TV gems), plus HBO, Showtime and Starz — and that's a damned competitive array of options for the consumer.

Complicating matters further is that FX, which isn't a subscription player, is arguably churning out the best shows of all of these channels.

So, yeah, it's brutal out there. And if realistically all you've got is three shows covering two hours on one night, well, maybe you should spend Sunday in a church, temple or bunker of your choice, praying for change.


Twitter: @BastardMachine