TCA Journal 7: Worrying About the HBO-Showtime Quality Gap

Yes, there are big rivals out there in TV land — FX and Starz included — but the old HBO-Showtime battle still intrigues.
Courtesy of Showtime
"Billions" on Showtime.

Chief television critic Tim Goodman will be writing these journals throughout the Television Critics Association summer press tour, offering insight, analysis, counter-spin and some snark from the nearly three-week industry presentation.

I'm very worried about Showtime, but perhaps not surprisingly the premium channel is a little more bullish about itself.

And that's really the game of perception that not only gets played out between all networks, cable channels, streaming services and critics (and reporters) here at TCA, but in the greater world outside of the Beverly Hilton ballroom where the press tour takes place.

Showtime was here on Tuesday for a half-day's worth of sessions that featured an executive session from boss David Nevins and panels for upcoming new drama Billions and returning series The Affair and Masters of Sex.

There were certainly troubling signs — The Affair got bogged down in talking about its structural storytelling issues and Masters faltered in explaining how legal complications changed how it is fictionalizing real characters (not well).

But beyond that, my concern was (and is) that there's a gap between HBO and Showtime. And I'm worried that gap is going to get wider before it contracts.

This is partly because Showtime doesn't have an enormous hit like Game of Thrones, though it does well with Homeland (and both are Emmy drama series nominees). Nevins is particularly bullish about that show as it comes off last season, where even I noted it had course-corrected many of the issues that drove it into the ground in seasons two and three.

That said, Homeland is no Thrones. And, the second-season dumpster fire aside, True Detective season one was an Emmy magnet, as are many HBO original movies and documentaries (Showtime docs are also very strong).

A more glaring imbalance is in the comedy arena, where HBO has Emmy comedy series nominees Veep (all four seasons) and Silicon Valley (both seasons), the latter essentially replacing the perennial Girls, plus Curb Your Enthusiasm. That is evidence of continual and very strong comedy development.

This year, the channel added Togetherness, which is also creatively impressive.

I would argue that House of Lies and Episodes, while fine shows, don't compare. The first is a little long in the tooth and the latter flies a little too far under the radar. That doesn't make them bad, but it doesn't make them pop in what is very clearly an insanely competitive marketplace. (And no, I wouldn't qualify Nurse Jackie or even Shameless as a comedy).

Showtime's last comedy attempt, Happyish, was a flat-out disaster and was canceled. There's nothing in the near-term that Showtime can tout, while HBO has Ballers. And sure, The Brink is better off forgotten and nobody's really clamoring for a second season of Doll & Em. But the brilliant Last Week Tonight with John Oliver more than makes up for those.

Getting back to drama, Shameless remains strong and Ray Donovan — as Nevins effectively contended as I sat with him to talk about all of this after the Showtime sessions — is having its strongest season right now and is delivering what True Detective season 2 could not. Another thing I'll put in the channel's "plus" column is Penny Dreadful, one of the most overlooked dramas out there. He also makes a good point that the Showtime schedule doesn't fall off the table quite like HBO does in certain quarters. Those are all elements of consistency I don't want to ignore.

"I feel like there's nobody who has a wider breadth of shows," Nevins said. "Our strength is we're pretty consistent through the year. Try to go nine deep with anyone else."

However, here's where the notion of competing perceptions (and taste and preferences) come in. I like both Shameless and Ray Donovan, but don't feel compelled to watch them in a timely manner (Homeland's rejuvenation has earned that privilege back until it loses it again), while I'm very eager to watch the second season of The Leftovers.

And looking forward, HBO has had heavy buzz at TCA for its extended clips of the upcoming Vinyl and Westworld. Building excitement is part of the game. I can't remember, outside of FX's Fargo, thinking "Can I have that whole season right now?"

And though I won't review Showtime's Billions until more episodes are delivered, I found the first hour underwhelming. Again, maybe episodes two through four will change my mind, but I'm not nagging Showtime like I am FX about when the rest of the Fargo season two episodes are coming.

So, here we are. The Showtime sessions came and went. Maybe I'll catch back up with Masters of Sex, but I watched the first three and feel like that's all I want to see. And I'll give the second season of The Affair a just evaluation to see if it remedies the parts that annoyed me so deeply in the first season. 

But my perception of these competing channels is based much more on a full-season evaluation. And HBO seems to be well in front.

That said, I believe strongly in Nevins as a smart developer who still has the Twin Peaks reboot up his sleeve — and that alone is a zeitgeist-altering event if it works. And though there weren't clips to tout like there were for HBO's Westworld and Vinyl, Showtime has Cameron Crowe's Roadies comedy, with Carla Gugino and Luke Wilson in the works. But no trailers/clips for Twin Peaks and Roadies means no chance at buzz, which builds faith. And I need some faith.

So, until those future bets cash in — and Billions pans out, Homeland stays consistent and The Affair course-corrects — yeah, still worried.

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