the pulse

'Sopranos' end leaves HBO fit to be mob tied

It's difficult to remember now, but way back in the mid 1990s during a crazy little century called the 20th, HBO was a network far more renowned for its longform production and documentaries than its series. Sure, it had "The Larry Sanders Show," possibly the most magnificent character comedy in recorded history, but "Larry" drew abysmal ratings in appealing to something of an elitist taste.

The three shows that would come to define the quality-rich HBO brand — "Sex and the City," "The Sopranos" and "Six Feet Under" — didn't arrive on the scene until 1998, 1999 and 2001, respectively. Nothing that came before ever brought the mighty Time Warner premium cabler anything close to their consistent acclaim and cachet.

Movies, minis and docus are great for collecting Emmys, but once they've run, they've run. Series are the gift that keeps on giving. Yet it hasn't escaped notice that aside from "Entourage," HBO is pretty much fresh out of even semi-buzzworthy series product of late.

And so we find that Sunday's much-hyped "Sopranos" series capper represents far more than simply the hour that will determine Tony Soprano's ultimate fate. It's the true end of an era for the network that birthed he and his goombas. Even before HBO programming guru Chris Albrecht's troubles that led to his ouster, the network has been unable to restock its ranks with new stars. The golden touch has turned closer to silver.

This is not a new observation. And particularly this week in coinciding with the "Sopranos'" permanent fish-sleeping expedition, the eulogies mourning HBO's untimely demise are sure to come in waves. It really isn't as bad as all of that, however. For one, the original series cupboard isn't barren, what with "Entourage," the polygamy primer "Big Love" returning next Monday and another season of "Curb Your Enthusiasm" rolling out later in the year. As well, critics continue to sing the praises of "The Wire," though they seem to be the only ones watching it.

There's also the new stuff: the David Milch paranormal surfer fantasy "John From Cincinnati" (premiering Sunday), the comedy "Flight of the Conchords" (arriving June 17) and the psych-themed half-hour drama "In Therapy" (coming this fall) that appears to recall HBO's brilliant but shamefully short-lived 1991 six-parter "Sessions."

It all sounds just swell, though there is now the distinct sense from HBO not of a front-runner's cool confidence but a boxer who has lost the sting in his jab and is unleashing a less-effective barrage in the hope something connects.

Yes, a retooling was inevitable. They can't all be winners, and "Carnivale" and "Lucky Louie" weren't. Yet more than that, aside from "The Sopranos" and the recently departed "Deadwood," even the schedule-stickers just aren't generating the kind of hyper-awareness that befits HBO's sterling reputation. As a result, FX ("Rescue Me," "The Shield," "The Riches," "Nip/Tuck") and Showtime ("Dexter," "Weeds," "The Tudors," "Brotherhood") have been able to swoop in and virtually eliminate any perceived qualitative gap while carving out their own unique niches.

Does any of this really matter to HBO? Financially, it's probably negligible. But in terms of perception and esteem — both essential elements in keeping subscriber churn to a minimum while maximizing water-cooler chatter — it's huge.

Unfortunately, coolness isn't a commodity that can be purchased outright or Bill Gates would be the hippest man on Earth. HBO hasn't lost its identity, merely its groove. It's going to take it a while to get it back.