Robert Greenblatt's Showtime legacy

The man who shook HBO's shadow

If there could be said to have been a quintessential Robert Greenblatt moment in his tenure at Showtime, perhaps it was the debut of one of his biggest successes, "Dexter."

On paper, it didn't make a helluva lot of sense. Why cast the milquetoast middle son from HBO's "Six Feet Under," which Greenblatt produced, as a dangerous but somehow likable serial killer other than the fact that Michael C. Hall had HBO credentials?

And yet just minutes into the opening episode of "Dexter," it was clear Hall was accomplishing a transition highly difficult to make on TV. He slipped so effortlessly out of the character for which he was known into such a different one that it was as if he was imposing amnesia on the audience.

Hall made it work, and by extension so did Greenblatt, who would go on to do it again perhaps even more improbably with Edie Falco, who escaped the overhang of an even more iconic role on "The Sopranos" to take on "Nurse Jackie."

And therein lies the genius behind the derivative but still distinguished Greenblatt era at Showtime: He may have recruited a lot of HBO players, but it took a playbook of his own creation to score with them all over again.

If David Nevins, who Showtime announced last week would take over for Greenblatt after seven years as original programming chief, needs a nifty summation of his predecessor's achievements, it's this: he's the man who out-HBOed HBO.

He may not have been cable original programming's biggest success story, but don't underestimate his feat: he summoned the sun into HBO's shadow. He transformed the dynamic of the HBO-Showtime competitive dyad, remaking the network's No. 2 status from the also-ran you pity to the underdog for which you root.

Think Avis-Hertz, though not quite Coke-Pepsi.

To some degree, his success was less his doing than the fleeting undoing of HBO. The waning years of the Chris Albrecht/Carolyn Strauss administration were ones where the network was flying so high its head got lodged in the clouds.

Recall thumbsuckers like "Carnivale" and "John From Cincinnati" and it's tempting to conclude HBO was blinded by its own temporary Midas complex. It's as if the pay channel believed its subscribers would watch anything as long as they slapped the HBO brand on it.

But at the very same time HBO was losing its way, Greenblatt was refining the formula for scripted originals. Premium cable has always worked by mixing the profane and the profound, but it's tricky to figure out the right ratio.

He didn't hit home runs right off; there was an awkward couple of years where "Huff" was passed off the next big thing, but even that forgotten drama got Showtime on Emmy's radar.

No, it wasn't until "Weeds" hit the air that Greenblatt truly refined the formula. The drug-dealer comedy brought together the elements that he learned to bring together again and again: strong, brand-name lead (Mary Louise-Parker), inspired writing (Jenji Kohan), an avoidance of typical TV formatting (half-hour comedy, but not a sitcom) and a premise that indulged Showtime's content liberties (drugs, drugs, drugs).

"Weeds" seemed all the more revelatory when it came out in 2005 because it arrived precisely when TV's comedy tank was running so low that it seemed no one would ever laugh at the medium again. Not an easy time to test the genre.

Greenblatt hasn't exactly avoided comparisons to HBO by casting his shows with HBO castoffs like Hall, Falco and "Weeds'" Parker and Justin Kirk ("Angels in America"). But it's simplistic to say he was imitating HBO wholesale; the Showtime series that followed "Weeds" had a provocative charm that dispensed with the pretensions that suffocated HBO for a while (but that's all over now in the post-"True Blood" era).

What's more about Greenblatt's Showtime series was that they became a destination for talent that may not have been A-list, but to even get the B+-list is a feat on television, where actors primarily known for film once rarely slummed. Boasting Jonathan Rhys-Meyers ("The Tudors") and Toni Collette ( "The United States of Tara"), soon to be followed by Laura Linney ("The Big C") and Jeremy Irons ("The Borgias") is really no small accomplishment, and one where they've beat HBO, which tends to mint stars rather than hire them.

Stop to think how truly amazing it is that someone the caliber of Kevin Spacey is reportedly discussing starring in a Showtime series. This is a guy who can compete for an Oscar were he so inclined.

Greenblatt's success is also impressive when you stop to think about where Showtime was when he came aboard in 2003. The network's original series were these niche-audience magnets like "Queer As Folk" and "Soul Food." If anything, Greenblatt may have moved that needle a bit too far given how insufferably white the current roster of shows is.

That's the beauty of the cable business, where no field is so fallow that a sprout can't spring with the right nurturing. Think of what Lauren Zalaznick has done with original programming at Bravo, or Kevin Reilly back in his FX days, and most recently, Charlie Collier at AMC. If a network owned by Cablevision can engineer a turnaround, reallly and truly anything is possible, right?

But understand just how much Showtime relies on original series, which are really just one arrow in a pretty full quiver at HBO. The genre is really the only leg Showtime has to stand on given the theatricals coming out of the network's pitiful output deals. Had Greenblatt not worked his magic, it's worth wondering whether Showtime would even be in business.