The Wire was between its fourth and fifth seasons. Mad Men had just premiered. The Sopranos was approaching its finale. Rome had just ended after twenty-two episodes. Viewers were still mourning Six Feet Under and the western series Deadwood. If you attended a dinner party sometime in 2007, you might find yourself involved in a discussion about how Baltimore schoolkids can be turned into drug dealers, or how a New York adman’s success could be a measure of how well he had escaped his past. Conversation might proceed to the question of whether “the family” surrounding Tony Soprano could be viewed as a serial Freudian nightmare, or whether the Fisher family’s funeral home in Six Feet Under hadn’t in fact been the locus for a treatise on the meaning of happiness. In the following decade the idea that TV drama could catch the spirit of the age became routine. It wasn’t, after all, a major novel or a hit play that distilled the paranoid nullity of Trumpian ethics, but the show Succession, an encapsulation of dynastic corruption that began airing less than two years into his presidency. All these dramas were produced by HBO except one, Mad Men, which was created by Matthew Weiner, who had just left the company for AMC.
Arguably, television has always been good at describing America to itself. In 1958, the year NASA was founded, seven out of the ten top-rated shows in America were westerns obsessed with the problems of pioneers; by the mid-1980s, when Ronald Reagan was riding high, four of the top ten, led by Dallas and Dynasty, were about feuding wealthy families in shoulder pads. Television was not yet the national theater of America. Many of those shows remained indebted to radio, to two-dimensional melodrama, to clichés and cliff-hangers, with characters who resembled nobody who existed in real life. (Even as recently as Friends: no group of young people ever lived in a New York City apartment like that, and none ever had such hair in the morning.)
In the first season of The Sopranos, on the other hand—in episode 5, to be precise—a new kind of dramatic nuance on television was born, as well as a new kind of realism. Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini), a leading modern mafia figure who is suffering panic attacks and seeing a therapist, takes his daughter to look at colleges in Maine. He is funny, likable, specific, but oddly typical. He spots a guy in a gas station, a rat from his New Jersey neighborhood now living under witness protection. Before the end of the episode, Soprano strangles him to death. Our hero isn’t Raskolnikov and he certainly isn’t Atticus Finch—he’s a manspreading, bottom-pinching, sexist and racist pig—yet he’s energetic and searching, companionable and surprising. That’s character in literature: not a stooge in your reverie of fair play and sound politics, but a creature of his time.
We may have reached the point where a great political speech is not something we necessarily expect from a politician. We expect it from a showrunner. Take the best moment in Aaron Sorkin’s imperfect show for HBO, The Newsroom, when the fictional news anchor Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) is attending a symposium. A sophomore asks a question about why America is the greatest country in the world. “There is absolutely no evidence to support the statement,” McAvoy replies, to consternation.
We’re seventh in literacy, twenty-seventh in math, twenty-second in science, forty-ninth in life expectancy, one-hundred-and-seventy-eighth in infant mortality, third in median household income, number four in labor force, and number four in exports. We lead the world in only three categories: number of incarcerated citizens per capita, number of adults who believe angels are real, and defense spending, where we spend more than the next twenty-six countries combined, twenty-five of whom are allies.
Beginning in the 1990s, producers at HBO didn’t think like ordinary TV people. When they spoke about their work, they often came off like novelists being interviewed for The Paris Review about the verities of their style. Felix Gillette and John Koblin’s It’s Not
TV proves to be a lively companion to all these shows. The authors quote David Simon, the creator of The Wire:
I never looked at The Wire as being a story about Baltimore…. We obviously wrote the specifics of Baltimore into the piece because we knew them. But we could have done that with Pittsburgh, or Cleveland, or St. Louis. I looked at it as a story about postindustrial urbanity—the postmodern problems of city living and self-governance.
(Theodore Dreiser, eat your heart out.)
The Wire subverted the cop show just as The Sopranos subverted the mob drama, but arguably these shows also interrogated character, inflected political anxiety, and promoted a taste for ambivalence in ways that were once chiefly expected of novelists in fine feather. There was a time, not a hundred years ago, when every other person on the train was reading Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead; in 2010 they might have been watching Tom Hanks’s miniseries The Pacific, for which HBO budgeted $200 million. Ted Sarandos, now CEO of Netflix, but back then the executive at the company responsible for licensing content (including HBO content) for its relatively new streaming service, was astounded that HBO thought it could spend so much on one show, and he confronted HBO’s Chris Albrecht, the executive and future CEO responsible for some of these shows, about it. “Sarandos found a moment one day over lunch in Beverly Hills to ask [him] point-blank why on earth he would do such a deal,” write Gillette and Koblin. “‘Because we can,’ Albrecht replied nonchalantly, introducing Sarandos for the first time to the HBO shrug.”
Such confidence altered the industry. “We had the entire Pacific war in the bones of our two characters,” Hanks says in James Andrew Miller’s Tinderbox. It was as if HBO was by that point directing people’s sense of historical character and national story. “We had a screening of the first episode in the White House,” the executive Eric Kessler says. “Right in front of me was Obama, Spielberg, and Hanks and behind was the Joint Chiefs of Staff. I had a feeling of pride and awe.”
Miller tells a tale of “power struggles, creative battles, flagrant jealousy, toxic personalities, cutthroat rivalries, and sheer ambition.” He used the same method a few years ago in a hilarious book about Creative Artists Agency.* This time around the backstabbing players are even more relentless and even less sorry. They undermine one another and shout in one another’s faces and steal one another’s jobs, all in the name of quality or personal gain, in a company where the two had become indistinguishable. HBO executives know how to exterminate a former colleague with as much relish as Darryl Zanuck once smoked a cigar. “He was a chronic bullshitter,” HBO’s leading light Michael Fuchs says of his moderately Machiavellian usurper, Jerry Levin, chairman of Time Warner. “He had no balls…. I finally realized Jerry was good at something, and it was inside fucking manipulation bullshit, like Stalin.”
As a cable start-up in the southern half of Manhattan in the mid-1960s, Home Box Office was initially known for showing old movies and sports. It broadcast Knicks games and began, early on, to encroach on the better boxing matches, but in 1973 it was still showing, for example, the Pennsylvania Polka Festival. It survived by a combination of fake numbers and free turkeys. (Improve your Thanksgiving with access to HBO and a gratis bird.) Subscriptions started to grow. The company scored big with The Rumble in the Jungle and the Thrilla in Manila, marquee boxing events that sold subscriptions, as did music specials (Diana Ross at Caesar’s Palace). HBO had comedy specials and no commercials, and it began to make movies at the time when cable movies were not eligible for Emmys. It gained a reputation as a platform that was hospitable to fairly adult content, unafraid of realistic depictions of violence and sex. “Sex was still a secret in America,” says Sheila Nevins, HBO’s legendary documentaries guru.
To tell the truth, to take risks with story, to speak out: these were the urgencies at the company, all of whose young executives, by the mid-1980s, had both decent budgets and healthy Copernicus complexes. There was fun to be had and they were having it, according to It’s Not TV:
“If you were a young dude in your twenties or thirties, you’d have thought you had died and gone to heaven,” says Dave Baldwin, a boisterous, bearded ex–school librarian who for years ran HBO’s scheduling department. “People back then were either single or about to become single again.” Decades before tech companies in Silicon Valley adopted the technique of throwing over-the-top, celebrity-infused company parties to brand themselves, HBO used its fun-loving reputation to gain a competitive edge.
Yet the big obsession for them all at that time was how to move into original programming in a way no cable operator had managed before. Could they do it? They passed on Roseanne, which was picked up by ABC. “I always wanted to work with Chris [Albrecht] at HBO,” says Roseanne Barr in Tinderbox. “I would’ve gone much deeper with my show. Way more working-class subject matter, and way more about my real life and real-life controversies.” “We weren’t ready for it,” says Fuchs. They hadn’t yet hit their crazy streak or found their novelist’s bent, their taste for reality. And when it came, an actor such as James Gandolfini would be paid over $1 million per episode.
By the second season of The Sopranos, HBO had taken to advertising every episode as if it were a stand-alone movie. “It’s Not TV. It’s HBO” was the famous tagline, which itself got press coverage. The surge in quality had begun with Sex and the City, a new kind of romantic comedy in which HBO’s executives displayed a fresh ethos: they didn’t care about the other networks’ ways of judging success. “At a premiere,” remembers Jeff Bewkes, later the chair of Time Warner (which owned HBO),
Darren [Star, the creator of Sex and the City] did that Hollywood thing, “Hey, how do you like it? The ratings are up.” I said to him, “If you don’t take the ratings down by a third, I’m going to cancel this fucking show. I don’t want ratings. I want a better show…stop explaining jokes.”
Showrunners were encouraged to have their particular vision; in the golden age, they were never drowning in “notes” from the executives. They had no advertisers to complain about racy content, they could run the dramas over many hours and many seasons, and they didn’t have to build in ad-break cliff-hangers, so the entire nature of TV drama changed. Albrecht is said to have given only one note to the creators of Six Feet Under: “Just make it more fucked up.” “You don’t hear that at every network all around town,” says the show’s executive producer, David Janollari.
In a sense, these executives were selling a new ideal of human interest. They were being encouraged by their bosses to make things darker, more libidinal, more surreal. Alan Ball, the creator of Six Feet Under, had previously worked on ABC’s Grace Under Fire and CBS’s Cybill, and he was sick of the usual network routines and the scripts, which were “always the same thing,” according to It’s Not
Make everybody nicer and spell out the subtext. “It was kind of soul deadening,” Ball said…. “I had to sort of unlearn a lot of habits…. You do year after year of network TV and you learn to anticipate the notes.”
Likewise, Terence Winter, who became the showrunner and chief writer on HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, reflects on the absurd experience of having been a writer on syndicated, non-HBO shows such as Flipper: The New Adventures, which was, write Gillette and Koblin,
a 1995 revival of a classic dolphin-centric series, and it proved to be a real challenge. “I don’t think most people realize that there are, organically, only ten stories in the world that involve a dolphin,” Winter said. “When you figure out what those ten stories are and then you’ve still got twelve more episodes…Flipper…has to be involved in a murder?”
So HBO went bigger, deeper, and more “fucked up,” such that plotlines that were expected could seem like a corruption. The end of Sex and the City—Carrie Bradshaw and Mr. Big get together and move back to New York City—felt like a deflation into traditional romantic clichés and empty values. There were obvious tensions on that show—personality clashes, gossip, and toxicity—and it struggled to marry its courage to its convictions. “I think the show ultimately betrayed what it was about, which was that women don’t ultimately find happiness from marriage,” Star said later. “Not that they can’t. But the show initially was going off script from the romantic comedies that had come before it.” And that was always going to be the problem for HBO, especially when Me Too happened. The company made its name on boxing and on sexual content, but by the mid-2000s the people who made its big shows were like auteurs stewing in their own juices. “Like nineteenth-century British novelists or 1970s New Hollywood directors,” write Gillette and Koblin,
the cable TV auteur became in the 2000s a revered figure in popular culture, lionized by the press, piled into syllabi by academia, and readily identifiable by certain distinguishing traits. He was brilliant, garrulous, irascible, literary, foul-mouthed, impassioned, lyrical, excessive, vengeful, self-righteous, and brimming with arcana. He was not just exquisitely good at making TV, but also at talking about it. And, though it was never explicitly stated, he was always a he.
The sense of mission has survived into the current market. “HBO is a bunch of determined individuals,” Miller recently told The Hollywood Reporter,
who are waking up every morning, going to the office and trying to do the best they can to survive in a world that has not been particularly kind to their business model for the past several years. They’re trying to climb Everest on a cold day in their shorts. They’re trying to make sure they’re still relevant despite all the advantages Netflix has in terms of its subscribers, that Apple may have in terms of its money, that Amazon may have in terms of its determination and focus to be a powerful presence…. So I think HBO is an entity that’s fighting for survival.
Yet for all the fun of the corporate tittle-tattle in these books, what really matters about HBO has to do with American storytelling itself. The company has absorbed, if you like, the lessons not only of its successes but of its failures. It might have missed out on Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and House of Cards—it passed on each of these sagas of men behaving badly—yet it responded with a kind of panache to some of the debates it had itself engendered, going on to produce Girls, Big Little Lies, Mare of Easttown, and My Brilliant Friend. An Oscar-nominated film director told me recently that you should wait ten years to make a drama about a political situation, but here is HBO doing it in real time. We watch it to see fiction putting its finger on pulses where the facts seem faint. In defying ideas of “fake news,” HBO seems to say, we might also detect our commitment to “true fiction.”
Lena Dunham’s Girls was a deep comedy in conversation with its times. “For a network to let me basically have Adam [Driver] sexually assault somebody and then continue to be a romantic lead who we care about,” Dunham tells Miller in Tinderbox,
was so important to me. Obviously in life, my values, which I feel [are] really important to assert, are, “Believe women a lot. It’s just black and white.” But I think in film we have to be free to have nuance. I wanted to be able to write people who did things that contradicted other things they did.
There are those, naturally, who won’t root for HBO-style dualities, and who equally hate novels that say contradictory things. “We live in a society,” Dunham continues,
where a woman is not allowed to yell “I’m smart” without terrible consequences…. And how is it possible that Tony Soprano and Walter White are murderers but people hated Hannah and Marnie [from Girls] way more and thought they were worse people? How is it possible that you root for a mafia hitman but you can’t root for a girl who cheated on her boyfriend? That’s the world we live in.
Fiction can be divisive, of course, every narrative subject to correction and renegotiation, in a world in which no truth is a truth for everyone.
The HBO universe is still changing, but as a production force it has come a long way from Pennsylvania Polka. The real challenge for TV is competition with social media. Producing genuine stories—to say nothing of making art—is an expensive struggle, especially when so much of the young audience, raised on TikTok, has an unquenchable desire for free content featuring dancing cats and videos of their schoolmates being kicked in the nuts. “Great television came only from one place,” write Gillette and Koblin. “From listening to artists and supporting their instincts and visions zealously.” Who knew, except television itself perhaps, that the future might be a place where reality could seem less real than its representation? “I gotta watch TV to figure out the world?” asked Paulie Gualtieri of The Sopranos, while trying to explain to his friends how germs are passed.