Friday, December 23, 2011


How many of you know the story about how close "Taxi," came to being on HBO? It's true. After ABC dropped the series, there was a bidding war between the other networks, and to many people's surprise, HBO made an offer. According to legend, James L. Brooks called Marilu Henner when the offer was made informing her that if we end up on HBO, the first shot was going to be of your bare breasts, so everybody knows that we're on HBO. It ended up on NBC, for what eventually became its final season. HBO was trying to get into the sitcom world, even then. In fact, if there's one thing other then violence and nudity that cable is known for, it's comedy. The biggest hit on HBO, when it first started airing was "Blazing Saddles," which they would show uncut. There's nothing graphic in the movie per se, it's a zany Mel Brooks comedy, but you couldn't see it on TV. Anybody remember what HBO's first original show was? It was a sitcom? It was "Dream On", great show, one of my favorites, and in its own way, a wonderful backhanded slap to basic TV. It revolved around a character who spent most of his life watching TV, and so, as he went along on his normal life, which for HBO contained its fair share of adult language and sex, he would constantly be recalling old footage from those old TV shows and movies he grew up on. Hell, Seth McFarland could probably be sued for stealing that for,...well, everything he's ever done.

It stayed on the air for awhile too. Most cable shows did, 'cause ratings weren't much of a concern, nobody knew they were even there. . Who cared if "Silk Stalkings," lost to "Sportscenter," they weren't competing anyway. Granted a lot of those shows weren't great, particularly the dramas, but there was the creative freedom, so that even the few viewers the shows got, they would keep airing them. Go ahead, name somebody you know who never missed an episode of "Arli$$"? You can't do it, can you? It was on HBO for six years though, and it was pretty funny I might add. So was "Duckman," and "Dr. Katz: Professional Therapist," so was "Beavis and Butt-Head" for that matter, "Not Necessarily the News," "Mystery Science Theatre 3000," "Reno 911", so was AMC's first show, also a sitcom "Remember WENN", (and you probably don't) and even occasionally a show like "The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd," would get a second life on Cable after being cancelled by a big network. Whether it was Nick at Nite reruns, or experimental programs that were never gonna work on Basic TV, Comedy is a real cornerstone of Cable, and has been for years. Yeah, it's still very much the domain of the Basic networks, but boundary-pushing and creative freedom was on Cable. Yet, that's suddenly changed.

Earlier this week, HBO cancelled both "Hung," and "Bored to Death," after just three season each, (They also cancelled "How to Make It in America," after just two, but I haven't even seen that one yet.) in order to make room for more drama series, including Aaron Sorkin's highly-anticipated "Newsroom." Last month, I was equally caught off-guard by news that Showtime was cancelling "The United States of Tara," after just three seasons. These weren't the first strikes against comedy on cable either. When last years Emmys nominees came out, I was struck by the fact that not a single Best Comedy Series nomination went to a show on cable. It was the 2nd time in 20 years that that had occurred. In fact, while it actually did get a lot of nominees in other major categories, acting, writing, and directing, nothing on Cable actually won any of them. Meanwhile, on the dramatic side, Cable roared. (I'm going to count DirecTV as Cable for this article.) Only "The Good Wife," got nominated for Best Drama Series for Basic televison, while Cable ran the rest of the category. (And "Breaking Bad," wasn't eligible last year, that might have made it sweep the category) In fact, in order to find a year where there wasn't a cable show nominated in the Drama category, you have to go back to '98, the year before "The Sopranos," first got nominated. There were a few notable cable dramas before then, "Oz," for instance, "Avonlea," won a few Awards, but now, it's become abundantly clear now that drama is the domain of cable. If I named my favorite TV dramas right now, I don't think I'd even name a Basic show in the Top Ten, (Maybe "House," is in my Top Ten, but that might be it).

Is it that black and white though? It feels like it. For drama, you watch Cable, and for Comedy, you stick with Basic. What happened, here, did comedy go backwards? Has Cable just given up on sitcoms? Has Basic, given up on Drama, or is Cable on focusing so much on Drama? I think something else is going on, and not simply a shift into focusing on genre-specific programming. That's bad enough for cable to be getting into this now, especially since that's been the big problem with basic recently, but now suddenly their seems to be another factor in determining what shows stay on Cable and what doesn't. Yep, you guessed it, ratings.

This is a new phenomenon for Cable, they're not expected to get good ratings. Ratings have kept bad cable shows on the air longer than they should have ("Burn Notice," exhibit A) and now, they're costing great TV shows to end way too early. Sure, some quality shows have fallen into what's sometimes referred to as the "Brilliant But Cancelled," category before, "The Comeback," for instance, but never at this rate. When did all this start happening? If ever a show on cable got good ratings, it was consider an anamoly, and even then, were not talking breaking into the Neilsen's ratings. The first big critical and commercial hit comedy was "The Larry Sanders Show." I happen to be catching up on that show on Netflix Watch Instantly recently. It won 3 Emmy Awards, and was the first to recieve a Best Series nomination, which it's got nominated for every season it was on the air, but it was never a ratings hit. Never even came close to breaking the Top 20. It wasn't much of a concern to begin with however, it wasn't competing against anything. Even today, Basic measures its schedule against other Basic channels. (Hey, reruns of "Family Guy," on Cartoon Network brought that show back from the dead, it was getting three times the ratings of Leno & Letterman, and nobody cared until Conan's was losing ratings in the spot).

Actually, let me redefine here: By ratings, I don't mean Nielsen's. I normally do, and they're of consideration for most Cable channels 'cause they determine advertising rates, (as well as them being the best approximation number we can use until somebody invents something better, [Please let that be soon]) but by ratings, I mean, a runaway culture-shifting hit! Ask somebody to name a show from the '90s, they'll probably not name "The Larry Sanders Show"; they're more likely to say "Seinfeld," "Friends," or "Home Improvement," maybe. I don't think anybody would name a cable show, as a pop culture example of what people were watching on TV at that time. That is, until "Sex and the City." That show was a cultural smash. It's still a cultural smash. They've made two movies (unnecessaries movies) since the series finale of the show, and there's even a show in the works based on the Carrie Bradshaw character as a high schooler. It's the first cable series to win the Best Comedy Emmy. I wrote a blog on the show recently myself. (I was asking for it to die, but, it was a fan of the show, who wanted to let it be) But what are the qualities of the show that make it stick out. It's a female perspective on sex, that wasn't unusual per se, but never in such graphic detail before. It's funny and smart, like a lot of shows on cable. Risque, that's not new. It's was stylish, that was new. It existed in a different kind of universe than any show before it, except maybe "That Girl," but that show didn't have women who weren't looking to get married, and dating around. Does that make it a success? It's interesting, that it has all of that, but it's hardly a unique that I could claim as it's reason for popularity. I can't even claim that it was good, and that's why it was a hit, there's plenty of good shows getting cancelled now for not being hits. My theory, personally, the title. The show was called "Sex and the City," and it delivered both. It had sex, and it had the City, New York. I think that caught everyone's eye first, and then people saw all those other things in it after watching it. (I have the same theory as to why "Dirty Dancing," was popular, although I never thought it lived up to the "Dirty" part, but, that's a different blog).

Whatever it was that made "Sex and the City," a smash cultural hit, I don't know, but it was. There've been others since big hits since "Sex and the City." "Entourage," "Curb Your Enthusiam," "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia," "Monk," "Weeds," but none of them are as big as "Sex and the City". No comedy anyway. After "Sex and the City," Cable's biggest hit show was "The Sopranos." Both shows came out around the same time, and have made HBO and have since set the standard for original cable programming, even today. I'll allow you guys to make your own list of the details of the show that distinguish it, I'm sure nearly everybody could, but it was a smash Pop Culture hit. The difference being is that now, there's a few cable dramas that have equaled it's pop culture importance. "Mad Men," "Dexter," "Breaking Bad," "The Shield," "The Wire," "Boardwalk Empire," "True Blood," all can be argued being as big as "The Sopranos," is/was.

So, drama is bigger right now, and the comedies, aren't a priority. Plain and simple. Is that Cable's fault for getting popular? Maybe, but comedy on Cable is still around. In fact, "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia," on FX, is currently the longest-running live-action scripted series on TV right now. It's been on nine seasons, and it's very popular, and very funny. FX, in fact has actually been working on inventive comedies. "Louie," "The League," "Wilfred," and the animated series "Archer," have become cult and critical hits in recent years, and each has gotten their own cultural fanbase themselves. TVLand is doing original comedies too, "Hot in Cleveland," being the most noteworthy,  and they're stepping out and purposefully trying to remake old-style three-camera sitcoms, and I did mention many Cable comedies did get Emmy nomination this past year in other categories. "Nurse Jackie," "The Big C," "Episodes," "Louie," and "Hot in Cleveland," they snuck into acting and writing categories. Laura Dern's new show "Enlightened," just got a couple Golden Globe nominations as well. I'm not sure what that show's about, but "Nurse Jackie," "The Big C," and let's see, "The United States of Tara," and "Hung," if I described those show to you, you might not think they were comedies. One's about a pill-addicted nurse, another is about a mother dying of cancer, another is about a mother with DID, multiple-personalities syndrome, and the fourth is about a teacher that becomes a male escort. "Weeds," sounds like a drama, a parent who starts to sell drugs, "Breaking Bad," has almost the same description, and that's unquestionably a drama. But now I'm getting into another area, are these shows, actually funny? Yes, they are, but... some would say they don't exactly make you laugh. "United States of Tara," creator Diablo Cody herself, describes her show as a "Tragicomedy". Along with the creative freedom cable provides, they've in turn, have begun taking a lot of chances on these shows that, one wouldn't exactly call laugh-out-loud comedies. My argument would be, well, neither is most of "The Merchant of Venice," but it's still a comedy, just happens to be about anti-semitism and greed, and probably a few other things. That's not gonna make people watch a show, knowing Laura Linney is gonna die at the end however. The shows that are laugh-out-loud are on basic right now, and frankly on top of comedies on cable because, they're  not only are becoming more LOL, but they've also become far more experimental and have gained a surprising amount of creative freedom in the past few years, and yet, they've still been broad LOL comedies. Sure, you can't say shit, fuck and asshole on cable, but, they say it on basic TV shows now too, when it's appropriate, they just bleep it out. "Arrested Development," "Family Guy," "The Office," "Parks and Recreation," "30 Rock," hell the first episode of "Up All Night," included at least five or six uses of the F-word, followed by some discussion on how they should start watching their language more, and then more uses of the F-word. Nudity is edited out and occurring more often, it's the same material as cable basically, but it's not censored, instead its edited. Something that Basic TV has to live with. Used to be, that would never make it on the air to begin with, now it's more common. Also more common, using different creative tools to tell the half-hour story of a sitcom. "How I Met Your Mother," uses sets with a three-camera setup and a single-camera for aberrations, like "30 Rock," and "Happy Endings," does, and plays with flashback and time like "Raising Hope". "The Office," "Parks and Recreation," and "Modern Family," have used mockumentary to add realism  to shows that might otherwise seem more traditionally sitcomish, (Especially so of "Modern Family") Animated shows, have an unlimited amount of freedom, and use self-referential comedy, which is more accepted now than ever. Hell, "Glee," is a frickin' musical every week. History had showed that that was never going to work on TV. Well, I'd argue it still hasn't, but I can't argue with it's ratings and popularity. Like it or not, it's a pop culture smash, the way "Sex and the City," was.

There's still some LOL comedies on Cable, but fewer than I think most of us would prefer, but on the same token, there's also comedies on Basic that don't make anybody laugh too, unfortunately. ("The Middle," "Rules of Engagement," "Mike & Molly," etc.) But clearly, comedy reigns creatively supreme on Basic right now, and it's not looking like that's changing in the near future, but it will change again. I also expect Dramas to eventually catch up on Basic TV too. There's still only two Dramas from Cable that have won the Best Drama Emmy, "Mad Men," and "The Sopranos," and that's despite the dominance Cable drama in recent years. Comedy got better on one, drama got better on the other, there's no reason it won't switch again in a few years. But I expect more out of cable. No matter how good Basic is, they still have to live and die by the Nielsen ratings, Cable doesn't. They don't need to cancel because of bad ratings. They never used to, and HBO and Showtime they really don't need to, they don't even have advertising that needs to be budgeted. And it's not like the old days, where shows needed to survive year-to-year either, shows survive on DVDs now, and many short-lived series from the past, are just now finding the recognition and fan support they deserved. Sure, I don't have a problem occasionally cancelling shows that are doing absolutely terrible in ratings, or even a show that was just bad. You're not doing that now though, and it's a little scary. Shows on cable often had the freedom to end on their own terms, before, drama and comedy. "The Larry Sanders Show," "Sex and the City," "The Sopranos," "Six Feet Under," recently, "Big Love," "Entourage," whenever Larry David finally makes a call about ending "Curb Your Enthusiam," it'll be his call, not HBO's; I'll bet money on that one now, "Tell Me You Love Me," had a second season renewal, creator Cynthia Mort, backed out it herself, that one wasn't your fault? Shows can last forever now, online downloads, DVDs, Blu-Rays..., you have a right to let them continue or end as the show(s) see fit. Like HBO's motto says, you're not TV! They can keep going, or quit on their own, or even come to a mutual decision, without any regard to who's watching it at that minute, that's why we love Cable. I mentioned one of those new shows that in development to replace some of these cancelled series, Aaron Sorkin's show "Newsroom". He's the best writer in Hollywood, with five Emmys for the "The West Wing," one of the greatest of all TV shows, and an Oscar for "The Social Network". He's also had two TV series cancelled before they should've been, "Sports Night," and "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip," and I can't help but notice that like "Newsroom," they both take place in the behind-the-scenes of of a television program. "30 Rock," has proven that a show can take place there and have decent ratings and critical acclaim. If "Newsroom," after two seasons gets the same ratings as "Sports Night," and "Studio 60..." did, are you gonna cancel "Newsroom" too? I used to think, if only those shows were on cable, they'd be around longer, and they'd find the audience that would've appreciated how good they were. I'm excited, and looking forward, to the show, but because of your recent actions, I'm not so sure now of that assumption anymore.

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