High drama drives the HBO revo­lu­tion

The Weekend Australian - Review - - BOOKS - Richard Fer­gu­son

The HBO Ef­fect By Dean J. DeFino Blooms­bury, 245 pages, $27.99 ANY old gam­bit will do when you’re writ­ing about pop­u­lar cul­ture. The HBO Ef­fect be­gins with a Christ­mas bauble. In­spired by a So­pra­nos or­na­ment he bought, Dean J. DeFino in­quires why HBO — the ca­ble mono­lith be­hind hits from Sex and the City to True De­tec­tive — has had such an im­pact on the way we watch, pro­duce and think about tele­vi­sion. He con­sid­ers how HBO’s shows be­came so suc­cess­ful, with their mer­chan­dise sit­ting along­side Darth Vader and Santa Claus. Imag­ine Tony So­prano — an all too cred­i­ble hu­man monster — plopped on top of your Christ­mas tree.

This book is an am­bi­tious at­tempt to come to terms with the HBO phe­nom­e­non. From the sta­tion’s gen­e­sis in Richard Nixon’s Amer­ica to its dom­i­nance in the age of Barack Obama, DeFino seeks to un­der­stand why HBO con­tin­u­ally suc­ceeds where so many oth­ers fail.

The tagline “It’s Not TV, It’s HBO” is put un­der the mi­cro­scope. Once upon a time, this claim would have rung true be­cause pay­ing for tele­vi­sion was for­eign enough to make the viewer ex­pect some­thing spe­cial. Now we watch shows on phones and lap­tops. Ev­ery chan­nel has some sort of on­line ser­vice, and those that don’t suf­fer from the scourge of il­le­gal down­loads ( Game of Thrones was Aus­tralia’s top TV steal last year).

There re­ally has been a par­a­digm shift. It now seems nat­u­ral to watch hours of TV in one sit­ting. You may have de­voted days of your life to Rome or The Wire in the largest con­tin­u­ous chunks you can man­age, the way you read a grip­ping novel. DeFino re­veals how HBO not only changed TV but also its view­ers in a way no one could have fore­seen.

HBO’s birth in 1972 is one of the weird and won­der­ful sto­ries in TV his­tory. Search­ing for what DeFino calls a “com­mu­ni­ca­tions utopia”, groups as di­verse as the hip­pie think tank the Rain­bow Cor­po­ra­tion and the Nixon ad­min­is­tra­tion were look­ing to ca­ble as the next fron­tier in the US’s Cold War tech­nol­ogy race. In the midst of this was a Cleve­land sports-reel pro­ducer named Charles Dolan, who dreamed of start­ing up a sub­scrip­tion-only chan­nel. Dolan’s dream would grow into an em­pire en­com­pass­ing qual­ity drama, edgy com­edy and es­sen­tial sports pro­gram­ming. DeFino tells the tale like the dili­gent his­to­rian he is: it’s dry at times but show­cases the raw am­bi­tion and chutz­pah that made Dolan a TV demi-god.

Risk is the buzz­word in DeFino’s the­sis. HBO’s great­est strength is an abil­ity “to see op­por­tu­nity where oth­ers see threat”. This is the chan­nel that made mil­lions in­tro­duc­ing the world to potty-mouthed yet pro­found comic ge­niuses Ge­orge Car­lin and Richard Pryor. It’s the chan­nel that to­day has turned young stu­dent film­maker Lena Dun­ham (cre­ator of Girls) into a global su­per­star.

A love of TV comes through in DeFino’s work, and he glo­ri­fies the bound­aries HBO has crossed: the nude scenes, the four-let­ter words, the gritty re­al­ism, the so­phis­ti­ca­tion. He il­lu­mi­nates the way in which HBO’s multi-an­gled pre­sen­ta­tion chal­lenges our per­cep­tion of the world, and in do­ing so our sense of the moral com­pass of tele­vi­sion.

It’s a shame DeFino is un­will­ing to take the same risks as his sub­ject. His writ­ing tips too of­ten into cliche and his crit­i­cism brings lit­tle that is new to an old con­ver­sa­tion. He de­clares a bit ob­vi­ously that Tony So­prano’s pop­u­lar­ity lies in the fact he’s “some­one we re­late to, even like” de­spite his crimes.

I also wish DeFino hadn’t rel­e­gated the dis­cus­sion of women and shows such as Sex and the City to the girly chap­ter. A strik­ing as­pect of HBO is it makes their par­tic­u­lar worlds (young women in Girls, the first fe­male vice-pres­i­dent in Veep) cen­tral with­out ex­pect­ing only one spe­cific au­di­ence to em­brace it. Women and men are in­ter­ested in these shows be­cause they are about women, not de­spite the fact. These fe­male-cen­tric shows stand with the best of HBO’s canon and DeFino shouldn’t have con­fined them to one chap­ter.

HBO changed what TV drama means. The HBO Ef­fect re­flects this fact and has at least the virtue of giv­ing the punter some­thing to ar­gue with. But HBO has changed the way we imag­ine the world. We’re dodg­ing drag­ons in Games of Thrones, we’re en­thralled with the rep­til­ian politi­cian in Veep. No won­der it’s hard for the crit­ics to keep up.


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