High drama drives the HBO revolution
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.
The cast of
in New York