In terms of original series, pay-cable giant HBO seemed to be drifting a bit after a golden period in which its schedule included “The Sopranos,” “Sex and the City,” “Six Feet Under” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” Beginning in the late Nineties and continuing into the early years of the 2000s, the first three series in particular impacted popular culture in ways that nothing on broadcast and basic cable seemed able to do. This was a rather remarkable achievement, considering that HBO subscribers comprise a relatively modest percentage of American television homes.
Once “Sopranos,” “Sex” and “Six” ran their course, however, HBO suddenly seemed somewhat subdued. (Note: “Curb Your Enthusiasm” may not yet have ended its run. My understanding is that its eventual continuation in any form has been left up to Larry David, its creator, executive producer and star. Let’s hope he has another season or two in him.) HBO was no less ambitious or adventurous with its original series programming, and certainly not with its movies, but nothing seemed to cross over in the way that the “big three” once had. Dramas like “Treme,” “Boardwalk Empire” and “The Newsroom” proved to have legs but never became pop-culture phenomena in the modern HBO tradition. “The Wire,” widely regarded by critics as one of the finest series in television history, never found the broad audience that it deserved. Certain impressive efforts such as “Rome,” Carnivale” and “Tell Me You Love Me” didn’t take off. A slew of original comedy series -- “How to Make It in America,” “Bored to Death” and “Enlightened” among them -- never even worked as niche novelties. Only “True Blood” seemed like a genuine outsize HBO success.
Compounding the content concerns at HBO was the sudden ascension of its pay-cable rival Showtime, which in recent years has scored with such extraordinary original series as “Dexter,” “Homeland,” “Nurse Jackie,” “Episodes” and, more recently, “The Borgias,” “Masters of Sex” and “Ray Donovan.” (I’m not ready to put the fascinating but somewhat scattered “Penny Dreadful” on this list, a decision I may be willing to reconsider in the future.)
But then along came “Game of Thrones” and “Veep” and “Girls” and “True Detective” and “Silicon Valley” and all of a sudden HBO is back at the top, casting its shadow over an ever-widening television and streaming entertainment landscape. As I ponder which series and performers deserve special attention this year from voting members of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences I find that someone or something from HBO figures prominently in all of the top drama and comedy categories -- and could very likely win in most of them. (This is also true of Showtime’s many fine series.)
“Game of Thrones” -- a program known more for earning awards nominations than for actually winning them -- has become HBO’s highest-rated original series. Millions of people can’t get enough of its signature murder, madness and mayhem -- and the more bloody and brutal the better. On a technical level alone, “Thrones” is a masterpiece, with virtually every episode looking and sounding like an hour-long feature film, all the while providing deeper engagement and greater thrills than almost anything one might see at the nearest multiplex.
There is a palpable stillness in the air after last night’s Season Four finale, which always bodes well for a television series. The thrill of it all has slammed into the realization that there will be no more of it until sometime next year.
One of the primary challengers the certain to be nominated “Thrones” will face in this year’s Emmy race will be the HBO drama “True Detective,” arguably a miniseries that has been re-classified as a drama series for awards consumption. “True Detective” seemed to come out of nowhere earlier this year and then had the good fortune to ride the wave of star Matthew McConaughey’s success with the feature film “Dallas Buyer’s Club.”
On the comedy front, “Girls” continues to make noise -- and remains a media favorite even though its audience appears to have leveled off, if not declined. (Who can really tell these days with the ways in which people consume television?) But “Veep” is in every way a growing success and is proving to be one of those comedies that get better with every passing season. And “Silicon Valley” -- each episode of which becomes even more entertaining with repeat viewings -- has to be acknowledged as the best new comedy of the year.
HBO’s next offering -- the science-fiction thriller “The Leftovers,” from popular show-runner and buzz-generator Damon Lindelof -- should keep this renewed momentum going, though all the dog killing could be a turn-off. You’ll see.