This message was driven home again last week, when I (finally) watched the season-ending episode of HBO's "John From Cincinnati." I, like the 27 other Americans who survived the three-month onslaught of "Surfers meet Messiah," couldn't help but wonder where this series -- and HBO -- went wrong.
I've been wracking my brain for years trying to uncover the HBO Formula. When "JFC" flopped, I realized I had a point of reference that might flush out the secret. What made "The Sopranos," "Six Feet Under," and "Big Love" different, and significantly better, than "JFC"?
As background, I was hooked by "The Sopranos" fairly early into the series. At the time I believed that its success was uniquely tied to its superior cast and extended, well-crafted, "Godfather"-like story line.
But then came "Six Feet Under." Different writers, different theme, different cast. I didn't for a moment expect that HBO would capture my valuable DVR space a second time... but they did. When "Big Love" came along, I asked myself in advance: "Can they do it again?" A few episodes in, I realized I was hooked a third time. I began to see a pattern.
The closer I compared the three series, the more I became convinced that the magic HBO Drama Series "Formula" has three main ingredients: 1) A family, 2) an unusual occupation or lifestyle, and 3) 55 uninterrupted minutes, repeated weekly, to get to know the family better.
The genius of the Formula is how it delivers an immediate sense of connectivity with its audience. It's as if HBO recognized that there is something comforting about being welcomed into a new family, which is what effectively happens when one gets sucked into a series like "Big Love." From the onset, each viewer, no matter how diverse, brings with them a familial frame of reference. It's a common, yet unique bond that lets a viewer drop his guard long enough to experience another family's drama unfold before his eyes. We have come to anticipate that each new series will teleport us into the inner sanctum of a new clan -- a journey that, at minimum, will leave most of us appreciating the relative sanity of our own families.
And, as we get to know the story's characters, HBO's Formula quickly exposes us to some unusual trait about our new acquaintances. They're mobsters. Or undertakers. Or polygamists. But, if they stay true to the Formula, after an episode or two of uninterrupted, quality time, we find ourselves becoming less judgmental. More curious. More willing to forgive. Or at least more willing to see things from both sides. It's as if these characters have become... family.
The final ingredient that HBO exploits so well is the lack of commercial interruption of any kind, insuring that we get entirely immersed in the story for a meaningful period of time. You can watch a full hour of nonstop drama and, when it's over, you can experience that same feeling you get when you walk out of a movie theater in the middle of the day. It's a blinding, even euphoric disorientation that let's you know you've been somewhere else -- even though you never left your seat. In many respects, the HBO Formula is superior to a blockbuster movie. A movie provides a brief, two-hour interlude, where a successful HBO series weaves its weekly storyline into our very lives.
So, now that I understand the Formula better, I've reached the conclusion that John should have stayed in Cincinnati, and allowed the story line to linger more on the Yosts. It's not that John didn't add an interesting element to the show; it's just that he wasn't family, and that's where I think the Formula was abandoned. We didn't get the chance to become part of the family. Viewers were forced to spend too much time trying to decipher John's cryptic, nonsensical gibberish. In a strange way, it was reminiscent of "Lost "- eventually, the story got overshadowed by the illusive message that never became clear.
Which leads me to today's reader poll: Since HBO announced that it will not be renewing "JFC," what unique family setting do YOU think HBO should use as a storyline for its next blockbuster series?