Sep 28, 2021
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How HBO saved television

Around the turn of the century, something important happened in the American television industry. The cable TV networks, which had previously offered a simple diet of films and live sporting events, moved away from those staples and began commissioning edgy original dramas instead. The result? A decade-long golden age for the form.

Unfettered by powerful advertisers and the rules governing mainstream competitors CBS, NBC and ABC, the programmes these channels made were real, profane, bawdy, often violent. Critics took note. So did viewers.

The change in direction was driven by pragmatism and the promise of financial return. But its defining characteristic was a willingness to take risks and push boundaries with shows that had no other unifying element beyond great writing and long, complex story arcs.

Chief among these Medicis of the digital era was HBO. Encouraged by its patronage (and aided by a sixfold increase in its drama budget) David Chase created mob drama The Sopranos in 1999. It ran for eight years and six seasons. In 2001, Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks co-produced epic Second World War mini-series Band Of Brothers. In the same year, Oscar-winning American Beauty writer Alan Ball created Six Feet Under, a family saga set in the funeral business, complete with ghosts and gay cops.

Then, in 2002, a critical moment: former journalist David Simon recast his NBC show Homicide: Life On The Street as The Wire. It ran for six years and five seasons on HBO and is now widely regarded as the most accomplished TV drama series ever. In its densely peopled and multi-layered portrayal of a social milieu, it has even been compared to the collected works of Dickens.

The major networks, by now convinced that there was an appetite for intelligent and complex TV drama, entered the market with shows like Lost (ABC) and Heroes (NBC) and threw resources at ongoing series such as The West Wing (also NBC).

The forward momentum these shows provided continues today as a new generation of intelligent, up-market dramas glides across the screen: 1920s gangster series Boardwalk Empire, for instance, David Simon’s new show Treme, and The Pacific, Spielberg’s 10-part follow-up to Band Of Brothers.

Former boxer Jon Seda plays one of The Pacific’s three leads, Sgt John Basilone. It’s his most prominent role to date, though his first real acting break came playing a detective in Homicide: Life On The Street. For him, it was HBO that “changed everything” on the American dramatic landscape.

“They’re not as limited as regular television networks, they’re willing to take on different projects and they’re not afraid to go deeper,” he says. “Because of them, you now have cable networks like USA and TNT and FX following in their wake”.

In a few weeks, Seda will team up with Simon once more when he joins the cast of Treme, set in post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans. Shooting on the second season begins next month. Seda will play a “politically-connected venture capitalist” from Dallas who sees opportunities to be had (and money to be made) from exploiting the grants available for the rebuilding process. “He’s a good guy, and what he’s doing isn’t illegal but it’s not morally correct,” he explains.

In other words it’s another of those morally ambiguous roles Simon specialises in and which American television drama does so well.

“As an actor you always want something you’re going to be able to sink your teeth into,” Seda agrees. “I’m in a perfect scenario now with Treme. It’s a critically acclaimed show, it’s by David Simon and Eric Overmeyer, who I’ve worked with in the past, who I respect and who write incredible stories. That’s not to say you can’t find those things on the [mainstream] networks, but if I’m going to be on TV I’d want it to be something on HBO.

Of course, HBO isn’t the only player. Following the success of The Sopranos, other cable networks piled in with their own original dramas – Fox, for instance, who brought frantic spy thriller 24 to the small screen in 2001 and only finished it off this year, 192 episodes later.

But if The Wire and The Sopranos have an heir, it’s Mad Men. Set in a Madison Avenue advertising agency in the 1960s, it was first broadcast on the AMC network in 2007 and was created by former Sopranos writer Matthew Weiner. It has won the Golden Globe for best TV series for the last three years, a record run.

Emboldened by Mad Men’s success, AMC has since produced black comedy Breaking Bad, complex political thriller Rubicon (soon to be seen on BBC4) and post-apocalyptic zombie drama The Walking Dead, which premieres tonight in the US and in the UK next week.

The star of Rubicon is Jon Seda’s Pacific co-star James Badge Dale. As well as his role as Robert Leckie in The Pacific, he’s best known for playing Chase Edmunds in the third series of 24. In Rubicon he plays an intelligence analyst lost in a baffling political conspiracy.

“He’s another tortured guy,” he laughs. “Robert Leckie was fighting for his life and to keep his connection with people. The guy I play in Rubicon has already lost that. He’s walked away from it and I don’t know if he wants to get it back.”

For Badge Dale, the format of The Pacific – epic but not open-ended – is the perfect marriage of cinema and television. “I like the mini-series genre and I hope it continues. I know people stay away from them for financial reasons, but I think there’s great stories to be told,” he says.

One person who isn’t staying away from them is David Chase. Last year he announced details of a new project called A Ribbon Of Dreams, a mini-series about the birth of Hollywood. Nobody was surprised to learn it will screen on HBO.

The Walking Dead is based on a cult comic book, Rubicon on 1970s thrillers like The Parallax View, and The Pacific on a real-life memoirs. But what the best of the rest of the cable network dramas resemble more than anything else is literature – in particular, the sprawling, episodic novels of the 19th century (witness the comparison between The Wire and Dickens) and the work of 20th-century writers such as John Cheever, whose short stories were a major influence on Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner.

It’s no surprise, then, that many top American writers are themselves now queuing up to work in television. “TV is the best place to be as a writer,” Alan Ball has said. “It’s really a writer’s medium”. For veteran crime novelist George Pelecanos, meanwhile, working as a scriptwriter on The Wire alongside fellow novelist Dennis Lehane and august Hollywood scriptwriter Richard Price was like going to “writing school”.

So what does all this mean for British television and British drama? On the plus side, it means we get to enjoy shows like Mad Men and The Wire, though it also demonstrates that we don’t have it all our own way when it comes to producing high-quality drama any more.

Brian Lowry, TV critic with US entertainment bible Variety, may praise Rubicon for feeling like a “British limited-run” series, but the days when we could expect the Americans to coo over Lark Rise To Candleford are long gone. Now they have historical “costume dramas” of their own in the form of Deadwood, The Pacific, Mad Men and award-winning 18th-century epic John Adams. And – whisper it – their costume dramas are actually better than ours.

Until now The Sopranos, The Wire and Mad Men have all been available on the UK’s Freeview channels, as have many other fine US dramas. But Sky recently inked a deal with HBO and AMC to supply shows to its new channel, Sky Atlantic, which launches early next year. The subscription-based satellite broadcaster has landed Treme and Boardwalk Empire, and has snatched the rights to all future series of Mad Men from the BBC. It’s a significant loss for the corporation, but one which illustrates the continued appeal of the best US television – and the value now placed on it.

So when will this golden age end? Hard to say, though increasingly the depth of our pockets will have a bearing on its availability. Still, there’s always the DVD box set.

Mad Men is on BBC4 on Wednesdays; The Walking Dead begins on FX on Friday; Rubicon screens on BBC4 next year. Sky Atlantic will launch in the New Year

Source: Herald Scotland

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Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Front Page, Industry News

How HBO saved television

Around the turn of the century, something important happened in the American television industry. The cable TV networks, which had previously offered a simple diet of films and live sporting events, moved away from those staples and began commissioning edgy original dramas instead. The result? A decade-long golden age for the form.

Unfettered by powerful advertisers and the rules governing mainstream competitors CBS, NBC and ABC, the programmes these channels made were real, profane, bawdy, often violent. Critics took note. So did viewers.

The change in direction was driven by pragmatism and the promise of financial return. But its defining characteristic was a willingness to take risks and push boundaries with shows that had no other unifying element beyond great writing and long, complex story arcs.

Chief among these Medicis of the digital era was HBO. Encouraged by its patronage (and aided by a sixfold increase in its drama budget) David Chase created mob drama The Sopranos in 1999. It ran for eight years and six seasons. In 2001, Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks co-produced epic Second World War mini-series Band Of Brothers. In the same year, Oscar-winning American Beauty writer Alan Ball created Six Feet Under, a family saga set in the funeral business, complete with ghosts and gay cops.

Then, in 2002, a critical moment: former journalist David Simon recast his NBC show Homicide: Life On The Street as The Wire. It ran for six years and five seasons on HBO and is now widely regarded as the most accomplished TV drama series ever. In its densely peopled and multi-layered portrayal of a social milieu, it has even been compared to the collected works of Dickens.

The major networks, by now convinced that there was an appetite for intelligent and complex TV drama, entered the market with shows like Lost (ABC) and Heroes (NBC) and threw resources at ongoing series such as The West Wing (also NBC).

The forward momentum these shows provided continues today as a new generation of intelligent, up-market dramas glides across the screen: 1920s gangster series Boardwalk Empire, for instance, David Simon’s new show Treme, and The Pacific, Spielberg’s 10-part follow-up to Band Of Brothers.

Former boxer Jon Seda plays one of The Pacific’s three leads, Sgt John Basilone. It’s his most prominent role to date, though his first real acting break came playing a detective in Homicide: Life On The Street. For him, it was HBO that “changed everything” on the American dramatic landscape.

“They’re not as limited as regular television networks, they’re willing to take on different projects and they’re not afraid to go deeper,” he says. “Because of them, you now have cable networks like USA and TNT and FX following in their wake”.

In a few weeks, Seda will team up with Simon once more when he joins the cast of Treme, set in post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans. Shooting on the second season begins next month. Seda will play a “politically-connected venture capitalist” from Dallas who sees opportunities to be had (and money to be made) from exploiting the grants available for the rebuilding process. “He’s a good guy, and what he’s doing isn’t illegal but it’s not morally correct,” he explains.

In other words it’s another of those morally ambiguous roles Simon specialises in and which American television drama does so well.

“As an actor you always want something you’re going to be able to sink your teeth into,” Seda agrees. “I’m in a perfect scenario now with Treme. It’s a critically acclaimed show, it’s by David Simon and Eric Overmeyer, who I’ve worked with in the past, who I respect and who write incredible stories. That’s not to say you can’t find those things on the [mainstream] networks, but if I’m going to be on TV I’d want it to be something on HBO.

Of course, HBO isn’t the only player. Following the success of The Sopranos, other cable networks piled in with their own original dramas – Fox, for instance, who brought frantic spy thriller 24 to the small screen in 2001 and only finished it off this year, 192 episodes later.

But if The Wire and The Sopranos have an heir, it’s Mad Men. Set in a Madison Avenue advertising agency in the 1960s, it was first broadcast on the AMC network in 2007 and was created by former Sopranos writer Matthew Weiner. It has won the Golden Globe for best TV series for the last three years, a record run.

Emboldened by Mad Men’s success, AMC has since produced black comedy Breaking Bad, complex political thriller Rubicon (soon to be seen on BBC4) and post-apocalyptic zombie drama The Walking Dead, which premieres tonight in the US and in the UK next week.

The star of Rubicon is Jon Seda’s Pacific co-star James Badge Dale. As well as his role as Robert Leckie in The Pacific, he’s best known for playing Chase Edmunds in the third series of 24. In Rubicon he plays an intelligence analyst lost in a baffling political conspiracy.

“He’s another tortured guy,” he laughs. “Robert Leckie was fighting for his life and to keep his connection with people. The guy I play in Rubicon has already lost that. He’s walked away from it and I don’t know if he wants to get it back.”

For Badge Dale, the format of The Pacific – epic but not open-ended – is the perfect marriage of cinema and television. “I like the mini-series genre and I hope it continues. I know people stay away from them for financial reasons, but I think there’s great stories to be told,” he says.

One person who isn’t staying away from them is David Chase. Last year he announced details of a new project called A Ribbon Of Dreams, a mini-series about the birth of Hollywood. Nobody was surprised to learn it will screen on HBO.

The Walking Dead is based on a cult comic book, Rubicon on 1970s thrillers like The Parallax View, and The Pacific on a real-life memoirs. But what the best of the rest of the cable network dramas resemble more than anything else is literature – in particular, the sprawling, episodic novels of the 19th century (witness the comparison between The Wire and Dickens) and the work of 20th-century writers such as John Cheever, whose short stories were a major influence on Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner.

It’s no surprise, then, that many top American writers are themselves now queuing up to work in television. “TV is the best place to be as a writer,” Alan Ball has said. “It’s really a writer’s medium”. For veteran crime novelist George Pelecanos, meanwhile, working as a scriptwriter on The Wire alongside fellow novelist Dennis Lehane and august Hollywood scriptwriter Richard Price was like going to “writing school”.

So what does all this mean for British television and British drama? On the plus side, it means we get to enjoy shows like Mad Men and The Wire, though it also demonstrates that we don’t have it all our own way when it comes to producing high-quality drama any more.

Brian Lowry, TV critic with US entertainment bible Variety, may praise Rubicon for feeling like a “British limited-run” series, but the days when we could expect the Americans to coo over Lark Rise To Candleford are long gone. Now they have historical “costume dramas” of their own in the form of Deadwood, The Pacific, Mad Men and award-winning 18th-century epic John Adams. And – whisper it – their costume dramas are actually better than ours.

Until now The Sopranos, The Wire and Mad Men have all been available on the UK’s Freeview channels, as have many other fine US dramas. But Sky recently inked a deal with HBO and AMC to supply shows to its new channel, Sky Atlantic, which launches early next year. The subscription-based satellite broadcaster has landed Treme and Boardwalk Empire, and has snatched the rights to all future series of Mad Men from the BBC. It’s a significant loss for the corporation, but one which illustrates the continued appeal of the best US television – and the value now placed on it.

So when will this golden age end? Hard to say, though increasingly the depth of our pockets will have a bearing on its availability. Still, there’s always the DVD box set.

Mad Men is on BBC4 on Wednesdays; The Walking Dead begins on FX on Friday; Rubicon screens on BBC4 next year. Sky Atlantic will launch in the New Year

Source: Herald Scotland

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Front Page, Industry News

How HBO saved television

Around the turn of the century, something important happened in the American television industry. The cable TV networks, which had previously offered a simple diet of films and live sporting events, moved away from those staples and began commissioning edgy original dramas instead. The result? A decade-long golden age for the form.

Unfettered by powerful advertisers and the rules governing mainstream competitors CBS, NBC and ABC, the programmes these channels made were real, profane, bawdy, often violent. Critics took note. So did viewers.

The change in direction was driven by pragmatism and the promise of financial return. But its defining characteristic was a willingness to take risks and push boundaries with shows that had no other unifying element beyond great writing and long, complex story arcs.

Chief among these Medicis of the digital era was HBO. Encouraged by its patronage (and aided by a sixfold increase in its drama budget) David Chase created mob drama The Sopranos in 1999. It ran for eight years and six seasons. In 2001, Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks co-produced epic Second World War mini-series Band Of Brothers. In the same year, Oscar-winning American Beauty writer Alan Ball created Six Feet Under, a family saga set in the funeral business, complete with ghosts and gay cops.

Then, in 2002, a critical moment: former journalist David Simon recast his NBC show Homicide: Life On The Street as The Wire. It ran for six years and five seasons on HBO and is now widely regarded as the most accomplished TV drama series ever. In its densely peopled and multi-layered portrayal of a social milieu, it has even been compared to the collected works of Dickens.

The major networks, by now convinced that there was an appetite for intelligent and complex TV drama, entered the market with shows like Lost (ABC) and Heroes (NBC) and threw resources at ongoing series such as The West Wing (also NBC).

The forward momentum these shows provided continues today as a new generation of intelligent, up-market dramas glides across the screen: 1920s gangster series Boardwalk Empire, for instance, David Simon’s new show Treme, and The Pacific, Spielberg’s 10-part follow-up to Band Of Brothers.

Former boxer Jon Seda plays one of The Pacific’s three leads, Sgt John Basilone. It’s his most prominent role to date, though his first real acting break came playing a detective in Homicide: Life On The Street. For him, it was HBO that “changed everything” on the American dramatic landscape.

“They’re not as limited as regular television networks, they’re willing to take on different projects and they’re not afraid to go deeper,” he says. “Because of them, you now have cable networks like USA and TNT and FX following in their wake”.

In a few weeks, Seda will team up with Simon once more when he joins the cast of Treme, set in post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans. Shooting on the second season begins next month. Seda will play a “politically-connected venture capitalist” from Dallas who sees opportunities to be had (and money to be made) from exploiting the grants available for the rebuilding process. “He’s a good guy, and what he’s doing isn’t illegal but it’s not morally correct,” he explains.

In other words it’s another of those morally ambiguous roles Simon specialises in and which American television drama does so well.

“As an actor you always want something you’re going to be able to sink your teeth into,” Seda agrees. “I’m in a perfect scenario now with Treme. It’s a critically acclaimed show, it’s by David Simon and Eric Overmeyer, who I’ve worked with in the past, who I respect and who write incredible stories. That’s not to say you can’t find those things on the [mainstream] networks, but if I’m going to be on TV I’d want it to be something on HBO.

Of course, HBO isn’t the only player. Following the success of The Sopranos, other cable networks piled in with their own original dramas – Fox, for instance, who brought frantic spy thriller 24 to the small screen in 2001 and only finished it off this year, 192 episodes later.

But if The Wire and The Sopranos have an heir, it’s Mad Men. Set in a Madison Avenue advertising agency in the 1960s, it was first broadcast on the AMC network in 2007 and was created by former Sopranos writer Matthew Weiner. It has won the Golden Globe for best TV series for the last three years, a record run.

Emboldened by Mad Men’s success, AMC has since produced black comedy Breaking Bad, complex political thriller Rubicon (soon to be seen on BBC4) and post-apocalyptic zombie drama The Walking Dead, which premieres tonight in the US and in the UK next week.

The star of Rubicon is Jon Seda’s Pacific co-star James Badge Dale. As well as his role as Robert Leckie in The Pacific, he’s best known for playing Chase Edmunds in the third series of 24. In Rubicon he plays an intelligence analyst lost in a baffling political conspiracy.

“He’s another tortured guy,” he laughs. “Robert Leckie was fighting for his life and to keep his connection with people. The guy I play in Rubicon has already lost that. He’s walked away from it and I don’t know if he wants to get it back.”

For Badge Dale, the format of The Pacific – epic but not open-ended – is the perfect marriage of cinema and television. “I like the mini-series genre and I hope it continues. I know people stay away from them for financial reasons, but I think there’s great stories to be told,” he says.

One person who isn’t staying away from them is David Chase. Last year he announced details of a new project called A Ribbon Of Dreams, a mini-series about the birth of Hollywood. Nobody was surprised to learn it will screen on HBO.

The Walking Dead is based on a cult comic book, Rubicon on 1970s thrillers like The Parallax View, and The Pacific on a real-life memoirs. But what the best of the rest of the cable network dramas resemble more than anything else is literature – in particular, the sprawling, episodic novels of the 19th century (witness the comparison between The Wire and Dickens) and the work of 20th-century writers such as John Cheever, whose short stories were a major influence on Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner.

It’s no surprise, then, that many top American writers are themselves now queuing up to work in television. “TV is the best place to be as a writer,” Alan Ball has said. “It’s really a writer’s medium”. For veteran crime novelist George Pelecanos, meanwhile, working as a scriptwriter on The Wire alongside fellow novelist Dennis Lehane and august Hollywood scriptwriter Richard Price was like going to “writing school”.

So what does all this mean for British television and British drama? On the plus side, it means we get to enjoy shows like Mad Men and The Wire, though it also demonstrates that we don’t have it all our own way when it comes to producing high-quality drama any more.

Brian Lowry, TV critic with US entertainment bible Variety, may praise Rubicon for feeling like a “British limited-run” series, but the days when we could expect the Americans to coo over Lark Rise To Candleford are long gone. Now they have historical “costume dramas” of their own in the form of Deadwood, The Pacific, Mad Men and award-winning 18th-century epic John Adams. And – whisper it – their costume dramas are actually better than ours.

Until now The Sopranos, The Wire and Mad Men have all been available on the UK’s Freeview channels, as have many other fine US dramas. But Sky recently inked a deal with HBO and AMC to supply shows to its new channel, Sky Atlantic, which launches early next year. The subscription-based satellite broadcaster has landed Treme and Boardwalk Empire, and has snatched the rights to all future series of Mad Men from the BBC. It’s a significant loss for the corporation, but one which illustrates the continued appeal of the best US television – and the value now placed on it.

So when will this golden age end? Hard to say, though increasingly the depth of our pockets will have a bearing on its availability. Still, there’s always the DVD box set.

Mad Men is on BBC4 on Wednesdays; The Walking Dead begins on FX on Friday; Rubicon screens on BBC4 next year. Sky Atlantic will launch in the New Year

Source: Herald Scotland

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Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

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