HBO brought a raft of star power to the opening day of the winter Television Critics Press Tour (TCA) Thursday afternoon, presenting Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, stars of the brooding Louisiana-set crime series “True Detective,” which premieres Sunday, along with Mark Ruffalo, Julia Roberts and Taylor Kitsch from the cast of HBO movie “The Normal Heart” and quite a few others.
The premium cable channel introduced five new series, a new high for an HBO session at the semi-annual gathering of the nation’s television press. It also announced a date “Game of Thrones” fans have been clamoring for – Sunday, April 6, when the Emmy-winning fantasy series will return for its fourth season. The slate of new shows that will premiere now through summer includes two dramas, “True Detective” and “The Leftovers,” two scripted comedies, “Silicon Valley” and “Looking,” and a satiric, topical comedy sketch series starring John Oliver. Each will premiere between now and Summer. (Review here.)
Harrelson and McConaughey said the closed-end nature of “True Detective” – eight episodes and done – made it easy for them to commit to a television project, even with busy film careers. “We didn’t know when we got the script, where it was going to land,” said McConaughey. “I was just responding to quality. I read two episodes, and I said, ‘I’m in.’ It was like a 450-page film script, and it was finite – we didn’t have to be available to be back next year.”
“Nic Pizzolato wrote a phenomenal script that you couldn’t put down,” added Harrelson.
The brooding, cinematic show, about two backwoods detectives caught up in investigating a bizarre murder, tells a story spanning 17 years. Asked how he pulled off that long arc as an actor, Harrelson got laughs when he said, “Uh, I just took off my wig.”
Pizzolatto, who worked on the writing staff of “The Killing” while waiting for “True Detective” to be mounted at HBO, said he favors the closed-end format. “I like a really good third act,” he says. “I like the idea of telling a self-contained story.” The saga came to him while he was steeped in police research for a novel. “I started writing in the voice of Rust Cohle (McConaughey) first. He just emerged fully formed. I realized the story I wanted to tell was better suited to a tv show.”
Of the show’s off-the-beaten track setting in Louisiana’s backwoods and swamps, Pizzolatto said, “I think there’s an end-of-empire thing happening in places like that in America that is more interesting to me than the cities.”
Next up was the live-action comedy “Silicon Valley” from executive producers Mike Judge (“Office Space” and “Beavis and Butthead” and Alec Berg. The show, which debuts in April, focuses on a group of young social misfit programmers. When one of them comes up with a potentially game-changing search algorithm, he’s caught in the middle of a ludicrous bidding war. “When we started doing the research, the craziest stuff we could think of was not half as crazy as what we actually found,” said Berg. “At the same time, these guys really are changing the world, so we can’t just dump on them.”
“The Bay area is where the whole hippie movement started, so these guys up there have to shroud their capitalism in the idea that they’re making the world a better place, and that can be funny,” says Judge.
“Looking,” which premieres Jan. 19, revolves around three gay men exploring the options available to them in current-day San Francisco. “I’d never really seen the San Francisco I knew portrayed on screen. It was always just the postcard shots. We wanted to show the rough edges and lived-in side of the city,” said creator and writer Michael Lannan. The actors say they immersed themselves in the local way of life while shooting on location, living in the Mission district and frequenting karaoke clubs on weekends.
“All the characters are gay men in their 30s and 40s, but they’re not still grappling with that,” says actor Jonathan Groff. “Their problems are about everyday life.” The other two roles in the central trio of friends are played by Murray Bartlett and Frankie J. Alvarez.
Writing about gay life in the age of legalized marriage is different, says Lannan. “It’s sort of like, welcome to the mainstream. What do we do now? We’re trying to present the most contemporary version of what life for these characters is like.”
A hard-hitting look at an earlier era, when the AIDS crisis gripped the nation in the early 1980s, propels “The Normal Heart,” a movie for HBO set to air in May, adapted from Larry Kramer’s play about activist Ned Weeks (Ruffalo), a polio-stricken doctor (Roberts) and others who battled for resources to fight the plague. “To win a war you have to start one” is the tag line of the film, which recalls the terror and urgency of the dawning realization that AIDS would become a wide-spread epidemic.
Ryan Murphy (“Glee,” “American Horror Story”), director and exec producer of the movie, said he spent three years working on the script with Kramer after he acquired the rights to the play. “I lost a lot of friends to AIDS, including one who even on his deathbed would not admit that’s what he was dying of,” says Murphy. “I feel like what those (activist) guys did, and what Dr. Emma Brookner did, really paved the way for the life I have today – married with a child – and I feel indebted to them.”
He adds that he’s shown the movie to gay men in their 20s who have seem to have little awareness of the struggles of 30 years ago, or of “the shoulders that they stand on.”
“Storytelling is about finding the thread that connects us, so that it’s impossible to turn your back on somebody, and this movie does it in such a profound way,” said Roberts.
Actors Jim Parsons and Matt Bomer, both openly gay, responded to a question about whether they’d ever expected to be able to play roles such as these. “I don’t’ bring gay qualities or straight qualities to a role,” said Parsons. “I just figure out what’s going on and deal with it.”
Showrunner and writer Damon Lindelof (“Lost”) makes his return to television with “The Leftovers,” an eerie, disturbing dramatic series set to debut this summer about the mysterious disappearance on a single day of two percent of the world’s population, and the effect of that vanishing on those who remain. Justin Theroux stars as a police chief and father of two who tries to maintain normalcy. It’s based on the novel by Tom Perrotta (“Election”).
Perrotta, who wrote the pilot with Lindelof, says the sci-fi premise was inspired partly by the events of Sept. 11, 2001. “It explores a huge collective trauma and the various ways a community deals with it,” he said.
Lindelof called the challenging show “a bit of a Rorschach test.” “Some people will find it confusing and some will be captivated by it. It’s a grower, not a shower.”
The panel to present Season Three of critics’ darling “Girls” got off to a vigorous start when a questioner challenged Lena Dunham about the show’s frank and frequent use of nudity – particularly on the part of creator and exec producer Dunham, as lead character Hanna Horvath.
“It’s a realistic expression of what it is to be alive. If you’re not into me, that’s your problem,” said Dunham. She was then hit with a question about whether she even likes the show’s four main characters, neurotic and self-involved New York women in their 20s.
“I love them, and I think that they accurately reflect people I know,” Dunham replied. “They’re trying their hardest, which is the most you can ask of people in your life.”
“I like flawed people,” exec producer Jenni Konner threw in. “I don’t know what a person who isn’t flawed would look like.”
“People say, ‘How do we sympathize with them?’ and I say, you seem to like Walter White,” said Dunham. HBO announced that a fourth season of the Emmy-winning comedy has been ordered.
British comic and writer John Oliver (“Community”), who did a stint as guest host for Jon Stewart this past summer on “The Daily Show,” will star in an untitled comedy series currently being devised, to premiere this spring or summer. “The format does not exist at the moment – we’re working it out,” said Oliver. “It will consist of making fun of things.”
“After seeing what he could do in the host chair of ‘The Daily Show,’ we realized we wanted him on our network,” said HBO exec Nina Rosenstein. ‘Daily Show’ head writer Tim Carvell will head up the writing staff with Oliver.