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HBO’s Behind the Candelabra: Cable’s Cultural Touchstone

HBO's Behind the Candelabra: Cable's Cultural Touchstone

When did cable TV become such a popular-cultural force in our lives?

From reading the posts on Facebook and Twitter during this holiday weekend, for instance, I began to get the feeling that a lot of people cared more about HBO’s Liberace biopic, Behind the Candelabra, than they ever did about the entertainer himself.

It’s hardly front-page news to observe that cable TV has a special vitality in our popular culture. Few would argue that the content now available on cable — and on Netflix — surpasses the mass of sequels, formulaic action movies and profoundly unfunny bad-dating pap that seems to pass for major motion pictures 10 months out of the year.

Are people simply natural voyeurs and they want to watch “the good stuff,” the debauchery, the excess? It’s hard to imagine many folks actually caring about Liberace as a musician or even as a gifted crowd-pleaser. Maybe he was. Maybe he wasn’t. 

Substance didn’t play much of a part in the movie. It was all the illusion, the spectacle, that viewers tuned in  to see. HBO, of course, is quite skillful by now at building interest in such a movie. 

Getting Michael Douglas to play the entertainer himself was quite a coup. Matt Damon’s participation was another case of inspired Hollywood casting. That kind of star power in itself practically guaranteed keen media interest, if not strong TV ratings.

Can you imagine what would have happened if this had been an old-fashioned big-screen endeavor — and it had been eligible to win prizes last week at Cannes? It would have likely been the talk of the festival, the industry and the continent.

But HBO got the big prize by showcasing it on — whee else? — cable TV?

Was Sex and the City and The Sopranos the turning point? Or Angels in America? Or Mad Men? Breaking Bad? Homeland? Weeds?

These were all very well made shows on cable. Did any or all of them come to represent a cultural touchstone, after which cable TV would mean more than simple entertainment?

It’s anybody’s guess. But it is undeniable that a hot cable show — Girls, anyone — can speak for an entire generation or, it seems, a gender. Cable is moving the needle in society.

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