20 Years of TV: How HBO Paved the Way Television Be Taken Seriously

Editor’s Note: This is part three of a series of five articles exploring the past 20 years of television and its effect on the current “Golden Age.” It’s presented in partnership with Sundance Channel and their new original series “Rectify.”

Any look at the artistic renaissance in television would be incomplete without HBO. From its start in 1972, its status as a premium cable channel afforded HBO permission to say those famous seven words you can’t say on standard TV, as well as more graphic violence and nudity. But rather than just indulging in this allowance, premium cable — and, in particular, HBO — has been home to some truly groundbreaking programs, many of which led to the now-common acceptance of the idea that TV can be art.

By the 1990s, HBO was increasing its amount of original programming, launching the likes of “The Larry Sanders Show,” starring Garry Shandling, which mercilessly satirized the entertainment industry. 1997 saw the premiere of “Oz,” a searingly intense prison drama featuring graphic sex and violence of the kind rarely (if ever) seen on the small screen before. And, despite HBO’s greatest attempts to hide the fact, it was also home to one of the greatest sketch comedy series ever seen on television, “Mr. Show With Bob and David” (the very worthy “The Kids In the Hall,” also aired on the channel). Despite these shows and the enormous success of “Sex and the City,” the artistic apex of the channel was reached through two other drama series, the first of which debuted in 1999, the second in 2002. These are “The Sopranos” and “The Wire.”

Although fundamentally different, “The Sopranos” and “The Wire” share a common aspect in their respective origin stories: they both had to overcome negative and misleading initial impressions. “The Sopranos” debuted not long after the popular but decidedly lightweight comedy film “Analyze This!” in which psychiatrist Billy Crystal took mob boss Robert De Niro as a patient. “The Sopranos” began with a very similar premise: mob boss Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini), after suffering what turns out to be a panic attack, goes into therapy with Dr. Jennifer Melfi (Lorraine Bracco). From the first episode, though, it was clear that the similarities ended there. The psychoanalysis in “The Sopranos” can be read as a symbol of creator David Chase’s long-form, metacinematic exploration of gangster movies and TV shows, which before its debut would be an exceedingly tweedy thing to read into a television program — but with “The Sopranos,” TV had crossed the Rubicon.

Not long after, “The Wire” would surpass “The Sopranos” in terms of ambition and scope, although like its predecessor, David Simon’s show had the initial stigma of appearing to be “just another cop show” like the hordes populating broadcast prime-time schedules. One of the best of these, “Homicide: Life on the Street,” originated from a book by Simon, a journalist whose experience as an executive producer and writer on that program led to his first producing the highly acclaimed miniseries “The Corner” for HBO, and then, featuring a number of the same actors and the same mean-streets-of-Baltimore milieu, “The Wire.”

In its first season, the main storyline of “The Wire” concerned attempts by the Baltimore police to take down a particularly ingenious drug organization. But the very first scene in the series established the scope of its ambition: a detective, questioning a witness to a murder, the victim having been in the habit of compulsively running off with the money at neighborhood dice games, asks why, if the guy always ran off with the money, they still allowed him to play. “You got to. It’s America, man.” Right there, is “The Wire.” Each subsequent season explored a different institution in the city of Baltimore, from police and drug gangs in the first season, to the near-moribund shipping industry in the docks, to City Hall, to the school system, to the media in the form of Simon’s former newspaper the Baltimore Sun, becoming by the end of its fifth season a summation, artistically if not in literal totality, of the city. And, synecdochically, of the United States of America.

“The Wire” rendered any questions about whether television could be art obsolete. It’s a work held in as high reverence as the great American novels or films, so much so that Simon’s subsequent efforts for HBO, the Iraq war miniseries “Generation Kill” and the New Orleans-based ensemble drama “Treme,” invariably draw unfair and reductive comparisons to his previous opus. Each, aside from a scrupulous attention to detail and bottomless empathy for its characters, bears no similarity requiring such a burden.

Invariably though, as with any masterpiece, the form (in this case television) lingers in the shadow for a time after. In this case, the shadow was neither terribly dark nor vast: by the time “The Wire” concluded its run we were well into a Golden Age of television, with each genre giving forth multiple masterworks. HBO itself had gone on to produce series like “Six Feet Under,” and “Deadwood,” but it was by no means alone. AMC and FX each became voluminous producers of quality programs with a distinctive, if loose, house style. Networks, however behind the times they may have seemed with the cool kids on cable getting all the attention, produced the occasional “Lost” or “24” (an innovative program in its early years).

Television was, and is, now an art form of sufficient stature that showrunners are as much (if not more) household names as film directors, the auteurs of their own medium. Arguments even spring up (among people who, frankly, should know better) about whether television has eclipsed film, even though they’re the same medium. The only difference is how we watch it.

Indiewire has partnered with Sundance Channel and their new original series “Rectify” from the producers of “Breaking Bad” (series premiere Monday April 22nd at 9pm.) This startling drama follows Daniel Holden, who is released after 19 years of complete isolation on death row. As he adapts to life outside, anger is reignited in the small town to which he returns. Daniel Holden may be free, but the battle for his life is far from over.

Learn more about “Rectify” here. http://www.sundancechannel.com/series/rectify

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