While British and American television are dumbing down fast, HBO is swimming against the tide. It takes risks and makes the best drama in the worldby David Herman / November 21, 2004 / Leave a comment
If you are over 40, you will remember the phrase, “British television is the best in the world.” If you are under 40, you will look at it in disbelief. There were two key developments. First British comedy, and then British television drama, were overtaken and left for dead by their American counterparts.
The return of The West Wing to Channel 4 in September and, now, the arrival of Deadwood (Sky) confirm the general pattern. American television drama is on a roll, just at the time when British television drama is on the skids. In 1994, ER appeared. Since then, we have had Murder One, The Sopranos, The West Wing, 24, Alan Ball’s Six Feet Under, Band of Brothers, Angels in America, Deadwood and a group of outstanding single dramas (Conspiracy and The Gathering Storm). It is an extraordinary achievement which shows no signs of slowing down.
Something else is new. Most of these programmes, especially the more recent ones, have been made by one company, Home Box Office. Until recently, few people here had heard of HBO. Now it is not only the best-known name in cable, it is perhaps the greatest single producer of quality television drama and comedy in the English-speaking world. In 2003, it received over 100 Emmy nominations. This year, its programmes received 124, nearly double the number of its closest competitor, NBC, and more than CBS, ABC and Fox combined. A New York Times headline tells the story: “The Emmys: HBO Batters Broadcasters.” Angels in America led the charge with 21 nominations, followed by The Sopranos (20) and the new series Deadwood (11). Not bad for a cable station that, unlike the networks, is seen only in a third of American homes.
HBO began as a local pay-television station in Pennsylvania and went national in 1975. Its first cult hit was The Larry Sanders Show, Garry Shandling’s 1990s sitcom. Then came Sex and the City (1998) and The Sopranos (1999) and the rest is history. Indeed, much of their best drama has been historical. Band of Brothers, Conspiracy and The Gathering Storm were all set in the run-up to or during the second world war, Deadwood is set in the wild west and next year’s new drama series, Rome, is set, as it says on the tin, in ancient Rome.
There are a number of reasons to be excited by HBO’s huge critical…