As a critic who has spent an enormous amount of the past six years covering “Game of Thrones,” I spend a certain amount of time thinking about what my career will look like when HBO’s epic fantasy series comes to its conclusion.
But if this is a question of pleasure for “Game of Thrones” fans, it’s a huge business question for HBO, which has had a run of rough luck launching new shows, punctuated most recently by Michael Lombardo’s departure as programming head of the network. So to avoid thinking about what my life will be like without “Game of Thrones” in it, here are five thoughts on how HBO should move forward into a bold, challenging new era of television.
1. Stop trying so hard to be important all the time: There were a lot of things I disliked about “Vinyl,” HBO’s expensive, under-watched attempt to tell a story about the music scene in the ’70s. But if there was one thing that really killed the show for me was the characters’ tendencies to declare, at some length, that their efforts to keep a record label going were a way to avoid spiritual death and save the culture, man.
I mean, I get it. HBO’s rise to dominance was fueled by shows that were praised for saying something significant, whether it was about the violence of nation-building, suburban malaise, urban decay, medieval violence or the choices women make when they have more options than at any previous point in history. But shows like “Deadwood,” “The Sopranos,” “The Wire,” “Game of Thrones” and “Sex and the City” worked because they didn’t stop every five minutes to tell you that you’re watching something really important. HBO, in its desperation for prestige, risks turning its products into vegetables.
By contrast, one of the more pleasurable big dramas to premiere this year, at least for me, has been Showtime’s “Billions.” The series, which stars Damian Lewis as a hedge-fund billionaire with working-class roots, Paul Giamatti as the old-money prosecutor desperate to bring him down and Maggie Siff as the in-house shrink at the hedge fund who is married to the prosecutor, obviously is about big issues. But it was also just a fun show to watch, full of gorgeous pools in the Hamptons, organic farms attached to Michelin-star restaurants and crazy plots involving hedge fund guys with secret families. HBO could stand to wear its big ideas more lightly.
2. Be less afraid of straightforward sitcoms: Earlier this year, I wrote about how prestige comedies have fallen into cliche just as surely as anti-hero dramas came to over-rely on difficult, middle-aged white men. The protagonists are arrested in their development, the tone is sour, and often, despite ostensibly being comedic, these sitcoms don’t actually have jokes, or even moments of general levity. As “The Sopranos” is to the anti-hero show, HBO’s “Girls” is to prestige anti-comedies; both shows absolutely work, but they spawned plenty that didn’t.
Now, HBO does have some very strong and more straightforwardly funny comedies: I adore “Silicon Valley,” and I’ve enjoyed “Veep” a ton over the years. But both of these shows are vicious satires. And while I wouldn’t want them to be anything else, there’s a difference between flaying an industry or a town and more conventional sitcoms, where we identify with the characters rather than cringing in sympathy with them or horror at them. Cable may find the latter sort of show insufficiently edgy. But while the premium networks have walked away from the format, series such as “The Carmichael Show,” “black-ish” and “Fresh Off the Boat” have proved that there’s plenty to say within the constraints of a family comedy. Sarah Jessica Parker’s “Divorce” may prove to be a step in this direction. But I’d feel more attached to HBO if it took a few more of them.
3. Break with the white-dude brand: It’s not entirely fair to HBO that the network has a reputation for difficult white men as both subjects and showrunners. Series like “Deadwood” and “Game of Thrones” have fantastic female characters, and “The Wire” remains one of the richest displays of the talents of African-American acting talent ever to appear on television. “The Night Of,” which HBO has been advertising heavily before “Game of Thrones,” also focuses on a non-white couple. But at a time when other networks have made more explicit plays for non-white viewers and have tried to build their brands by arguing that shaking up stereotypes is every bit as daring as getting us to sympathize with a depressive mobster, HBO has felt a bit behind the curve in this regard.
4. Develop a mini- or limited-series program: One of the smartest things FX has done during John Landgraf’s tenure as head of that network (and its comedy channel, FXX) is to let Ryan Murphy develop “American Horror Story” and “American Crime Story” as big flagship brands that draw in fantastic casts and creative directors. Murphy’s limited-run series, which reboot to tell a new story every season, aren’t always my thing — as I’ve written, I have a very hard time with horror — but because they reset every year, there’s always an opportunity for me to come back. John Ridley’s fantastic “American Crime” series at ABC works the same way.
HBO would be smart to develop a similar magnet for actors and audiences. And it already has a potential template in its movies about political history, from more recent political stories like “Recount” and “Game Change” about the 2000 and 2008 elections, to “Confirmation,” Rick Famuyiwa’s account of Anita Hill’s testimony about Clarence Thomas, and most recently, “All the Way,” a film about Lyndon Baines Johnson in the run-up to the 1964 election. To date, HBO has tended to pick stories that can be told in two hours. But there’s plenty of political history that would be great at a six-, eight- or 10-episode length. And it doesn’t all have to be pegged to Washington or to presidential elections. Why not dig into the civil rights movement? Or ’70s radicalism? Or Reconstruction?
5. Remember that not everything has to be crazy-expensive: All of the coverage of HBO’s current challenges focuses on the fact that the network is spending huge amounts of money on series that either don’t turn out to be hits or that never make it to the screen at all. Now, it’s absolutely true that in the arms race that defines television right now, there’s a lot of pressure on networks to woo showrunners by giving them huge budgets and latitude to explore their ambitions. But HBO’s free-spending nature dovetails with the first problem on this list, the insistence that every single series has to be the biggest thing ever. Believe it or not, there are engaging, heart-rending, hilarious stories that don’t require shooting in a gazillion countries or spending hours on special effects. HBO should tell some of them.