It would be wrong to suggest that HBO is not the best television station currently airing original programming today. It simply is, and while other premium channels have begun to creep up with quality original shows, HBO remains the most consistent. That being said, HBO has demonstrated an unfortunate trend that keeps some of its shows from reaching the heights of quality that they should.
One of HBO’s biggest strengths is how consistent their shows remain throughout their runs. However, their biggest problem is when an HBO show is a huge hit, it never improves but rather remains the same or indulges in the mediocre elements that plagued it to begin with.
A recent example is the Alan Ball-created True Blood. The massively popular vampire show became nearly unwatchable as its rating increased. The show began as a moody, Gothic romance. Its strengths lay with the mystery it created early on, and its surprisingly effective love story. However, those strengths quickly fell by the wayside as soon as the first season ended.
Instead of trying to improve the formula, or change it entirely, the show-runners decided to indulge in what they saw as its mass-appeal. The show ramped up the sex, violence and monsters without attempting to create more mood or effective character development. It lost all tension and mystery, becoming a parody of its former self. I will admit, True Blood was always an over-the-top show. However, no attempt was made to make it an even better over-the-top show.
What separates HBO from other networks is that their shows usually begin incredibly strong and either stay that way or decline in quality. From The Sopranos to The Wire, no dramatic increase in quality is seen from the beginning to the end of their run.
Consistent quality from one season to another is nothing to complain about, however, the issue is that HBO often indulges in what they see as their shows’ selling points when they become popular. This can be seen with popular HBO comedies, such as Curb Your Enthusiasm and Entourage. Both shows started off promising, and instead of ending them at an appropriate time, HBO decided to keep them going. With their extended runs, both show’s quality began to suffer with each passing season.
HBO’s recent breakout hit Game of Thrones may be the most worrying example of this trend. The fantasy epic is on a scale that has never been seen on TV. Its ever increasing budget makes it a problematic title for the network, even with its huge ratings. HBO needs the show to appeal to the widest audience, which might explain its tendency to rely on violence and sex.
To be fair, the show began with an excessive amount of both sex and violence, two of HBO’s signature traits, however, this season we have seen the sex ramped up. It has become a huge distraction, in fact it is keeping the show from being nearly perfect. Instead of trusting the audience with long scenes of heavy dialogue, the show-runners, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, use sex to spice-up complex political discussions. It was a technique that worked well in the first season, but has become a tool that they rely on far too heavily.
The HBO brand may define great television, however, that does not make it impervious to mediocrity. At the hint of widespread success, it seems that HBO’s instinct is to move towards mediocrity in hopes of widening its appeal. We watch and celebrate HBO as at its best it is an antithesis to the deadening effect of mediocre network TV. It is entirely possible that the show-runners on Game of Thrones will find a balance at some point this season, but as it stands now, we may see HBO ruin another show with its bizarre relationship with mediocrity.