Over the past winter break, I took time to binge-watch large sections of several noteworthy television series I own on Blu-Ray format. These included shows from multiple networks, but one distributer in particular stood out from the bunch:
- Game of Thrones (2011-2019), developed by David Benioff and D. B. Weiss for Home Box Office (HBO)
- Breaking Bad (2008-2013), developed by Vince Gilligan for AMC and now distributed by Sony Pictures
- The Wire (2002-2008), developed by David Simon for HBO
- The Sopranos (1999-2007), developed by David Chase for HBO
Sensing any patterns, yet? While I have enjoyed a wide variety of short (i.e. miniseries) and long-form (i.e. traditional television shows) cinematic projects on both broadcast television and streaming platforms of all stripes, the series I reference the most in my film analyses, casual discussions with peers, and revisit in my spare time are most always created for and popularized by the Home Box Office. That’s not to say that some of HBO’s greatest aren’t overanalyzed at times (e.g. The Sopranos), inconsistent from season to season (e.g. True Detective [2014, 2015, 2019]), underappreciated during their initial release (e.g. The Wire, Deadwood [2004-2006, 2019]), or that they can’t crash and burn as spectacularly as any high-profile show (e.g. Game of Thrones) in this Golden Age of Television, or “Peak TV.” HBO shows are no more immune from disappointment than the heavy-hitters of any other major network, but for my money, I’ve found my “return on viewer investment” — the sheer amount of time one spends watching shows that span 10-70+ hours — the most rewarding and consistent when spent on the best of HBO.
My praise for the best of HBO being the greatest and arguably the trendsetter of the current era of quality television should not be confused with the supposition that the network holds market dominance now or in the future; Netflix pioneered the concept of original streaming content as we know it and their library’s sheer size and diversity remain unchallenged, while both Amazon Prime and Disney+ dwarf HBO Max (the latest online incarnation of HBO Entertainment) in terms of subscribers. I don’t believe the future of streaming media or even long-form television series in particular are a zero-sum game, but I would bet my money on HBO passing the TV-zeitgeist torch to the likes of Netflix or Disney+ if it hasn’t already.
This past year (2021), I subscribed to HBO Max due to its parent company Warner Bros.’ decision to release the latter’s entire 2021 theatrical feature-film catalog simultaneously on Max and in public movie theatres (i.e. a “day-and-date” release schedule), and in 2019, I briefly subscribed to HBO Now (the online precursor to Max) to watch the final season of Game of Thrones. Both of those subscriptions are now canceled. All other HBO content I consumed over the years are a result of either (a) extralegal internet searches (Allegedly! Allegedly!) or (b) the aforementioned hard copy purchases of my favorite HBO shows on Blu-Ray.
In other words, HBO doesn’t mean much to me as an ongoing network subscription so much as it represents the source of contemporary TV’s crème de la crème, Peak Television’s most potent original seed. I understand better now the reason why Disney+ doesn’t sell Blu-Rays of The Mandalorian (2019-) and why so few Netflix Original projects can be viewed anywhere else but the house that made them, but I’m grateful I can watch the best, most influential television on the best format possible. HBO’s most influential works remain so for a reason: They didn’t just boast great ideas for long-form cinematic storytelling, but they executed them with aplomb, style, and precision.
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