Once The Sopranos goes off the air, I'll be satisfied if HBO's Sunday programming alternates between airings of The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Animal House. They're the last remaining channel-stoppers in the network's rotation.
I blame Sex and the City.
HBO's reign has lasted through most of my young adulthood. I've watched The Sopranos from literally the first episode, when I still was in Ann Arbor in a house that thrived off free cable. I didn't find Six Feet Under's relentless intensity until halfway through the run, but I loved its depth and texture. Deadwood didn't match the other two, but it had great dialog and exciting villains -- if nothing else, it was a true original. Mike Nichols's mini-series of Angels in America ranked with any feature film in the last four or five years.
Now, HBO's calculated edginess has become a formula, as formulaic as three-camera sitcoms and dramas about criminal lawyers. The Sopranos violent melodrama begat Deadwood begat Rome, each less interesting than its predecessor. Six Feet Under, a domestic drama with a tragic arc begat Big Love, a domestic melodrama with a tragic arc. (Big Love is deeply frustrating. Its wonderful actors and strong moments added up to nothing in its first season.)
As much as any book, movie or television show that ever existed, Sex and the City lands squarely in the "not for me" category. I've learned not to bash it with the severity that it deserves -- doing so invites murder threats from every woman I know. Fine. But ladies, you also bear the blame for Entourage, which is even worse. Both shows are WB castoffs with bared boobs and eff-words.
Combined, they killed HBO's juice. Their moderate commercial success lowered the bar for the rest of us. HBO stopped taking risks and began pandering toward a broad middle. Put them on the WB or UPN, clean up the language, and no one could tell the difference.
In between, there have been ratings and creative disasters like Lucky Louie and The Comeback. Dane Cook's Tourgasm was a disgrace unworthy of MTV -- a weekly, barely edited infomercial that celebrated the lame jokes of an untalented man.
Naturally, HBO is a money-making operation. If lust and hate is the candy, if blood and love taste so sweet, they'll give them what they want. But they've diluted the brand. Instead of automatically Tivoing every new series, I scrutinize them fiercely, much more harshly than I would a network program. It's kind of like NPR broadcasting Howard Stern. It might make the network richer, but its mission would be gone. You wouldn't turn to it in the same way.
This could be interpreted as whining: "HBO doesn't make shows I like anymore. That makes me mad."
There's an element of that, true, but my grievance goes a little deeper. The network has stopped taking risks. Its new shows each fall into a certain HBO type -- The Sopranos stepchild, the Six Feet Under stepchild and The Sex and the City stepchild. It would be as if, in the wake of the success of The Larry Sanders Show, the network annually trotted out an "edgy" behind-the-scenes account of celebrity living.
Like The Comeback, Entourage or Extras.
I'm willing to give the network a long leash. I didn't love Rome, but I credit it for being original. Failure is one thing, creative laziness another. HBO's programming team has lost the plot. The Sopranos ends on Sunday, preceding a new show called John From Cincinnati, which is rumored to be a disaster.
On broadcast TV, shows like Lost, The Office, Friday Night Lights and even Ugly Betty regularly show more ingenuity and spark than anything HBO has introduced in the past five years. They don't feature "fuck," boobs or dicks, but at least they're original.