I craved HBO as a teenager. Actually, craved isn't quite strong enough. Back in those pre-VCR days, when the best I dared hope for from network TV was "Monster Week" on the 4:30 movie, I resorted to desperate, almost Dickensian, begging for access to what seemed an entire world beyond my grasp--not just the 14-year-old-boy samizdat that HBO sneaked into your hot little hands (teen sex comedies, mostly), but more challenging fare like slasher flicks and even cinema classics. The first and most successful cable venture, HBO was the Emerald Kingdom, the paradise just a channel over, and I'm only mildly ashamed to say that several of my middle-school relationships were predicated largely on a friend's possession (or possible acquisition) of the Holy Grail.
Ah, but that was in the days when networks blotted out the sun and could dictate to the universe. It's a different world now: In the season just concluded, not a single network program averaged a 30 share--formerly, believe it or not, the boundary for cancellation. Where have all the viewers gone? They've fled to the Web, or to the comfort of their satellite dishes, or...somewhere, anyway. Today most of us play the field, renting a bit, surfing the Net, and anteing up for cable. Yet it's still worth pondering this enormous change in the social organization of TV watching. Once a precious commodity, cable is now as readily accessible as diet cola. But if your local video store serves up every classic you want, and if five minutes on the Web can buy all the hard-, soft-, and everything-in-between-core you want or need, is HBO worth your time and money? Does it still harbor the power to make teenagers beg?
More precisely, what exactly does this channel offer you? The big draw can't be the movie lineup. This week HBO boasts such heavy hitters as Steven Seagal's Under Siege (certainly near the top of the Die Hard-on-a-[fill in the blank] genre, but old news by now); fair to middling action flicks The Saint, The Negotiator, and The Last Action Hero; and Shaquille O'Neal's brick, Steel. Oh, and they bought the rights to Titanic, too, which must have been a godsend to the three people not to see it in a theater or buy one of those "previously viewed" copies that swamped rental outlets two weeks after the videocassette release.
Let's look elsewhere. The comedy specials, worth paying for if you can't hold out for the tape, are a reasonable attraction: Eddie Izzard has just done one and Chris Rock's is due later this month. But the real draw, and the programming that makes it most obvious how much cable broadens the TV panorama, are the series. Sex and the City got off to a wobbly start last season (they're women! and they talk about sex! a lot!), but the show has since let its lead actresses flesh out the stock labels pasted on them (good girl, hot-to-trot older woman, bad-tempered refugee, and narrator who's a bit of all three) without losing its funny girl-talk interludes. And The Sopranos, now replaying its first thirteen episodes, has been greeted ecstatically everywhere, each review telling you how badly you need to catch it. Which is absolutely right--you should, in this case, heed the wisdom of Entertainment Weekly.
What makes both of these series isn't simply sharp writing--Homicide boasted years of great dialogue, and look where it got them--but tonal contrasts that only cable can manage: love and graphic violence shoved up against one another, sentimentality and talking dirty in the same breath. Paradoxically enough, however, both series also highlight how centrally cable still relies on network programming for contrast and subtext.
Without the parade of twentysomething sitcoms prancing around the airwaves, for instance, Sex and the City would seem less distinguished for spelling out the heartache and confusion that result when morals change faster than hearts. Similarly, once The Sopranos overcame its jokey Godfather fixation, it encompassed multiple approaches: It's a deglamorization of cop shows and organized crime; a parable of Italian-American assimilation; and a comment on how far good art can compel us to stretch our sympathies. Free from the networks' obsession with the demographic minutiae of ratings, HBO has built a home for narratives that explore what it's like to live with (and within) Marilyn Manson's America--a culture that craves extremes and sneers at normality. While sitcoms clatter emptily onward, these shows acknowledge the lure of--and impossibility of actually finding--a little quiet desperation.
On The Sopranos even the safest surroundings can't silence the demands of business. On the most powerful episode of the series, protagonist Tony Soprano, doing his best to become the good Fifties dad he wants so badly to be, takes his daughter, Meadow, upstate to look at colleges. When she asks him if he's in the Mafia, Tony demurs, not sure how to negotiate La Famiglia vs. the family; we then see him dutifully cooling his heels in rotunda after rotunda as Meadow tours campuses, does interviews, and checks out hot guys. Then, in the midst of all this good parenting, Tony spots an informant, in the witness protection program, who sold out his Family. Doing what he must, Tony sneaks out that night, tracks the man down, and murders him (alarmingly, I found myself rooting for Tony to nail the rat) by hand, choking him to death in a scene that leaves very little to the imagination. He then returns to the motel and carries on with the trip.