08/12/2011 01:24 pm ET | Updated Oct 12, 2011

The Emperor's New Cable

The late Helen Hayes is quoted as saying that one of the many advantages of being a celebrity is that, when you're boring, the audience thinks it's their fault. One wonders if the same phenomenon applies to Home Box Office (HBO). Yes, HBO is widely celebrated and has, this year, received a whopping 104 Emmy nominations. But awards can be misleading. After all, Henry Kissinger won the Nobel Peace Prize, and ex-CIA Director George ("Mr. WMD") Tenet was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Let's be clear: No one is suggesting that HBO doesn't produce quality programming. Indeed, when television is being done well -- when it's being done artistically, dramatically, and with breathtaking originality -- nobody does it better than HBO. All one has to do is look at the record -- The Wire, John Adams, Band of Brothers, Real Time with Bill Maher, The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, Angels in America, et al -- to see that HBO delivers the goods.

Not only does HBO dare to take on provocative subject matter -- and hire top writing and acting talent to get the job done -- but, as a subscription channel, it has the additional virtue of keeping its audience quarantined from those infuriating commercials that pop up every 12 minutes on network TV. We get to enjoy these programs without interruption, which, alone, is almost worth the subscription fee.

But when television isn't being done well -- when television is overwrought, overwritten, or indulgent, or when it's done pretentiously, weirdly, mindlessly, or derivatively (e.g., Big Love, John From Cincinnati, How to Make It in America, Carnivale, Mind of the Married Man, True Blood) -- the case can be made that nothing is more preening and self-referential than HBO.

Of course, critics and producers will automatically conflate HBO's sexual explicitness and profanity with artistic achievement, as if the startling lack of network censorship is, by itself, evidence of a gushing fountain of creativity. But great shows don't necessarily require profanity or raw exhibitionism. Just consider The West Wing, Seinfeld, 30 Rock, The Office, Mad Men, etc. -- shows that were/are tremendously effective even with the censor's boot on their necks.

A minor but particularly annoying feature of HBO is the number of promos it runs. Granted, all networks, regular and cable, run promos for their upcoming shows, but HBO ramps it up several notches. They can do this because they have no paid commercials. They can put on anything they want without having to worry about finding sponsors willing to pay for the spot.

As a consequence, we're barraged not only by promo after punishing promo, but by these self-aggrandizing "The Making Of...." presentations, where we're shown a behind-the-scenes look at how HBO programs get made. I've never understood the allure of these behind-the-scenes shows. It's like going on a date with a beautiful woman and having her show you a video of the step-by-step process she followed to get ready.

Also, HBO sticks with decrepit shows way too long. They did it with Big Love, and they're doing it again with True Blood, a series that clearly needs to have a stake driven through its heart. The trajectory of True Blood reminds me of the arc of an alcoholic. He starts out getting a euphoric buzz from alcohol, enters a phase where he drinks out of habit, and then, ultimately, reaches the point where he no longer gets any genuine pleasure from it, but continues drinking because he has to.

That's how my wife and I feel about True Blood. Although we once loved the show, we now watch it because we have to, because we've seen it from the beginning and feel obligated to stay with it. Not only has the series lost its way artistically, but by resorting to an endless array of bizarre twists and turns, it now seems utterly contrived. Even Sookie has become a yawning bore.

David Macaray is a playwright ("Larva Boy," "Borneo Bob") and author ("It's Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor). He can be reached at