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Vacation Robo-Post: Has HBO Lost It?

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I’ve just finished watching all 10 episodes of HBO’s Tell Me You Love Me for Time magazine’s fall arts preview, which, if all goes according to plan, will be on newsstands tomorrow. (This is Past Me talking, remember; I’m writing this post a week in advance.) And I’ve reached two conclusions: (1) it’s the best new show of the fall, with the possible exception of Reaper, and (2) some of you, once you see it, are going to think I am absolutely freaking out of my mind for saying that.

The show–about three couples in therapy–has gotten attention mostly for its explicit sex, but it’s really about the talk. And talk. And silence. The voyeuristic fascination of the show is how it breaks down the minutiae of the characters’ lives, in their mundane conversations, their therapy sessions and, yes, in bed. To me, it was engrossing–I kept feeding episodes into my DVD player, one after another–but it’s not exactly heightened reality, and to some people it’s going to be dead boring. (For my preview of it, see tomorrow’s print Time, and I’m sure I’ll write more about it before the Sept. 9 debut.)

I predict that, at some point after or maybe even before Tell Me premieres, somebody is going to write a jeremiad saying that between this show, John from Cincinnati and The Sopranos’ defiantly anti-closure ending, 2007 is the year that HBO got too snooty, artsy and pretentious for its own good. That it took that whole business about “not being TV” too seriously and forgot that it was in the entertainment, not the art business. And that, with its big popcorn draws all off the air, it is sabotaging itself by making art-house series that exist only to let TV critics believe that they’re smarter than everyone else.

As one of those TV critics, I think there’s a point to this argument, even if I think it’s not such a bad thing. Whatever JFC and Tell Me are, they’re not what you would call highly commercial. And HBO lately seems to be picking up shows solely on the basis of their artistic ambition, without regard for what former HBO chief Chris Albrecht called “the TV part”–i.e., the mass-appeal, popcorn elements like The Sopranos’ mob-story franchise. Personally, I like popcorn entertainment and niche, arty storytelling, and my job is to decide what’s good, not what will make a network a lot of money. So all this is fine by me.

But hey, I’m just one guy, and I get to expense my HBO. Much more important to the network are the opinions of rank-and-file subscribers, among whom I’ve been seeing a lot of grumbling this summer on this blog and elsewhere. Grumbling of the I’m-cancelling-my-subscription kind. That kind gets noticed. I would not be surprised if HBO starts developing some more broad-appeal concepts–maybe along the lines of David Milch’s potential cop drama and Alan Ball’s already-announced vampire drama True Blood–and quick.

So you tell me. As they might say on Tell Me You Love Me, how is your relationship with HBO? Is the magic gone? Can this marriage be saved?

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