HBO is in trouble.
That's the prevailing sentiment of a bunch of recent pieces in both mainstream and industry-focused publications like the Guardian and the Hollywood Reporter. And it's hard to say they're wrong, per se.
The larder at the pay cable network is starting to look pretty threadbare. Look past mega-hit Game of Thrones, in fact, and HBO's stores look downright desperate. Add in the fact that Game of Thrones will almost certainly be over by the summer of 2018, and the situation looks even more dire.
Perhaps this is why the network's programming head, Michael Lombardo, has stepped down after 33 years working for HBO in one capacity or another. (He's been replaced by Casey Bloys, most recently the network's head of series, late-night, and specials.) Lombardo swears he left of his own volition, but it couldn't have come at a worse time for public perceptions of the network.
And yet I can't shake the feeling that HBO isn't in nearly as much trouble as it seems to be. First, though, let's look at the current state of affairs, starting with the network's comedies.
HBO is in serious need of new hits
The two comedies Game of Thrones airs with — Silicon Valley and Veep — are doing just fine (though Veep is probably closer to the end of its run than the beginning). However, it's doubtful that either could survive without its Game of Thrones lead-in.
Meanwhile Togetherness was just canceled, Girls is ending in 2017, and HBO has spent the last five years renewing a huge number of very good half-hour shows for a second season, then canceling them after that point (including the aforementioned Togetherness, Enlightened, and Looking).
The network's drama prospects are even worse. Vinyl bombed with both viewers and critics. True Detective lit itself on fire in season two, and no one knows if or when it will come back. The Leftovers, never highly rated, ends its run in the fall. And sci-fi drama Westworld has been in production for well over a year, with frequent rumors of difficulty surrounding its filming. It still has no premiere date.
Still, I would push back against all of this a little bit. HBO is going to be fine, I think. It's backed itself into worse corners before (like the one it was in after The Sopranos ended in 2007), and it's always found the big hit it needed to pull itself out.
The network also has a lot of clout and brand recognition working in its favor. The top industry talent will always want to work at HBO. At present, it seems more focused on rounding up big names (Bill Simmons, Jon Stewart, etc.) for its HBO Now streaming service.
Once it turns its sights to television again, it will undoubtedly succeed, because that's what HBO has always done.
But let me suggest that if HBO has a problem, it's not in the network's current lack of hits; it's in forgetting an important part of its own legacy and developing the wrong kinds of hits.
More specifically, HBO doesn't need a new Game of Thrones; it needs a new Six Feet Under.
HBO used to offer compelling dramas about our reality, too
The size and scale of Game of Thrones' success has blinded a lot of commentators to the fact that HBO has traditionally been built atop a sort of platoon of success, usually with one show that's bigger than the rest of its programming, but not so much bigger that it dwarfs everything else.
Before Game of Thrones, HBO's biggest drama had been The Sopranos, but when that show was on the air, it was flanked by two other series that achieved similar levels of success but couldn't have been more different.
The first was the comedy Sex and the City (which preceded Sopranos and matched its ratings highs several times). The second was the family drama Six Feet Under, a sensation with critics and awards bodies and a solid ratings player. The series debuted 15 years ago, on June 3, 2001. (I'm purposely not including The Wire, a rough contemporary of all three shows, because at the time it was something of an afterthought.)
The entire HBO legacy as we know grew out of the success of The Sopranos, Sex and the City, and Six Feet Under. Sure, the network had programmed several worthwhile shows prior to that point (most notably The Larry Sanders Show and Oz), but having those three on the air at the same time made it the place to take prestige television and proved that creating great TV on a regular basis could be done with proper time and care.
The problem with replicating Game of Thrones (as HBO sometimes seems to be trying to do) is the same as the problem with replicating The Sopranos or The Wire. What makes these shows so successful is frustratingly hard to capture twice — which perhaps explains HBO's issues with Westworld (which all but begs to be promoted as "Game of Thrones, but with robots!").
But Six Feet Under, for all its tremendous qualities, is slightly easier to recreate. It's a sometimes comedic, sometimes tragic look at the American family — a TV genre as old and as durable as the medium itself. It was bracing and relatable and, above all, real. It took chances with its storytelling, but at its heart was always a deeply familiar story of a family trying to heal itself, which is one of the most universal stories you can imagine.
What set the series apart from others of its ilk was its impeccable cast, direction, and writing. And, yes, most networks can't just say, "I want a great cast!" and have one show up, but if you're HBO, you basically can. And so the real trick to developing another Six Feet Under is in finding another Alan Ball to create it.
Watch: How a TV show gets made
The family drama also offers plenty of avenues for diversity
HBO has been slower than most to embrace the approach of networks like ABC and Starz, which have found success by offering shows targeted at traditionally underserved (read: nonwhite, non-straight, non-male) audiences.
The reason for this is partially linked to the people HBO keeps working with. The Wire creator David Simon, for instance, has a new show coming up that will undoubtedly offer as much racial diversity as his previous series, but will also have James Franco in the lead role. And when you're HBO, it's probably difficult to say no to David Simon and James Franco. (I certainly wouldn't.)
But such a project might also be a simple blind spot on the part of the network. One of the biggest problems with Vinyl was how literally every character who wasn't the protagonist (played by Bobby Cannavale) had a more interesting story going on than said protagonist. But because he was the closest thing Vinyl had to an "HBO hero," he was the show's center, no matter how boring that was. (The same was also true of Boardwalk Empire, the previous series from Vinyl's creator.)
Look at the network's creators and showrunners — especially on the drama side — and the situation becomes even more stark. They're not just a bunch of (admittedly, very talented) white guys. They're a bunch of (admittedly, very talented) white guys HBO had success with 10 years ago. The network's current malaise is driven as much by fear of the new as anything else — despite the fact that Game of Thrones was as new as anything out there when it debuted in 2011 (and, pointedly, from two showrunners HBO hadn't worked with before).
But that's where a new Six Feet Under could work beautifully. No, television at large doesn't currently lack "family drama," but think of all the families you don't often see onscreen, and of all the up-and-coming writers or directors who might be interested in telling those stories. Universal narratives (like "a family tries to heal itself") can often feel radically new simply by switching the particulars.
A new Six Feet Under could gain a lot of distance from its spiritual ancestor simply by changing up some of the key central elements. Think, for instance, of the success Freeform (formerly ABC Family) has had with its stories of families you don't always see on TV, aimed at the young. HBO might chart a similar approach for adults.
Plus, a family drama isn't going to bust HBO's budget. Even one with a really great, really expensive cast will cost far less than effects-heavy Game of Thrones or period detail-filled Vinyl, allowing it to take bigger chances on storytelling and direction. The risk of failure is lower, so the freedom to be creative is higher.
HBO has flirted with new family dramas in its recent past. It thought about adapting Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections, then didn't, and it's passed on family drama projects involving some big-name talent.
The network even has a new drama from Friday Night Lights and Parenthood showrunner Jason Katims, the king of small, intimate TV series, and an anthology family drama series from indie filmmaker Lynn Shelton called, appropriately enough, Family Drama, in the works. There's every chance it figured out what I'm recommending years ago.
But maybe it didn't. And if that's the case, it's worth remembering that HBO got to where it is by putting extraordinary television on the air — but also by finding extraordinary television in very ordinary things. It's a lesson the network could do well to revisit.