It’s Not TV — It Just Blows!

A couple of years ago, some pop-culture writers began to float the startling idea that the success of such original HBO series as “The Sopranos” and “Sex and the City” had made HBO not a TV-lovers’ frill but a cultural necessity, something people needed to stay current with the best the entertainment industry has to offer. This really was a startling pronouncement, since it raised the question: where had these clueless losers been half a dozen years earlier, when “The Larry Sanders Show” was beating the socks off not just every other series on television but most of what’s advertised as comedy in movie theaters and clubs? I remember going through a rough patch in the mid-’90s, losing a job at a time when a fresh batch of “Larry Sanders” episodes were appearing and being forced to economize. I contemplated canceling my HBO subscription for, oh, maybe all of six seconds. Then I did the smart thing and let my Zoloft prescription lapse instead. I already knew which was the more effective anti-depressant.

By the end of the ’90s, HBO was well-established as the leader in American commercial TV that’s both innovative and, well, good. Shows such as “The Sopranos” and “Sex and the City,” as well as “The Wire” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and the late, lamented “Mr. Show” and “The Chris Rock Show” rehabilitated the idea of commercial TV, remaking standard network genres (the crime serial, the sitcom, the variety sketch show) by infusing them with individual perspectives, offbeat points of view, freshness, brains and guts. A lot of the channel’s genius simply comes down to putting its trust in creators such as Garry Shandling, Larry David and even the world-weary, self-styled reformed hack David Chase, who in his decades in the trenches at network TV managed to leave his mark on several good shows as different as “The Rockford Files” and “Northern Exposure.” It’s auteur TV, the kind of thing that the networks were supposed to be getting into 14 years ago with such shows as David Lynch and Mark Frost’s “Twin Peaks” and Matt Groening, James L. Brooks and Sam Simon’s “The Simpsons,” but that quickly slipped to such a level that you could find TV critics seriously gassing on about the wondrous productivity of (shudder) David E. Kelley.

This is not a formula that HBO stumbled onto overnight. HBO made its first serious attempts at whipping up its own original series back in the early ’80s, when it recognized that the increasingly competitive cable landscape made it risky to depend entirely on the viewers’ need to be able to see such fine films as Waltz Across Texas and Harry Tracy, Outlaw nine times a week. Such early HBO series as the horror anthology “The Hitchhiker,” “1st & 10” (a football comedy starring a pre-homicidal O. J. Simpson) and the sometimes overpraised “Dream On” (featuring comically deployed old film clips and starring the Amazing Brian Benben and His Truckload of Smarm) were just blatant copies of standard network junk gussied up with what were then recognized as cable’s secret weapon: bare breasts and cusswords. Even after “Larry Sanders” brightened the darkness, HBO was still desperate enough not just to program the lame comedy “Sessions” but to advertise it as being “from the mind of Billy Crystal,” a come-on designed to put a scare into the Crypt-Keeper. I know you kids are rolling your eyes and maybe not buying this, but I was there, OK? I was young and in college and I actually watched this stuff — God forgive me, some nights I was just that bored! (At least they nudged me to move out of the dorm, which was only hooked up for Showtime. Showtime had its own original programming, including a sitcom called “Brothers,” which we will never speak of again.)

In fact, one of HBO’s most egregious misfires of recent years, a horny comedy called “The Mind of the Married Man,” created by and starring an oozing smirk of a fellow who I’m guessing was grown in a petri dish containing some of Brian Benben’s cast-off DNA, can best be explained as an homage to those early shows, probably green-lighted by an HBO executive enjoying a fit of misguided nostalgia.

The funny thing is that now that HBO is no longer aping bad network TV, the networks, in their increasingly sweaty desperation, have started trying to drag “The Sopranos” over to the Xerox machine. Last year’s “Kingpin” on NBC was a pinball-machine-lively look at a family of drug dealers, flashy and entertaining but ultimately pulling up short of going anywhere. NBC seemed to be a little afraid of the thing even as it was promoting it, and it discharged its full run in a quick burst of hype and then seemed to forget about it. Much lamer is ABC’s current “Line of Fire,” an eight-car pile-up of clichés about the sorrows of undercover work and the moral equivalence of Feds and mooks, with nothing besides David Paymer’s performance as the mob’s unglamorous, ruthlessly businesslike man in Virginia to give the proceedings a little edge and entertainment value.

The cluelessness of such stuff gives the proud boast “It’s not TV — it’s HBO!” a peacock-strutting quality indeed. But is it possible for HBO, running low on fresh bursts of inspiration, to begin replicating its own past successes with a rusty set of cookie cutters? Something like that has already happened, with “Mind of the Married Man” and the inexplicably long-running “Arli$$,” a misbegotten shotgun marriage of “The Larry Sanders Show” and “Tank McNamara,” but those seemed like blips on the radar screen. Recent developments at the network, even as it faces the wrap-up of “Sex and the City” and the knowledge that Tony and the boys cannot evade justice forever, seem more ominous.

“Ominous” is the word for HBO’s big new show of the 2003 fall season, “Carnivàle,” an exercise in deluxe portentousness that looks like something assembled from a kit labeled “Make Your Own Cult TV Item.” By now we have a few templates for self-consciously hip TV: though created by Daniel Knauf, best-known as the creator of “Wolf Lake,” a show that itself achieved its greatest renown as a “Daily Show” punchline, “Carnivàle” is marching in the path trod by the great white whale itself, “Twin Peaks.” “Northern Exposure” replicated “Peaks”’ idealized rural community while dumping the occult-tinged atmosphere of black-comic dread, “American Gothic” expanded that dread until it crowded out everything else, and Kelley’s appalling “Picket Fences” plastered it with editorial messages about tolerance and good citizenship. “Carnivàle” transposes the “Peaks” atmosphere, minus most of the humor, to the Great Depression, recreating the Dust Bowl as a triumph of Expressionist art direction. It’s as if Knauf had decided that what’s most needed now is for somebody to rip the lid off “The Waltons.” (Ralph Waite, who played the father on that show, and whose lined face and gravelly charm gave it whatever slim traces of authenticity it had, appears here as a preacher. Like “Twin Peaks,” the teeming cast of “Carnivàle” is an unlikely but talented mixture of young up-and-comers and people who, like Waite and Adrienne Barbeau, of “Maude,” have had their moment of fame and graduated to becoming names on the back of Trivial Pursuit cards.)

In the premiere, Nick Stahl, a young actor whose movie credits (“In the Bedroom,” “Bully,” “Terminator 3”) have already given him enough opportunities for masochism to impress Lars von Trier, plays Ben Hawkins, a good-hearted young man who, the show broadcasts pretty loudly, has the ability to resurrect the dead. Understandably suspicious of this unusual hobby, his ailing mother harshly bans him from her death bed. Between this ugly scene and the eagerness of the man on the bulldozer outside to plow under the ancestral Hawkins shack, Ben is in a foul mood when the traveling carnival of the title passes through his front yard. Luckily, the head carnie, a dwarf called Samson (Michael J. Anderson) perceives Ben’s finer qualities and persuades him to join up, or else there wouldn’t be a show, or even less of a show than there is, which is a scary thing to imagine. (If there is an explanation somewhere in all this backstory for the Europeanized spelling of “Carnival” that is featured in the handsome logo that the carnies use, I somehow missed it. I can only guess that it’s a marketing device and that Knauf, in his research, came to the conclusion that Depression-era geek-show patrons were a pretentious lot.)

Early on, Anderson has to deliver some sub-“Buffy the Vampire Slayer” babble about how to every generation there is born a “creature of light” and a “creature of darkness,” and one of course assumes that Ben is fated to be one of these diametrically opposed worthies. The other is presumably Brother Justin Crowe (the imposing, deep-voiced Clancy Brown), a reverend who also possesses some kind of magical powers and who desperately wants to use them to help suffering humanity, which you just know ought to mean, in “Carnivàle”’s universe, that he’s the bad guy. (He is also equipped with a formidable sister, played by the formidable, eternally under-used Amy Madigan.) Yet the most intriguing thing about “Carnivàle” is that the creature of light/creature of darkness business hasn’t yet shaped up to be nearly as clear-cut as it sounds. Crowe, who at first glance promises to be a charlatan, really does want to do good, and as his efforts are frustrated he undergoes a King Hell spiritual crisis, the kind that includes side trips to rubber rooms and the shock ward. Meanwhile, Ben’s “heroism” seems to consist of his stubborn refusal to use his gifts, for fear of the unimaginable consequences. If it sounds more interesting than it plays, that’s probably because it’s hard to shake off the feeling that Knauf and his writers are keeping things muddy not because they’re thrilled by the dramatic possibilities of moral ambiguity but for the same reason Gilligan and the gang never could get off that damn island. In its need to leave something to come back to next week, “Carnivàle” isn’t exploring endless possibilities, it’s just spinning its wheels.

In place of dramatic impetus, “Carnivàle” mostly offers atmosphere suffused with a slightly musty eeriness. Whether by conscious or unconscious design—it’s as if the writers’ evasiveness were taking physical form — images of paralysis and other crippling impediments to expressiveness tend to dominate. Mulling over the mysterious riddles that the show keeps throwing in his path, Samson retreats to his office trailer and addresses such lines as “What’re you up to?” to Management, an unseen and perhaps unseeable force that silently sits, or floats, or something, behind a curtain. (Maybe Anderson finally threatened the writers with violence if they didn’t give him something more to work with, because towards the end of the season, damned if the curtain didn’t start answering back, in the voice of Linda Hunt, yet.)

The vibrant young actress Clea DuVall wastes away in the role of Sophie, a carny girl whose fortune-telling mother apparently suffered some kind of overdraft of her psychic abilities and now lies in state, overdressed and stiff as a board, all-knowing but unable to move or speak. Sophie translates for her, relaying her prophecies to the customers (except when she judges them too cruel to bear) and engaging in one-sided dialogues with Mom, who, to judge from the half of the conversation we can hear, is a scold and a half. DuVall delivers the standard protests and complaints that young actresses always get to deliver in second-rate TV dramas, while her mother continues to lie there, mute and bug-eyed. (Mom is played, so to speak, by Diane Salinger, a long way from her own ingénue days, when she sat in a big fake dinosaur and told Pee-Wee Herman how she longed to visit France.) There’s also Patrick Bauchau as another maimed soothsayer, the blind Lodz, whose inability to stop hectoring people with unsolicited advice helps bring him to grief in the season finale.

People hole up in hovels seeking protection from dust storms; the charred bodies of children burned alive in their beds are laid out on the street in rows; people who’ve been robbed of their hopes and their loved ones wail and weep and drift into catatonia or outright madness. In general, “Carnivàle” can leave you with the suspicion that the Great Depression might just be getting a bad rap here.

Michael J. Anderson may well have been cast for the associations he carries to the pantheon of hip TV— he played the “man from another place” in "Twin Peaks" (and more recently appeared briefly as a string-pulling mafioso in Lynch’s busted-pilot-turned-feature-film “Mulholland Drive”), and also starred (as Poe’s hop-frog ) in Julie Taymor’s 1992 TV film “Fool’s Fire.” Yet he’s the best thing in “Carnivàle”: he grounds it, giving it a suggestion of something earthy and practical that’s a relief from all the free-floating weirdness going on around him. Samson has some surprises in him and Anderson manages to fuse them well enough that the character’s unpredictability doesn’t seem like the mismatched whims of a desperate writing staff.

Samson doesn’t have any special connection to the unearthly — or any special affection for it either; you sense that he’d like it if his life was a damn sight duller — but from time to time he does see unfathomable things and he’s learned to just accept them when he has to. Anderson really shines in the series’ high point, a visit to a mining community called Babylon that’s so eerie it makes the rest of the series seem as straightforward as “Leave It To Beaver.” It involves the murder of a Carny girl (and ends with the suggestion that for the girl, the nightmare has just begun with her death), an incident that threatens to undermine Samson’s authority and forces him to reassert it with a display of “carny justice.” The Babylon episode is a perfect, haunting little ghost story, inserted right in the middle of the series, and there’s scant preparation for it and little development from it. It’s self-contained, as if the folks working on “Carnivàle” had repressed their narrative instincts for as long as they could and just had to take a break and tell a story before getting back to the serious business of not letting anything happen.

At least, since “Carnivàle” has been renewed for a second season, criticism of it can be offered in the hope that somebody will learn from it. With the Steven Soderbergh/George Clooney production “K Street” there’s nothing to do now but sift the ashes and maybe salt the earth, so nothing like this can ever grow again. “K Street” is officially kaput, and a visit to its section at HBO’s web site indicates that after the first few episodes, even the people whose job it was to write and post synopses of each episode just threw up their hands. It’s too bad, because compared to “Carnivàle,” “K Street” boasted a serious, talented bunch of creators (besides Soderbergh, who did some of the directing and camerawork, and Clooney, Henry Bean, writer-director of “The Believer,” is credited with having worked on whatever script there was or might have been). It also had a fresh, exciting idea — i.e., to rip off “Tanner ’88” instead of “Twin Peaks” for a change. Directed by Robert Altman and scripted by Garry Trudeau, “Tanner” was one of the proudest achievements in HBO’s history. During that election year, Altman built a campaign staff (headed by Pamela Reed as the steely, fire-breathing manager C.J. Kavanaugh) and press corps around a fake candidate, Congressman Jack Tanner (Michael Murphy), and charted their progress from New Hampshire to the Democratic Convention, allowing the actors to interact with real political and media figures and react to actual events while shooting it all in the fast, cheap fly-on-the-wall style of a C-Span cameraman. (The cast also included little Cynthia Nixon, not yet ready for “Sex in the City,” as the congressman’s college-age daughter.) The results were a dizzying, heady brew, and not even Altman — who was due to return to feature films after a decade of monkeying with video and filmed theater — has ever really attempted anything similar since.

“K Street” plants a few actors — Roger Guenver Smith, Mary McCormack, John Slattery — around James Carville and Mary Matalin, proposes that they’re pretending to be a Washington lobbying firm and brings on some real Washington figures for them to play with. Right away, certain problems make themselves felt. Soderbergh has shown that working with a tightly written script (as in Out of Sight and The Limey), he can play around and create lively, semi-improved atmosphere. In his full-improvisational mode, let’s-put-on-a-show movie Full Frontal, he’s also demonstrated that he can throw a lot of good actors and promising elements into a pot, stir it up good and pour out his weight in mud (both “K Street” and Full Frontal are unconscionably butt-ugly, as if Soderbergh were afraid that decent lighting would compromise the purity of the enterprise). “Tanner ’88” had built-in momentum from the rush to keep pace with the rolling carnival of the campaign, but in “K Street” we keep being pulled back to the lobbying offices to watch Carville and Matalin do their Battling Bickersons of the Beltway act, while poor Mary McCormack does her half of conversations into a phone receiver that she might as well have had surgically attached to the side of her head.

It’s a mistake that Altman, no stranger to mistakes of one kind or another, would never make. “K Street” is so determined to find the showboating political types fascinating that, instead of having the real actors occupy the center of the show, it allows Carville/Matalin and company to suck the air out of the show while the people who have the training and the skills to entertain us fritter away on the margins. Their frittering is more potentially interesting — just because it’s skillfully done — than the big developments involving the downfall of Matalin-Carville Inc. The tiny details take over the show without ever developing into anything. The result is a show so inert that it makes “Carnivàle” look like Hellzapoppin’ — a show that double-dog dares you to watch it! (Blogger and gadfly David Rothschild noted that one stretch of the show dwelt so long on a re-gifted Jazz CD that it began to seem that the show’s real theme is that nobody likes Branford Marsalis.)

I’ve heard it speculated that Soderbergh, Clooney and company came to rip the lid off Washington and got played for suckers, that they were too awed by the supposed magnetism and power of Carville/Matalin and company and wound up just celebrating them while the Washington players chortled at them behind their backs. Maybe so, but if that’s true, it’s like the story of the scorpion who stings the frog carrying it across the river. Because “K Street” reveals that its subjects are less fascinating than they themselves and their chroniclers seem to think. It may even remind you that the one really dead patch in “Tanner ’88” was the Washington dinner party, where Altman not only packed the screen with Washington luminaries, but made the mistake of having his actors shut up and listen to them.

Whatever the failings of the new fall series, HBO ended 2003 in glory with its production of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, acclaimed by all right-thinking observers as a highlight of the cultural season, not just great TV but a great movie and a theatrical event. It was also, at least to my eyes, just another lame TV movie, full of prestige performers wading through yesterday’s big hit play on important social themes. Mike Nichols’ and Kushner’s decision to underline the theatricality of the piece seemed to stress that what this was really about was Angels in America itself — recording it and bringing it into our homes to declare that it’s the great modern American play, hot air, cant, self-congratulatory politics and all. Where were the people who were so upset by a teensy acknowledgement in the TV movie The Reagans that Ronald Reagan was not the most enlightened friend a gay man could have in the age of AIDS when Kushner’s torrential protest play about the gay plague and conservative homophobia came flooding into all those paying households? Maybe they recognized that this Angels was all about preaching to the converted, in the great tradition of TV problem dramas from the days of 12 Angry Men and Patterns to The Day After, and had sense enough not to get involved.

Angels on HBO was, finally, A Mike Nichols Production — he can even make bombast bloodlessly prestigious. It’s just possible to guess, from the speeches and anger and even the traces of real artistry that Nichols couldn’t beat out of Jeffrey Wright’s performance, why Angels the play must have seemed so inspiring 10 years ago, especially to grieving, angry audiences. I do wonder how much better Kushner’s mixture of agitprop and cutesy-poo whimsy (such as the picture of heaven as a Noo Yawk committee meeting) could have played. Aside from Wright, the only part I felt grateful for was the deathbed exchange between Roy Cohn (Al Pacino) and Ethel Rosenberg (Meryl Streep) — not because it was good (between Pacino’s ranting and Streep’s downcast face in whitish makeup and the stagey storm front, it was pretty embarrassing), but because it reminded me of how terrific James Woods was in the 1992 HBO TV movie Citizen Cohn, which, lacking a proper theatrical pedigree, got pretty crappy reviews.

Now that HBO’s done its best for culture and has next year’s Nobel Prize for TV movies in the bag, it can relax and start thinking about entertainment values again. I hope so. I’m not really tempted to sign up for Showtime just to see if I can get into “Dead Like Me.”