Once you have seen one of the many great HBO dramas, it’s hard to watch one on regular television. It’s not just the foul language and other creative liberties that HBO is allowed to use. It’s simply that the shows are on a much higher level. The production value is through the roof. The acting is top notch, often featuring already well known stars combined with actors who become stars. It’s also the flow of the shows, with HBO running a series without reruns. Because of the high quality shows on HBO, network dramas have started to push the envelope on what they can put on television. That has helped those shows, but they still lag behind HBO.
“The Sopranos” helped put HBO on the map. But other shows have surpassed it. “The Wire” is the best example of that. Despite featuring no big stars, “The Wire” became one of the most highly regarded television dramas of all time. “Boardwalk Empire” is now continuing that trend. HBO has other dramas to its credit, including the wildly popular “True Blood.” All of these shows have the look and feel of a big movie. The production value of HBO shows is unmatched. There’s a reason they continue to be honored in the eyes of critics and award shows.
Network shows can’t really match the quality of HBO shows, but they can learn from them. It’s no knock on network shows, which are more limited both in creative license and budgets. But HBO shows have helped inspire many network dramas to push the envelope a bit more. Shows like “House” and “CSI” have become high quality productions on the major networks. Meanwhile, cable channels like TBS, TNT, and USA have also gotten into the drama fold. TNT has particularly produced a variety of series. Some are better than others, but they have followed the same model. They get solid actors, create realistic storylines, and up the production quality. Even other premium channels like Starz and Showtime have gotten into the fold.
The days of the dry, stoic drama series are pretty much gone. HBO has changed the genre and upped the bar. Just because networks can’t use profanity doesn’t mean they can’t produce great shows. In large part, the HBO model can be seen on many network shows. “Lost” ran its last season in the spring to avoid reruns. That clearly helped the quality of the show and made it more appealing to the fan base. It also enabled the “Lost” writers to create storylines that flowed much better. I would expect many more network dramas to start doing that. The potential for quality is there. If creative people can get behind network dramas and make something that truly stands out, perhaps a series as good as “The Wire” could find itself on NBC or CBS.