HBO still has The Wire. The Sopranos and Deadwood are gone. Or perhaps Six Feet Under and Sex and the City were more to your liking. They're gone, too. Rome? Gone.
Meanwhile, on Showtime, you've got Dexter, better than anything still on HBO outside of The Wire. You've got Weeds, about which you could say the same. The Tudors and Californication? OK, maybe that's stretching things a bit, but really, is Entourage clearly better than Californication? Right now, the big show on HBO is Big Love, and it's a good show, but it's also emblematic of certain changes. For a long time now, networks like Showtime have striven to be like HBO. But that's not quite the case nowadays. As I wrote back in March of last year, "Big Love is a Showtime series that just happens to be on HBO." HBO is looking more like Showtime all the time, and it's not just a case of Showtime becoming more HBO-ish, it's also a case of HBO losing some of its sheen.
I was talking to Neal about this … he's a big HBO fan … and he countered my argument by noting that right now, he's enjoying watching Deadwood and The Wire reruns. To which I say, precisely. The three best television shows of the last several years were all on HBO. Two of them are finished, the third has only one season to go. I've been known to watch a Wire rerun or two myself, and I don't imagine I'll ever tire of Deadwood. But Deadwood ain't coming back. And I understand that people don't want to shell out for two premium channels … heck, most people don't want to shell out for ONE such channel. But in the past, if you only got one, the choice was easy: HBO. The choice isn't so easy any more. Right now, if you have HBO, you get to watch Entourage and Big Love … if you have Showtime, you get to watch Weeds, which is better than both of those shows. And come September, Showtime will have Dexter, which has probably taken over from The Wire as the Best Show No One Knows About, since the incessant howling of Wire fans like myself have at least brought that show to people's attention. Robin and I are the only people we know who watch Dexter, and while part of that is probably due to the subject matter, most of it is just the remnants of people's notion that the best TV is still on HBO.
The comparison to The Wire is appropriate, I think. Dexter isn't up to that level, but neither is any other show, so that's no real putdown. Where Dexter is now is where The Wire was after its first season: it's a great show that no one watches, which inspires the few who do watch to hassle everyone, trying to get them to watch the damn thing. I mean, Robin and I both have shows that no one else we know watches … I could make a list of shows Robin watches and I bet if I threw in a fake title, most people wouldn't get it, because they've never heard of the real ones (Painkiller Jane, anyone? Burn Notice?) Me, I often stay up a few extra minutes to watch Craig Ferguson's monologue, and I don't know anyone else who does that, but monologues are pretty much up to taste preferences anyway. My point is that Dexter, like The Wire, isn't one of those obscure shows that no one cares about because they're adequate time-fillers. No, when Dexter shows up next month, it will be the best show on the air at that time. And no one will care.
Maybe Nikki Finke has it right when she says "The only problem is that Showtime, unlike HBO, can't market worth a damn. Or else the riveting Dexter and its upcoming 2nd season would be the pay channel series everyone is talking about. Instead, the silence is deafening. HBO now has crap but promotes it well, and Showtime has good stuff and can't get it arrested. I say HBO and Showtime should swap marketing departments."