Fuggedabout the past 15 years and all that talk of faded glory from “The Sopranos” and “Sex and the City” – HBO has reclaimed its mojo.
And, with the addition of its content-rich streaming service, HBO Max — which contributed “Hacks” and “The Flight Attendant” — it’s once again dominating the comedy/drama space as it did back in the days of “The Larry Sanders Show” and “In Treatment.” (The latter’s reboot on HBO Max snared a 2021 Emmy nod for star Uzo Aduba — an added bonus.)
The 2021 Emmys — held Sunday, Sept. 19 (8 p.m. EST), at LA Live — solidifies it: HBO leads with 130 Emmy nominations, marking the network’s return as the go-to destination for prestige, critically acclaimed, provocative productions.
Though having a $10-a-month app with fantastic shows and blockbuster releases has been monumental, the main ingredient in this comeback is casting.
The network never lost its touch in recruiting A-list talent, even after Netflix reared its head and its deep pockets to sign Shonda Rhimes, Ryan Murphy, Barack and Michelle Obama, “Game of Thrones” creators David Benioff and others to big-money, long-term production deals.
HBO’s constellation of stars has been in abundant supply in its recent and on ongoing hits. We had Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern as headstrong women whose conflicting views coalesce over the course of two seasons in “Big Little Lies” and Kidman (again) and Hugh Grant as a married couple in a murder mystery with a surprising twist (“The Undoing”).
Best Actress nominee Kate Winslet’s headstrong, hard-charging suburban Philadelphia detective investigating the murder of a young girl drove “Mare of Easttown” to great dramatic heights (and 16 Emmy noms), while Kaley Cuoco was funny, sad and emotional – frequently within the same scene — in three-time nominee, “The Flight Attendant.”
Zendaya set the tone for teen angst in “Euphoria,” while Courtney B. Vance, the late Michael K. Williams, Jurnee Smollett and Jonathan Majors took a ride into a fantastical world of science fiction and all-too-real drama in “Lovecraft Country.”
In “Hacks,” older pro Jean Smart showed why she’s a legend-in-the-making as a whip-smart, cynical, Joan Rivers-type stand-up comedian who meets her match in her younger alter-ego (newcomer Hannah Einbinder). Both ladies scored nods for their performances. And how memorable were Mark Ruffalo (“I Know This Much Is True”), Amy Adams (“Sharp Objects”) and the combination of Ruth Wilson and Lin Manuel-Miranda in “His Dark Materials”? It’s a long and impressive list both for HBO and HBO Max.
It’s true that “it all starts with the writing,” and the big-name celebrity actors could not shine without stellar, riveting scripts from the likes of Misha Green (“Lovecraft Country”); Brad Ingelsby (“Mare of Easttown”); and Lucia Aniello, Paul W. Downs and Jen Statsky (“Hacks”). Coupled with lush, eye-catching cinematography and quirky storylines (“The Flight Attendant,” “Euphoria”), it’s been a recipe for viewership and validation from both viewers at home and the dog-eat-dog television industry.
What HBO/HBO Max has done right is reach across the generational divide (teen dramas “Euphoria,” “I May Destroy You”) and provide viewers of every age and demographic with resonant programming that speaks to a variety of audiences — and, in this all-important digital age — spur online discussions, viral jokes (“Succesion” has its own meme Twitter account with over 123,000 followers) and can’t-miss moments. Those include Mare’s (the British-born Winslet) Pennsylvania accent and nude scene in “Mare of Easttown,” the steamy sex scenes on “The White Lotus” and daringly diverting reality shows such as “FBoy Island.”
There have been some misfires; HBO, for some reason, canceled “Lovecraft Country” after only one season, despite the multi-hyphenate series making waves for blending a rockin’ melange of historical drama, fiction, fantasy and horror into one cohesive arc, spearheaded by the pedigree of producers JJ Abrams and Jordan Peele. Its opening episode snared 10 million viewers when all was said and done — the biggest premiere in HBO Max history, according to the network.
And, it snared 18 nominations and two early Emmy victories for Vance (Outstanding Guest Actor in a Drama Series) and for Outstanding Sound Editing. In the fickle world of television, that wasn’t enough to earn the series another season — a move that outraged its fans, who desperately wanted more.
Unfortunately, that type of programming move happens too often (see “Manifest” moving from NBC to Netflix or “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” picked up by NBC after being axed by Fox) but, going forward, I don’t think it will impact HBO’s victory lap after having awoken from its slumber to reclaim its long-dormant status as a buzz-worthy network — and fully meeting the challenge of staving off its cable and streaming competitors in owning a chunk of the overcrowded programming landscape.