Friday, April 24, 2009

It's Not T.V., It's HBO

I've recently found out about a television program, In Treatment, about a therapist, Dr. Paul Weston, and four of his patients. The concept of the show- therapist treating people may in fact need more help than any of his patients- is not a new one. And, while it has gotten tremendous reviews, those didn't serve to draw me towards it so much as they didn't push me away once I got closer. The reason I was drawn to the show, and I believe this is a first, is its format.

Episodes of In Treatment are thirty minutes long, and each episode spends the bulk of its time in a single session, with the patient corresponding to the day of the week. The show works in cycles of Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday episodes, with Paul playing the patient on Fridays to his own therapist. Well that's all fine and dandy, what makes this show so fascinating to me is that each episode, for the first season at least, was aired on its according day; In Treatment was aired once a night, every weeknight, for the nine weeks it took to get through all 43 episodes of its first season. You don't get that on network television.

And this is precisely why I think subscription channels like HBO are such a great thing. There is no doubting the freedoms provided as far as content goes, but that shouldn't be the sole focus anymore. In time, people will be saying "fuck" on NBC. They will. But, mark my words, a show that airs five times a week, once a night, that isn't a news program, would never see the light of day on any of the major networks, or on any channel that's a part of the basic cable package. Any network would, probably rightfully, look upon the decision to back such a program as commercial suicide. New shows that air once a week rarely pull the audience needed to recoup their expenses, let alone a show that airs every weeknight. With the subscriber system, HBO doesn't worry about ratings to bring in its money; this show was already paid for by non-viewers like you.

Not only is it a right of HBO to do shows like this, I think it is a necessity. Television is a relative young medium, but it has already seemingly run its course, as far as new ideas. There are occasional programs that seem to come out of nowhere, like the peerless Arrested Development, but, as its sad fate showed the world, fresh writing alone does not a hit make. Yes, shows like Lost, with its extreme story and requirement of total devotion to even have the slightest idea of what's going on, can be a bit refreshing, but even that is just a more extreme version of shows that have come before. Twin Peaks, anyone? Admittedly, In Treatment is not the first of its kind either; it is, in fact, an adaptation of an Israeli show called Betipul. That program is aired in exactly the same broadcast schedule, five nights a week. And I know some soap operas are aired daily, but In Treatment doesn't have a ridiculous narrative; it's quiet, it's real, it could happen.

For the second season, HBO has taken to airing "Monday" and "Tuesday" episodes back-to-back on Sundays, and then the "Rest of the week" airs on Monday nights, but I don't mind that. They gave the first season a chance to do something unprecedented on American television and I applaud it. The fact that they did it shows it can be done, and that there are still new presentational routes television can take, and this is necessary for its survival. The format of the first season of In Treatment serves as proof that HBO's motto is not only clever, but deserved.

1 comment:

Joe said...

HBO has advantages that cable television doesn't have and that's important to remember. Cable television relies on sponsors for it's money, and that depends on viewership. Cable can't take that kind of risk.

HBO on the other hand can do whatever the hell it wants. It's viewership is a given because those who have paid for HBO have already paid for it. When Sorkin's Sports Night was cancelled due to poor ratings HBO was all on it simply because they believed in the show (Mr. Sorkin has started West Wing at the time and didn't want the continued stress of two shows). They can do that.

HBO is a hell of a beast-- if cables channels could compete it'd be a hell of a market, but they simply can't. Money makes the world go 'round, after all.