It's been tough to work at a TV network these past few decades without suffering from an inferiority complex. No matter how hard you've tried, it's as if your mother is standing over you wagging a finger in your face, declaiming, "Why can't you be more like your brother HBO?"
Which brings us to the topsy-turvy cultural moment that is the newly dawned fall TV season. Now broadcasters find themselves the fair-haired golden boys, each with a bright new comedy to call their own, including Fox's "New Girl," ABC's "Suburgatory," CBS's "Two Broke Girls," and if we're being charitable, NBC's "Up All Night." That's on top of defining hits like ABC's "Modern Family" and CBS's "Big Bang Theory."
At the very same time, HBO finds itself in a troubling lull on the comedy front. It's not for lack of trying; the network put four different half-hours into rotation in October, including returning series "Hung," "Bored to Death," "How To Make It In America" and a new one, "Enlightened."
Each has garnered acclaim in some quarters, but let's get real: These shows have little in the way of audience, buzz, social-media traction or award nominations.
This isn't the place to pick apart their individual merits or the lack thereof. But the overall creative approach HBO seems to take to scripted comedy series these days needs to be questioned. The track record is all the more puzzling given the network's ever-awesome drama series and long-form fare is evidence enough that the HBO programming mold isn't broken, just selectively applied.
The problem is HBO thinks small in half-hour form. None of these comedies earn the right to stand shoulder to shoulder with colossi like "True Blood" or "Boardwalk Empire" and be thought of as the network's "signature" shows.
On the drama side, HBO takes big swings. On the comedy side, it's all bunts.
Either the talent isn't up to snuff or the concept just feels slight. "Bored" has the talent but lacks the concept; "Hung" is the other way around.
And the problem extends beyond what's currently on air, too. Its most promising comedy property, "Eastbound & Down," shriveled in its second season because its first was always intended to be a film. The animated stuff, "The Life and Times of Tim," and "The Ricky Gervais Show," doesn't hold a candle to the genre's entries on other channels.
By the way, there's nothing like repurposing overseas series to confer second-class status on a show, even when it has Gervais, who will produce another upcoming series, "Life's Too Short," that will get a BBC run first. And on that note, was "Summer Heights High" really good enough for its Aussie star, Chris Lilley, to get another shot on HBO, "Angry Boys"?
It's not like HBO hasn't succeeded in comedy before. Its first original-programming successes were "Dream On" and "The Larry Sanders Show." HBO even managed to top them with the absolutely iconic "Sex and the City." Even "Entourage" was very good its first few years before deciding to just phone it in for the final four seasons or so. The recently concluded season of "Curb Your Enthusiasm" proved yet again it's still got the goods, but there's no guarantee there will be a ninth season.
The problem is those shows are so different from each other that they don't really point the way forward for how HBO can recover its comedy mojo. Imagine what "Curb" first seemed like on paper. So the guy who created "Seinfeld" who isn't Jerry Seinfeld is going to do a show based on his own then-anonymous life with improvised riffing rather than scripts? Really?
If anything, rival Showtime has shown the way forward. Before he moved to NBC last year, programming chief Robert Greenblatt successfully applied a very simple formula again and again: Plug an interesting star into an outre concept that embraces premium cable's loose content restrictions. Marijuana + Mary Louise Parker = "Weeds." Toni Collette + multiple-personality disorder = "The United States of Tara." And don't forget "Californication," "Nurse Jackie," "The Big C" and "Shameless."
With Laura Dern headlining "Enlightened," it feels like HBO may have been trying to give the Showtime formula a whirl. But the series is more nuanced and muted than a Showtime show. This tale of a lost soul who tries to put her new-age philosophies into practice at a soulless corporation is too complicated to be marketing-friendly.
If "Enlightened" were developed on Showtime, it would star Elizabeth Banks as a lovable psychopath who escapes from a mental institution only to wind up running it. And she'd be a nymphomaniac.
Don't get me wrong; I actually love "Enlightened." So much so that I'm fighting my attachment to it in fear it's not going to stick around beyond a single season. Because here's the problem with this dark, thoughtful show: it's not so much a comedy as it is a 30-minute drama that happens to have comedic elements.
To a lesser degree, so is "Hung", though at least "Hung" has a nice, loud concept--suburban dad becomes a gigolo--that gets attention. But there's a pretty bitter pill that gets mashed into all the fun talk about pimps and hos: reflections on America's economic plight and the perils of capitalism that's too serious by half.
It's as if the network's "It's not TV. It's HBO" motto has it so petrified to have any of their comedies confused with anything on other networks that they've bent too far over backwards to be different. Either you get overly challenging genre-defiers like "Enlightened" or brittle wisps like "Bored" and "America," which look as if they were shot on the same Manhattan block.
Maybe 2012 brings some hope in the form of another "Seinfeld" alum, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who stars in "Veep" as a senator who gets in over her head when she's elected vice president. On paper, this feels like a step in the right direction, a marriage of top talent and provocative subject matter.
Perhaps it's telling that HBO is turning to a broadcast-sitcom veteran for a revival. Which isn't to say a show on a pay-TV net needs someone with broad appeal. HBO's business model is more geared toward getting just a subsection of the audience to fork over a monthly subscription fee.
But somewhere along the way in its effort to stand apart from the rest of the TV universe, HBO fell over the edge in search of edgy. If the channel's comedy choices are defined only by doing what broadcasters wouldn't dare put on the air, it's high time for a rethink.