Showtime occupies a weird space in the TV conversation. The network is clearly important enough to be a part of that conversation, but TV fans are also generally forgiven for having substantial reservations about it and its output. For every intriguing announcement the network makes, there’s the news that if a Dexter spinoff ever happens, it will have to involve Michael C. Hall, which suggests several seasons of lumberjack killings. Or, put another way, in the build-up to the latest Homeland season finale, much of the discussion around the show wasn’t about what would happen in that episode—from a story point of view, that answer seemed pretty logical—but about what Showtime would let the producers do to a show that’s had its critical reputation dinged but is still an award-winning, ratings-grabbing asset. (Indeed, it’s now the biggest show in Showtime history, its third season the first show ever on the network to draw 7 million viewers over the course of a week.)
Showtime has spent most of its life in competition with HBO, and there were times in its history when it seemed almost puppyish in its desire to follow the larger network around everywhere it went. (Most of the mid-00s were taken up with shows like Huff, which attempted to capture an HBO aesthetic, were fitfully successful, and completely failed.) Dexter and Weeds gave the network a bit of a kick at a time when HBO was at a low ebb, and then Showtime simply ran them into the ground. (And in the case of Weeds, at least, it came up with several other spins on that basic template that allowed it to dominate the Best Actress in a Comedy Series Emmy category for a couple of years.) Under Bob Greenblatt’s reign, the network found a couple of things that worked, then endlessly repeated them. It helped in terms of subscriber base, and it helped in terms of awards shows, but Showtime still struggled to truly turn the corner creatively.
That’s been changing in recent years, but what the network was still hangs over everything it does. It doesn’t matter when Homeland takes a creative risk, because the previous times it didn’t are colored by the notions of when other Showtime shows didn’t. It doesn’t matter when the network airs compelling documentary television, like last year’s terrific Time Of Death or the upcoming Years Of Living Dangerously (a large budget attempt to depict the ravages of climate change on the planet), because Dexter ran for too long. And it doesn’t matter when the network greenlights a new series like The Affair, specifically chosen to go in the opposite direction of most cable series (bigger and bigger) by getting smaller and smaller and more and more intimate in its depiction of two marriages wrecked by an affair, because it will also have something like Happyish, its new Philip Seymour Hoffman vehicle that looks amusing enough but still is just such a Showtime thing, with its big star and wryly cynical tone and general crankiness about anything invented after 1985.
None of this is really fair to the team currently running Showtime. Network president David Nevins can look a little risk averse when compared to the people running HBO, but every network president in town looks risk averse when compared to HBO, because HBO is rich and big enough to afford throwing money away on random extravagances. Still, the success of shows like Homeland and Ray Donovan—the biggest first season show in the network’s history—have given Nevins the room to play around a little bit. The Affair, which stars Dominic Cooper, Joshua Jackson, Maura Tierney, and Ruth Wilson, is an example of the network trying something few other networks would be even slightly interested in. (Tellingly, it’s from the producers of In Treatment, one of HBO’s most notable experiments.) Similarly, Masters Of Sex wasn’t the smash Ray Donovan was, but it took chances with the cable drama form and garnered a small but loyal audience that will hopefully grow in the seasons to come. Nevins isn’t averse to a play for the big, big audience—see also horror series Penny Dreadful debuting May 11—but he’s not making a million shows about fighting terrorism because Homeland has paid off so handsomely for the network.
That weird nether-region also means that Nevins’ executive sessions at the biannual Television Critics Association press tours are generally taken up more by questions where journalists ask Nevins to assure them he’s not running the Showtime of old (even when he clearly is) and by questions about the broader scope of television. It was a relatively newsy morning for Showtime, with those two series pickups (and one starring an Oscar-winning actor, no less), and yet the executive session was once again more interested in the industry as a whole than Showtime in particular. There were the requisite discussion of whether Nevins was upset by all of the critical reactions to the third season of Homeland. (He’s just happy with the high ratings and the fact that people are so engaged.) And there was also a brief discussion of the channel’s embrace of sexuality, how it’s slid from the salaciousness of Californication to the occasional almost scientific approach on Masters Of Sex. (Nevins thinks touching on sexuality is something he’s happy he can do on his channel, and he thinks Showtime handles it well.)
But mostly, this was about the television industry as a whole, and Nevins largely kept pace with his corporate kin from CBS and The CW. He’s still interested in the pilot process—though that means something completely different for cable networks than it does for broadcast, so he would be—and he’s less enthused by the idea of anthology or limited series than his colleagues at FX or HBO. (Nevins said he wasn’t specifically opposed to them, but he really thought television’s sweet spot involved coming to love characters over time, which is difficult when they change every season or don’t last past a handful of episodes, to which the British television model might take exception, but whatever.) Showtime probably deserves to leave the nether region at this point, thanks to all of the interesting stuff it’s done, but then it puts something like Ray Donovan on the air and reminds you why it’s in that space in the first place. Nevins has done a great job of tugging the channel further into relevancy. Now, he has to find projects to grow passionate about, projects that could only be greenlit by Showtime under David Nevins. And that’s a far tougher trick to pull off.
Here, you read all of that. Have a Penny Dreadful trailer.
Some other Showtime notes:
- Both Californication and Nurse Jackie will be back April 13, running at 9 and 9:30 p.m. Eastern respectively. Years Of Living Dangerously will premiere after both, which is almost HBO-like in how much whiplash viewers may get from the discrepancy between programs. (As far as Jackie goes, Nevins said that she’ll be back to what she does best: using and lying about it. So not every show will break out of its cycle of repetition this year.)
- Which shows on other networks does Nevins watch? He’s really into comedy, which he proved by immediately listing Mad Men, Girls, and Louie, among the most hilarious shows on television. He also likes the Daily Show/Colbert Report power duo and sports.
- The Colby wildfire near Los Angeles gave the sky over Pasadena (where press tour is held) a darkly apocalyptic tint, and Nevins remarked on it frequently throughout, particularly in connection to Living Dangerously.
- For those curious about season four of Homeland, Nevins didn’t yet know precisely what it would look like, but he imagined it would involve Carrie doing her job as a field agent in a foreign capital and that Mandy Patinkin would be “central” to whatever it looks like. Alex Gansa and crew are hammering out the season right now.
- Showtime Anytime, the channel’s streaming service, will be available to all Showtime subscribers sometime before the end of the year.
- The network passed on its highly touted The Vatican—which starred Kyle Chandler—because it didn’t think the program made much sense in a world where Francis is pope, instead of Benedict. So you can thank him for that, in addition to everything else, it would seem.
- That’s all for the ragtag band of CBS networks. We’ll be back tomorrow with the most hotly anticipated executive session of the whole tour: Paul Lee’s attempts to explain what the fuck is going on at ABC.