Showtime at the TCA press tour: What would you say to taking chances?

Showtime at the TCA press tour: What would you say to taking chances?

This summer’s Television Critics Association press tour has featured a lot of unflappability among the executives who take the stage for grilling from journalists. There’s nothing wrong with television! Why would anyone ever think there was anything wrong with television? The business model isn’t collapsing; it’s just contracting! And so on and so forth.

If there’s one executive who’s earned a bit of unflappability, it’s Showtime’s David Nevins, who’s grown the network—long viewed by TV writer types as HBO’s poky kid brother—to 23 million subscribers, up 5 million from when he took over the network. The network’s shows continue to build in viewership, to the degree that Dexter’s final season looks likely to be its highest rated season, Homeland built steadily week after week in season two, and Ray Donovan is going to be the network’s highest rated first season show ever. (That lattermost fact must be something the network is breathing a huge sigh of relief over, given how important Dexter has been to its ratings strategy over the years. Now, it finally has a replacement.) The network is also launching one of the handful of new fall shows that seems likely to get good reviews in Masters Of Sex, and it has any number of solid utility players returning, from Shameless to Californication. (Shameless, incidentally, will return for its next season on January 12 at 9 p.m. Eastern, followed by House Of Lies and Episodes. Nurse Jackie and Californication’s next seasons will be paired up together in the spring.)

Of course, the network also recently canceled The Borgias, and what initially seemed like it might get some buzz in the session was the fact that a bunch of Borgias fans hired a plane to fly over the Beverly Hilton at lunchtime and send the message that Showtime should bring the series back. It didn’t work, considering that Nevins said the network couldn’t even make the economics work for a two-hour wrap-up movie, but both that and the lone Borgias protestor who camped out outside of the Hilton—whom Nevins claims to have had a conversation with, like the opening scene in a never-written Tom Wolfe novel—tossed a smidgen of attention in the direction of another solid show that couldn’t keep up with the pace of growth of its network.

Increasingly under Nevins, Showtime seems pleased to be taking chances. Not all of those chances will work out, and some of them will fail miserably, but the network is no longer the place that seems to assemble all of its series via the rough arithmetic of [name actress] + [psychological struggle] + [quirky humor] = Showtime series! Homeland was a departure for the network. House Of Lies was a departure, albeit a fairly gross and crass one. Ray Donovan wasn’t so much, but Masters Of Sex is unlike essentially any other show on TV right now. Again, that doesn’t always work, but it at least keeps things interesting, and interesting is what Showtime wants to be up to now.

To that end, Nevins confirmed a bunch of news that was already suspected, mostly talking about how various projects are inching forward as they proceed along the line. The network’s grand, Gothic horror show, Penny Dreadful, which you may remember as the League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen for monsters, added two leads in Eva Green and Josh Hartnett (all right), as well as a director in The Orphange’s J.A. Bayona. Nevins seemed really high on Dreadful throughout the conference, praising John Logan’s scripts for the series, as well as promising that it would scare the hell out of people. Left unsaid was who would be playing all of those monsters, as Green and Hartnett’s characters, at least in the descriptions sent out by Showtime’s publicity team, sound more or less human.

In other new series news, Nevins announced that the female lead of The Affair, a small-scale story of two marriages impacted by one affair from Sarah Treem and Hagai Levi, who last worked together on In Treatment, would be Ruth Wilson, perhaps best known for her work on Luther. It’s an unconventional choice for the network, which still has a bad case of trying to get the biggest stars it can on every project it has (see also: Josh Hartnett), and Wilson should pair well with male lead Dominic West. Nevins also confirmed the pilot order for that Philip Seymour Hoffman show everybody was talking about a few days ago, though he also ironed out a bit of the premise, by saying that it would be about aging and the crumbling job market for those over a certain age and lots of other hilarious things. He praised the script as one of the funniest he’s read, so… we’ll see.

Throughout the conference, Nevins would refer to the way that Showtime is built around appealing to certain sectors of the audience—the sector that likes dramatic series, the sector that likes snarky comedies, the sector that likes sports, and so on. Though it’s hard to imagine the sector of the network’s audience that likes documentaries is as large as any of the above, it remains impressively committed to the form, with two major projects receiving updates. The first, The Years Of Living Dangerously, is the latest attempt to get somebody somewhere to do something about global climate change, only this one is headed up by James Cameron, among many others. It combines the efforts of a bunch of award-winning journalists and several film and TV stars to travel the world and show in close-up detail how climate change is affecting people right now, not in some theoretical future. The clips Nevins previewed looked fairly stunning, and it’ll be a good one to keep an eye out for. There was less said about Time Of Death, a new miniseries from production company Magical Elves, but the six-episode look at people facing their own mortality, again, at least sounds interesting. Both series should arrive in the fall.

Of course, it’s not Showtime if somebody isn’t doing something to make a show run long past its sell-by date, and anyone who might have thought they were in the clear after Dexter ends later this year will be shaking their heads and cackling madly at the notion that the network is still pursuing a spinoff of the long-running series, even though the show’s ensemble doesn’t seem to boast a character who’s immediately spinoffable. (Our vote? The teenage adventures of the Trinity Killer.) Early in the session, Nevins announced the network had signed an overall deal with Dexter executive producer Scott Buck, which just seemed like the sort of thing a network would do to keep a vital talent in-house, but when the last question rolled around and was about a Dexter spinoff, Nevins asked the journalists to draw any inferences they wanted from the fact that Buck now had a two-year deal with the network. If you’ve enjoyed kicking Showtime over the years for its overreliance on certain programs, then the specter of Masuka And Friends or something of its ilk will almost certainly fill you with delight.

But it was a largely subdued press conference, mostly filled with the usual boilerplate about the network’s many different methods of watching (including the fact that the Showtime Anytime app will now let you watch a live East or West Coast feed of the channel) and pointing out interesting statistics that will be primarily of fascination to TV journalists—like the fact that the network’s female-centric shows are the ones that tend to add more of an audience percentage-wise via time-shifting (which would similarly track with how one of HBO’s most time-shifted shows is Girls). Nevins even seemed to get out from under the Homeland backlash question, thanks to yesterday’s solid panel for the show and when asked if the series could eventually move away from the Nicholas Brody storyline—something he’d been hesitant to comment on in prior executive sessions—he pointed to Friday Night Lights as an example of a show that changed much of its cast and kept audience interest high. Nevins also indulged TV journalists’ favorite game by offering pointed criticism of Netflix’s refusal to release ratings numbers—“I think Netflix is playing an interesting game. Who knows who's watching what?”—then flattered us even further by saying that he loves reading weekly TV reviews and worries about what will be lost in terms of discussion if the model moves entirely to one-and-done reviews of full seasons.

For years and years, Showtime was the network where creativity went to die, where even a promising show like Dexter would eventually find itself in a rut and run for years too long and where all of the network’s comedies seemed cut from the same cloth. Showtime isn’t completely in the clear yet, but under Nevins, it’s doing a better job of distinguishing itself and coming up with shows that don’t seem as likely to pop up elsewhere. (The Affair, in particular, is the sort of thing that even HBO stopped greenlighting, for the most part.) Showtime will always have issues—chief among them the fact that its number one competitor is the 800-pound gorilla of television—but it’s seemed to have less and less of them in the last few years. “The enemy of good television is boredom and predictability,” Nevins said of his programming philosophy at one point, and that might have seemed almost like a joke even a year ago. Now, however, it seems as if he really means it.

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