Showtime at the TCAs: Relaxed and happy, as long as Homeland doesn’t screw up

Showtime at the TCAs: Relaxed and happy, as long as Homeland doesn’t screw up

David Nevins (left), President of Showtime, and Matthew C. Blank, CEO of Showtime
David Nevins (left), President of Showtime, and Matthew C. Blank, CEO of Showtime

Showtime doesn’t have anything to worry about. That was the main takeaway from the Television Critics Association’s executive session for the network on Friday afternoon. David Nevins, the president of Showtime, was relaxed and candid with the critics—at least, as candid as a TV executive ever really gets.

Unlike most of the other networks presenting in this press tour, Showtime is in the enviable position of having both the critical acclaim that other cable networks are seeking and a type of immunity from ratings, which broadcast networks are always chasing. It is still not the giant that its rival HBO is—it hasn’t possessed the cultural conversation in quite the same way. But it has come really, really close. Homeland, which is starting its fourth season on October 9, was a major critical and commercial success for the network—and though critical praise dropped off in season three, viewership never did.

So naturally, Showtime started off their time at the press tour with a Homeland-themed lunch, where showrunner Alex Gansa and writers Alex Cary and Meredith Stiehm discussed the upcoming season. At the end of last season, Homeland pretty much had to kill off its male lead, Nicholas Brody—ending not just his life but also the central pillar of the show, which had been built around Brody’s relationship with Carrie Mathison. The panel on season four, then, becomes not just a sneak preview but also proof of concept: How does the show live on without its Emmy-winning male lead?

It was a show of confidence tinged with just a tiny bit of desperation. Gansa—who is now the only showrunner, after Howard Gordon stepped back from Homeland to work on other projects—is grappling with redirecting the show, having lost one actor to plot necessities and another to natural causes. (James Rebhorn, who died earlier this year, played Carrie’s father in the show.) The show is introducing several new characters as a result—most notably, Suraj Sharma, who played the lead in Life Of Pi.

Last fall, Homeland was paired with debut show Masters Of Sex. But for its second season, Masters was moved up to the summer—it’s airing now—and paired with fellow sophomore drama Ray Donovan. In its place is Showtime’s new show, The Affair, a relationship drama starring Dominic West, Ruth Wilson, Maura Tierney, and Joshua Jackson. Like Masters, it eschews brutality and violence for what Nevins called the “intensity” of interpersonal relationships:

A lot of television is getting bigger and bigger and bigger. Penny Dreadful is a massive show. Homeland is a massive show with sort of globe‑spanning themes.  But one of the things that television always does best is the close‑up. Great writing and great acting and the pleasure of great writing and great acting.  

For critics—and fans of television, too—Nevins’ take on television sounds similar to our own. His perspective on Showtime’s programming seems to be to find shows that do one particular thing well, and then to go with it. That has led to a lineup of shows that are all singular, even if some are singularly frustrating: Penny Dreadful’s surprising and impressive use of genre themes is countered with Ray Donovan’s aggressive banality. And yet, it’s kind of a good problem to have. Showtime takes risks that other networks wouldn’t, which often means its shows are either entrancing or repulsive, without much space in the middle. The network isn’t taking a mediating hand in these shows’ development, which lets showrunners do their great or terrible thing with impunity.

The most obvious drawback to this benign governance is what is widely thought to be Showtime’s biggest problems: Its shows tend to drag on for a few seasons too long, pulling beloved characters into stories that are unsatisfying and make little sense. Fans of Dexter and Weeds might recognize that; even anyone who saw the last shot of Shameless’ fifth-season finale. When I asked Nevins about that in the session, he framed the decision as a business one—they don’t have to worry about declining ratings: “It’s one of the luxuries of where I sit.  You’re less buffeted by market forces.” He also confirmed that the strategy would not change—in fact, he might be the only network executive to call shows that are four or five seasons in “young.”

It makes a lot of sense, from the network’s perspective: Showtime is filling out its programming for the year with shows that fit into Sunday nights—it doesn’t program on any other night. And where starting a new show has risks and costs associated with it, keeping a show on for another season is—as they say in economics—marginal. From Nevins’ point of view, keeping a show around that is working—even one that doesn’t have critical support, like House Of Lies or the recently concluded Californication—is cheaper than trying to make a play for some other corner of the audience.

With that in mind, get used to these three new shows: Billions, written by journalist Andrew Ross Sorkin; Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, a comedy with musical elements; and Roadies, with Cameron Crowe, Winnie Holzman, and J.J. Abrams. There’s minimal information on all besides the network loglines, but that last one in particular has all-star talent and a premise that sounds like the TV version of Almost Famous, so that’s interesting. (And for those who know about this project: Happy-ish, the show that Philip Seymour Hoffman was working on, is still on hold.)

Those three pilots are in addition to a new docuseries called Lost Songs: The Basement Tapes Continued, in which musicians like Elvis Costello, Marcus Mumford of Mumford & Sons, and Taylor Goldsmith from Dawes create music for new, recently discovered Bob Dylan lyrics. (The premise for this is literally, “Bob Dylan found some more stuff in his basement and some other people make music with it.”)

By and large, Showtime’s network sensibility reflects a network that cares about TV and is open to creativity. At times, it is a little too laissez-faire for its own good—often, viewers would rather see a graceful exit than four more mediocre seasons. But as Nevins’ relaxed attitude at the TCAs indicated, the network is doing just fine.

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