HBO Now will make the ‘golden age’ of TV shine even brighter

HBO
Emilia Clarke as Daenerys Targaryen from HBO's "Game of Thrones."

With the recent announcement from HBO that the premium cable channel — the venue for so much of the best programming on television over the past decade — is launching a monthly service available through Apple devices called HBO Now, many a bingeing TV heart shifted into full pitter-patter mode. 

The service, which starts on April 1, will give subscribers access to everything that is and has ever been on HBO for $14.99 per month, meaning viewers will not only get the new season of “Game of Thrones,” but every episode of “The Sopranos,” “Rome,” “Deadwood,” “Real Time with Bill Maher” and on and on.

Business stories covering the agreement (which is expected to spread to other streaming services after a 90-day period of exclusivity with Apple ends) hailed it as the first very big step in giving cable viewers the Holy Grail of TV: an a la carte choice of services; a true alternative to the hoary tradition of tiered cable and satellite packages, where everyone from the worst get-a-life sports fan to your 86 year-old mother pay for dozens if not hundreds of channels they never watch in order to have access to the few they do.

With all that in mind, it seemed like a fine time to look at a collection of items I had bookmarked about new programming coming down the pike. 

There are countless television programs currently in production for the North American market pumping “content” into every broadcast network, cable channel and streaming internet service you can think of. I use the word “content” advisedly, since very little of this output qualifies as part of “Golden Age of Television” we hear so much about.

Many of these productions, of course, are low-dollar reality TV gambits featuring not-so-fresh variations on bad orthodontia, worse grooming and cornpone philosophizing. The upside, though, is that dozens of producers have looked at “Game of Thrones,” “House of Cards,” “True Detective,” “Breaking Bad” and “The Americans” (to name only a few) and said: “We can play that game.” 

And they are. Here at the end of winter, my wife and I are observing what has become an annual ritual; binge-watching the last season of “Game of Thrones” (fresh out on DVD) and the new season of “House of Cards” (downloaded from Netflix).

Back-to-back 23 episodes of those two will have you convinced the family dog is plotting against you. But the overall effect is better than dealing with February. The supply of truly interesting adult television fare is growing rapidly, and here’s a dozen or so set to premiere over the next year that sound particularly appealing.

“Bloodline”
Where and when you can see it: Netflix, March 20
Aficionados of the Florida Keys culture love the sense that everyone there, even the retirees in their madras shorts and tube sox, have racks of skeletons in their mildewy closets. Sissy Spacek and Sam Shepard are parents living more or less quietly on the islands when their bad apple eldest son returns home and old secrets start slithering out of the shadows. The folks behind it most recently finished work on “Damages,” with Glenn Close.

“Wolf Hall”
Where and when: PBS, April 5
Yes, an adaptation of the Hilary Mantel novels (the six-part series encompasses both “Wolf Hall” and “Bring Up the Bodies”). The story of Thomas Cromwell and the irresistibly mendacious Henry VIII means more sighs and tears for Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn, two women Americans will never get enough of. The production is touted as first class in every regard, with a script from Peter Straughan of “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” and lavish location settings. Damian Lewis (Brody from “Homeland”) plays Henry VIII, 150 pounds lighter than you think of him being, while Shakespearean heavyweight Mark Rylance is Cromwell.

“The Brink”
Where and when: HBO, summer 2015
Beware of anyone claiming is worthy of comparisons to “Dr. Strangelove.” But this thing has quite a bit going for it. The set-up has a handful of American officials trying to stave off WWIII after a crisis in Pakistan. The writers are best known for “Weeds,” which ran out of gas three seasons before it ended, and one of the directors on board is Jay Roach, who did good things with HBO’s “Recount” and “Game Change.” But check out the cast: Tim Robbins, Jack Black, Rob Brydon (from “The Trip”), Carla Gugino and Aasif Mandvi, of The Daily Show, who will also help with the writing.

“Westworld”
Where and when: HBO, fall 2015
Almost no one under the age of 60 remembers the cheesey-but-vaguely-engaging-sci-fi flick of the same name in which Yul Brynner was the lead. Well, Jonathan Nolan, brother and writing partner of “Dark Knight” and “Inception” director Christopher Nolan, saw the elements of artificial intelligence and morality set in a high tech theme park, and decided to give it a fresh spin. The scripts must be good, because he’s got a very solid cast on board: Anthony Hopkins, Ed Harris, Evan Rachel Wood and Jeffrey Wright are among the leads. And Hollywood’s premier go-to guy for sci-fi, J.J. Abrams, is the producer.

“Untitled Rock ‘n Roll Project”
Where and when: HBO, fall 2015
A series set amid the music industry in the 1970s — when the business’ bastard children, disco and punk — were eating away at, like, real rock ‘n roll sounds like  great fun if it ended there. But when you add Martin Scorsese and Mick Jagger as producers and scripts from Terence Winter (who vividly demonstrated his facility with debauchery on “The Wolf of Wall Street”), you’ve got what comes pretty close to a dream-team collaboration. The cast includes Ray Romano, Andrew Dice Clay (who showed chops no one knew he had in Woody Allen’s “Blue Jasmine”), Olivia Wilde and Bobby Cannavale.

“Show Me a Hero,” HBO
Where and when: HBO, later this year
Ask anyone what was the greatest TV series ever produced; those who don’t say “Breaking Bad” will invariably say, “The Wire.” This is “The Wire” creator David Simon’s latest effort: a six-episode series built around the true story of a battle over the construction of low-cost housing for mostly black residents close to an affluent (i.e. white) New York City suburb. (You can imagine the fun Simon will have with that.) Catherine Keener, Jon Bernthal, James Belushi and Alfred Molina support Oscar Isaac of the Coen brothers’ “Inside Llewyn Davis.”

“Flesh and Bone”
Where and when: Starz, later this year
Devoted fans of “Breaking Bad” are well aware that Moira Walley-Beckett wrote several of the most memorable episodes of that series, including the penultimate, “Ozymandias,” a bona fide classic. This series is set amid the cutthroat world of big time New York ballet (that’s right, ballet). Shades of “Black Swan”? Probably. But it’s a world we rarely see. The lead is Sarah Hay, a relative unknown, and Walley-Beckett also has Quentin Tarantino’s producer on board.

“The One Percent”
Where and when: Starz, later this year
As a big fan of the Oscar-winning “Birdman,” I’m buzzed at the thought of a TV series created and occasionally directed by Oscar-winner Alejandro González Iñárritu. I’m not really sure what this is all about, other than the fortunes of a modest organic farmer shift dramatically after fate plays its hand. As with “Birdman,” there’s a touch of magical realism involved. I doubt he’ll get virtuoso cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki to shoot the series, but Iñárritu has a deft touch with actors. Ed Helms, Oscar-winner Hilary Swank and Ed Harris (again), have key roles.

“Utopia”
Where and when: HBO, late 2015/early 2016
Did you enjoy “Gone Girl”? OK, maybe “enjoy” isn’t the right word. But, admit it, everything about it was exceptionally well done — director David Fincher is easily one of the top five working in Hollywood today. This series is a remake of a British series about a group of people, “nerds” says Fincher, who find the secret sequel to their favorite graphic novel and fall into a big-time conspiracy. Despite enormous demands for their time on other projects, Fincher will direct and Gillian Flynn will write all six episodes.

“The Night Manager,”
Where and when: AMC, winter 2016
Can’t get enough Brits? Here’s an adaptation of one of the better John le Carré novels. As is so often the case with le Carré, internecine battles between intelligence agencies plays havoc with the fortunes of an operative recruited for a special mission, namely, payback for an arms dealer. Hugh Laurie (of “House”) and Tom Hiddleston (Loki from Thor) star.

“Lewis & Clark”
Where and when: HBO, 2016
This six-hour series will attempt to tell the entire story of The Greatest Camping Trip in the History of the World. It comes via the combined producer power of Tom Hanks, Brad Pitt and Edward Norton. Anyone who read Stephen Ambrose’s “Undaunted Courage” or Brian Hall’s “I Should Be Extremely Happy in Your Company” will wonder why 40 hours haven’t been allotted for this saga. But with Casey Affleck as Meriwether Lewis and Belgian star Matthias Schoenaerts as William Clark matched with some of the landscape majesty Ken Burns brought to his PBS documentary on the Corps of Discovery, this could be terrific. Heck, the life story of Jean Baptiste Charbonneau, born to Sacajawea at Fort Mandan would make an epic miniseries all on its own.

If the thought of $14.99 a month for TV still galls you, consider that if you and the squeeze skip just one sophomoric comic book hero extravaganza at the megaplex, with the $8 popcorn, you’ve just covered two months of access to everything HBO has ever produced.

Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by jason myron on 03/16/2015 - 10:10 am.

    It’s about time.

    I’ve been itching to dump satellite for a long time, but lack of an HBO streaming service has held me back.

Leave a Reply