The Death of Broadcast Network Series
Is it because of these shows' provocativeness? No, it boils down to creative freedom. Writers are attracted to a venue where the FCC isn't hanging over your pen, not to mention a network willing to spend money on period pieces and the like. Good actors are drawn by the opportunity to work with writers and directors like Alan Ball and producers like Tom Hanks, and the projects take on a think-outside-the-box life of their own. Sometimes it's a great miniseries like John Adams, and sometimes it's a great series whose episodes get played over and over on the on-demand channels.
Pay cable series have been a boon to history lovers. The HBO series Rome, produced in conjunction with the BBC, brought a new dimension to the murder of Julius Caesar and the madness of Mark Antony, while conveying another thought to the viewer: No wonder Jesus, to arrive some half century later, was so badly needed. Though not a big award winner during the series run, the show's avid fans may be treated to a Rome movie in the future (though let's hope it's infinitely better than the Sex and the City transition to screen).
Showtime also struck gold with The Tudors, with Peter O'Toole as Pope Paul III as probably the most inspired casting of all. Though the show drags a bit more than Rome, the great characters such as Jeremy Northam as St. Thomas More have made the show well worth watching. Season three returns this year with Henry VIII (Jonathan Rhys Meyers, who lost out to HBO's Gabriel Byrne at the Globes for best actor in a dramatic series) going through wives No. 3 through No. 5. (Maria Doyle Kennedy, excellent as Wife No. 1 Katherine of Aragon, was honored at the Irish Film and Television Awards for her work in the series but never here in the U.S.)
When it comes to modern-day fare, HBO has a huge audience hit with the dramedy True Blood (have a show's opening credits ever been so entertaining?), for which Anna Paquin (surprisingly) won the best actress Globe. And Showtime continues to get shafted by a lack of awards for what could be the best series on television right now, Dexter. Season three was full of hairpin turns -- propelled by a surprising Jimmy Smits as a district attorney and the perfectly chilling Michael C. Hall -- that left me convinced this is some of the best writing done for the screen in a long time.
When it comes to awards seasons, 30 Rock will continue to reap plaudits as Hollywood loves seeing itself on screen. But that won't make up the ground that the broadcast networks have lost to cable when it comes to the future of television. It's not about being able to use naughty words that the broadcast boys can't, but about taking a chance on creative, fresh ideas for the small screen.