HBO’s “ehhhh” Sunday night: Giving up on ‘True Detective’ and trying to enjoy ‘Ballers’

Last night, at about the 35-minute mark of the episode, I officially gave up on True Detective. I gave the show a far longer leash than was merited; likely because I adored the first season so much and firmly believe in giving storytellers ample time to let their stories unfold (especially in a medium such as scripted TV drama). After the first few episodes of the season, the critical and fan reaction to True Detective seemed to be one of both confusion and intrigue. We weren’t exactly sure if it was good or not. But then a few more episodes rolled out. The story was still all over the place and, frankly, uninteresting. We learned little about the characters beyond the fact that they’re very somber, angry people. Vince Vaughn was still unwatchable to the point where you started to feel bad for him and wished he was back doing frat-comedy. Last nights episode attempted a reboot of sorts, starting itself 66 days after a bloody shootout that the show didn’t actually earn. Guess what? I didn’t care, save for seeing Colin Farrell without his mustache. Not catching it live, I shut my laptop in disgust and went to bed. I wasn’t angry that my favorite show had again chosen a path of philosophical and narrative speculation over any form of coherence. I just don’t care this time around.

If you know me personally –or are just a regular reader of my words- you know that I am very opinionated when it comes to the popular culture I choose to enjoy (likely to a fault). When I consume a piece of music or film or literature, I’m not satisfied with simply thinking, “oh, that was good” or “oh, that was bad”. I want to know why it’s good or bad. Hence the reason I’m always posting recaps or reviews of different artistic outputs. I don’t aspire in any way to be a critic; but thinking critically and communicating my thoughts allows me to further enjoy pieces of entertainment that pique my interest (such as the most recent Game of Thrones season). The reason I haven’t been doing weekly recaps of True Detective is not because the show is bad (though it is quite bad). If I felt there was anything to gain from criticizing the show regularly, you’d see me blasting it in long-form every Monday. But again, I just don’t care. The Walking Dead, in my opinion, is a very bad show. But as a talking point, it’s fascinating due to how and why it’s so polarizing. If I hear a friend talking about how great The Walking Dead is, I’ll gladly throw in my two cents on the contrary. If a friend tells me how much they enjoy this new season of True Detective, I’ll just shrug. I really, truly, do not care (with that being said, I just wrote 450 words about how I don’t care).

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One problem with HBO’s current Sunday night lineup –True Detective, followed by the new comedies Ballers and The Brink, capped off by the great John Oliver- is that it NEVER had a chance to be nearly as good as the network’s springtime lineup. When you have a two hour block of programming that consists of the cultural phenomenon that is Game of Thrones followed by the two best comedies on TV in Silicon Valley and Veep, it’s hard to beat that, especially with what are essentially three brand-new shows. Living in the “golden-age” of television is both a gift and a curse to us as consumers. It’s great to be able to turn on the tube and have access to so much quality auteurist creation, but having this makes sitting through something you deem less-than-perfect to be even more unbearable. What viewer has the time or attentiveness to give a show like True Detective or The Leftovers repeated chances when they can just flip to a different channel and get quality entertainment? (or even just log in to Netflix or Amazon).

For my fellow truly obsessive viewers –the kinds who have seen all the greats such as Breaking Bad, The Wire, The Sopranos, etc.- this dynamic is even more extreme. If I have an hour or two to kill watching television, why am I going to be patient with something new when I can just re-watch something I know I love or a damn sports game? There are so many shows on at any given moment, and so many of them good, that patience is no longer a virtue with television. Ten years ago, when HBO were the only ones committed to allowing storytellers to actually be creative, it was different. The less-than-stellar ratings for HBO’s current lineup prove viewers aren’t afraid to look elsewhere. There’s no honor amongst thieves, and there’s no loyalty amongst art consumers.

I do want to take a paragraph to talk about Ballers, because it’s certainly the best of the three scripted shows running on HBO right now. Maybe 100% of my respect for the show stems from the fact that I’m exactly the type of person it’s targeting (I love football, generally enjoy the pop-rap that makes up the soundtrack, and was a loyal viewer of Entourage). Critics have been quick to label Ballers as “Entourage with football”. I see the parallels. Male camaraderie is a big part of Ballers, as are expensive cars and scantily clad women. But, since when is being compared to Entourage such a bad thing? The way the series ended left a bad taste in some mouths but it was still a very successful show that spawned eight seasons and a movie. If an innocent show like Ballers can step in and entertain that Ento-demographic, what’s wrong with that? Not everyone who watches TV gets excited about dragons and zombies, and not everyone is attentive enough to fully appreciate something like the first season of True Detective. There’s an audience out there for a show like Ballers. Thanks to a winning performance by Dwayne Johnson and some surprisingly sharp satire of the NFL, the show has done its job to this point in the season.

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I have not seen The Brink. I had little interest going in based on its premise and those involved. Bad reviews and poor testing numbers haven’t made me reconsider.

The goal moving forward for HBO should be to find a fresh, new hour-long drama to run in Game of Thrones’ absence and possibly replace it as the weight-bearer in a couple years (they’re fine right now with comedy, specials, documentaries, miniseries, etc.). If True Detective somehow gets a third season, maybe a new cast of characters and an actual writing team could help it recapture its initial glory. Perhaps the upcoming second season of The Leftovers will boast better numbers and demand more attention than the first season. But again, I think something fresh is needed, something in a unique setting not done on TV before (like Boardwalk Empire or Deadwood or Mad Men, the latter of which HBO passed on years ago).

If HBO can’t find a new hit, it could be in trouble once Game of Thrones ends. A lot of people will have to seriously reconsider if a subscription is worth the bill given the quality-programming elsewhere (which of course effects all the people who borrow HBO login info from friends). HBO has been at the forefront of television innovation for a decade-plus. I do not doubt the network’s ability to find something new and exciting. I just doubt their current slew of shows.

Well, except for the one with the dragons. And the comedies that follow it.

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