Don't even think about bothering me between 9 P.M. and 11:30 P.M. tonight.
I'll be parked on my couch, staying up way too late watching HBO's great Sunday night lineup: The Night Of, Ballers, Vice Principals, and Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. These shows perfectly capture why the premium cable channel remains about the last redoubt of "appointment television" in a world of endlessly proliferating on-demand options. Years after shows such as Oz, Sex & the City, The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and other programs set new standards for TV, HBO still manages to produce politically, culturally, and sexually charged content that makes us want to drop whatever we're doing and watch on a network's schedule rather than our own.
The main reason for this is one of the least-appreciated: Because you pay for it, HBO is free to engage issues and perspectives that other cable channels shy away from out of fear of alienating advertisers, viewers, and government or industry buttinskies. No matter how racy or edgy, say, Comedy Central, FX, TBS, or Cartoon Network's Adult Swim can get (which is plenty, thank god), they're all still bounded by appeals to common decency if not necessarily appeals to the lowest common denominator. Something tells me that Mike Lindell, the ubiquitous-on-cable inventor of My Pillow, doesn't want his spots to be bookended by the profanity, nudity, and seriously adult situations Girls serves up on a regular basis. The broadcast networks might be freer than ever from governmental content regulation, but they still lag far behind even basic cable in terms of serving up shows that actually cater to adult sensibilities without flinching.
Charging a cover means that HBO's shows can use adult language and situations not simply to titillate but to reflect how we actually live, talk, and think in the 21st century—and whatever century Game of Thrones is set in. Real Time with Bill Maher sets the standard for political gabfests not simply because he routinely pulls in guests from all over the political spectrum but because you can freely curse on the show. Seriously, how can anybody with half a brain discuss the 2016 election without going full Tourette's sooner or later? (Disclosure: Matt Welch and I appear on the show.)
But HBO's expressive freedom consists of much more than blue language and nude scenes. Back in the 1980s, HBO's awful anthology show The Hitchhiker defined the appeal of premium cable. Each half-hour episode revolved around not just a terrible, Twilight Zone-style plot twist but a single strategically bared breast. Indeed, the real dramatic tension was when and to what ridiculous lengths the producers would go to provide a pretext for a flash of skin.
That was then. The police procedural The Night Of, which closes out its eight-episode season on Sunday, plumbs the intersection of race, class, and law with a grit and unsettling violence that is seen nowhere else on small screen. Starting off as a shaggy-dog story involving a Pakistani-American college kid boosting his father's cab and picking up a seeming dream girl, the first episode ends with a night of drug-fueled sex, murder, and arrests. As the plot unfolds, we navigate a world that is filled with overlapping and contradictory ethnic enmities, well-intentioned but blinkered law enforcement, and less and less moral clarity. Ballers is superficially a bawdy dramedy about a former football star turned financial manager (played by Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson) whose ambition is outstripped by his talents. True to its locker-room roots, there's more than a little rough talk but there's also a frank and compelling tension between typically white agents and black clients. It's also one of the few shows that talks frankly about making money and the power that flows directly from having gobs of it.
Vice Principals sprouts from the dark, twisted, and brutally funny mind of actor and writer Danny McBride, whose previous HBO series, Eastbound and Down, plunged to new depths of tastelessness and black humor. There is no one to root for in this tale of two idiotic school administrators who are endlessly thwarted in their attempts to advance their careers. It takes place in a moral universe where God is either dead or actively shitting on humanity, a comic version of Seneca's Thyestes, in which two brothers brutalize each other beyond description. I virtually never agree with the substance of John Oliver's soliloquies on the news of the week—his recent, ill-informed take on charter schools provides an example why—but he's always intellectually challenging in a way that extends his Daily Show roots into new and more complicated areas. In this, he's paralleling what Larry David's Curb Your Enthusiasm did with Seinfeld, spinning platinum from a show that was already solid gold.
None of this is to suggest that HBO, any more than its less-accomplished competitor, Showtime, is infallible (Vinyl, anyone?) or that it's series aren't open to criticism. But HBO uses its economic freedom from advertisers and its aesthetic and intellectual freedom from the FCC and cable-operator bureaucrats to produce TV for literate and literary viewers who want complex plots, relevant and highly charged themes, and adult situations (which is so much than mere nudity and sex scenes).
In an era where free speech is under attack on college campuses, in politics, and the workplace, HBO isn't afraid to crank out shows that warrant trigger warnings longer than your arm and to engage politics more directly than a Saudi Arabian Clinton Foundation donor. The result is programming that we're willing to pay extra for, build our Sunday nights around, and wake up on Mondays at 6.30 A.M totally sleep-deprived.
If only the rest of life was so bankable.