Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle TV Eye

By Belinda Acosta

JULY 19, 1999:  I can't believe it. I ordered HBO and Showtime. To understand how traumatic this is you have to understand a very basic thing about me. I'm cheap. Cheap is not such a bad trait, given that I'm poor, too. I have an MFA and I work for UT, so being thrifty, flinty, miserly, and frugal are necessary survival techniques. It's not that I don't enjoy the finer things in life, but if I can't get it on sale, I'm filled with an enormous sense of doom, as if I'm living too high on the hog and any day now that hog is going to go belly up, with me pinned under it.

I would never pay for the so-called premium cable channels were I not writing a column about television. In fact, I've never paid for cable television. It was something El Papi Chulo brought into our living arrangement. When I started watching cable television, and by a twist of fate, began writing this column, it only seemed fitting for me to pick up the tab. With the "value" package and the two premium channels mentioned, I now shell out $70-plus a month for cable television. Ouch.

It started with Sex and the City (Sun, 8pm, HBO). We didn't get HBO at the time, so when El Chulo and I happened upon Sarah Jessica Parker and pals, we exchanged looks, shrugged, and continued to watch. That was a mistake. A big mistake. I fell in love with those women. When HBO evaporated from our television screen as mysteriously as it had appeared, I went through withdrawal. I had to see Sex, as well as other HBO series, The Sopranos and Oz. That meant ordering HBO, and I had the perfect rationalization: I write about television! Now I spend as much money on cable television as I spend on laundry, prescription drugs, and my phone bill combined.

I got into a conversation at a party with someone who suggested I write about how people survive just fine without cable television. I was inclined to do that until I got the premiums and tuned into the series mentioned above. I can now say, without a doubt, life with cable and the premium cable series is simply not the same as life without. In fact, it's intoxicating beyond belief. It reminds me a lot of that New York Times offer. You know the one -- 13 weeks of delivery for $13. Who can beat that? Of course, what happens is that just when reading the Times becomes a daily habit, the price shoots up to its regular price, and you are confronted with the hard decision to drop the subscription or pay up.

So far, for my money, the HBO series leads the way in craft, originality, and style. Take Sex and the City, for example. The 30-minute series stars Sarah Jessica Parker but is really an ensemble show featuring Cynthia Nixon, Kristin Davis, and Kim Cattrall as single, professional women living in Manhattan. The title of the show comes from a column Parker's character writes for an unnamed newspaper. Placed toe-to-toe with the anemic Ally McBeal, Sex knocks McBeal on its bony keister. There is no droning on and on about lost love or unrequited love. These women are all very different in their approaches to love and intimacy, but each is proactive in the pursuit of their lives -- sexual and otherwise. Instead of collapsing into a world of fantasy when life and love become bitter, they collapse into the arms of each other as friends and allies. It is truly wonderful to see the dynamics of female relationships presented so capably. It's also a breath of fresh air to hear women talk candidly about sex without the squeal of girlish titters. My only complaint about the show thus far is that the viewer is shown a New York City devoid of its multiethnic complexion. It does do a better job than Seinfeld, in which people of color were predominantly used for, well, local color, but the show is better than that.

Getting into The Sopranos (Wed, 8pm, HBO)-- a wonderful hybrid of family, organized crime, and psychological drama -- took a couple episodes, but only because I was watching it expecting the conventions of network television. You've got to give that up with this series, starring James Gandolfini as a crime boss in existential crisis who has entered psychotherapy. In fact, any of the hourlong dramas on the premium networks require the viewer to relinquish network TV viewing conventions. There are no commercials. There is no quick, familiarly orchestrated movement from plot point to plot point, written toward commercial breaks, with an "act break" (a long commercial break) at the half hour. Because of this, a greater commitment on the viewer's part is demanded. The episodes are unpacked at a pace that could spell boredom for the viewer unable or unwilling to sit through an hourlong program. And let's face it, network TV has made us fairly lazy viewers.

Perhaps this is why the hourlong dramas on the premiums are such tours de force for both writers and actors alike. The episodes are similar in tempo and scope to a one-act play, and like the theatre event, the hourlong episode does not allow space for leaving the room. Unlike commercial TV fare, which many viewers allow to bellow in the background while drifting in and out of attention, a well-crafted show like The Sopranos doesn't allow it. In commercial television, even with the critical successes, most longtime viewers are able to determine turning points in the action before they occur. That's how naturalized the language of the network sitcom or hourlong drama has become. And while premium channel offerings like The Sopranos do have a dramatic arc, the wonderful thing is that it's nearly invisible, allowing the viewer to become fully engaged with story, character, and action. The tried-and-true conventions of commercial television programming are not applicable in the commercial-free premium series, and the result is a much more sophisticated product.

The third-year season premiere of Oz (Wed, 9pm, HBO), HBO's acclaimed prison drama, aired Wednesday following The Sopranos. Though I've only seen one episode (and a rerun at that -- HBO just kicked in last week), I was chilled by the breathtaking harshness of the show. Within the span of one hour, I saw brutal and heartless physical violence, emotional abuse, diabolical hatred, intense anger, and the coldness of human beings who have lost nearly every shred of compassion. In the midst of all this, particularly in the episode I saw, hope and the human spirit erupted from this gritty prison drama in unexpectedly poetic ways.

Innovative production values, great performances, and strong scripts aside, Oz is the most disturbing of the HBO series I've watched. When Muslim prisoner Kareem Said (played by Eamonn Walker) is offered a pardon and his freedom by the governor -- he's freeing one prisoner in honor of Christmas, Ramadan, and Chanukah -- Said unexpectedly refuses his freedom for philosophical and political reasons. It was a profound and horrifying moment to this viewer when the episode ended with Said walking back into the hellhole of Oz.

How long can paying through the nose for cable television last? Will I find myself going through HBO withdrawal, like The New York Times withdrawal? And what of that Showtime series, Beggars & Choosers? Is it worth the time and the money? As always, stay tuned ...

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