Valerie Cherish has walked off into the sunset with an Emmy in one hand and Mark’s hand in her other. There is no word yet on when or whether Season 3 of “The Comeback” will happen. (Please HBO! Make it happen!) As we wait, it is time to turn our attention to two of HBO’s other half-hour prestige comedic dramas, which are returning this week. On Sunday, “Girls” and “Looking” will begin their fourth and second seasons, respectively. Both shows are very similar to “The Comeback” in that they are critical hits, have a strong gay fan base, and receive an outsized amount of media attention compared the relatively modest audiences they pull in. “The Comeback” may have the measliest ratings among the three, but it also has a fanatically devoted cult following. “Girls” is the highest rated of the three shows. In Lena Dunham it has a standout figure who causes controversy for pretty much everything she says or does. Therefore, she will always attract attention.
And then there is “Looking.” “Looking” is the story of the trials and travails of three gay friends in San Francisco. “Looking” is, like “Queer as Folk” before it, not so much a controversial show among the television-watching community at large, but rather within its target demographic. I have written about The “Looking” Wars at great length before, but the general gist is that the show exposes the fault lines within the gay community (1) as to how its members wish to see themselves represented to the larger society; and (2) as to how the community sees itself in a society where homosexuality becomes ever more normative.
I doubt this season of “Looking” will bring about the hue and cry that met its debut season. My guess is that the show’s defenders will say something briefly in support of the show and continue watching while the show’s critics will say something briefly reaffirming their distaste for the show and then continue ignoring it. (This is a contrast to “Girls,” which is hugely controversial every season.)* Without the controversy (or buzz) that keeps it in the public’s attention, the metrics for success are going to have to change somewhat to earn “Looking” a third season.
Ratings for HBO are not the same as ratings for other networks. Television and cable networks have historically lived and died by the overnight ratings. A show aired once a week, and that was the one time people could watch it. Recording devices changed that a little bit, much to the networks’ and advertisers’ chagrin. The DVD box set changed it even more. The Internet however, is making that model, and indeed television as we know it, obsolete. Nowhere is this more apparent than on HBO. As a subscriber-based network, advertisement revenue means little, and the advent of HBOGo frees subscribers from a weekly schedule. This year HBOGo will begin life as a subscriber-based online service, and customers will no longer need to order HBO for television as a prerequisite.
With the rise of Netflix as a purveyor of quality programming, and Amazon Prime following suit, HBO need not be concerned with ratings so much as prestige. What brings in the money is critical acclaim as viewers will presumably go where the critics (and fellow viewers) lead. It is this world that “Girls” was meant for. Had this world been around in 2005, then perhaps “The Comeback” would have gotten a second season much earlier. And it is this world that “Looking” must find a way to negotiate in this upcoming season if it wishes to have a third. Whether that is by offering a show of tremendous quality ready-made for awards season or creating enough controversy to attract more viewers beyond its current audience, I do not know. I would like to see the show continue; I just hope HBO does too.
* It somewhat astounding to me that the two most polarizing shows on HBO are “Girls” and “Looking.” Contrast that to the network’s most popular program “Game of Thrones,” which routinely features graphic violence, torture, murder, sexual content, and fairly heavy exploitation of the female body. To my recollection however, “Games of Thrones” is rarely controversial, save among fans of A World of Ice and Fire, the series from which the show was adapted. In fact, there is only one moment from the show that stands out in my mind as truly controversial. Last season Jaime Lannister may or may not have raped his sister Cercei in front of the corpse of their dead son. What made that scene controversial however, was not the scene itself, but the tone deafness of the show’s creators. In the series, that moment is one of consensual sex, and the director insisted that he intended for it to be seen as consensual. Watching the show however, one can only come away with thinking that it was a rape scene.