We're too far removed from an HBO schedule that was largely cannot miss. In the past (roughly) ten years, HBO brought us "The Wire", "Six Feet Under", "Carnivale", "Deadwood", "Da Ali G Show", and "Extras"--all of which were shows that I loved. They also brought "Sex and the City", "Rome" and "The Sopranos"--all of which I found personally underwhelming but were nonetheless embraced by many others ("Rome" clearly less than the other two).
There are still vestiges of the old guard, of course. "Curb Your Enthusiasm" is coming back soon. "Entourage", which is merely arguably good, is currently running through a season. "Real Time with Bill Maher" is still engaging, even if they can't seem to book a Republican more than twice a month.
Really though, HBO has been firing what could kindly be categorized as blanks recently. The seeds sewn have proved to be infertile largely. Only relatively new show, "Flight of the Conchords"--which is returning in January--seems to have broken from the yolk of mediocrity that has saddled the "It's not TV" net for the past few years. Past that entry, HBO has become generally average in varying degrees.
Starting with the worst, "Little Britain USA" was so awful that I actually stopped watching part way through the first episode. Little Brother was a fan of the British version, and he, too, was unimpressed. The Little Lady shared my unenthusiastic response, and she has been very much the anglophile of late.
While I didn't see any "John from Cincinnati", it didn't seem to register with the subscribers, as is indicated by its swift cancellation.
"Big Love" was largely quite dull. When it first began airing, I watched in a timely manner, but as the story began to develop, the show began to lose its priority status as I began to lose interest with it. Chloe Sevigny and Ginnifer Goodwin are simply irritating (and not just in the way that their characters are written), and the political wrangling and power struggle within the polygamist Mormon sect did not manage to seize my attention in any meaningful way. I have not even bothered in trying to watch past the end of the first season, despite my long-running free DVD renting status.
New animated show, "The Life & Times of Tim" was marginally amusing but surely not enough to make me tune in to the program even though it's on every day.
"Lucky Louie" was awkward at its best points. Not in the good way. With a couple of rare moments serving as exceptions, the show was bad.
While at times engaging and emotionally intense, the experiment "In Treatment" was a little too cumbersome in that the time commitment necessary to truly watch the show was too much for the average viewer, despite its heavy replay schedule.
As for the new crown jewel of the HBO schedule, "True Blood" is too hokey and out of touch to resonate with me. Most of the actors are asked to imbue their characters with accents they don't seem able to pull off. Anna Paquin's acting ability seems to have disappeared in about 1995*. The vampire effects, which I've touched on before, are comical and not in a way that I would deem intentional. And in a BSG-way, the show seems to have grown more and more reliant on sex to draw in the viewer, as if the tawdry makes up for the fact that the storytelling is subpar. The good part about that is that at least "True Blood" is on HBO, therefore nudity is involved. So unlike BSG, which only sells the idea of sex, "True Blood" is selling sex.
*If it was ever there at all. I generally feel that child actors are cut too much slack. The simple act of not sucking somehow paints them as being good when that's simply not the case. The only child actor that I can think of that transcends this phenomenon is Rory Culkin, who I think has been extremely good in almost everything he's done, especially You Can Count on Me and Mean Creek.
Now, if you are an observant reader, you may notice that a fairly high percentage of new HBO shows have a common trait. Where HBO was at one point a network whose docket consisted of original material, they have now erred to the side of safety in the form of adapted works. The best HBO shows--"The Wire", "Carnivale", and "Six Feet Under" at its high points--were original concepts. They were stories never-before-seen in any form. They were fresh. Even delving into the history books proved an opportunity to re-form the Western in the form of the vulgar and verbose "Deadwood".
Many of the new HBO programs are adaptations. "True Blood" is based on a book series. From what I gather, much of this season's story arc is basically the first book in the series. "Little Britain USA" is an Americanized version of a British show. The upcoming "Summer Heights High" is merely a re-airing of an Australian hit show. "In Treatment" is an adaptation of an Israeli serial. Hell, "Flight of the Conchords", which is actually good, is just a show based around a stand-up routine that aired on "One Night Stand" to a warm reaction.
It seems to me that the formula that helped HBO distinguish itself from other networks has been thrown out, and they're now content to rest on their laurels. Unfortunately the product has been suffering as a result of their complacent programming.
I for one hope they can re-evaluate their erred philosophy and right the ship.