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Ed Siegel

No TV doldrums for 'the haves'

By Ed Siegel
June 6, 2009
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AMERICA has become a have and have-not society - those who have HBO and Showtime and those who are dependent on the networks.

At no time is that more clear than in June, a traditional time of dread on the networks, whose idea of daring programming is to stick Jay Leno into prime time. And you'll have to wait for September for that "historic" event.

But for pay-cable subscribers, it's always September, as we get ready for "Weeds," about a drug-dealing suburban mother, and the new Edie Falco series, "Nurse Jackie," about a drug-abusing medical practitioner, both on Showtime beginning Monday. The vampire series "True Blood" returns to HBO June 14 and the new comedy series "Hung" follows at the end of the month. The title will have to suffice as the description.

Transgression is the common theme to all these shows, as it has been for most of the pay-cable series from "The Sopranos" onward. For some, like "The Tudors," transgression can come a little too easily, which makes it easy to dismiss pay-cable series as catering to a prurient love of sex and violence or to an adolescent celebration of drugs.

It would also be wrong. The level of sophistication in the writing on these shows is quite remarkable, both in terms of the script and the issues they tackle. Take "True Blood," which on the surface caters to popular taste for all things vampiric; hot bodies having hot sex; and, every now and then, a bit of ultraviolence. They're based on the entertaining enough Sookie Stackhouse novels by Charlaine Harris, but like Alfred Hitchcock or Stanley Kubrick in "The Shining," the HBO producers and writers (led by Alan Ball of "Six Feet Under") raise the pulp material to another level, fueled by a juke-joint soundtrack that might even one-up the music of "The Sopranos."

The satire of the religious right, as one example of the show's themes, is razor sharp. Sookie is a waitress who's fallen in love with a sexy, Civil War veteran of a vampire, which drives her brother into greater and greater paroxysms of hatred for the fanged ones, who are continually campaigning for human rights. Or maybe posthuman rights. This season, the brother takes a W-like sudden turn from party boy to religious convert and hero of right-thinking folk. "It's always something out there that gets all the blame or all the credit," says another character, "whether it's Jesus or gin."

Could a writer be so pointed on the networks? He or she would have to bury it under so much arcana, as in "Lost," or scattershot humor, as in "30 Rock," as to make it practically indecipherable, and those shows are the best that the networks have to offer. Or so I'm told. "Lost" has always left me wondering what the excitement's about. Ditto "House" on Fox, the latest variation on the network theme featuring lifestyles of the glib and self-righteous.

An even more striking comparison is between "Desperate Housewives" on ABC and "Weeds" on Showtime. It's the ABC show that looks at suburbia as a fantasyland of sexual hanky-panky, bearing little resemblance to the way people actually live their lives. "Showtime" ups the ante by having Mary-Louise Parker fall into a life of drug-dealing. But there's as much difference between "Weeds" and "Desperate Housewives" as between John Updike's "The Witches of Eastwick" and Anne Rice's "The Witching Hour." Underneath the absurdist humor in "Weeds" of a suburbanite's walk on the wild side with a Mexican drug lord there's a Cheeveresque tone of cleverly putting down American materialism, even as it appears to be celebrating it.

In between the networks and pay cable there's a huge middle class of cable TV series led by "Mad Men," which some beanbag(s) at HBO turned down and which returns to American Movie Classics in August. For the most part, though, series such as "Burn Notice" on USA or "Leverage" on TNT seem closer to forgettable network derivatives than to the nouveau-must-see shows on pay cable.

With television, as with most things in life, you get what you pay for.

Ed Siegel is former television and theater critic for the Globe.

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