Thursday, January 13th, 2011

HBO vs. Showtime: Battle of the Premium Cable Comedies

Earlier this week, Showtime aired the premieres of Californication, now in its fourth season, and the brand new show Episodes. For years, the network barely bothered with comedy, but lately, with the rise of HBO, they’ve been trying to make shows beyond Dexter and The L Word, shows that will actually make you laugh. But how are they doing compared to their main competitor (sorry, Starz)? Let's pit Showtime and HBO's current five best comedies against one another and see who comes out on top.

#5. How to Make It in America vs. Episodes
Things start off a little rough here. How to Make It in America hasn’t shown enough to, um, make it past season two, because it’s way too aware of what kind of show it wants to be (and doesn’t succeed). Although it’s a bit too early to fully judge Episodes, we’ll give it the benefit of the doubt. We know what we’re getting with America, and the pilot for Episodes was at least amusing enough to give the show a few chances to find its footing, especially because we only saw star Matt LeBlanc for an all-too-quick driving scene.

Winner: Showtime

#4. The Ricky Gervais Show vs. United States of Tara
As much as I love Gervais, his self-titled animated show, based on a series of podcasts, just isn’t that good — or, more accurately, if you’ve already heard the podcast, as I’m sure most of his fans have, then the point of simply animating the segments (subpar animation, to boot) is lost on me. Plus, The Ricky Gervais Show is nowhere near as good as Extras, Gervais’ finest comedic accomplishment. Tara wins almost by default, although Toni Collette and her six personalities are very good on the show, as is Patton Oswalt.

Winner: Showtime

#3. Bored to Death vs. Nurse Jackie
Most of Showtime’s comedies are barely comedies at all. I guess because they tell the occasional joke and only last 30 minutes, they can’t be considered dramas? As great as Edie Falco is as Nurse Jackie (and she is), her role really isn’t that funny, or at least not funny enough that she deserves a Best Actress in a Comedy award at the Emmys over, say, Amy Poehler or Cobie Smulders. Anyway, this is a long way of explaining that Bored to Death is more of a traditional sitcom, and therefore funnier. Simply the idea of Jason Schwartzman, Zach Galifianakis, and Ted Danson together in the same room makes me laugh, and with the addition of Ajay Naidu, the cast has gotten even better. Bored has also featured a who’s who of comedy in its first two seasons, including Jenny Slate, Zoe Kazan, Kristen Wiig, Oliver Platt, John Hodgman, and Patton Oswalt (again!).

Winner: HBO

#2. Eastbound and Down vs. Californication
David Duchovny is excellent as Hank Moody on Californication because he is Hank Moody. We know he’s a bit of a womanizer and drinker, and that he’s an intelligent guy, too. If only the rest of the show could be so good. Actually, that statement could be said about most of Showtime’s shows, both comedies and dramas. The main characters on Nurse Jackie, United States of Tara, The Big C, and (especially) Dexter are what make the shows watchable; in other words, it’s the opposite of The Office. Eastbound and Down, on the other hand, has an excellent main character in Kenny Powers, with a supporting cast nearly as good, especially Stevie, the Robin to Kenny’s Batman. Season two also had scene-stealing cameos from Deep Roy and Don Johnson as a midget Mexican gangster and Kenny’s father, respectively. Eastbound's real strength is that it succeeds where other shows have failed. It improved on a six-episode first season by retreating to a foreign location, a cop-out for most sitcoms, but without giving up any of the show’s initial story of the rise and fall of Kenny Powers. The writers have never toned down the crassness of Kenny, too, while also making him into some perverse, titty-loving philosophical guru. Who else could say, “The people [in Mexico] aren't that different from the ones back home — when you get past the lack of interest in real sports and the need to have yellow rice at every fuckin’ meal,” and make us agree with him?

Winner: HBO

#1. Curb Your Enthusiasmvs. Weeds
I’ve written in the past about how the sixth season of Weeds, which ended in November, was one of the better seasons of any comedy I’ve seen in recent years. It focused on Nancy and her family, rather than boring peripheral characters. But was it better than the last season of Curb? No. In fact, Weeds has never been better than Curb, a show that everyone seems to take for granted at this point. It’s rarely mentioned on a list of the greatest shows on TV, even though it is; Curb is basically the TV equivalent of Spoon, a band that keeps putting out solid records year after year, with the occasional masterpiece. For Spoon, it was Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga; for Curb, it was the Seinfeld season. It’s not only that Larry got Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer to reunite (not to mention Newman), but that it was all part of a larger plan to win back his ex-wife, Cheryl. I’d rather watch a dependably funny bald guy over an oddly inconsistent Mary Louise-Parker any day.

We’re just talking about TV, though, right?

Winner: HBO

So, the final tally is: HBO 3, Showtime 2. It’s not more than we imagined, HBO, because we figured you’d win anyway. Plus, if you include older shows from HBO (Flight of the Conchords, Lucky Louie, Extras, Da Ali G Show, Tenacious D, The Chris Rock Show, The Larry Sanders Show, and The Comeback) and Showtime (um, It’s Garry Shandling’s Show?), things get uglier than…well, they don’t get much uglier than Showtime’s past history with comedy.

Josh Kurp is worth the monthly fee.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jon-Bershad/8829871 Jon Bershad

    Weird comparisons here. How'd you choose which shows went up against which? Also, how could you forget the best comedy currently on HBO (just beating out EB&D and Curb) The Life and Times of Tim?

    Anyway, even if this was a perfectly set up bout, Showtime would still lose because of Californication. That is, without a doubt, one of the worst shows on TV. It makes Entourage look like a bastian of quality. At least that show had two ok seasons before heading straight down the toilet. Californication was awful from the first scene where the insufferable main character (whom the writers seem to think is the coooooolest dude in the world) gets in a fist fight inside a movie theater and the whole audience applauds instead of calling the police because he's just that cooooool.
    Awful awful awful awful.

    • Sean Patrick Jackson

      I totally agree with this post. Californication has such a strange Pander/Comedy ratio, but it's my issue with Weeds too, which I had to stop messing with after the third or fourth season.
      East Bound, Curbed, and really, any of the great comedys that have been give a retrospective on this site (or will be in the future) all knew what they wanted to be and that's the show they set out to make.
      These days, you have a funny enough premise, throw in a star, and you get a show-by-committee that changes season to season as it constantly recalibrates to maintain viewership.
      What ends up happening is these shows weakly give the people what they think the people want, without realizing the people have no idea what they want: you're the experts, give them what they Need.
      On a side note, it would be interesting to compare the funniest Serious Shows from these two networks, as I find that these days, the only things that can give me a good honest-to-god laugh is well executed drama.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Steve-Seck/1383864268 Steve Seck

    you know, "mr. show" was also an HBO comedy…

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Josh-Kurp/46301792 Josh Kurp

      Considering HBO's dominance over Showtime, mentioning one of the greatest comedies of all-time felt like adding insult to injury. But you're right, it was an oversight on my part (and I'm glad you didn't mention Arli$$!)

  • Carleton Atwater

    I have to defend the HBO Ricky Gervais Show. I think it serves as a great introduction to the podcast, kind of a greatest hits if you will. It was helpful for me who was a bit intimated by the podcast's success. of course I'm a very visual person.

  • http://jennifermorris.co.uk jennifermorris

    I still don't understand why Nurse Jackie is branded as "comedy". It's pretty dark with some genuinely funny parts. It's kind of like saying The Sopranos was a comedy, even though it happened to be one of the funniest shows on TV it was never branded a comedy. Same with US of Tara to a lesser degree

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Justin-Paulson/602970062 Justin Paulson

    I think HBO has a lot more in terms of pure comedy whereas the Showtime shows are all more of drama/comedy. If you are looking for pure comedy you have to go with HBO. If you want a little bit of emotion and drama with it, go with Showtime.

    Plus, the shows that were selected to go head to head seem a little arbitrary, no? How were they selected?