Showtime is still fighting for its place in the cable elite next to HBO, AMC and FX. Yet Showtime really began its ascent when Dexter became one of the pioneers of the anti-hero age. Then Homeland took it a step further and made the network a major Emmy winner two years in a row.
But these days, Dexter and Homeland have become the standard bearers of Showtime in less than positive ways. In fact, if it wasn’t for some of the lesser hyped but currently much better shows on that network, Showtime would have very little to brag about right now.
Last winter, Homeland only had limited time to celebrate its Emmy winning first season, once the second season began to crumble. Many accused the show of going to 24 levels of insanity – even if the premise of a Vice President killed by pacemaker wasn’t outlandish in Dick Cheney’s world after all. But while some began to turn on Homeland, Dexter was enjoying a revival in its next-to-last season – or at least wasn’t lambasted like it was the previous year.
Going into summer 2013, Dexter was supposedly setting up for a big final season, and the first four episodes suggested it would live up to the hype. Meanwhile, Homeland was prepping for a third season that would hopefully course correct from the end of the second one. Yet in the last several months, these two shows and Showtime itself have taken their most massive hits to date.
Dexter began falling apart as soon as episode four ended, and as soon as Breaking Bad showed everyone what a classic final season really was. By the time the finale approached, Dexter had become forgotten in the midst of Breaking Bad hysteria, or merely brought up for jokes and mockery. Yet all of that was child’s play compared to the howls of mocking laughter and scorn the series finale brought.
All of a sudden, the show that helped launch Showtime would go down in the end as a cautionary tale. Worse yet, when word later leaked that the network itself wouldn’t let Dexter die in the finale, a lot of idiotic twists that kept him going in past seasons made more sense. Worse yet, it reflected badly on Homeland and how it too stretched credibility – and forfeited much more daring storytelling – to keep Nicholas Brody alive two years in a row.
While HBO and AMC’s best shows weren’t afraid to do anything, Showtime’s two hallmark programs showed a lack of ambition and chose safety when it counted. Nevertheless, Homeland no longer has that excuse in Season Three, since Brody has barely showed up to keep getting spared. Even a season without Brody has been found to be lacking by many – at least when it keeps the other Brody’s around, and reveals its first four episodes as one gigantic cover story.
Unless Homeland saves itself halfway through Season Three, which no show has done since Lost, it will close out a rather rough year for Showtime and its reputation. HBO has its unshakable empire, while AMC still has Mad Men, the ratings of The Walking Dead, and Breaking Bad’s triumphant victory lap to hide its own problems. Showtime doesn’t have those luxuries – all it has are the decline of the two most important series it has ever had.
The network tried to build a new cornerstone by debuting Ray Donovan alongside Dexter’s final season. Instead, all it did was make critics say that the entire anti-hero genre had jumped the shark. Although Ray Donovan made it to a second season – which is more than what AMC anti-hero killer Low Winter Sun may pull off – it isn’t going to fill the void of Dexter and Homeland or make up for their mistakes.
The saddest part is that Showtime is still putting out quality programming, although it isn’t getting as much attention. If this was a network headlined by the likes of Masters of Sex, Shameless and Nurse Jackie, it might look a lot healthier. But while Homeland keeps getting beaten down by backlash every Sunday night, Masters of Sex is developing into the fall’s best new drama an hour earlier. And when 2014 begins, the eternally underrated Shameless will be back, along with the ever resilient Nurse Jackie.
It is already a shame that Masters of Sex and Shameless struggle to get the attention they deserve. If they did, it would be the first bit of good news Showtime has had in some time. But with Sunday nights being so crowded, and with the mistakes of Dexter and Homeland being too great to ignore, Showtime’s remaining excellent shows are neglected by comparison.
The other cable networks shouldn’t brag about Showtime’s decline themselves. HBO doesn’t have any truly relevant scripted series other than Game of Thrones, while AMC would rather stretch the universes of Mad Men, The Walking Dead and Breaking Bad too thin than look for a new hit these days. Nevertheless, they can take the heat thanks to their extensive past successes, whereas Showtime doesn’t have such a deep resume.
There is nothing that can be done to save Dexter’s reputation, while Homeland is teetering on the edge of being considered a one-hit wonder. Other than that, Showtime has nothing else to define itself right now – and is drowning out the high quality it still has in the rest of its lineup.
Beyond joining the cult audiences of Shameless, Masters of Sex, Nurse Jackie, House of Lies and Californication, what reason is there to watch Showtime, other than to start hate-watching Homeland? When the network heads find the right answer – and stop letting the impulses that sank Dexter and are sinking Homeland run free – then maybe Showtime will earn its place alongside HBO, AMC and FX again.