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How the Pulitzer Prize Helped HBO Change Prestige TV

With six projects, the network shifted expectations for highbrow programming.
  • Robin Wright and Miles Chandler in Empire Falls, Emma Thompson in Angels in America, Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins in Olive Kitteredge (Photos: HBO/Primetimer graphic)
    Robin Wright and Miles Chandler in Empire Falls, Emma Thompson in Angels in America, Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins in Olive Kitteredge (Photos: HBO/Primetimer graphic)

    This month marks the 50th anniversary of HBO, which launched on November 8, 1972. In our "HBO at 50" retrospective, Primetimer tracks the evolution of the cabler, from fledgling network to prestigious programmer and awards magnet.

    By the early 2000s, HBO was already a well respected network. For years, it had branded itself as something better than regular TV, and as it entered the new millennium, original series like The Sopranos, The Corner, and Sex and the City proved the point. Then came 2001. That year, the cabler premiered not one but two projects that were based on Pulitzer Prize winners. By 2014 it had produced four more; together, those six titles not only helped HBO cement its identity as a highbrow channel, but also expanded our expectations of what prestige television can accomplish.

    This begins with the reputation of the Pulitzer itself. When a book or play wins the award, it’s immediately transformed into capital-L “Literature,” partly because the prizes have a reputation for honoring moral seriousness and partly because they’ve been around so long that everybody’s heard of them. That lets them function like a high-minded consumer guide, promising to anoint the most significant cultural experiences.

    When a network gets in the Pulitzer business, it borrows some of that shine. (Consider ABC, which launched the Pulitzer Prize Playhouse back in the 1950s to lend gravity to the newly emerging television medium.) So while HBO always has lavish projects going, its reputation gets an extra jolt whenever the Pulitzer is involved. Each new adaptation has confirmed the channel will take care of ambitious art, which makes it easier to convince creatives to hand over their babies.

    It’s hard to imagine any artist being skittish about the network that delivered Wit, Dinner With Friends, Angels in America, Empire Falls, John Adams, and Olive Kitteredge, the six Pulitzer projects that were adapted from 2001 to 2014. HBO treated them all like favorite children, shepherding them to good reviews, shiny trophies, and in several cases, career-sustaining goodwill. It also delivered impossibly stacked casts, including the likes of Meryl Streep, Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Al Pacino, Frances McDormand, Emma Thompson, Laura Linney, Paul Giamatti, and even Nobel Laureate Harold Pinter. To top it off, the network signed directors like Hollywood legends Mike Nichols and Norman Jewison, as well as celebrated members of the new guard like Lisa Cholodenko and Tom Hooper.

    The talent and celebrity of these artists made these pieces events, and in many cases, so did the budgets. Angels in America reportedly cost $60 million, and John Adams rang up $100 million. These are the hallmarks of “blockbuster prestige,” and it’s a genre that HBO has perfected. By leveraging a project’s thoughtfulness and ambition in this way, the Pulitzer six-pack prepared audiences for everything from Watchmen to Downton Abbey (a prestige hit that showed PBS was taking notes).

    Despite their similar resources, however, these programs took very different artistic paths, and from the beginning of this era, there was a clear division between “stately respectability” and “wild aesthetic experiments.” Dinner With Friends, one of the 2001 projects, is absolutely the former. Spiritually, it belongs to the early 1990s, when dramas about angsty yuppies were the front wave of “arty” television.

    Based on the play by Donald Margulies, the film follows two couples who have been best friends for years, until one of their marriages falls apart. Gabe and Karen (Dennis Quaid and Andie MacDowell) are so content with their family, their sex life, and their jobs in food journalism that they can barely process the news that their pals Tom and Beth (Greg Kinnear and Toni Collette) are breaking up after having a series of affairs. The drama is as much about the friends’ inability to let each other change as it is their marital trouble, and thanks to the clever banter and the lovely shots of beautiful homes, it plays like an extended episode of Thirtysomething.

    2005’s Empire Falls, a two-part series adapted from Richard Russo’s novel, also feels familiar. Set in a disheveled Maine village, it’s about Miles Roby (Ed Harris), the middle-aged manager of a greasy spoon diner who learns some harsh family secrets. Naturally, he has a rascally old coot of a father (played by Paul Newman in his last on-screen role), an old flame he can’t forget, and a delinquent brother who contrasts his own stoic decency. Toss in the Garrison Keillor-esque voiceovers and the soft lighting in the flashback scenes, and you’ve got a gentle, “inspirational” drama that could run after an episode of Dr Quinn, Medicine Woman.

    Still, Empire Falls is noteworthy because it’s the last of HBO’s Pulitzer projects that could be confused for an entry in the Hallmark Hall of Fame. Everything else follows the path charted by Wit, the other prizewinner the network adapted in 2001.

    Those who know Margaret Edson’s play, about a scholar of metaphysical poetry who develops terminal ovarian cancer, might think it’s unfilmable. For most of the show, the professor, Vivian Bearing, speaks directly to the audience, and when she isn’t remembering crucial moments from her life, she’s digressing about John Donne’s sonnets. It’s a beautiful script, with much to say about how intelligence can and can’t protect us from the pain of living, but it’s not very “dramatic.” Except that director Mike Nichols and star Emma Thompson (who also wrote the screenplay) knew how to tell this story on TV.

    Instead of the audience, Vivian speaks directly to the camera, which zooms in on her weary face as she gets an MRI or a pelvic exam. It’s like we’re having an intimate chat with a woman who refuses to be vulnerable, and it’s flattering that she wants to talk to us in the first place. Meanwhile, when she remembers her past, time keeps collapsing, so that sometimes we see younger actresses and sometimes we see Thompson, still in her hospital gown, interacting with her father, her mentor, and her former students. Visually, this is a reminder that Vivian isn’t really in control, no matter how clever she is. That tension — between the parts of her that are alert and the parts that are failing — makes the film as taut as a thriller. We know how the story must end, but we keep rooting for Vivian to make it out alive.

    In his biography of Mike Nichols, Mark Harris reports that the director only made a movie this small and daring because he was coming off What Planet Are You From?, a high-profile flop. At the time, Nichols felt that HBO could be a refuge from the Hollywood types who expected him to make Oscar-worthy blockbusters, and as Harris states, the network’s executives wanted to prove they could support an artist of Nichols’ stature. If there hadn’t been a little desperation on both sides, then Wit might never have been made, but in the end, the work proves the risk was worthwhile. It’s “prestige as blockbuster,” but it’s also “prestige as aesthetic daring,” the other crucial component in HBO’s new identity.

    And what a surprise when John Adams fit that mold. On the surface, the show might have seemed like a straightforward costume drama, since it was adapted from David McCullough’s Pulitzer-winning biography of the second president. (McCullough also won a Pulitzer for his biography of Harry S. Truman, which HBO adapted in 1995, but that film is so far removed from the network’s legacy that it’s not even available to stream.) In practice, however, the seven-part series has a startling ferocity, and even ugliness, as it depicts a belligerent, brilliant, and often unpleasant man who nevertheless fought for the ideals he saw in the United States.

    The lack of sentimentality — from the way the founding fathers intellectually justify slavery to the stomach-churning reality of illness in the 18th century — makes the nation’s history raucously alive. The characters are passionate, hypocritical, venal, and occasionally brilliant, and their messy humanity is even more legible because the production itself is so disciplined. Director Tom Hooper (two years away from winning an Oscar for The King’s Speech) excels at using space to make a point: We frequently see vast, empty floors that put distance between Adams and the people around him, evoking the loneliness of being both a leader and an ideological brute. Gestures like that remind us this is not just a historical recreation, but a story with a strong point of view about the past.

    One of the joys of reading Olive Kitteredge, Elizabeth Strout’s novel-in-short-stories about a math teacher in a small Maine town, is that even though the characters aren’t founding a nation, their stakes feel just as high. In one story, Olive, who is so brusque that she frightens small children, allows herself a moment of pride about the dress she’s made for her son’s wedding. Later on, she overhears her new daughter-in-law mocking her clothes, and this is how Strout describes her hurt and humiliation: “She is stunned in her underwater way… it is as if these women are sitting in a rowboat above her while she sinks into the murky water.” Unfussy and tack-sharp, Strout’s writing lands like a kick to the chest.

    The miniseries, which premiered in 2014, leaves just as many bruises. Frances McDormand plays Olive, and given her genius for portraying characters who say about 10 percent of what they think, it makes sense that she optioned this novel and spearheaded its trip to the screen. Working with director Lisa Cholodenko and screenwriter Jane Anderson, she looks directly at the story’s suffering. The result is like a monster movie where the monster is lurking inside everyone’s heart. We know it’s going to attack, but we don’t know when.

    Olive Kitteredge thrives by being distinct, both visually and in the brutal simplicity of its language. Yet it’s positively tame compared to 2003’s Angels in America, based on a pair of era-defining plays by Tony Kushner. Directed by Mike Nichols almost immediately after he made Wit, the series is just as dedicated to bringing its source’s theatrical imagination to the screen. Hence the core of eight actors who play multiple characters, so that Meryl Streep appears as a stern Mormon mother, a wise rabbi, and the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg. Hence also the scenes of hallucinatory magic that bang against immature sex jokes, then give way to elegant monologues about politics, death, and God. Stylistically, it’s as unrealistic as anything on TV before or since.

    But the emotions are genuine. At its core, the story is about people enduring the AIDS epidemic in late ’80s New York. In their fear and confusion, they cling to everything from religion to friendship to power to secrecy to shame. We see the main characters hurt each other, lie to each other, and sometimes love each other, and we see their daily struggles in the context of American history. That’s why Ethel Rosenberg is there, not to mention the ghosts of the characters’ ancient relatives: They pop in to mock and to sympathize. They point out that while the nightmare of our moment might seem inescapable, it’s really just the latest bump on history’s long road. Hopefully, we’ll have enough life to realize that and take comfort in it.

    Not every network would support such a metaphysical inquiry, but that’s arguably why HBO’s prestige has endured. In its best Pulitzer projects, the awards and the A-listers are less important than the hunger for unknowable things. That’s why viewers remember Olive Kitteredge’s loneliness and Ethel Rosenberg’s judgment. It’s why we can close our eyes and see Vivian Bearing smirking at us from her hospital bed.

    And if the Pulitzer winners helped create this template, then countless other HBO projects have expanded upon it. Think of the startling forgiveness at the end of Mare of Easttown, the disjointed flashbacks in I May Destroy You, or the fraught interrogations in The Night Of. These moments are entertaining, yes, and handsomely staged, but more than that, they push us toward the big things — the things about living — that HBO keeps inviting us to explore.

    Wit, Dinner With Friends, Angels in America, Empire Falls, John Adams, and Olive Kitteredge are available to stream on HBO Max.

    Mark Blankenship is Primetimer's Reviews Editor. Tweet him at @IAmBlankenship.