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Two new TV shows that cement HBO's movie-studio heft Add to ...

It won’t surprise you that a recurring theme here at the Critics’ Tour is that TV is cool. This is no mere emanation of the egos that control and contribute to the TV racket. It’s the general vibe. The Los Angeles Times pronounced recently that TV is the new pop music in terms of defining cool. Just as people once asked each other what bands they admired, in order to get a sense of another person’s taste and sensibility, they now ask what TV shows they watch. Everybody agrees this is true.

If you adore the IFC show Portlandia (in Canada on SuperChannel), you’re one kind of person – a connoisseur of dry irony. If you’re a Mad Men fan, you’re serious-minded. Game of Thrones fans are definitely cool-nerdy. If you’re hot for Hot in Cleveland, you’re older and roguish.

Quite possibly, questions and assertions about TV shows are now being used as pick-up lines in bars all over Los Angeles.

You could say that the channel responsible for the shift in TV’s status is HBO. Its long history of excellence inspired every other cable channel to strive for impact with important, excellent television. And if not important, then talked-about. Thing is, HBO has now transcended that old status and it’s not only helping define cool, it’s making storytelling art at the highest possible level. HBO is no longer niche TV. It has the heft of movie-studio status. It owns what was once the movie world’s art-house market. Two examples from HBO’s presentations here suffice to explain.

First, the gathered critics sit and look at a stage where David Mamet and Helen Mirren sit. On a giant screen, by satellite from New York, is Al Pacino. There you have, to many minds, America’s greatest living playwright, and two actors of enormous accomplishment. And they’re talking about a one-off TV show.

The show is the HBO movie Phil Spector, coming in March. It’s about the legendary music producer’s trial for murder, the first trial that ended in a hung jury, and his relationship with his lawyer. Of course, this isn’t an old-fashioned TV movie-of-the week about some headline-grabbing scandal or tragedy. From what we’re shown of the movie, it’s about celebrity, media, justice, madness and ego, and it is a corrosive picture of male rage.

As Mirren calls it, “It’s a strange amalgamation of imagination and reality.” And as an HBO exec notes, it is about a “mythical” Spector that Mamet crafted, and Pacino plays the character. It’s a work of the great playwright’s imagination. It’s art.

Pacino, on the giant screen, looks haggard and keeps kneading his hands, over and over. He can’t see us, he can only listen and what he’s listening for, it seems, is Mamet’s voice. His master’s voice. “See, the actor, with Mamet’s words, as with Shakespeare’s words, it’s a gift,” he says eventually, about the script. “And it keeps on giving. That’s been my experience with this great writer.”

Mamet is asked, with great deference, if he might explain his beginnings as a writer. “I grew up as a kid actor in Chicago, and I used to work at Second City in Chicago as a busboy 50 years ago,” he says. “And I would see two or three shows a night at Second City and see these great artists improvising what were seriocomic or tragicomic skits of seven minutes long. And then I started reading Pinter and revue sketches and saw that Pinter was doing the same thing, that he was writing these seriocomic skits that want to make you laugh and cry within seven minutes, which is the length of a scene.” From there, it seems, Mamet’s career as a writer took off – American Buffalo, Glengarry Glen Ross, Oleanna and such classic screenplays as The Verdict and The Postman Always Rings Twice.

Mamet’s mythological take on Spector, the reclusive, notoriously difficult music genius, involves seeing him as a caged beast, but more than that, as the Minotaur – the man with the head of a bull who lived in the Cretan Labyrinth, designed by Daedalus and his son Icarus.

All of this comes up – Shakespeare, Pinter, Greek mythology and Mamet’s urge to see Spector through the prism of the Minotaur myth. Nobody bats an eyelid. Nobody says, “Are you crazy, don’t ya know this is television?”

Some hours later, on the same stage, sit director Steven Soderbergh and actors Michael Douglas and Matt Damon. They’re here to discuss Behind the Candelabra, the HBO movie Soderbergh has directed, about the flamboyant entertainer Liberace and the pianist’s relationship with young lover Scott Thorson (played by Damon).

We’re shown some of it and there are Damon and Douglas, in character, in a bathtub together, kissing and cooing at each other. We see examples of Liberace’s extraordinary, camp Las Vegas show and his bizarre TV specials. We see Douglas as Liberace when the relationship ends, denying it ever existed and Douglas looks like he’s doing some of his best work as the enraged, deeply conflicted entertainer.

Soderbergh says he wanted to create a movie about him for more than decade, such was his fascination with Liberace’s public fame and personal life. “For years I was thinking about it but couldn’t figure out a way in. I didn’t want a traditional biopic and I couldn’t figure out what the angle was,” he tells us. Then he read Thorson’s tell-all book about the relationship, Behind the Candelabra, and Richard LaGravenese (The Fisher King, P.S. I Love You) wrote a script he liked.

There is some joshing from the critics about the challenges facing Douglas and Damon playing flamboyantly dressed gay men. But it’s mild joshing. “We take the relationship seriously,” Soderbergh says. “My feeling based on some of the research we did indicated that it was a real relationship and it was, at that point, the longest relationship Liberace had had. I was very anxious that we not make a caricature of either of the characters or the relationship.”

It is, then, a serious movie about a gay relationship, one between a famous, powerful man and a younger lover who depends on the older man. And it is a project featuring an Academy Award-winning director, two Oscar-winning actors and an Oscar-nominated writer.

What’s astonishing is what emerges later, when Soderbergh talks further with the critics. He says he took the project to every movie studio in Hollywood and nobody was willing to back it or make it: “They all said it was too gay.”

HBO made it. Which isn’t just a cool move, or even particularly brave. Just smart. And further underlines why HBO has succeeded in transcending television to become a crucible of the culture, of art.

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