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It's been said that the best networks don't rebuild when they lose established series...they just reload. In this case, HBO (a subsidiary of Time Warner (NYSE: TWX ) is reloading in a big way. This week the network cemented that belief with a flurry of series pick-ups, including two new half-hour comedies with star appeal and a hour-long drama with an impressive pedigree.
While HBO's hour-long series get the lion's share of publicity, their half-hour resume is fairly impressive. Now set to join the ranks of Sex & the City, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and Veep are Ballers and The Brink.
Ballers comes from a powerhouse team that includes Mark Wahlberg, Peter Berg, and Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, who will also serve as the show's lead. The series will center on a group of former and current professional football players and their daily lives. Johnson will star as a retired All-Pro running back, alongside Rob Corddry (Hot Tub Time Machine, Children's Hospital), Omar Benson Miller (CSI: Miami), and relative newcomer John David Washington, who is the son of Oscar winner Denzel Washington.
The Brink's roster of talent isn't too shabby either as the new half-hour dark comedy has Jay Roach (Game Change, Recount) as a director, Tim Robbins (The Shawshank Redemption), Jack Black (School of Rock), and Pablo Schreiber (Orange Is the New Black) as its stars, and Hollywood legend Jerry Weintraub as its executive producer. The series focuses on three men who find the fate of the world in their very incapable hands.
Not a laughing matter
HBO's track record with launching comedies over the last few years isn't very good, which is surprising given how many iconic laffers are associated with the network (The Larry Saunders Show, Entourage, etc.). These two though both look to be incredibly strong from the start and both will come with a built-in buzz factor.
Yet while both shows are smart additions, that doesn't mean that each doesn't come with at least one question mark. Ballers may be a comedy, but is being billed as having similar aspects to ESPN's drama Playmakers, which looked at football from every angle. The show was cancelled after one season after the league was reportedly unhappy with the sport's negative aspects being in the spotlight and pushed on ESPN to pull the program. Ballers is going to likely cause some of those same concerns and like ESPN, HBO has a profitable relationship with the NFL, which could come into play.
The Brink's possible cause for concern is if the humor is overly dark and highbrow. That was the problem with Enlightened and Bored to Death, which despite a cast comprised of top actors like Laura Dern, Jason Schwartzman, Zach Galifianakis, and Ted Danson, quickly saw that its comedy wasn't catching on with audiences. Let's hope that's not the case here.
Gone baby gone
HBO wasn't just focusing on comedy this week -- it also greenlit Utopia, which will be directed by Oscar nominee David Fincher (The Social Network ) and written by Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn. The hour-long drama will center on a group of die-hard fans of an ultra-popular underground graphic novel who find themselves in a real-life mystery as they learn the author's secretly written a sequel and they set out to find it. Of course this being from Fincher and Flynn, expect lots of mystery, intrigue, and twists along the way. Utopia is based on the international series of the same name that launched to great success in 2013.
Fincher, who last year successfully crossed over to TV with Netflix's House of Cards, is a hot commodity. And if you don't know who Flynn is, just wait until this fall when Gone Girl hits theaters and becomes the next "it" awards film. This was a nice signing for HBO and will give its drama slate a big boost.
While launching a new comedy has been a problem for HBO, keeping its dramas has been just as challenging. In 2014, the network will lose three of its biggest titles, leaving just Game of Thrones and likely True Detective as its only established dramas expected to have a 2015 run. Realistically, yet-to-debut summer series The Leftovers will also probably have a sophomore run as well, but I'm only counting shows that have currently aired at the moment.
Still with so many shows soon to be gone off the network roster, Utopia could represent a safety net with vast potential.
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