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Showtime’s Quiet Transformation Is Underway

Better late than never: The network known for endless renewals and staid prestige is throwing its weight behind celebrity-led shows like ‘City on a Hill,’ and will soon hyper-diversify like so many of its competitors have in the post-Netflix landscape

Showtime/Ringer illustration

Just how Boston is City on a Hill, the Kevin Bacon–starring drama that premiered on Showtime this past Sunday? The phrase “THIS IS MASSACHUSETTS” occurs within the first 10 minutes, shouted by a character who later expresses his adoration for “Baw-by Kennedy.” (The show is set in the early ’90s, so the reference is dated but not ludicrously so.) The premiere ends with “More Than a Feeling” by—brace yourself—Boston. And the credits boast no less a Boston bona fide than executive producer credits for Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, the city’s de facto cultural ambassadors for more than two decades. Like Affleck’s The Town, City even features a crew of Charlestown bank robbers saddled with a wild card who endangers their well-oiled machine.

Inevitably, City exists in the shadow of the other star-affiliated series currently dominating the summer TV landscape. Held up against the supernova that is Big Little Lies, City can’t help but seem a little dated. Not only is it yet another story about a law enforcement officer who doesn’t play by the rules but gets the job done, or an unlikely alliance between a black man and a problematic yet sincere white colleague, or an adrenaline-addled criminal who really loves his kids, City on a Hill is also a decidedly old-fashioned version of what star-driven TV can be, arriving at a time when the genre is in the middle of an arms race. While Reese Witherspoon and Meryl Streep enter the Thunderdome on HBO, Kevin Bacon and Aldis Hodge enact a much lower-key conflict elsewhere on premium cable. It’s the comforting procedural to other limited series’ escalating brinksmanship.

Showtime will soon take its own turn at the celebrity vehicle sweepstakes before the end of the month with The Loudest Voice, a supersize, highly unauthorized Roger Ailes biopic featuring Russell Crowe, Naomi Watts, Sienna Miller, and, in a bit of Mad Libs casting, Seth MacFarlane. But while Loudest Voice is adapted from journalist Gabriel Sherman’s nonfiction account The Loudest Voice in the Room, the show arrives in the gap between HBO’s Succession, a nominally made-up story about a family clearly inspired by Ailes’s employers, and a still-untitled feature about Ailes’s sexual harassment scandal, starring Margot Robbie, Nicole Kidman, and Charlize Theron as some of his most high-profile targets. Caught in a zeitgeist-carrying wave that recalls the great O.J. Simpson obsession of 2016 or, more recently, this year’s festival of Fyre Festival exposés, The Loudest Voice can’t help but seem a little reactive.

Thanks to the paradigm-scrambling threat of services like Netflix, we’re currently in a moment when more established channels are visibly taking stock of and working to establish their identities in a radically shifted landscape. HBO is undergoing the most high-profile version of this process, faced with the dual shocks of a new, expansion-hungry corporate overlord and the conclusion of its flagship, diffusion-defying franchise. But Showtime, too, is negotiating its own state of flux, with a slate of upcoming projects that show a surprisingly risky programming ethos from a network notorious for nonstop renewals.

Like Amazon Prime and its potentially 10-figure Lord of the Rings gamble, Showtime has taken a rather direct approach to the question of what can take Thrones place at the center of the culture: another beloved genre franchise demanding an investment of resources commensurate with its scope. This strategy encompasses not one, but two nascent projects. First is sci-fi video game adaptation Halo, spearheaded by Kyle Killen and set to start production later this year; next is a Lin-Manuel Miranda–produced show based on Patrick Rothfuss’s Kingkiller Chronicle fantasy novels, currently in development as a prequel. While both these series are consistent with the larger culture’s interest in bankable intellectual property and once-marginalized genres, the high-concept epic is a significant step outward for Showtime, whose dramas—Twin Peaks excepted—tend to be set in a recognizable version of the real world. Halo’s war against the aliens ups the ante from Homeland’s war on terror.

Showtime’s comedy slate is even wilder still. Just this week, the network announced the pickup of On Becoming a God in Central Florida, a Kirsten Dunst–led black comedy originally ordered to series at YouTube. Though acquired elsewhere rather than developed in-house, On Becoming a God’s lurid satire is in keeping with a handful of ambitious ideas already in the pipeline: a foray into comedy from Lilly Wachowski, i.e., half of the duo that brought you Jupiter Ascending and Sense8, about queer middle-aged life in Chicago; a trippy anthology from Jaden Smith and Kanye West “examining the many doors of perception,” whatever that means. (Almost certainly not what Aldous Huxley did.) Having helped birth the modern dramedy with Weeds, Showtime appears to be moving in a more surreal, and in the case of Black Monday, broader direction. Jim Carrey’s Kidding, directed by Michel Gondry and showrun by Weeds alum Dave Holstein, seems poised to serve, in retrospect, as a transition.

Recent history suggests broadening its scope could work out in Showtime’s favor. Desus & Mero, the network’s first-ever late-night show, has achieved enough of a foothold in just four months on the air to double its episode order, from weekly to twice weekly. Cohosted by two comedians of color who met on Twitter and hail from the Bronx, the show not only opens up the lily-white world of late night by virtue of its very existence, but also the similarly narrow world of Showtime. The network itself is clearly aware of this, as evidenced by special subscription deals aimed at the duo’s considerable fan base. Desus and Mero fans are not necessarily Showtime fans or even viewers, but they can be convinced to become ones.

As retrograde as City on a Hill can seem—one gets the feeling it could have been made in the ’90s, in addition to being set there—the show has its own place in Showtime’s gradual, perceptible pivot. City arrives just a few months after Escape at Dannemora, a more ambitious but similarly contoured crime yarn helmed by Ben Stiller (who may soon reprise his directing duties with an adaptation of Gary Shteyngart’s dystopian comedy Super Sad True Love Story, though that series remains in development). With a transformative turn by Patricia Arquette, Dannemora successfully launched Showtime into the miniseries melee with the likes of HBO and FX (Arquette followed Dannemora with another notable limited series, Hulu’s The Act).

City on a Hill may not be a particularly novel or exceptional instance of the form, but it does seem like part of Showtime’s efforts to establish a presence in one of television’s most crowded spaces. Showtime’s latest moves aren’t quite radical enough to call a rebrand, nor drastic enough to call much attention to themselves. But quietly, the channel is undergoing a version of the process many of its peers are undertaking in more dramatic fashion. There’s no playbook for thriving as a pay cable channel in 2019, so you might as well diversify and see what sticks.

A previous version of this piece referred to City on the Hill as a miniseries; it is a drama. It also stated that Patricia Arquette would be “competing against herself” in the Emmys. She is in fact submitted for two separate Emmy awards: Outstanding Supporting Actress in a limited series or movie (Hulu’s The Act) and Outstanding Lead Actress in a limited series or movie (Showtime’s Dannemora).