The outlet that unexpectedly crashed the top Emmy race; the home to complicated LGBTQ and female storytelling for an intriguing, glimmering moment; the place that today, even in its attenuated state, airs “Yellowjackets” and “Ziwe.”
For a long moment leading up until very recently, Showtime has felt like something less than what it once was — perhaps inevitable, given that “what it once was” was a channel that punched so far above weight that it seemed at times close to an equal of HBO. And the news that it is in some way changing form, taking on the cumbersome name “Paramount+ With Showtime” and seeing its highest-profile forthcoming series, “Three Women,” get offloaded before airing, suggests that even its more mediocre days as a stand-alone television network will soon be in the rear-view mirror.
It’s a shame! Obviously, the current state of affairs, in which endless well-funded outlets provide consumers infinite choice, was not meant to last forever. It was to have winners and losers, and, even as details remain to be sorted out, Showtime’s fate seems clear enough. But inasmuch as the characters and personalities of industry brands matter at all, it’s in the way they enable art to get made. And Showtime stood for a streak in American television that would be sad to see just die.
Consider what is likely their greatest triumph, “Homeland.” The series, which kicked open the Emmy best drama category for Showtime, has a complicated legacy; it also undeniably aired in the right place. In the 2000s, under Robert Greenblatt, the cabler became known for shows that centered the interior lives of women in extraordinary circumstances. The protagonist could be a suburban drug dealer (“Weeds”) or a terminally ill schoolteacher (“The Big C”) or a pill-addicted health professional (“Nurse Jackie”) or a mother with multiple personalities (“United States of Tara”). In all cases, though, her journey was explored in a way that kept her from being the butt of the joke — indeed, explored with such complexity that Showtime became a magnet for major stars. Claire Danes’ work on “Homeland,” going to extreme places to track Carrie Mathison’s cycles of breakdown and breakthrough, slotted nicely into that tradition. It was a great show that felt, essentially, like a Showtime show.
There were other moments of Showtime-iness in memory: The network was early and robust in its support of queer storytelling, like “Queer as Folk” and “The L Word.” Its singles and doubles were given time — some might say too much time — to become what their creators intended, with luxurious runs for shows like “Dexter,” “Episodes,” and “Masters of Sex.” (“Shameless” went 11 seasons on the channel!) And though I have critiques of these shows, I cannot imagine HBO airing David Lynch’s “Twin Peaks” or Sacha Baron Cohen’s “Who Is America?,” two late-2010s series that hewed to their creators’ vision. More recently, in the now-closed David Nevins era, it made a go of competing in late night with “Ziwe” and with “Desus & Mero,” two splashily entertaining, big-hearted shows, and it found its way back to the Emmys with the zanily twisty “Yellowjackets.”
Showtime’s impulse was less perfectionist than HBO’s: It wanted to take the viewer on a ride, which sometimes meant handing the keys to a creator, or stretching a show too long because it was a shame to say goodbye, or making one more show about a woman with a secret. These were quirks the viewer could anticipate, and which reaped dividends, from “Homeland” reviving itself after any other network might have written it off creatively to all those other women-with-secrets shows. Does anyone know what Paramount+ is like, what traits govern its decision making, what decisions it makes at all? By seeming design, it’s unknowable, the content pit where CBS and MTV and “Star Trek” and the shows from the “Good Fight”-writing Kings and now premium content go, along with some movies. But it’s hard to imagine a “Homeland” emerging from that ferment — indeed, it’s hard to imagine what original programming will come out of there at all.
No one knows what will happen among the many channels owned by Paramount Global — the chaos that lies ahead seems apparently bad news for the premium channel outlet changing its name, but the present moment is one of uncertainty. Paramount Global, which owns Showtime and Paramount+, is a business (and one that’s changed many times over through mergers between Viacom and CBS), and its responsibility is to its stockholders and not to an idea that having another robust premium cable channel in the mix would be more fun. That’s why it’s worth noting, finally, that moves like this one strike this observer as not just bad for art, but bad for business. For decades now, viewers have understood what they’re getting when they go to Showtime; the name means something. “Yellowjackets” took off the way it did in part because Showtime still has strength even after some leaner years. Throwing the name away, or placing it on the margins (for now) of a double-barreled name in which the anonymous streamer comes first seems like a mistake. (And, for that matter, like a mistake that FX — the programming of which has largely been siloed on Hulu — has avoided having inflicted upon it, and that HBO is surely watching nervously ahead of whatever is next in David Zaslav’s vision for his empire.)
Shifting Showtime into a streaming-first enterprise, in name and in sensibility, would be a good way to guarantee that whatever risk-taking Showtime premium product comes out next gets lost in the shuffle, just another streaming series in a climate in which nothing can break through, in which the humanity, personality, and serendipity of programming matter less than an algorithm. Say what you will about the decisions that made Showtime’s name and its legacy: They certainly never felt algorithmic — and viewers, who stayed with HBO’s quirkier cousin all the way into the 2020s, were lucky for it.