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hbo switches to toned-down versions of sopranos, six feet under and curb your enthusiasm
september 1, 2008

Fans of such widely-acclaimed HBO series as Six Feet Under, The Sopranos, and Curb Your Enthusiasm, will have until October 1 to purchase DVDs of these series as they originally aired. After that date, the series will only be available in edited versions approved by HBO's new management team.

HBO announced at a press conference this past Friday that the upcoming Blu-Ray editions of the shows will feature some "editing for content."

"The essence of the series will still be there. People who are interested in HBO shows know they go further than broadcast TV, so you're still going to see controversial scenes, and nudity, and frank language," Abram Dunne, spokesperson for HBO, announced at Friday's press conference to launch the Blu-Ray editions of HBO's most popular series. "All we're going to do is bring those series into the twentieth-first century, acknowledging along the way that people are a little more sensitive today about certain issues, and that we at HBO need to be respectful of those opinions."

When asked how specifically popular HBO series such as The Sopranos would be edited, Dunne listed several changes that had been made to the original shows.

"When The Sopranos originally aired, in the late nineties, some of the characters would occasionally use what I'll characterize as the 'C' word, referring to a woman's genitals. That word will now be replaced with 'Kid'."

Dunne gave as an example a scene near the middle of the acclaimed series when Dr. Melfi, Tony's psychiatrist, rejects Tony's amorous interest in her. In the episode as it aired, and as it appears on the standard definition DVD for that season, Tony at one point says to Dr. Melfi, "Fuck you, you miserable cunt." According to Dunne, that has now been changed to, "Fuck you, you miserable kid."

"The advantage of substituting "kid" for the offensive word is that phonetically, they're quite similar. It really does look like Tony is saying 'kid' at that point."

Dunne added that using 'kid' adds a whole new dimension to Tony's relationship with Dr. Melfi. "Now we have that extra flavor of wondering if Tony never fully respected Dr. Melfi's ability to cure him because she's younger than him."

For those scenes that use the phrase 'cunt hair', the Blu-Ray disks will substitute 'pubic hair'.

"Although the C-word and 'pubic' are quite different phonetically, each time the phrase 'c-hair' is used, the character is either in long shot, or not directly facing the camera, so the speaker's lips are not clearly visible. We lucked out."

Additional changes will include an edited version of the scene in which Ralphie, one of Tony's captains, beats to death the Bada Bing dancer with whom he's been having sexual relations.

"In the original version, the beating is quite vicious. I think the rule for any responsible artist is, Make your point, but do not go overboard. We went in there and removed most of the shots. It's still clear Ralphie is the agent of the young woman's death, but now it's more implied, rather than actually shown. We see Ralphie go up to the roof, visibly angry, then cut to a shot of the dead girl's body. So it's still edgy."

Other scenes in the series will also be trimmed, including one in which Tony kills Ralphie in a rage, believing Ralphie set a fire that caused the death of Tony's horse Pie-O-My.

"The feeling of HBO's new management on this one was that we needed to see Tony kill Ralphie, so we know what happens to the character, but quite a few members of the new team felt the idea of an animal being burnt alive really served no purpose in advancing the narrative." In the revised version, it's suggested Ralphie has become irrational because of a lawn dart injury to his son that occurs earlier in the episode. He attacks Tony out of intense feelings of guilt. The Pie-O-My burning, and all references to the fire at the horse stable, have been removed.

The Sopranos is not the only HBO series to face the knife.

"A real challenge for the new HBO management was the series Six Feet Under. In its first season, it shows full male frontal nudity in two episodes: the pilot, in which a corpse has an erection, and a later episode, in which one of Brenda's former lovers, an Australian, walks into a room completely naked. The scene showed his unerect penis."

Careful cuts will remove both images.

The new Blu-Ray edition will also excise a number of scenes over the course of the series in which the two principal gay characters, actors Michael C. Hall and Mathew St. Patrick, embrace and/or kiss each other. "It will still be clear the two are lovers. We're simply fine-tuning the show so that it has an even balance."

Curb your Enthusiasm will be the series most affected by the regime change at HBO, especially the earlier seasons.

"There are entire episodes which would now be considered to be in extremely poor taste."

Dunne cited the episode in which Larry pretends to be an incest victim, and a variety of episodes in which Larry has socially unacceptable attitudes towards African Americans.

"What we intend to do, because some episodes are almost completely unacceptable, is take the twelve half hour episodes of season one, for example, and on the Blu Ray disc turn them into a two-hour movie. Because there's a continuity between episodes, the two-hour movie format works really well for the series. Another half hour or so from the season's original six hours would be presented as outtakes."

Dunne summed up the approach of HBO's new management at the end of the press conference: "Let me say that there was a period when HBO perhaps went over the line of good taste in what it presented. If we were to start airing The Sopranos today, the new team at HBO would certainly tone down some of the violent, and rather coarse, elements of the show." He added, "I actually prefer the A&E version of The Sopranos, where there's some judicious editing, to the original version. Likewise, with Six Feet Under, if we were to film it today, we would present a series that was certainly a bit lighter in tone, introducing more comedy, with more likeable characters."

Creators David Chase ("The Sopranos"), Alan Ball ("Six Feet Under"), and Larry David ("Curb your Enthusiasm") have not issued any public statements regarding HBO's decision to release edited versions of their series. Dunne did point out that HBO controls the rights to all its series, and does not need the approval of the series' creators to proceed with the edits.

He stated further that the original, unedited versions of the series will be scrapped. "After October 1, all standard definition original versions of these series on DVD will be destroyed. The only available versions of these shows after that date, whether on HBO, HBO on Demand, or on DVD, will be the improved versions."

Dunne emphasized that edgy content still has a place on HBO. "In 2010, we'll be doing a six-part miniseries based on Tod Solondz's 1998 film Happiness. This is the sort of 'riding on the edge' fare viewers expect from HBO." In the new version, the father, originally played by Dylan Baker, will be portrayed by Matthew Perry. Instead of the father being sexually interested in a twelve year old boy, his sights will be focused on a female junior high school gymnast (Scarlett Johansson's name has been floated for the role, which would mark the actress' first appearance in a television series.)

Dunne finished the press conference by stating, "The new management at HBO does not take its position as a major cable player lightly. We realize we have a responsibility to the public, and hope that our new, edited versions on Blu-Ray of these classic HBO series will allow them to reach an even wider audience."

None of the above is true, of course. I made it up.

But is it that unlikely?

Here's what I didn't make up:

There's a critically-acclaimed comic book series from the nineties called Preacher.

The prior management at HBO was enthusiastic about turning the series into an HBO show.

Director Mark Steven Johnson, who was the show-runner for the proposed series, announced on August 25 that the new management team at HBO decided to pass on the series.

Which is their right, of course.

But what reason did the new HBO management give for turning down the series?

According to Johnson, HBO's new management felt the idea of the series "was just too dark and too violent and too controversial."

HBO, in the late nineties, early oughts, created the greatest shows ever to appear on television. But would the new management have approved some of the episodes from the first few seasons of Curb Your Enthusiasm? Would it have greenlighted Six Feet Under?

Alan Ball's new series, True Blood, which debuts September 7, looks promising. But that was approved under the old HBO regime.

What does the new HBO regime have on tap?

Mostly rather safe comedies and dramas, some of which aren't even originals (they're based on British or Australian shows). There's nothing in their roster, except for True Blood, that sounds remotely interesting.

It's not HBO. It's TV.

I'm writing a novel.

For a writer, that's like saying, I'm pregnant.

And, like a pregnancy, you don't tell other people at first. There's that shy, quiet time, at the beginning, where it's just you and your hands on the keyboard.

This will actually be my fifth novel, after Always Again, Father Figure, Kid, and As Dead As Me.

The provisional title is, The Angry Red Planet.

Always, when I write a short story, I know what my next short story will be. Never, when I write a novel, do I know what my next novel will be.

The inspiration for your next novel is something you wait for, patiently. Sometimes, for years.

And you're aware of time passing. You don't know if there will ever be another novel inside you.

In the interim, I've had several ideas for possible novels, but in each case, I didn't feel they were ready. The thing about a novel is, you don't want to commit unless you're reasonably sure what you have in your hands can flap the distance.

One idea I've had the past few years for a novel is It Hurts the City. It's a story about power struggles that take place among the main characters. There are actually a lot of great scenes in City, and in fact I even mapped out the plot, chapter by chapter, at one point, but to get it to novel length I had to introduce some sub-plots which, the more I thought about it, made it too conventional in its structure. Plus, if I wrote it that way, I'd be conscious there were some scenes I was putting in the book just to cover as many pages as possible, like when you're a kid writing a letter you don't really have any interest in writing, and you make your words extra large, your margins extra wide, just to get down to the bottom of each page as politely as possible. What I'll probably do is turn It Hurts the City into a novelette or novella, because that's really its ideal length.

Another idea I've been toying with for a novel is Just Like Furniture, which in fact I do think would make a great novel, and which I do want to write someday. Maybe next year. The main character is someone who was once famous, no longer is, and is trying to become famous again.

This latest novel started as a short story. I came up with a couple of characters, a husband and wife. I gave them strong personalities, then let them bounce off each other for ten thousand words.

After I finished that story, I realized I hadn't exhausted the situations in which these two could interact. So without trying to sell the first story, I wrote a second story about the same two characters, a "what happens next" type story, the only time I've ever done a sequel to one of my stories.

As I was writing that sequel, I realized there were even more situations I could put them in, and then realized these stories could be extended in such a way as to show what happens to both people over the course of about half a year (and here the short stories stickily metamorphosized into a novel.)

It's nice to be writing a novel again.

The thing is, when you're in the midst of working on a novel, more so than working on a short story, ideas relevant to the novel show up all around your head, evening after evening, like fireflies.

It's also nice to be able to spend so much time with the same characters. Usually, I get one month with a story's people, then that's it. Have a nice life.

But with a novel, it's nine months. I really get to know them.

The Angry Red Planet is a very funny novel, but also, a very sad novel. Right now, as I'm typing these words, I'm at the point where it starts turning sad. But it needs to. Still, that's a hard thing to do, to spend such happy times with your characters, and then force bad things to happen to them. I remember years ago I was reading a publisher's proof of Father Figure, and really enjoying the romance of the first section of that novel, then realizing, Oh, wait, that's right, things don't turn out so well for them.

Right now, I'm about 50,000 words into the novel. My estimate is the first draft will finish at about 65,000 words.

I've been working on The Angry Red Planet most of this year. Early in the year I wrote two short stories, Nothing But This Too, and Beast. But everything since then has been the novel. There are several short stories I'm impatient to write, but you should never stop work on a novel to write a short story. It mixes things up in your head, like orange juice and chocolate cake.

Each night I start by reading the section I wrote the night before, to get me in the mood, editing that section as I go, then skate out onto the white surface of the next section.

Once I finish the first draft, I'll need to go back and add all the scenes and dialogue I've come up since writing the early chapters, plus line edit the whole thing to make sure it reads smoothly. But that's the fun part. Because the words are already there.

The hardest part is blank screen, ten fingers hovering over the black keyboard, waiting for each four inch run of inspiration.

But you already knew that.

We have bird feeders in our backyard.

They hang suspended below beige branches of our large crepe myrtle, little houses with green roofs and narrow porches.

You lift off the green roofs, pour seed inside.

Recently, Mary and I thought, What if we took a wooden TV table, put it outside one of our bedroom windows, and spilled seed directly on the TV table, plus the brick ledge of the window?

We did that once before, years ago.

So now we have birds fluttering down right outside our window, lowering their dinosaur heads, pecking at the seed.

Our cats find this fascinating.

At first, they wiggled their fat bottoms on our bed, then attacked the window, standing up on hind paws, swatting at the birds an inch away.

Eventually, they realized they couldn't kill the birds that way.

So they took to squatting on the inside window ledge, watching the birds dipping their beaks on the outside window ledge.

Occasionally, they'd wipe their paws across the window pane, not understanding why they couldn't cup the birds' necks, drag their protesting feather spreads down to the carpet.

Now they just lie on the inside window ledge, watching the birds beak up the tiny white seeds.

Our bedroom window is like an aquarium, because the birds can't see inside, all the whiskers watching them, but we're able to see outside, the close-up details of doves and blue jays and cardinals and finches and sparrows and parakeets percolating their heads down towards the seed.

Which is really quite lovely. The pane prevents actual violence, but the potential for murder is always there (and what's the point of having fangs if they aren't blood-stained?)