Every little while – maybe even every month – there’s some plot point that multiple shows bring up at the same time. You remember the Hoarders craze, which may not even be over yet. Recently there were two shows in one week writing vision boards into the story. And TV viewers of an earlier generation were accustomed to seeing Soviet defector stories popping up everywhere at once. And now, as Dave Itzikoff points out, the big plot point that everyone wants to share is… incest. Two different shows on HBO have recently done stories about incest, and Game of Thrones already incorporated it. And not only wasn’t all this co-ordinated, the head of HBO wasn’t aware of the overlap until it was pointed out to him. Also, one of HBO’s busiest directors, Tim Van Patten, worked on both Game of Thrones and Boardwalk Empire, and according to this interview with Boardwalk creator Terence Winter, the overlap didn’t occur to Van Patten until the relevant Boardwalk episode had already aired. Incest is to HBO as hoarding is to the broadcast networks, something that seems to be on everyone’s mind.
There are several reasons why incest is a perfect HBO subject. It’s a taboo subject, and taboo subjects are what HBO producers are always on the lookout for. (Broadcast shows sometimes flirt with the issue but stop short of actually making anything illegal happen; Profit, often considered a broadcast ancestor of the HBO style, had the title character kiss a woman passionately and call her “Mom,” but she was his stepmother, making it immoral and icky but not biologically incestuous.) More than that, it’s a taboo subject that carries with it classical, highbrow allusions – to Oedipus, to Siegmund and Sieglinde – and allusions to Chinatown, one of the classic ’70s New Hollywood movies whose style has done so much to shape the HBO style. There is nothing more appropriate for an HBO show than a subject that a) Advertisers would probably not want to pay for and b) Has a certain grandeur and scope automatically associated with it.
Plus, as the bar gets raised for sociopathic or problematic behaviour on TV, an incest story is one of the few things remaining that can be instantly shocking to the TV audience. You could, at one time, shock the audience by showing that a character was cheating on his wife, because that just didn’t happen on TV. You can still do that on broadcast TV, actually (adultery is still rare enough in commercial TV that The Job could surprise us by having Denis Leary in an adulterous relationship). But on cable, you have to go bigger.
Speaking of Boardwalk Empire, the interview with Terence Winter is worth reading. The show made a big leap forward in quality this season – not perfect (and the overall points it’s making with its central character, it sometimes seems uneasily in Breaking Bad territory) but with more entertaining scripts to go with the handsome look of the production, and with writing that plays more to what Steve Buscemi does well.