Thursday, April 25, 2013

Culture Shock 04.25.13: 'Skinemax' takes a stab at prestige

There came a fateful day — I think it was in 1986 — when the local cable-TV monopoly added Cinemax to its pay-television subscription offerings.

For the first month, every household that subscribed to basic cable got Cinemax free of charge. The first taste is always free. But as it turned out, one weekend would have been enough.

The following Monday at school, every boy in class knew. So did quite a few girls, too, if memory serves. We all knew there was a reason why Cinemax was nicknamed "Skinemax."

So it began: our torrid teenage love affair with clandestine, sound-turned-down, soft-focus sex. Mustn't wake mom. Earlier generations had "dirty magazines" by flashlight. We had Cinemax After Dark.

That was a long time ago, before the Internet. Now, "the good parts" of just about any movie you can name are just a click away, if that's all you really want. So, how does a premium cable channel remake itself for a brave new world where Skinemax is merely the bare Skinimum?

Answer: The same way HBO and Showtime did, shifting focus away from movies and onto original and exclusive programming.

I mention HBO, and you think "Game of Thrones" or "Boardwalk Empire." I say Showtime, and you think "Homeland" or "Dexter." These are prestige shows. Audiences love them. Critics love them. They get people talking, and if you spoil an episode, you risk grievous bodily harm. It's that serious.

Cinemax has nothing in that league yet. Of its three original prime-time series, one is a British import ("Strike Back") and one has already been canceled after one season ("Hunted"), leaving only "Banshee," which has been renewed for a second season to air next year, to generate something of a cult following. As of now, onetime also-ran Starz reaches more viewers and generates more buzz with its lineup of shows like "Magic City" and the recently concluded "Spartacus."

Still, Cinemax hasn't forgotten its target demographic. Cinemax After Dark remains, but equally retooled for the new TV landscape.

The new After Dark is filled with original series, from "Chemistry" to "Co-Ed Confidential." And if HBO can bolster its reputation with shows with a literary pedigree, like "Game of Thrones" and the upcoming "American Gods," based on Neil Gaiman's novel, then so can Cinemax, after a fashion.

Cinemax's "Zane's Sex Chronicles" is based on the works of erotica writer Zane. And "The Girl's Guide to Depravity" is based on producer Heather Rutman's blog and book about her dating experiences in Hollywood.

But the crown jewel of the Cinemax After Dark lineup is "Femme Fatales."

Taking its title from a long-running entertainment magazine that focused mostly on B-movie actresses and "scream queens," "Femme Fatales" is an anthology series that blends film noir plots and O. Henry twist endings with the maximum skin After Dark is known for.

Given that film noir typically involves poor saps falling for deadly dames, scorned women and murderous love triangles where three adds up to a shallow grave, at least the sex scenes are somewhat related to the plots — both story and burial.

The first season of "Femme Fatales" has been released on DVD and includes all 14 episodes over three discs, with deleted scenes, behind-the-scenes featurettes and audio commentaries for every episode. The second season is set for release July 16.

As yet, there's no announcement of a third season, so "Femme Fatales" may have run its course.

Sex sells, but in a buyer's market, Cinemax is still trying to differentiate itself. But when MTV no longer plays music videos, it's somehow reassuring that Skinemax still tries to live up to its name.

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