Sky: Quality drama - at a price

Sky's latest channel promises to be a one-stop shop for fans of the best American series – but many viewers will miss out, says Gerard Gilbert

It's the last piece of the jigsaw," says Stuart Murphy, director of programmes for Sky Atlantic HD, the new channel that's been created to showcase the fruits of Sky's exclusive deal with HBO in America. The deal also includes the entire HBO back catalogue, including The Sopranos, Sex and the City and The Wire, as well as all their new shows, like Wire creator David Simon's post-Hurricane Katrina drama, Treme, and Martin Scorsese's first foray into cable TV drama, Boardwalk Empire, as well as new series of Weeds, Entourage and In Treatment. Sky Atlantic has also poached Mad Men from the BBC, and signed a side-deal with CBS for the new hit cop show Blue Bloods and the latest historical bonk-buster, The Borgias. The channel opens its doors to satellite subscribers on 1 February, meaning that viewers who don't subscribe to Sky will miss out.

First of all, what a good choice of name. The Atlantic is neither British nor American, a neutral space where British sensibilities can meet the current flowering of American TV drama. It's hard to imagine an alternative. Sky USA sounds too much like a failed budget airline, or something with Jonathan King attached. Sky Box-Set? Too much like Sky Box Office, even if it does neatly identify the target audience for Sky Atlantic. What you might call Box-Set Person. Yes, you know who you are.

Box-Set Person never worries about missing an episode of Mad Men, Lost or The Wire – she has it sitting there in her bookcase. She may go a month without watching a single minute of The Sopranos, a series she has come to rather late, but then gorge on five episodes in one sitting. Last Christmas found her buried in seasons one to three of Mad Men, that Booker-shortlisted novel she had been meaning to read all year still untouched at her bedside.

Stuart Murphy prefers to call his target subscribers "Freeview audiences", the older, more upmarket viewers who have so far resisted the siren call of live Premiership football and hot-from-the-cinema movie releases, the bait that has lured ten million subscribers to Sky. Without spending an extra bean, Freeview Person has hitherto been able to catch Mad Men on BBC4, Sex and the City on E4, Curb Your Enthusiasm on More 4, True Blood on Channel 4, Flight of the Conchords on BBC2 and Entourage on ITV2. And a whole lot more besides. Scheduling could be sporadic (Breaking Bad, for example, has at times required bloodhound-like tenacity to track down from season to season), but the Golden Age of American TV Drama was mostly all for free.

No longer. Box-Set Man or Freeview Woman (either way, they are the same demographic, with the same haphazard method of consuming their favourite shows) are now faced with a stark choice: either pay up or put up – subscribe to Sky, or wait a while for the box-sets to turn up on Amazon.

"Mad Men could be the tipping point," says a friend of mine – Box-Set Man incarnate. "My wife hates Sky for buying Mad Men." Mr and Mrs Box-Set have so far gone to extreme lengths to avoid renting a satellite dish. For example, when their kids' favourite American show, Chuck, moved from Freeview to Living, they started downloading it from iTunes. And, despite sensing the inevitable, they have their caveats – especially about adverts on the advertising saga Mad Men. "As ironic as it is," says Mr B-S, "Adverts would spoil Mad Men."

He also worries about what is going to happen to those water-cooler moments in the office, when colleagues gather round to discuss last night's Mad Men or Lost episode. "I used to love the mass cultural experience of the early series of Lost on Channel 4," he says. "There weren't many water-cooler moments after it moved to Sky."

So, apart from the new series of Mad Men, which begins in August (within days of the US premiere), with what are Sky Atlantic tempting us? It's hard to know where to begin – although not that hard, with Martin Scorsese making his television debut directing the pilot episode (the most expensive pilot in TV history) of Boardwalk Empire, a lavish and beautifully realised new costume drama set in Prohibition-era Atlantic City. Scorsese was also a very hands-on executive producer, having weekly meetings with creator and main writer, Terence Winter of The Sopranos.

Boardwalk Empire also provides welcome TV exposure for one of independent cinema's most cherished actors, Steve Buscemi, who shows real leading-man brio as Enoch "Nucky" Thompson, the corrupt treasurer of Atlantic County and its most powerful political figure – the Tony Soprano of the piece.

David Simon's long-awaited new saga, set in post-Katrina New Orleans, Treme, will also debut in February. Every bit as dense as The Wire, it may lack the cops-and-dealers narrative drive of its predecessor's early season, but there's a storming soundtrack and a sense of place you can almost smell. Substitute New Orleans for Baltimore and you have the idea.

Also among the first month's highlights are the new series of Entourage, as well as a new comedy drama from the same writers and producers which has been dubbed an "East Coast Entourage": How to Make It in America. This stars Bryan Greenberg from One Tree Hill and ER's Victor Rasuk as struggling friends who decide to use their street savvy to make it in New York's cut-throat fashion scene. US critics have been lukewarm, but I liked it.

There's also the new series of Weeds, with Mary-Louise Parker as the pot-dealing soccer mom, and the UK premiere of Al Pacino's Emmy-winning performance as euthanasia activist Jack Kevorkian in the HBO feature film You Don't Know Jack, as well as (in a strand called HBO Originals) complete reruns of The Sopranos, Six Feet Under and Curb Your Enthusiasm.

And this transatlantic relationship isn't all one-sided, including as it does a sprinkling of home-grown drama, starting with Hit and Miss by Shameless creator Paul Abbott – a six-part tale about a pre-op transsexual contract killer. What's not to like, especially as Sky Atlantic provides a one-stop home for the best American drama, safe from the vagaries of schedulers (the BBC have been particularly guilty of this over the years) who think that 11.20pm on a school night is a good time to screen great drama.

It should be stressed, however, that HBO is not the only US network making good TV – indeed, some people reckon its glory days are behind it, as other cable stations like Showtime and the Fox subsidiary FX come to the fore. "HBO definitely has more competition than ever before," says Laura Fries of Variety. "Other channels are creating their own original shows and giving the big pay channels and networks a run for their money. These smaller networks have more room to experiment, so they have the freedom to fail that the others don't."

And there is still a lot of good US fare out there for free, shows like Justified, Californication, Dexter and Desperate Housewives. But there's no denying that Sky Atlantic is a clever move – an audacious land grab – by a broadcaster traditionally shunned in wealthier homes. And those are where the chattering classes reside. Stuart Murphy is well aware that shows like Mad Men punch way above their weight when it comes to critical kudos, and that while the numbers watching the show might be relatively tiny, the column inches generated are many. "If this doesn't work," he admits, "nothing will."

High drama: five must-see Sky Atlantic shows


"Won't bow; don't know how" is the slogan of David 'The Wire' Simon's saga of post-Katrina New Orleans, a portrait of a unique city rebuilding itself. Dense and optimistic, 'Treme' features a rich cultural stew of musicians, DJs, chefs and civil-rights campaigners – and a banging soundtrack.

When? February

Boardwalk Empire

Another time, another place – Atlantic City in 1920s Prohibition America, and a $10m pilot episode (the most expensive ever) directed by Martin Scorsese. Created by 'Sopranos' writer Terence Winter, this is a rather more glamorous New Jersey than that inhabited by Tony and his mob.

When? February

Game of Thrones

"'The Sopranos' in Middle Earth" is the jokey tagline that its writers have attached to this dark new drama, faithfully based on George R R Martin's epic fantasy novels; imagine 'Lord of the Rings' with 'Deadwood' levels of sex and violence. A largely British cast is led by Sean Bean.

When? April

Mildred Pierce

Kate Winslet takes the title role, and Evan Rachel Wood plays her daughter, in a drama series based on the James M Cain novel about a Depression-era single mother who opens a restaurant, originally filmed with Joan Crawford in 1945. Todd Haynes directs and Guy Pierce co-stars.

When? June


Dustin Hoffman makes his TV debut, and Nick Nolte co-stars, in a horse-racing drama directed by Michael Mann and written by David Milch ('NYPD Blue'; 'Deadwood'). Hoffman plays a gambling grifter newly released from prison.

When? September

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