HBO has never thought much of the kindness of strangers. In the four years since the pay channel had its clock cleaned by AMC with Mad Men (and promptly cleaned house in response), HBO has slowly rebuilt its reputation by investing in familiarity: Boardwalk Empire, from Sopranos scribe Terence Winter (and Entourage producer Mark Wahlberg); True Blood, from Six Feet Under undertaker Alan Ball; Tremé, from The Wire’s David Simon. Now comes news that the network’s next big splash is likely to be in a pool already located in their backyard. Deadline is reporting that HBO has given a pilot order to Criminal Justice, an adaptation of the 2008 BBC series of the same name that chronicles the journey of a single defendant lost in the labyrinth of a metropolitan legal system. The names behind the scenes are big: Oscar-winning screenwriter Steven Zaillian and acclaimed crime novelist Richard Price (who did time on the writing staff of The Wire). But the name in front of the camera is bigger: James Gandolfini, returning to the small-screen home where he made his considerable bones. Badaboom, badabing.
The premise of Criminal Justice is solid, and the crew doubly so. Gandolfini’s new role — in Deadline’s words, a “disheveled jailhouse lawyer wearing cheap suits and sandals” — seems like a solid break from his criminal past, and in keeping with his most recent turn on HBO, as a schlubby reality TV innovator in Cinema Verite. The rest of the announced cast, including Rizwan Ahmed as an unlucky bro who wakes up next to a corpse, and Poorna Jagannathan as his mom, is talented and diverse. Should it go to series, Justice is very unlikely to be anything less than good. But I can’t help but think that the closest HBO has come to great in recent years has been when its programmers have gone off the reservation and pursued projects with people not already embedded in their Rolodex. Game of Thrones and Girls, in very distinct ways, were both extremely risky plays: the former an expensive adaptation of a fantasy epic and the latter a sizable investment in an essentially unknown talent. Furthermore, neither David Benioff and D.B. Weiss nor Lena Dunham had prior experience running a TV show, let alone one for a network that prides itself on being something altogether more prestigious. Pursuing the HBO version of a police procedural is smart business in the short term, but lacks the long-term creative vision that made the network the number one game in town a decade ago. The best bet for future glory might just require co-presidents Richard Plepler and Michael Lombardo to start behaving in very un–Tony Soprano fashion and take some chances outside of the family.