Book Review: ‘Pandora’s Box: How Guts, Guile, and Greed Upended TV’

Pandora's Box
(Image credit: Houghton Mifflin)

Pandora’s Box: How Guts, Guile, and Greed Upended TV looks at how the peak TV era came to fruition, and how the streaming giants — and Netflix in particular — shook up television. Written by Peter Biskind and published by William Morrow, the book is a smoothly written account of modern television, from The Sopranos to the current era. 

The book starts with HBO and how it emerged from airing only movies to rough originals, such as The Hitchhiker and Tanner ‘88, to the prestige series that now define the network. Biskind spends time with Michael Fuchs, former HBO chairman/CEO, who is full of candor, and calls things honestly and openly, and often profanely. 

Almost every producer that ends up at HBO is there because he or she simply could not stand the risk-averse mindset in broadcast TV. 

Prison drama Oz gets a close-up, and producer Tom Fontana makes the case that that series, more than The Sopranos, ushered in TV’s golden era. “The kind of risks that are being taken now stem directly from the risks we took with Oz,” he said. “It reduced the fear factor that afflicted executives.”

Biskind offers intriguing descriptions of the industry luminaries he meets with. Sopranos creator David Chase is “a slender man, with deep-set eyes, a broad expanse of forehead, and a mouth that alternates between wry amusement and a frown, as if he has bitten into a lemon. He has the chalky pallor of someone who seldom ventures outside.”

Former Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes, meanwhile, is “a spindly numbers cruncher from an affluent Connecticut family who had checked all the boxes that would please Time Inc. — Deerfield Academy and Yale.”

Bewkes talks about HBO breaking down the wall that once stood between film talent and television. “It was so respected by the creative community, that all kinds of people — writers, directors and actors — who previously had said, ‘I only want to work in feature films,’ wanted to work at HBO.”

The book ventures from The Sopranos to Deadwood launching in 2004. The latter was critically adored, but not enough viewers watched to justify the cost. It lasted for three seasons. Paula Malcomson, who played Trixie, said, “Deadwood was lightning in a bottle. It all went to shit after that. But I’m OK with that. If Trixie is the highlight [of my career], I’m absolutely fine to be in that company and to have done that show.”

Pandora’s Box then details a few HBO missteps, including John From Cincinnati, which debuted in 2007 with The Sopranos famous finale as its lead in. Chris Albrecht’s arrest that same year for assaulting his fiance in Vegas leads to Richard Plepler taking over programming. 

Basic Cable Gets Exceptional 

The book then shifts to a few basic cable networks putting out prestige stuff, including FX and AMC. The mantra at FX was, “Let’s do HBO for basic cable,” as the book examines The Shield, Nip/Tuck, Rescue Me and other innovative series. One show FX did not make was Breaking Bad, with chief John Landgraf feeling he had just enough white male anti-hero shows on his air, and so he turned it down. 

Biskind notes how Steven Spielberg was in the original braintrust for The Americans, but did not like Matthew Rhys in his starring role. He got a meeting with Landgraf and expressed his thoughts, then threatened to depart the show if the change was not made. Landgraf wasn’t having it, and Spielberg quit The Americans

Over on AMC, Mad Men gets a careful examination. Don Draper is “yet another good-bad-guy antihero, a man whose foremost product is himself, a lockbox of unsavory secrets fashionably gift-wrapped in cover-boy paper,” the book says. 

Creator Matthew Weiner is depicted as an extremely difficult, and even cruel, showrunner. Writer Todd Kessler spoke about Weiner slapping his name on writers’ scripts, with a writing credit on 73 out of 92 episodes. “There are showrunners who put their names on everything and there are others who say, ‘Look, I hired this person to write a script. My job is to rewrite it and get it to be what I want it to be. Do I have to put my name on it and take half of the money away from them for their writing?’ ”

On the premium cable side, Biskind looks at Showtime, and how it finally started to rival HBO, thanks to Weeds and Homeland

HBO, meanwhile, had a brutal time with David Milch horseracing drama Luck, regained its footing with Game of Thrones, and lost it again with Vinyl. Regarding the latter, which launched against a season premiere for The Walking Dead in 2016, having both Martin Scorsese and Mick Jagger on board the show did not help it see a second season. Director Allen Coulter quips, “Jagger and Scorcese were two men who were essentially ego-less, and willing to listen to everyone.”

As with Coulter, Biskind has a knack for getting candid quotes out of his sources, and on the record, no less. Vinyl showrunner Terence Winter spoke about HBO’s execs having frustratingly little support for the show. “What happened to the network that used to pride itself on being ballsy and taking creative risks? And now suddenly, I’m getting notes that I would expect from a network show,” he says. 

Enter Netflix 

Two-thirds of the way in, Pandora’s Box shifts to Netflix shaking up the industry by committing to a whole season instead of a pilot. HBO wanted a pilot for House of Cards, but Netflix plunked down $100 million for two seasons. 

CEO Ted Sarandos speaks about making the whole first season available on premiere day in 2013. “When we put up all 13 [episodes], I had every TV executive in Hollywood tell me what a moronic thing I was doing,” he said. “They insisted, ‘You have to stretch it out, you have to keep them waiting for more, you have to keep them hungry.”

Earlier in his life, when he worked in a video store, Sarandos saw how customers would devour an entire season of The Sopranos on DVD. As Netflix originals launched, binge watching was born. 

Biskind describes another aspect of House of Cards that viewers would never see on traditional TV: Kevin Spacey’s Frank Underwood killing a dog in the series premiere of House of Cards

After that was Orange is the New Black. As former VP of original content Cindy Holland put it, “Orange proved we weren’t just a one-trick pony.”

Digital Debutants

Biskind then looks at other streaming debutants and the shows that defined them in the early days: Prime Video, with Transparent, The Man in the High Castle and The Rings of Power; Disney Plus, with The Mandalorian and WandaVision; and Apple TV Plus, with The Morning Show, For All Mankind and Ted Lasso

Hulu is conspicuously absent from this part of the book. 

Back at Netflix, Biskind writes of the giant checks given to boldface-name producers, including Ryan Murphy and Shonda Rhimes. 

Warner Bros. Discovery’s digital efforts are depicted as well, including the peculiar pairing of HBO and Discovery content on Max. “The audience for [HBO] tends to be diverse, single, social media savvy, with few to no kids; the audience for [Discovery] is predominantly comprised of empty nesters, grandparents, white widows and widowers, and strangers to social media,” Biskind writes. 

The TV battles change every day, but Biskind does a capable job of keeping abreast of the industry right up until his deadline. As Pandora’s Box winds down, Biskind looks at Netflix’s ad-supported tier, and the writers’ strike this summer in Hollywood.

The author was executive editor of Premiere Magazine from 1986 to 1996, and his work has appeared in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and Rolling Stone. A previous Biskind book, about independent film, is Easy Riders, Raging Bulls and Down and Dirty Pictures.  

The book’s title is a lukewarm cliche, but Pandora’s Box moves quickly and shares loads of entertaining and illuminating details. As they read along, the reader finds themselves listing all the shows they never got to watch, but wanted to, or shows they have watched that may be just about due for a rewatching. Television is a challenging industry to cover and its key players often defy description. But Biskind tackles the mission with skill and style. 

Michael Malone

Michael Malone, senior content producer at B+C/Multichannel News, covers network programming, including entertainment, news and sports on broadcast, cable and streaming; and local broadcast television. He hosts the podcasts Busted Pilot, about what’s new in television, and Series Business, a chat with the creator of a new program, and writes the column “The Watchman.” He joined B+C in 2005. His journalism has also appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Playboy and New York magazine.