Tinderbox is both the origin story of virtually everything HBO has ever shown and an exhaustive chronicle of executive brainstorms, tantrums, courage, backstabbing and worse ... For all their aura of authenticity, oral histories like this have their limitations. For one thing, they can be misleading ... The reader can easily drown in the anecdotes of corporate blood lust and the agonies of productions and lose the thread of HBO’s evolution. Still, there are ample rewards for those who stay the course ... rarely is heard a discouraging word from the author about how the network did it ... The C-suite shenanigans provide some of the liveliest sparks ... the text sometimes reads like the raw research the author assembled before sitting down to distill it all into a crisp, colorful narrative. Toward the end of the book, the HBO juggernaut loses momentum ... Still, the saga of HBO is an exhilarating example of what driven, innovative, creative people can accomplish with confident, ample funding in the cutthroat world of mass entertainment.
There’s enough animosity, jealousy, score-settling and killing gossip in Tinderbox, James Andrew Miller’s mountainous new oral history of HBO, to fill an Elizabethan drama. Yet the book’s tone is largely fond ... prepare for a landslide of corporate history. Students of power will find much to interest them. HBO had many stepparents over the years. Following these deals is complicated, like following the lyrics to 'There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly' ... Miller gets good quotes ... Oral history is a strange form. It gives you a staccato series of micro-impressions, as if you were looking through a fly’s compound eyes ... Miller is a good interviewer, but a corny writer ... There are a lot of winning moments in Tinderbox. But wading through its nearly thousand pages I often felt spacey and exhausted, as if it were 4 a.m. on the third night of one of those endurance contests and I had to keep my hand on the pickup truck.
Miller did an exceptional job getting important people on the record and at length. That, unfortunately, is only half the job, and often the better you are at it, the harder the other half of the job—putting the book together in a cohesive way—gets. There is so much ground to cover, from 1971 to the present day. Organizing it all so that it flows well and gives readers the context they need is a gargantuan task, and Tinderbox doesn’t come close to fulfilling it ... the overall surface-level nature of Tinderbox is a mark in Miller’s defense; he skimps on details everywhere, not just on workplace discrimination and sexism. At least his interviews have produced a nice volume of anecdotes to share at parties.