It’s rather gratifying to see Showtime continue to grow into its own as a premium cable network that can compete with HBO. For so long, they were hovering just a shade higher than Cinemax in the eyes of viewers (I don’t know about anyone else, but I distinctly remember seeing many a bare breast on the network back in the day), but now they’ve got a reputation for having at least as much quality original programming as the folks over at Home Box Office, and their popularity is such that the network earned their own executive session.

Matthew Blank offered us a heartfelt introduction, along with the announcement that “Inside the NFL” will be coming to Showtime next season, then promptly passed the buck to Robert Greenblatt, the network’s President of Entertainment, who provided us with several other revelations about upcoming programming:

* Coming soon: “The United States of Tara,” which stars Toni Collette and John Corbett, is executive-produced and based on an idea by Steven Spielberg, and is written by Diablo Cody.

* There are very serious discussions about an “L-Word” spin-off, though it seems to exist predominantly on paper at this stage of the game. “Eileen Chaiken is creating that for us,” said Greenblatt. “We’re going to be shooting it right after ‘The L Word’ wraps this year, and it will star one of the girls from ‘The L Word’ as a sort of crossover. The storyline at the end of ‘The L Word,’ the final episode in the final season, there will be an open-ended component to it. And Eileen is going to carry that story along on the Internet, which we think is an interesting way to keep ‘The L Word’ experience going. Then if we decide to go ahead with the spin-off that storyline will segue into the new series.” He would not, however, commit to which girl was intended as the star of the spin-off, mostly because the actress hasn’t even been told that she’s under consideration yet!

* Another season of “Penn & Teller: Bullshit!” has been ordered, and with this 7th season, it will officially become the longest-running series in the history of Showtime.

* There will be a new reality documentary series called “Locked and Loaded,” which is not about Denis Leary but, rather, about a gun store in rural Colorado. Greenblatt described the series as “sort of a fly-on-the-wall show. You see many, many different kinds of people coming into a gun store, and you see the reasons why they buy handguns and rifles and all kinds of other things.”

* Based on the creative success (but, ultimately, due in no small part to the ratings success) of “Weeds,” the network has ordered two more 13-episode seasons of the show.

* After much discussion on the ‘net about the possibility, Greenblatt confirmed that the Edie Falco pilot, currently known as “Nurse Jackie” (a title which may or may not stick), has been ordered to series. She plays what Greenblatt describes as “a very complicated nurse in a New York City hospital,” and based on the clips we saw, by “very complicated,” he means she’s a drug addict. And, yes, someone else did bring up the similarity to “House,” but Greenblatt assured us that “it’s not going to be big medical story of the week necessarily. I think it’s a different take on a medical show that’s grounded by a really iconic, caustic character played by a great actress.”

* Even though they’re limited by history, Greenblatt thinks that there’s at least another two years of plot possibilities left in “The Tudors.” “The third season is the next two (wives of Henry VIII), Anne of Cleves and Jane Seymour…I love meeting people who think Jane Seymour, the actress, is in the show…and then the following season, I think, will be the final two wives,” he theorized.

* The future of “This American Life” is murky. “Ira (Glass) is not only the most dedicated person in the world, he’s a perfectionist and he doesn’t want to put any episode out that isn’t really extraordinary,” said Greenblatt. “And I will tell you that’s not true of all producers. He’s also doing a radio show, and he will not let anything affect the quality of the radio show. And the same people are doing the radio show and the TV show. So every year, we step back and have a conversation with him. ‘Can we do ten? Can we do eight? Can we do six?’ There may be a year where we do a couple of long-form specials with him and we don’t do episodes of the show, per se, because it’s really hard to find those stories. They don’t just fall into his lap.” To put a fine point on it, a third season has not officially been ordered, but per Greenblatt, “We’re talking to (Ira) about how many he wants to do and what form it might take.”

* Showtime is currently planning to air the three seasons of “Secret Diary of a Call Girl” – one’s already aired in the UK, Season 2 premieres there in September, and the third has been commissioned but hasn’t yet begun filming – and reserves the right to consider airing any future seasons, should there be any. “But,” added Greenblatt, “it looks like a
franchise that there’s a lot of interest in.”

Okay, that’s that. Now, we move onto a panel described as “Showtime’s SHO Stoppers,” which featured the stars and producers of the network’s four signature series: Weeds (Mary-Louise Parker and Jenji Kohan), Californication (David Duchovny and Tom Kapinos), Dexter (Michael C. Hall and Clyde Phillips), and Brotherhood (Jason Clarke and Blake Masters).

This wasn’t as educational a panel as I’d hoped it would be, since we had four significant series to tackle with only about 45 minutes, give or take, to do it in, but we did get a few interesting nuggets out of it.

* Michael C. Hall describes Jimmy Smits’ character on “Dexter”: “Because of the discoveries Dexter’s made about his father, he’s in a place where he’s turned his back on him and yet still is utilizing the code, claiming it for his own, and thinking of himself, at least consciously, as his own man now. And yet I think there remains an unconscious desire for a connection. Circumstances lead him into a relationship with Jimmy Smits’ character that satisfies that unconscious desire, and he’s simultaneously attracted to and repulsed by the idea of a sort of intimacy with another person.”

* Clyde Phillips offered a bit more detail on the character, revealing that he plays a politically ambitious assistant district attorney in Miami. “Dexter and he form a friendship,” said Phillips, “and he is really the first adult friend that Dexter has
had, and it’s new to him. What Dexter strives for or perhaps longs for…and, again, we get into the whole thing of how dented is he really…is normalcy, and whether that’s camouflaged or whether it’s genuine is something that we continue to explore. But as that friendship progresses, Dexter becomes more and more open with the Jimmy Smits’ character and is able to talk…not through voiceover, but in reality, in our reality…for the first time and open up a little
bit about who he is. And that’s what we’re going to explore this year.”

* Phillips also tackled the question about what we can expect from Deborah this year. “First of all, one of her goals is to get her detective shield,” he said, “and she will have to learn that there’s a gray area between the black and white that she believes in police work. She’s still, we find, psychologically looking for the approval of her father, because she never really had it, because young Dexter took up all of his time. Also this year, I can tell you that she will finally enter into a healthy, loving relationship, but I can’t tell you with whom. Hopefully, it will be a surprise.”

* According to David Duchovny, Charlie and Marcy Runkle (Evan Handler and Pamela Adlon) will have more to do in the second season of “Californication,” though he offered no specifics on exactly what they’ll be doing. He also declined to answer when asked what would happen within his own character’s love life.

* Tom Kapinos on where “Californication” can go after ending Season 1 with such closure: “Season 2 is very much exploring the mystique of happy endings because we ended with the guy getting the girl, getting exactly what he wanted. But we froze the frame, and I always knew that if you sort of released that frame, at a certain point those smiles would fade. So this season, it’s just about figuring what happens when the guy gets the girl and in the morning he wakes up and has to figure out how to maintain that relationship. And also, I wanted to end it that way because I love the fact that, in TV, you can tell a complete story. If for whatever reason you didn’t get to come back again, you could enjoy that season as a full experience.”

* Blake Masters on where he hopes to go with “Brotherhood”: “I think we’ve always been a show about
moral ambiguity, and I think at this point where we’re headed is the idea of what happens when Tommy Caffee and Michael Caffee when their moral compasses get a little bit twisted around as they make choices that allow them to escape the boxes they’re in for the end of the season. Michael is — at the beginning of the season he’s king, but uneasy is the head that wears the crown. Tommy is no longer king. He is now second fiddle. What does that do to Tommy’s desires? And the choices they make out of that get lead them to places that are morally ambiguous as always.”

* Jenji Kohan on why “Weeds” decided to literally torch the past and move in a different direction: “The truth is, the room was getting restless. We felt we sort of covered the territory, and a lot of the writers were talking about the projects they we’re going to do when the season was over and things they wanted to talk about and…my staff is fantastic, and I love these writers, and I wanted them to write about the stuff they wanted to write about at ‘Weeds.’ I didn’t want to lose anyone because they were feeling tired of the subject, so we just decided to blow it up and try something new and it really invigorated everyone. It was very, very exciting.”

* When asked if “Dexter” would ever deal with its title character accidentally killing someone who was innocent, Clyde Phillips answered in the affirmative, though he admitted, “I can’t tell you precisely what happens. But we could consider it dropping a pebble on the side of a mountainside filled with snow and an avalanche comes from it. Something gets set into motion that can’t be pulled back. So, yes, we’re considering it and we’re into it.”

Lastly, I just wanted to close with a comment made by Masters when the panel was asked how they felt about making these great shows which are, at least when compared to HBO, being watched by a relatively small audience.

“I would compare it to the fact that Britney Spears sells about a million times more albums than Tom Waits,” said Masters. “But I listen to Tom Waits.”

‘Nuff said.