Over the last fifteen years or so HBO has redefined both the way we watch television and the way that TV shows get made. And in celebration of that, we thought it would be a good time to take a look at the best of the best when it comes to HBO shows. This is naturally tough since it means that a lot of good shows had to be left off the list. But we managed anyway, using various criteria like show quality, historical importance and, perhaps most importantly, how many times I said “hey, that was awesome!” while taking a trip down memory lane, to come up with this, the nine best HBO shows of all time.
Rome only lasted for two seasons, but you can’t deny that it was a badass show, one that upped the sex and violence quotient on HBO to new levels and paved the way for the current crop of Caligulaesque historical dramas. But more than that, Rome was one of the first historical epic shows that managed to find the line between quality and salacious soap opera without getting too cheesy. It probably helps that the show had a first rate cast and a budget to match and hey, let’s face it, the Vorenus/Pullo bromanace ranks right up there with the best in history.
Look around at the comedy landscape today and you can see the DNA of Mr. Show in everything. It brought that sort of smart, I don’t give a fuck absurdist element to comedy that rules over everything these days. Previous generations of funny people had Saturday Night Live to inspire them, but the most recent wave of comedy stars had Mr. Show, which changed not only what was considered funny, but what could be considered funny. Plus, they liked to swear and weren’t afraid to use monkeys in key situations which, let’s face it, is the key to any successful comedy endeavor.
This might have been the first comedy that turned the focus on itself and on Hollywood as a whole, mining that ridiculous world for laughs and creating a whole meta-genre of comedy that can be seen in everything today from Curb Your Enthusiasm to Arrested Development. The show’s “show within a show” format even managed to effect legitimate talk shows as its influence can be seen in the epic Matt Damon and Jimmy Kimmel “feud” on Kimmel’s show. But you can’t be historically relevant without being incredibly funny first, and that’s really the biggest thing going for The Larry Sanders Show. Leave aside the meta jokes and the show within a show stuff for a moment and just focus on the fact that the show was really fucking funny.
How good was Deadwood? Well, immediately after the show was over, HBO gave creator David Milch the green light to go ahead with the ridiculously weird and inane John from Cincinnati. It didn’t even matter that the show pretty much had no chance to survive on its own but that’s how much faith HBO had in Milch after Deadwood, a historical drama that always seemed like it was so much more than that. On its surface, it was a show about a corrupt town in the old West, but like all the best shows it was really about who we are as people and wasn’t afraid to take creative risks that allowed it to transcend TV pap and become something more, something deeper. Also, it turned using the word “cocksucker” into an art form, for which we are forever grateful.
Like The Larry Sanders Show, Larry David and company took their comedy lens and aimed it inwards, creating a twisted funhouse mirror of reality. They then took a hammer and shattered that mirror and the result is Curb Your Enthusiasm, which is part Seinfeld, part meta-takedown of Hollywood and all Larry David. This is the strange Seinfeld spin-off nobody ever expected, and shows what would happen if they said to hell with Jerry and just made a show about George. Perhaps unsurprisingly, that is a show that is really, really funny.
Oz was a show about completely awful people in a completely awful environment, which seems par for the course these days when it comes to must watch TV but when it first debuted in 1997 nobody had really done anything like that before. It was one of the first shows that understood that not only could you make compelling TV about repellent people, but that that kind of thing made for the most compelling TV. And that’s because Oz understood that people are flawed creatures and one-dimensional heroes get boring fast. Schillinger, Adebisi, Beecher, O’Reilly… you name it, Oz created intense, deeply fascinating characters that people want to see. I mean, come on, this is a show that turned prisoners killing and raping each other into a hit. You can’t do that without almost perfect writing and acting, and fortunately, that’s what Oz had.
This show is just fun as hell. That’s it. That’s the appeal. It’s part political intrigue thriller, part dirty soap opera, part epic war movie and all amazing. It’s like a pornier version of The Lord of the Rings, only instead of being obnoxious the little dude in this show is a total badass who when he’s not owning fools spends all his time whining and whoring. But the show isn’t all Tyrion. No, the show features an incredible range of characters, some noble and some – okay most – irredeemable assholes, and the writing and the acting is so good that you end up rooting for the worst of the worst before it’s over. Well, everyone but Joffrey anyway. There are constant surprises and certain events create an atmosphere that nobody is safe and that anything can happen at any moment. Forget historical importance or anything else and just appreciate that this show turns everyone who watches it into a fourteen year old boy listening to old school Metallica.
It was a tough choice between number one and number two but you should really look at this as a co-number one. And that’s because just about everyone who watches The Wire comes away raving about it like it’s the best thing they’ve ever seen. On its surface it’s a relentlessly grim show in which nobody ever really wins and everything just drifts inexorably into a sort of moral hell, but it’s also a show filled with ridiculously vibrant characters and has a heart to it that beats strong because it’s powered by pure unadulterated truth. Indeed, The Wire is probably the realest and rawest show anyone’s ever dared to make and with that comes a certain sort of hypnotic power. You just can’t look away, and as ridiculous and overstated as all of this sounds, it still probably actually undersells The Wire. It’s that damn good.
Breaking Bad, Mad Men, The Wire, Deadwood, Dexter, Game of Thrones, Sons of Anarchy, Justified… none of these shows and many, many more would have ever existed if it wasn’t for The Sopranos. And that’s because The Sopranos was it, the show that changed the TV game forever. It changed the way people watched TV, the way TV shows were made and changed what people were willing to accept when it came to quality storytelling. It completely obliterated that model which had stood for almost half a century before and ushered in a new golden age of television. Walter White and Don Draper wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for Tony Soprano. We’d all be watching 22 episodes a year of filler episodes starting in September and ending in May if The Sopranos didn’t reinvent the TV schedule itself. Series creator David Chase had the balls to make a mini-movie every week, and in doing so created a deep, complex series that was in turns meditative and explosive, and became about something bigger than itself. It became about all of us, about America, about people, and in the process showed everyone that TV can indeed be elevated into the realm of art.
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