Of course you’ve heard the slogan: It’s Not TV. It’s HBO. Those 5 words say a lot, but an even more accurate description may be: It’s Not TV. It’s the best collection of programming in the history of broadcasting. With the highly anticipated second season of the series Games of Thrones premiering tomorrow night, DZI: The Voice decided to take a look at the best HBO shows of all time. Selecting the 10 greatest programs from the network that has won more Emmy awards than any other over the last 10 years was a difficult task, but go below the fold to see our list of the best of the best. Agree? Disagree? Let us know what’s your all time favorite HBO series.
Top 10 HBO Shows
10. Boardwalk Empire (2010-)
When it was announced that Martin Scorsese, the maestro of classic mob movies like Goodfellas, Casino, and The Departed, would be taking part in developing a Prohibition era crime drama for HBO, the expectations for greatness went through the roof. And of course Scorsese and HBO didn’t disappoint. Boardwalk Empire revolves around Enoch “Nucky” Thompson (Steve Buscemi), Atlantic City’s powerful treasurer who rules over the boardwalk with a dangerous combination of charm and ruthlessness. Real historical businessmen/gangsters like Al Capone, “Lucky” Luciano, and Arnold Rothstein also make appearances, bolstering Empire’s factual claim that corruption and violence trumped public policy and the rule of law in the bootlegging days of the 1920’s. Boardwalk Empire is a grand period piece that feels way too familiar.
9. Game of Thrones (2011-)
So you’re not into fantasy? Don’t worry this game is less Dungeons & Dragons, and more Chess. Game of Thrones is adapted from George R. R. Martin’s epic story of ruling families battling for control of the Seven Kingdoms. The noble Starks of the North face off against the incestuous Lannisters who control the Iron Throne. Meanwhile, the exiled Daenerys Targaryen prepares to recapture her family’s lost crown with the ultimate weapons of mass of destruction. At its core, Game of Thrones is about the game of politics, and honestly, it’s far better political theater than the current Republican primary fight. If this series continues to produce the superb storytelling and amazing acting performances displayed in season 1 then it may only be a matter of time before Game of Thrones rules over this list as well.
8. Entourage (2004-2011)
It’s the quintessential “guy show”: brotherhood, partying, & sex. Entourage is loosely based on producer Mark Wahlberg’s experiences during his quest to become an A-list actor. The fictional characters, Vince, E, Drama, Turtle, and Ari, jetset around the world while having to overcome the hubris, lack of privacy, and substance abuse that often accompanies the fame and fortune that success in Hollywood brings. The tales of the fab five must ring some sense of truth since every celebrity from James Cameron to 50 Cent has made a cameo, putting Entourage second only to The Simpsons, on the gotta-make-a-guest-appearance list for famous folk.
7. Sex And The City (1998-2004)
It’s the quintessential “girl show”: relationships, fashion, & sex. Carrie and crew’s lives in the Upper East Side of New York City were taken from the pages of Candace Bushnell’s novel of the same name. Sex And The City was seen as too risqué for some and perfect late 20th Century dramedy for others. Nonetheless, the series built a loyal fanbase of women looking for a show that touches on the issue of femininity vs sexuality. Sex And The City was so popular it led to two feature length movies and a number of copy-cat programs like Desperate Housewives, Gossip Girl, GCB, and it’s prequel, The Carrie Diaries. The show also won over critics taking home 7 Emmy Awards, 8 Golden Globe Awards, and 3 Screen Actors Awards during it’s six season run.
6. True Blood (2008-)
Vampires just experienced their best decade ever! But don’t confuse True Blood with the Twilight Series. HBO’s series about vamps, telepaths, werewolves, shapeshifters, and witches isn’t a disguised public service announcement supporting chastity for the amusement of teenage girls. True Blood is an adult themed tale about discrimination. Replace the supernatural beings with African-Americans, homosexuals, or Muslims and you instantly see it’s an allegory about blind prejudice towards others who aren’t like us. Yes, True Blood is kind of campy, but it’s also extremely entertaining. It has violence for the fellas, and a love triangle for the females. And creator Alan Ball’s use of cliffhangers keeps audiences coming back for more.
5. The Larry Sanders Show (1992-1998)
Before there was 30 Rock or Extras there was The Larry Sanders Show. Coming off the success of It’s Garry Shandling Show and guest hosting The Tonight Show, Garry Shandling decided to create a sit-com chronicling the behind-the-scenes adventures of a late night talk show. Tying in a live studio audience and real-life celebrities playing versions of themselves gave the authentic feel that the viewer was allowed to peep into a world only Johnny Carson, Jay Leno, and David Letterman could only truly understand. Still considered one of the best shows in television history by critics, The Larry Sanders Show not only broke ground for the situation comedy, it also helped launch HBO’s 20 year reign in original programming.
4. Six Feet Under (2001-2005)
At first glance of Alan Ball’s two HBO programs to make our list, it seems as if the producer/writer/director has a eerie obsession with death. But like True Blood, Six Feet Under doesn’t present passing on to the afterlife as a solely morbid event. Six Feet Under tackles the theme of dying with dark humor that sometimes veers toward soap opera, but the complexity of the characters and the deeply revealing introspection surrounding the “death of the week” overshadows the melodrama. By running a funeral home, the Fisher family literally has death all around them and watching them navigate their way through the constant realization of their own mortality forces the viewer to do so as well, but in a way that isn’t depressing or gratuitous. Violence on TV is common place now, but usually we see a character die and then the plot and the characters move on. Rarely is death and all the personal, physical, and spiritual complications involved with it the actual central point of TV storytelling. Six Feet Under, in all it’s quasi-theatrical glory, prevailed because it wasn’t afraid to touch that third rail, and subsequently lived to tell about it.
3. Curb Your Enthusiasm (2000-)
No disrespect to Steve Carrell’s “Michael Scott”, but Larry David’s “Larry David” is the King of Awkward Comedy. After 8 seasons, Larry still manages to find ways to put “Larry” in some of the most cringe-worthy comedic predicaments ever shown on television. While most people seek to avoid confrontational social situations, “Larry” seems to revel in turning what the average person would consider minor annoyances into major altercations, and thankfully the audience gets to take part in every “Larry David Moment” from the safety of our living room. And that’s what makes a character as abrasive, anal, and neurotic as “Larry” actually appealing. He’s willing to do and say the things we often wish we could if we weren’t hampered by the constraints of social norms. The fact that most of the dialogue on Curb Your Enthusiasm is improvised reveals that “Larry David” is often times probably speaking as an unhinged virtual Larry David as well. Hopefully, we’ll get to experience “Larry’s” assault on political correctness for years to come.
2. The Sopranos (1999-2007)
Opened the door to cinematic quality production and writing on cable television. Check. Won 21 Emmy awards including twice nabbing the award for Outstanding Drama Series (2004, 2007). Check. Featured one of the most revered characters in TV history. Check. Became a pop culture staple that spawned tributes and parodies by Sportscenter, Everybody Hates Chris, and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, to name a few. Check. Whether looking at critical acclaim or social relevance, The Sopranos is one of the most influential creative achievements over the last 50 years. On the surface it’s a show about a crime boss. But dig deeper and you’ll find themes typically found in literary works: man’s struggle against societal pressure, generational strife within a family, and constant reminders of one’s own mortality. For the first time in a TV crime drama, the actual crimes were just backdrops to the much more interesting story of how a sociopathic, criminal mastermind is able to survive once he’s crossed back over that threshold into the “regular” world. Creator, David Chases’ revealing of Tony Sopranos’ inner battles is one of the greatest artistic examinations of the human condition in any genre or in any medium. Simply masterful.
1. The Wire (2002-2008)
One of the most unexplainable questions in the history of television awards is why didn’t David Simon’s exceptional series, The Wire, ever, at the very least, get nominated for a Outstanding Drama Series Emmy Award? Perhaps, it’s because the fictional exposé set in the violent drug-infested streets and the covert halls of power in the city of Baltimore was essentially to real for the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences to endorse. Despite the perpetual Emmy snubs, The Wire has been named one of the greatest television shows of all time by media critics from top publications including Time, Entertainment Weekly, and The Guardian. And it’s easy to understand why. No other series on cable or network television has ever attempted to connect the various complicated institutions of the modern American city the way The Wire effortlessly ties together. Each season explored a different aspect of the sociopolitical systems that controlled (and hindered) the citizens of Baltimore. Starting with the combatants in the “war on drugs”, the police department and the drug dealers, season 1 introduced the diverse and intriguing cast of characters. Later seasons focused on labor unions, city government, the media, and in the standout season 4, the school system. The multi-layered storytelling is more reminiscent of a best selling novel than a TV crime drama, but the show’s writers create a pace that draws the viewer in and forces them to want to “turn the page” to find out how the drama plays out. Many of the show’s stars like Idris Elba, Michael K. Williams, and Tristen Wilds, have gone on to very successful careers adding to the cult-like appreciation for the show that introduce them to the public. If you haven’t experienced The Wire you are missing out on the finest example of supreme storytelling, acting, cinematography, and social commentary to ever appear on a TV set. Go watch it. Now.
Even as a joint venture between HBO and the BBC, Rome was too costly to make it past 2 seasons, but 22 episodes was more than enough to bring the characters of ancient Roman politics to life better than anyone since Shakespeare.
How To Make It In America (2010-2011)
How To Make It In America was sometimes referred to as the east coast counterpart of Entourage; before all the success and fame. Maybe, but it was defiantly a heartfelt ode to the hipster scene and the everyday struggle of well, trying to make it in America.
If any form of popular media ever tried to glamorize a criminal lifestyle, HBO’s first dramatic series shattered that mystique. Show a few episodes about life behind bars in “Emerald City” to any impressionable wanna-be thugs and they would instantly be scared straight.
HBO subscribers can view any of the shows listed at www.hbogo.com.
Season 2 of Game of Thrones debuts on April 1 at 9pm on HBO.
Check out the trailer for season 2 of Game of Thrones: