We’d love to say we picked-up a blog sponsor in HBO, but we aren’t that big yet. Nevertheless, as the word of The Pop Cultural Lists grows, we find ourselves being frequently asked for recommendations on new streaming shows to watch. So we decided to start a new series “Best Of” premium channels and streaming platforms and thought we start with the OG of them all. Home Box Office Inc. is the longest continuously operating pay television service in the US. Would you believe it started back in November 1972?! There’s a pretty good history of the channel on Wikipedia, which we won’t go into, but it started out in New York for airing local pro-sports, and actually started airing original programming as early as 1983 with a few movies and children’s programming (remember Fraggle Rock?). But it was the 1990s where their original shows really broke through – with The Larry Sanders Show from 1992-1998, Oz in 1997 and the big fish: The Sopranos in 1999. Soon the Emmy noms started to flood in, and a little show called Game of Thrones took things to a whole new level.
So for this series, we will each list our top shows along with a show we think was underrated or underappreciated and one we thought was overrated. Use the comments to let us know your favorites.
Back in the ’80s and early ’90s, my household didn’t even have cable, never mind a premium channel. It was quite a long time before I started an HBO subscription, but I’ve certainly caught up on a few shows – first with DVDs via Netflix (and the local library), and later with binging old HBO shows on streaming platforms or the HBO GO app. While they may not pump out the nonstop content like Netflix does, the ratio of quality shows is quite high, from my experience at least. The first two series’ I tackled was The Sopranos and then The Wire. More than just adding R-rated profanity/nudity/violence, HBO really established a new type of television – basically, movie-quality production/storytelling doled out in one-hour segments. This allowed a depth of writing and far greater character development than we’ve ever seen on the big or small screen. Here are my most memorable shows, in no particular order.
- The Wire (2002-2008) – David Simon created an epic crime drama with intensely rich characters and a sprawling story. What set this apart was that the criminals were as well developed as the cops and detectives pursuing them. It wasn’t done to make criminals “sympathetic” – if anything it made their crimes have even more impact.
- True Detective (2014-2017) – The stellar first series, anchored by incredible performances by Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, set an impossibly high bar, but I still liked the second season, contrary to most everyone else. The third season was overall really good – just a few minor issues.
- Band of Brothers (2001) – There have been a lot of WWII films, but the series TV format allowed for a depth of character development a 2 or 3-hour film does not allow. The production detail was amazing – it was the most expensive miniseries ever made when it came out.
- Deadwood (2004-2006) – If you love westerns, you need to see at least the first season of this well-acted/written but sometimes brutal series. Ian McShane as the foul-mouthed saloon keeper/local crime boss creates a TV hall-of-fame character, and Timothy Olyphant holds his own against him as the (mostly) straight-shooting sheriff. Be warned: Season 2 & 3 steadily decline in story cohesiveness.
- Sharp Objects (2018) – Every minute of this miniseries dripped of dread and foreboding. Amy Adams is excellent, as always, and I couldn’t stop thinking about the gut-punch ending for days.
- Game of Thrones (2011-2019) – Ok, have we gotten over the ending yet? It’s easy to forget just how awesome this show was for the majority of its run. The cast was the best ever on the small screen – there wasn’t a bad performance to be found, except maybe Ed Sheeran’s cameo.
- Vice (2014 – 2019) – Remember when the big networks did investigative journalism? That’s what this show was all about and every show I learned new things no one else was reporting on. Why was it canceled?
- Real Time with Bill Mahar (2003- present) – I look forward to my Friday night ritual of watching this show at 10:00 pm. Sure he has strong opinions, but he regularly invites people that are of the opposite socio-political view.
- Westworld (2016 – present) – Season 1 of Westworld is simply some of the best TV I’ve ever seen. I loved the build-up of the twisty story, and it was amazing to see two exceptionally crafted female lead roles, portrayed by Evan Rachel Wood and Thandie Newton. Season 2 was a drop-off, but I’m still pumped for season 3.
- Chernobyl (2019) – Well-deserved of its newly won Best Limited Series Emmy award, this series is some of the best television I’ve ever seen. Jared Harris leads a stellar cast with elegant direction by Johan Renek. For a story from the 80’s, it’s amazing how little we knew of what went on and how close to a major global disaster the nuclear meltdown was. There are sequences and images in here that are just riveting and will stick with you long afterwards.
Overrated series: The Sopranos (1999-2007) – Before you freak out, I’m not saying the show sucked, I’m just saying Rolling Stone in 2016 ranking it as the greatest TV show of all time is going way too far. First of all, it borrowed an awful lot from Scorsese, especially Goodfellas – I mean, the show even stole a number of the actors from the film. Secondly, I think the show has too narrow of an appeal, as it had a whiff of misogyny to some of its narrative, and as good as Edie Falco was as an actress, the female roles were underwritten. I think if you go back and watch some of it, you might see that it doesn’t hold up as well, and you might even feel uncomfortable at times. Throw in the weak fade-to-black ending, and I just don’t see it as the greatest show ever. Sorry to throw shade on an HBO crown jewel.
Underappreciated series: Show me a Hero (2005)
This miniseries reminded me of some of the filmmaking from the ’70s, like something Sidney Lumet would make, even though it takes place in the late ’80s/early ’90s. The show, written by David Simon of The Wire and journalist William F. Zorzi, is based on the true story of Yonkers City Council member and later Mayor Nick Wasicsko and his role in the eye of the storm that was federally mandated housing desegregation. He became the lightning rod for the ire of middle-class whites that were staunchly opposed to having public housing built in their neighborhoods. Oscar Isaac plays Wasicsko with a combination of dogged determination to do what is right for the city, and slowly building desperation at the intractability of the situation. He won a Golden Globe for the role but was criminally snubbed by the Emmys – not even getting nominated. The rest of the cast is also excellent, including Alfred Molina, Winona Ryder, Catherine Keener, and Jon Bernthal, among others. Municipal politics may not sound compelling, but this underseen drama is definitely worth the time.
DJ: Out of the shows I have seen I agree with you. I never saw The Sopranos and for the reasons you mention is why I do not want to invest the time. I too look forward to Bill Mahar I need the levity during the current world situation and I appreciate the mostly sane people he has on the show. Game of Thrones is clearly a show like no other even if the last season was a complete rush job in the writing room. The criticism I have for HBO, why? What’s a few more episodes?
I had a completely different experience. We had cable since the early ’80s and pretty much had HBO from then on. As a teen hearing and seeing TV that had swearing, violence and nudity was eye-opening. My earliest memories of HBO were watching Inside the NFL, live Heavyweight Boxing, and the HBO Comedian specials with my dad. These were gold, seeing these young comedians who would make it big like Bill Mahar, Richard Belzer, Sam Kinison, Jerry Seinfeld, etc…when they were just starting out was awesome. I also remember Not Necessarily the News which was really the beginning of the satirical news show that no one gives credit to. Saturday night was new movie night at 8:00 which actually still holds true today. HBO has done a great job of navigating all the changes in evolving media to stay true to itself and still produce competitive award-winning TV. It really was the first to provide groundbreaking TV outside the normal network drivel.
- Garry Shandling – I couldn’t pick one show so I pick the man. Shandling is an HBO icon. His first show simply It’s Garry Shandling’s Show (1986-1990) was a 4th wall busting groundbreaker. Then he topped it with The Larry Sanders Show (1992-1998) a fantastic take on late night tv. It was a break out for a lot of comedy writers and actors. Last year HBO made the two part documentary The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling, which was also excellent, Shandling was a complex man and it shows his comedy greatness and his flaws.
- From the Earth to the Moon (1998) – Tom Hanks does to space what he did to WWII in Band of Brothers, a sweeping miniseries about the U.S. space program adapted from a Michael Chaikin book. A great set of character actors including Bryan Cranston as Buzz Aldrin. Each episode is self-contained and offers a different story.
- Curb Your Enthusiasm (2000- present) – I call it “Seinfeld on steroids”. You basically have George Costanza with none of the other characters and crankier than ever. Larry David has created an amazingly funny show that puts a new spin on a show about nothing. It also has the only Seinfeld reunion to date.
- What’s My Name: Muhammad Ali (2019) – There have been a lot of documentaries on the life of boxing legend Muhammad Ali and one Michael Mann movie, but the most recent film captured the essence of who Ali was. He was a hero to many, myself included, fought for racial injustice, stood for what he believed in, and was proud even in the face of Parkinson’s. He was not a hero without faults and this documentary shows it all. It’s great to see some of the classic Ali fights and tough to see the last ones.
- Dream On (1990-1996) – One of the earlier actual shows on HBO, Dream On starred Brian Benben as Martin Tupper, a divorced middle-aged book editor. It was adult-themed and traversed Martin’s family, work and love life. It explored themes like sexuality, divorce, homosexuality, diversity, and others. It was funny too. Martin would often have dreams(which we see) hence the title. It did contain nudity and swearing which was weird for a TV show at the time, everything I was used to was on network TV. It was ahead of its time, no doubt about it and ran for surprisingly 120 episodes.
- Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (2014) – Like Bill Mahar I get my news with a little humor. A quick recap of the week’s events Oliver goes deeper into issues and doesn’t spend a ton of time on Trump. I have learned about South American politics, coal, fracking, legal immigration and many things I would have never searched out. I also think I know way too much about Brexit, a topic that comes up often. This show has incredible writing and Oliver is able to pull it off.
- Entourage (2004-2011) – So this is a show with flaws and could be in the overrated section but I did enjoy it a lot, even if not every joke was funny. It also had a tendency to be misogynistic at times and awkward. Not sure I could go back and watch it, not sure I would recommend it. The movie was not good, to say the least. Kevin Dillon became the better Dillon brother for a couple years.
- Veep (2012-2019) – Julia Louis-Dreyfus is a writer’s dream. She has played three great characters on TV and her take on VP Selina Myer is outstanding. Some of the harshest over the top rude things I have heard from TV she has delivered. The supporting cast is also terrific especially the nonsense of Kevin Dunn and Gary Cole. Tony Hale as her assistant also shines. The last season disappointed but still fun.
- John Adams (2008) – The historical drama is top-notch. From David McCullough’s bestseller about the letters of Abigal and John Adams, it tells the story of a revolution to the end of Adam’s life. I thought the depiction is relatively historical and realistic. It’s a tough character to pull off, a short, irascible, pompous little man and Giamatti was right for the job. A career role for him and also Laura Linney who plays Abigail with class and patience.
- Leaving Neverland (2019) – This was a tough one to watch but I think it was important. Two credible accusers talk about sexual abuse at the hands of pop legend Michael Jackson. It’s not hard to believe what they say but Michael Jackson is an icon and has his supporters still. It’s a riveting and often gross watch. You won’t hear a Jacko song the same again, trust me.
Overrated series: Sex and the City (2008-2014) – I admit haven’t watched a lot of this, maybe a handful of episodes but I did not enjoy it like other people. It’s a “reverse Entourage”. I never found it funny or entertaining despite the critical buzz. Maybe I was missing something but I would guarantee most people who like this would hate Entourage. I’m also not a huge fan of Sarah Jessica Parker, don’t tell Matthew Broderick. I don’t buy the premise I hate the concept of “Mr. Big” and I just didn’t care for it. It did get one more movie than Entourage though.
Underappreciated series: Family Tree (2013) – Family Tree was an 8 episode series starring Chris O’Dowd as a British man searching his ancestral tree. I love Chris O’Dowd and genealogy so it was the perfect show for me. It’s directed by Christopher Guest and has that documentary/comedic feel of his other documentaries like Best in Show or Waiting For Guffman. It also includes many of Guest’s favorite actors like his partner from This is Spinal Tap, Michael McKean, and also features Bob Balaban, and Fred Willard. It’s cute, quirky and a show that was generally unseen. I had expected a second season but never got one.
MG: You definitely have some older ones on here that I missed from not having HBO for so long. I loved John Adams – it was one of the shows that convinced me HBO would be worthwhile for a monthly subscription. I’d love to see them do another series like this, maybe based on McCullough’s 1776. I liked Entourage while it was on, but the movie was God-awful and tainted it for me, and I agree I’m not sure it holds up now. Veep was so amazing for it’s run, but it went over-the-top in the last season and felt rushed (final seasons seems like an HBO trouble-spot). Even more than the comedy, I love that John Oliver will spend 15 minutes going in-depth on a socio-political issue that you only hear sound bites about in mainstream news.