Top 10 HBO Original Series
With this Sunday’s premiere of Boardwalk Empire, HBO eyes a return to the pinnacle of television - a spot its lackluster post-Sopranos lineup has forfeited to AMC. Though it has struggled of late, HBO’s original series have changed the face of television and provided some of the medium’s most iconic moments and characters.
As we prepare to welcome Boardwalk Empire into the HBO pantheon, let us look back on the subscription channel’s greatest achievements. Here are HBO’s top 10 original series:
10. True Blood
This unapologetically kitsch take on the vampire-human love affair is HBO’s current flagship show and its biggest hit since The Sopranos. Set in backwoods Louisiana, it features some of the worst fake accents ever recorded on film and several plot lines would have even the most fervent soap opera fan rolling their eyes. Yet, True Blood is an addictive guilty pleasure, thanks in part to actors who embrace the nature of the show and hold nothing back.
Here, Lafayette, the town’s cook/drug dealer/gay stereotype responds to a redneck’s insult (NSFW):
9. Da Ali G Show
Though Borat and Bruno are now household names, American audiences got their first glimpse of Sascha Baron Cohen’s alter-egos on the short-lived HBO series. Like the films, Cohen approaches innocent (and sometimes famous) people in-character under the guise of filming a serious interview, often getting them to inadvertently reveal ignorance or prejudice.
Here, Borat travels to Arizona and, in a bit now deemed prophetic due to the state’s recent political battles, gets bar patrons to sing along to a catchy racist tune.
Carnivale followed a dust-bowl era traveling carnival involved in the generation’s ultimate showdown between good and evil. Containing a mythology so convoluted it makes Lost appear comprehensible, the show had an enormous budget and was not a ratings hit and was canceled before playing out its entire story. However, the two season available are evidence of a sci-fi masterpiece that could’ve been that fans of Lost, Fringe and Battlestar Galactica will appreciate.
Here, after arguably the best opening credit sequence in TV history, Samson (Michael J. Anderson) explains a bit of the show’s mythology in the first scenes of the premiere episode.
7. Flight of the Conchords
Another two-season comedic gem, Flight of the Conchords followed New Zealand natives Brett (not Brit) and Jemaine (not Jermaine) as they try to break into New York City’s music scene. The show contained a very, very dry sense of humor and characters would spontaneously break out in absurd musical numbers. Bret and Jemaine performed as Flight of the Conchords before the series and gained a rabid cult following, but the series (which used both existing and original Conchords songs) brought the duo mainstream fame.
In the most popular song of the series, Jemaine imagines what it would be like to have “Business Time” with his dreamgirl, Sally.
6. Six Feet Under
Six Feet Under is unclassifiable. On the surface, it is a drama about a California family that loses its patriarch and must put their idiosyncrasies aside to run the family funeral home. However, the show could be funnier than most comedies, darker than most tragedies and have more heart than most romances. The show featured a pre-Dexter Michael C. Hall as an uptight closeted homosexual mortician - a performance that bears no resemblance to his current on-screen serial-killer persona.
Below is the closing montage of the series finale, which is, in my opinion, the best series finale ever.
5. Curb Your Enthusiasm
Seinfeld co-creator Larry David got his chance to shine in this largely unscripted, always comfort-reducing comedy. David plays a fictionalized version of himself who constantly offends everyone around him who do not conform to his unwritten rules of society. Unlike other long-running HBO comedies (i.e. Entourage), Curb has gotten better with age and last season’s Seinfeld reunion arc surpassed all expectations.
Here, Larry introduces himself to the Katrina victims (the aptly named Black family) he shelters in season 6.
Rome would be a perfect educational tool to show in classrooms if it weren’t borderline pornographic. This two-season raunchy recapping of the rise of Julius and Augustus Caesar is a captivating epic that has catapulted many of its actors into mainstream stardom (Kevin McKidd in Grey’s Anatomy and Journeyman, Ray Stevenson in The Punisher: War Zone and The Other Guys, James Purefoy in The Philanthropist, just to name a few).
This scene perfectly illustrates the show’s flair for pageantry, attention to detail and film-like cinematography.
Deadwood is Shakespeare with profanity. The dialogue is meticulously crafted and makes the term “cock-sucker” somehow poetic. Ian McShane’s Al Swearengen is one of the most captivating villains TV has seen and a pre-Hitman Timothy Olyphant does barely-contained rage better than anyone. Like Carnivale, Deadwood did not get the opportunity to tie together its story, but three seasons of watching how a lawless mining camp adapts to enforced civilization is unexpectedly beautiful.
Below is one of the many brilliant exchanges between Swearengen and Bullock (NSFW):
2. The Wire
This Baltimore-based tale of drug dealers and the officials who hunt them will ruin every other cop show for you. The Wire is written by a former cops reporter and bucks TV norms by taking a whole season to meticulously break down a single case from every possible viewpoint, rather than neatly wrapping it up at the end of each episode. It is routinely praised as one of the best shows in television history, despite never garnering a single Emmy nomination. Each season of The Wire takes its time to slowly build, which turns off some casual viewers, but those who allowed themselves to be pulled in all sing its praises. Just say “Omar” to someone who watched The Wire and see what type of reaction you get.
Below is the aforementioned Omar, an open homosexual who robs drug dealers (truly one of the best characters in any medium), delivering a classic courtroom testimony.
1. The Sopranos
There’s really no other choice. The Sopranos turned HBO from a third-run movie channel into television’s premier original content provider and changed the content and scope of TV forever. From the ducks to the infamous cut-to-black, The Sopranos excelled with characters never saying what they were thinking. Unlike mindless network dramas where characters speak solely expository dialogue, the New Jersey mafia lived in the subtext, where a simple cocking of James Gandolfini’s eyebrow said more than words ever could. Entire episodes seemed meaningless on the surface, but to the attentive viewer, classics like “Pine Barrens” were obviously about more than just being lost in the woods.
There are numerous scenes that show the brilliance of The Sopranos, but Tony and Carmella’s epic fight at the end of the season 4 finale “Whitecaps” shows Gandolfini and Edie Falco at their finest (NSFW):
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