When I targeted Thanksgiving 2012 as the time to release my book, I didn’t realize that it would be coming out in the same month as the 40th anniversary of HBO. (The pay cable channel launched on November 8, 1972.) But if the timing was accidental, it also feels perfect, because of course HBO was the place where the whole drama revolution began, and I could have easily written an entire book about what was happening at HBO from “Oz” through, say, “Deadwood.”
Chris Albrecht, who ran HBO during this period, told me that pre-“Oz,” HBO’s ongoing series were “an afterthought” at the channel. HBO made plenty of original programming, but the prestige areas were the movies, miniseries and original specials. The ongoing series – most of them either horror anthologies or comedies – were a more motley bunch, like “1st & Ten,” a raunchy comedy about a pro football team whose cast at one point included O.J. Simpson, Shannon Tweed and (in only his second TV job ever, after playing “Team Leader” in an episode of “The Equalizer”) a very young Chris Meloni. But there were also gems like “Kids in the Hall” (which HBO imported from the CBC), “Dream On” (whose creative team would later be responsible for “Friends”) and, of course, “The Larry Sanders Show,” one of the all-time great satires of both Hollywood and workplace politics in general.
But even before HBO got serious about series, it was home to amazing concert specials, to uproarious stand-up comedy, and to movies and miniseries that are among the best examples of the medium to ever premiere on television.
So for a slightly belated celebration of the anniversary, I decided not to limit myself to only dramas, or even dramas and comedies, in picking out 20 of my favorite HBO shows of the last 40 years. The only limitations were the following:
1)One show per creative team, so if “The Wire” was on this list (spoiler: it is), “The Corner,” “Generation Kill” and “Tremé” couldn’t be. Ditto the various Tom Hanks-produced minis, etc.
2)It has to be something HBO made – or co-made – not something it imported. So no “Kids in the Hall,” but “Extras” or “Rome” (which were produced in partnership with the BBC) were eligible.
3)If it’s still on the air, it needs at least two seasons to be seriously considered. I loved the first season of “Girls,” but we’ll see how good it is going forward before we start considering its place in the pantheon. Even something like “Game of Thrones” I wasn’t sure about, because I loved the first season and had major structural problems with the second that may not be changeable, given the source material.
With that in mind, in chronological order, here are 20 of the best HBO shows of all time: