Critic's NotesIt's not TV. It's 40 years of HBO: Looking back at 20 classic HBO shows.'The Sopranos' and 'The Wire' are gimmes, but don't forget 'Larry Sanders' or the comedy specials
By Alan Sepinwall, HitFix.com
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:"The Concert in Central Park" (1982)
HBO's name stands for Home Box Office, and in the channel's early years, it took the title literally, not just with its extensive movie collection, but its library of other special events — boxing, music, comedy and more — that gave subscribers the illusion of having gone out for a night on the town rather than one on their couch. One of the best, and most important, of those music specials, was this reunion of Simon & Garfunkel, attended by 500,000 people, and so popular on record and TV that it inspired the reluctant ex-partners to go on tour together again."Robin Williams: An Evening at the Met" (1986)
It's easy to look on his later movie career, whether the prestige stuff like "Good Will Hunting" or the treacle like "Patch Adams" — and forget what a force of nature Williams in his stand-up prime was. The sheer energy of this performance— which, even with topical jokes about Reagan, Gadhafi, P.W. Botha and other '80s political figures aside, has aged very well — is incredible, and goes a long way towards explaining why Williams' movie career has had so many peaks and valleys, because how do you harness... that in service of a script?"Comic Relief" (1986-2006)
Given the presence of Robin Williams as one of the three co-hosts (with Billy Crystal and Whoopi Goldberg), this is at least stretching my rule about not including multiple shows from the same people, if not outright breaking it. But "Comic Relief" — a series of live telethons that raised money to combat homelessness (and, in later years, victims of other problems like Hurricane Katrina) — was much bigger than its three emcees. It was HBO's social conscience teaming up with its gift for luring high-end talent, putting as many funny and famous people on screen as possible to try to ease the suffering of the less fortunate. In many ways, it's the quintessential pre-"Oz" HBO show."George Carlin: What Am I Doing in New Jersey?" (1988)
You could cite any of Carlin's many HBO specials as your favorite, and I wouldn't object. Me, I've always had a fondness for this one, not just because it was filmed in my home state, not just because it was released at a time when I was turning myself into a real student of stand-up comedy, but because it's the moment when Carlin's persona, and career, transformed forever. This is the beginning of Carlin's angry period, and it is glorious to behold, whether he's ranting against political hypocrisy (his attack on the Rev. Donald Wildmon is, unsurprisingly, a delight) or giving us a long list of the people he can do without, including: "guys in their fifties named "Skip." Anyone who pays for vaginal jelly with an Exxon credit card. An airline pilot who has on two different shoes. A proctologist with poor depth perception. A pimp who drives a Toyota Corolla.""The Larry Sanders Show" (1992-1998)
Often imitated, never duplicated, this acidic comedy about a fictional late night talk show host had the perfect star (Garry Shandling, a virtuoso of neurosis and also a former "Tonight Show" guest host), an incredible lineup of writers (including Judd Apatow, Peter Tolan, Paul Simms and Steve Levitan, among many, many others), a deep bench of both regular characters (Rip Torn's master manipulator Artie, Jeffrey Tambor's aggrieved sidekick Hank Kingsley) and actors willing to lampoon themselves (none better than David Duchovny's psycho-sexual obsession with Larry), and an unsparing commitment to the bleak, cynical realities of the TV business. Hey now!"And the Band Played On" (1993)
HBO films by and large tended to tackle the big issues, like this look at the rise of the AIDS epidemic through the eyes of Matthew Modine's noble but frustrated CDC researcher. A sprawling project that seems to bring in a new famous actor every five minutes (Hey, it's Richard Gere! Ian McKellen! Phil Collins?) it is, despite the despairing subject matter, compulsively rewatchable (I must have seen it at least a dozen times), which is a testament to the work director Roger Spottiswoode and writer Arnold Schulman did in adapting Randy Shilts' enormous non-fiction book. Where HBO's other big AIDS film (more on that in a bit) shifted back and forth between Heaven and Earth, "And the Band Played On" is a film about science, and the ways that human emotions like greed and arrogance and prejudice can get in the way of the clear, hard facts. An amazing, devastating film.The "Paradise Lost" trilogy (1996-2011)
You can probably group the three "Paradise Lost" documentaries together as one unit, as filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky spent 15 years looking into what turned out to be a gross miscarriage of justice in which three teenage boys were arrested and convicted of murder on very shaky ground. As the filmmakers kept returning to the story, the West Memphis Three were eventually freed from prison (albeit on Alford pleas that allowed them to assert their innocence without the prosecution having to admit a mistake had been made). HBO has been a great home to the documentary world over the last several decades, and the "Paradise Lost" trilogy is among the channel's signature non-fiction achievements."Chris Rock: Bring the Pain" (1996)
Rock had first appeared on HBO nearly a decade earlier, as a 22-year-old young comedian in the Eddie Murphy-produced "Uptown Comedy Express." After that, he knocked around on "SNL" for a bit, was on "In Living Color" for a while, but was in the danger of becoming, as he put it in a later interview, "a has-been" before he even turned 40. So he spent two years preparing for this special by honing his act and going on a national tour before unleashing one of the all-time great comedy sets, highlighted by the routine about the civil war in the black community that got Michael Scott in so much trouble on "The Office." It was an instant classic that reginited Rock's career and led him to get his own terrific late night talk show on HBO."Oz" (1997-2003)
The show that turned HBO into HBO as we know it today, Tom Fontana's drama about an experimental prison unit is among the most graphically violent series in television history, but also among the most thoughtful. The cons of Oz didn't just find creative ways to torture or kill each other; they debated race, addiction, sexuality, religion, elder care and whatever topics were on Fontana's mind at the time. "Oz" broke every rule in the book about the necessity for likable characters, about minority representation, storytelling structure, and a lot more, and it made it possible for HBO to try "The Sopranos" and every show that came after. Looking back, "Oz" is a little more conscious of its status as a trailblazer than some of the shows that followed, but overall the writing, direction, and performances by an absurdly deep cast — with Lee Tergesen, J.K. Simmons, Chris Meloni, Eamonn Walker and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje as a few of the many standouts — transcend whatever might feel dated as a result of all the shows that followed."Sex and the City" (1998-2004)
When the second movie came out, I wrote that the films had started to make me retroactively hate the series that inspired them. And the pun-filled hatefulness of Michael Patrick King's work on "2 Broke Girls" hasn't helped, either. But if we take the sins of later works out of the equation and simply look at the TV series (particularly seasons 2-4), it was a terrific, ground-breaking dramedy, frank in its take on women's issues and relationships that went well beyond what happens in the bedroom. (In fact, the stories of sexual adventure — particularly involving Kim Cattrall's Samantha — have aged most poorly since the show ended.)"The Sopranos" (1999-2007)
Mob boss. Henpecked son. Therapy patient. Monster. Father. Husband. Adulterer. Charmer. Pig. Protagonist. Villain. Tony Soprano was all of those things and so many more, as one of the most complicated, fascinating characters ever put on screen. Tom Fontana and "Oz" opened the door for more adventurous shows like this; David Chase and "The Sopranos" took an AK-47 to the door and kept firing until it could never be closed again. A blistering, moving, darkly hilarious look at America at the turn of the millennium through a wiseguy's lens. Like a lot of TV critics, in recent years I'd come to think of "The Wire" as easily better than "The Sopranos." Going back to rewatch the show to research my book, I was repeatedly struck by its genius. It had its flaws, but when Chase unleashed James Gandolfini or Edie Falco, good lord."Curb Your Enthusiasm" (2000-present)
Larry David was not only the co-creator of "Seinfeld," but the inspiration for George Costanza. With the largely-improvised "Curb" (which began as a hybrid stand-up/sketch special the year before), David got to step out in front of the camera to play himself — or, as some viewers saw it, as a George Costanza with limitless wealth and, therefore, self-confidence to challenge the laws of polite society. And though "Curb" is filtered more through Larry's point of view than "Seinfeld" was through any one character's, the HBO show has introduced its own collection of hysterical supporting players, from Susie Essman's blisteringly profane Susie to Bob Einstein's pained Marty Funkhauser to J.B. Smoove's irrationally confident Leon. The comedy of discomfort at its most painful and funny, and David's deal — HBO leaves him alone until he has another idea that feels worthy of doing a season of the show — suggests we could have years and years of "Curb" to come."Six Feet Under" (2001-2005)
As a whole, I don't think "Six Feet" stacks up to its millennial HBO contemporaries. It was a wildly inconsistent show where I'm not even sure I could pluck out an individual season and say, "Okay, this is the year it was great." But in the funeral home-owning Fishers, Alan Ball sketched out a family vivid in both its group dysfunction and in their individual problems — gay son David (Michael C. Hall) trying to escape a life of repression, youngest kid Claire (Lauren Ambrose) struggling to find a direction for her life as she enters adulthood — and crafted a series of incredible moments and episodes along the way. The last sequence alone probably earns it a spot on the list."Band of Brothers" (2001)
On any given day, if you ask me to choose among the three epic-length Tom Hanks-produced HBO miniseries — this story of a paratrooper company in World War II, the NASA love letter "From the Earth to the Moon" or the more brutal World War II story "The Pacific" — I could pick any of them and feel secure in that choice. Today, my pick is "Band of Brothers," anchored by Damian Lewis' superlative performance as level-headed company leader Dick Winters and enriched by a deep roster of characters slowly developed over the course of 10 episodes, and by one beautiful, heartbreaking tableau of war after another."The Wire" (2002-2008)
Crime reporter David Simon had come to television to work on the critically-acclaimed NBC adaptation of his book "Homicide," and he was an Emmy-winning writer and producer on another adaptation of his work, the outstanding HBO miniseries "The Corner." "The Wire" combined the two subjects, featuring Baltimore cops investigating drug-related murders, but in a way where 2 plus 2 didn't equal 4, but a much greater, more complex number. The Great American Novel for television, it's a crime story, but so much more, as a collection of some of the most vivid characters ever put on screen (cold businessman Stringer Bell, whistling bandit Omar Little, slow-and-steady investigative genius Lester Freamon, junkie with a heart of gold Bubbs, self-destructive, narcissistic hero Jimmy McNulty, and so many more) were used to detail the death of an American city — and, by implication, America itself. "The Wire" is a work of art that would be unbearable if it wasn't so damned entertaining."Angels in America" (2003)
The adaptation of Tony Kushner's Pulitzer Prize-winning plays about the AIDS epidemic should have lost something in the translation from stage to screen, but Kushner and director Mike Nichols kept the mix of stark reality (Justin Kirk's Prior Walter is diagnosed with AIDS, scaring away his longtime boyfriend Louis) and metaphysical fantasy (Prior is visited by angels and later ascends to a ruined version of Heaven to find out why God has allowed this plague to happen) in a way where the two sides fit together even though film tends to be a more literal medium than the theater. As aging, closeted political fixer Roy Cohn, Al Pacino gives one of the best performances of his career, and he's matched by an incredible cast of actors (many of them playing multiple roles), including Meryl Streep, Emma Thompson, Jeffrey Wright (reprising his role from the play), Mary-Louise Parker, Patrick Wilson and Ben Shenkman."Deadwood" (2004-2006)
The first thing we noticed with "Deadwood" — for a while, the only thing we noticed — was the profanity. Did cowboys and prospectors in the 1870s really swear that damn much, and were they so creative in how they did it? But what was special about "Deadwood" — among many, many other things — was how creator David Milch and his writers used language as a whole, and not just the four-letter variety. Week after week, for the three years were were fortunate enough to get before everything fell apart behind the scenes, "Deadwood" gave us some of the most gorgeous (and/or foul-mouthed) original dialogue in the medium's history. It gave us amazing characters like Ian McShane's surprisingly (even to himself) altruistic crime boss Al Swearengen, Timothy Olyphant's hot-tempered sheriff Seth Bullock, Molly Parker's aristocratic junkie Alma Garrett, Gerald McRaney's crude mining magnate George Hearst, and so many more. It give us violence and poetry, and abject greed and beautiful selflessness. In the second season premiere, Swearengen tells Bullock's young stepson, "Welcome to ****ing Deadwood! It can be combative." It could be a lot more than that."When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts" (2006)
I wouldn't want to cost the world "Do the Right Thing," yet watching this harrowing look at the impact of Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans, then adding it to its sequel, "If God Is Willing And Da Creek Don't Rise," plus his 1997 film "4 Little Girls," I can't help but imagine a reality where Spike Lee had always been a documentary filmmaker. The medium plays to so many of his strengths, as evidenced particularly through the way he interweaves footage of the storm and its aftermath with sober, heartbreaking accounts of those who survived it. Even by the lofty standards of HBO documentaries, it's special."In Treatment" (2008-2010)
This therapy drama was not for everyone, but that's exactly what made it special — and helped illustrate what HBO can do that few others in the business can, and that almost no one else would even try. Adapting an Israeli series about a psychiatrist (here played by the marvelous, intense, dour Gabriel Byrne), his patients (over three seasons, a collection of great performances by John Mahoney, Irrfan Khan, Mia Wasikowska, Alison Pill and many more), and his own therapists (first Dianne Wiest, then Amy Ryan), "In Treatment" was a show that was literally all talk, and no action. It asked you to watch five episodes a week (down to four in the final season) in which Byrne's Paul Weston simply sat and listened to his patients' many problems, or else in which he was busy exploding about the frustrations of his own life. A masterclass of acting, a wonderfully theatrical concept, and enough heartbreaking revelations to drive even the most stoic viewer into real-life therapy. "In Treatment" was never perfect (though the second season lineup came close), but its messiness felt appropriate to a profession where there are no simple solutions or clean breaks."Boardwalk Empire" (2009-present) & "Game of Thrones" (2010-present)
Okay, fine. I cheated on my last entry. Too much to choose from over 40 years, and these two feel like something of a matched set. At times, both "Boardwalk" (a classic gangster epic set in Atlantic City in the early days of Prohibition) and "Game" (an adaptation of George R.R. Martin's fantasy novels about a battle for power in an ancient kingdom) achieve the power and sweep that makes them seem like worthy descendants of the HBO dramas from the turn of the millennium. But both shows also frequently buckle under the weight of too many characters in too many locations, which forces the narrative to zip so quickly from story to story, place to place, that nothing has the impact that it should. (The season 2 "Game of Thrones" episode "Blackwater" cast a light on this problem by avoiding it altogether — spending an hour in one location dealing with a small subset of the cast — and being far more effective as a result.) "Game" is following the books, which introduce even more characters as they go along, and "Boardwalk" is at least somewhat following history, so it's hard to imagine either show tightening its focus going forward. At their best, though, each is a reminder of what can happen when you combine the resources of HBO with a lot of very talented, creative people.http://www.hitfix.com/whats-alan-watching/its-not-tv-its-40-years-of-hbo-looking-back-at-20-classic-hbo-shows