Editor’s Note: HBOWatch now presents a posting from a new potential writer for our site. This Guest Post explains the top favorites of a potential writer for HBOWatch. Enjoy the words of Dvir Ben Asuli.
Ever since airing it’s first 1-hour drama series, Oz in 1997, HBO gradually built a name for itself as the most luxurious and prestigious network on television that offered series that don’t fall short in their quality from respected feature films you usually watch at a theater- if it’s in the grand scale of production values or the writing in the highest level possible. It sounds weird to think of it now, but before HBO started making these series most of the shows on television (and most certainly the most successful of them) were in the procedural ‘case of the week’ format where besides having a general overall arc looming in the background throughout the season, each episode featured a separate story (with the same core cast of leads of course), that usually started and ended in the same episode, until the next ‘case’ of the following week. While this format is still present in these days, and even produces some very good shows in its perimeters- nowadays it’s mostly present in Network Television and when you hear the words “prestige drama” the first thing that comes to mind is series from the type of The Sopranos, Game of Thrones, etc. that are being made by more and more different networks from year to year. Looking at the Primetime Emmys for example, the last time a procedural show won the Outstanding Drama Series Award was The West Wing in 2004, with HBO’s first ever win in 2005 for The Sopranos breaking it’s 4 years streak. Even with strong competition arising from networks like Showtime, FX and Netflix I believe that even 20 years later, HBO is still at the top of the game producing the content in the highest quality among all their competitors.
Iv’e watched many of HBO’s series throughout the years and decided to present my personal top 10 ranking of the shows they produced, from my point of view.
10. True Blood (2008-2014)
On one hand, this show is an HBO production through and through, but on many other aspects, it seemed, at the time, that you’ll never see something of that sort on HBO (were-panthers??). As a fan of Fantasy and Science Fiction, it’s nice seeing HBO accepting genre-production more in recent years and True Blood is an excellent example for that. While it’s not as adequately-written as The Sopranos or Game of Thrones, for example, this show mostly excelled in its entertainment value. It was one of the shows I enjoyed watching the most, without giving too much in-depth thought for everything that’s going on. The first 3 seasons of the show were excellent television by all means, but beyond that point there was a minor slip (especially since show-runner Alan Ball left the writing staff), but like a very recent production that suffered a similar fate I refuse to subscribe to the internet trend of recklessly bashing it’s later seasons, that I really enjoyed as well. With a variety of many unforgettable characters and imaginative story arc only the fantasy genre can offer, True Blood is one of the most fun television shows I’ve ever watched.
9. The Wire (2002-2008)
While not as popular and awards-acclaimed as it’s friendly in-house HBO rival The Sopranos, The Wire made a name for itself mainly among the audience themselves as one of the most under appreciated shows in HBO’s history, and one of the best ones, if not the best. The show presents a terrifyingly accurate depiction of the drug scene in Baltimore from both sides of the veil, the law enforcement officers on one side and the drug dealers on the other. With sharp dialogues and a variety of unforgettable characters, the show hooks the audience while relying less on shocking moments and twists and turns and more on a compelling story, realistic politics and thought-provoking situations and story arcs. While the show has some big names on it’s cast of actors, the heart of the show comes mainly from the more unknown ones that absolutely catch you by surprise and make you feel like you watch a hidden camera documentary feature, and not a scripted premeditated program. This show, like a lot of David Simon’s other projects, is also an important watch if you want to understand the state of things in certain places of America in the times the show takes place in.
8. Curb Your Enthusiasm (2000 – )
Don’t expect to see another comedy series in the list besides this one— and it’s not because HBO doesn’t make good comedies (they make excellent comedies), but at least for me it’s hard to compare two series from the different genres, as I’m generally much more attracted to drama series. But the fact a comedy series made its way to a decent place in this list among all the other great shows is a statement on its own. As a fan of Seinfeld, I find Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm the only comedy series that managed to surpass it. Larry’s character is like an exaggerated version of George Costanza, and one of the funniest things I’ve witnessed on television. Some situations depicted in the show are so embarrassing that they make it completely uncomfortable for you to watch- yet on some level you connect with them so much that you can’t help but join the embarrassment and enjoy it. Much like Seinfeld, the show contains its own dialect that fans could recognize from miles away and recite on a daily basis. It’s a very niche show, but if you connect with it you are in for a treat. I don’t think there was a single dull episode in this, with some timeless gems that have moments I’ll remember forever.
7. Westworld (2016 – )
As a long time fan of the Nolan brothers’ work on cinema, I was extremely thrilled to hear Jonathan Nolan will be making his own television show on HBO. And honestly, while watching the show, you can’t ignore the resemblance to some of Nolan’s earlier works that he mastered with his brother Christopher such as Interstellar, Memento or even The Dark Knight. I don’t think I’ve seen another show where you need to use your head so much just to keep track of everything that’s going on, and I don’t mean that in a bad way like the story is all over the place and messily constructed or something like that. The reason for that is the show presents pretty sophisticated concepts of science fiction, all rooted deeply in reality of course (like everything Nolan does) and of course the nontraditional timeline presentation that is so typical to Nolan and pays of in a very original way in the ending of each season. The cast of the show is brilliant, the production values are grade A and you are hooked on every second of the show for how fascinating the story is. Of course, you can’t ignore the brilliant score by Ramin Djawadi, that brings his storytelling narrative-based composing style present to anything he does regardless of style. Westworld is the newest addition to this list and I honestly expect it will only rise higher by the time the show will reach it’s conclusion because I’m really interested in the direction the show is taking and it’s obvious the writers have some highly ambitious plans for the future of it- and I fully trust Nolan to stick the landing with the story throughout it’s ending (which is currently expected to happen 3 seasons from now).
6. Six Feet Under (2001-2005)
Don’t take this the wrong way, but just as Seinfeld is often described as the “show about nothing”, Six Feet Under has always seemed to me as the drama equivalent of that. And I don’t mean it in a bad way of course- while most of the shows depicted in this list have some kind of premise that can draw certain audiences towards it, SFU is kind of 100% drama about life. There is the Fisher family that you’ve been following and you just see how life takes them in different predicaments and that’s generally it. That might sound too simplistic and perhaps dull for some people, but this show is certainly not for everyone. While shows like The Sopranos, Game of Thrones and The Wire offer thrills in the form of crime, plot twists and sometimes action and violence, SFU’s peak moments come at the form of intensely emotion-provoking scenes and entire plot-lines that makes you look back at things in your own life or even distant past and contemplate. What holds this show together is the excellent writing by the highly talented crew lead by Alan Ball and the stellar acting from the cast, my favorites being Micheal C. Hall who more or less made his breakthrough there just before starring in Dexter, and the marvelous Frances Conroy. And of course, you can’t talk about Six Feet Under without mentioning it’s ending; I think I never met a person in the world that didn’t love it. The final stretch of 4 episodes totally caught me unguarded with some of the best television I’ve ever seen, with the infamous final sequence of the show that, without divulging into details too much, is practically Alan Ball calling dibs on the best possible ending for a show of that sort.
5. The Leftovers (2014-2017)
Above all, the one thing I can say about this show is that it’s just beautiful. While at first the premise of 2% of the world population disappearing into thin air sounds like some fantasy mumbo-jumbo, this show underneath everything is a show about how people are dealing with loss and continuing living their life after a huge personal disaster. The first thing I’d like to praise about the show is its masterful score by Max Richter, that sticks with you for months after you finish the show and always make you come back and listen again. A melancholic set of compositions masterfully capturing the tragedy of that world and the raw emotions depicted on the show by the great cast of actors. Damon Lindelof does an amazing job both at writing the actual thing (he wrote the vast majority of the episodes himself with help of other people) and also at being the showrunner that planned the trajectory of the story perfectly throughout the seasons. While the first season follows Tom Perrota’s book rather closely, the later seasons feature much heavier themes of fantasy and ambiguous subjects, that all come full circle in the end and make sense for the whole story. This show is intriguing by its nature, it makes you think of things but most of all it evokes strong emotion, in a way that makes watching it a once in a lifetime experience.
4. Boardwalk Empire (2010-2014)
Boardwalk Empire was the first-ever HBO show I watched, and perhaps the first adult show I watched overall. I’ve been watching plenty of network television before and I just never could have imagined a TV production can reach such a high standard of quality. The reason I was drawn to the show in the first place was Martin Scorsese directing the movie-length pilot, which not surprisingly was the first time it came to my attention that TV can actually look better than most high-budget Hollywood productions. Looking at the IMDb list of directors for this show, the ensemble you witness there is unbelievable with all the best names of TV gracing the show with a handful of episodes, while show creator Terence Winter, The Sopranos alum, created a wonderful world with the help of Pulitzer winning writer Howard Korder, that together built a set of characters that sometimes you have no idea how anyone could have come up with. Dr. Narcisse and Gyp Rossetti easily spring to mind, for example. These are some of the best-written scripts I’ve ever enjoyed on television. On terms of budget, this might be one of HBO’s biggest productions ever and it really shows, with sets, costumes and even 3 complete soundtrack albums recorded specifically for the show recreating Atlantic City in the 1920s. If you love a good mafia story or even just a slow drama periodic piece with amazing dialogues, Boardwalk Empire should definitely be on your watchlist.
3. The Sopranos (1999-2007)
The way I see it, a list of top HBO shows could not be complete without having The Sopranos in it’s top 3- as I believe it’s the first thing that comes to mind for most people when you talk about quality television. Similarly to Boardwalk Empire mentioned before, only to a much larger extent, this show presents the highest possible form of writing for television and in my view is nothing short of a work of art. Every major character from the show has enough depth that could be discussed for hours, brought to life by the brilliant set of actors and actresses led by James Gandolfini and Edie Falco – two of the most magnificent (and also most awarded) portrayals of characters in TV history. The show, led by legendary writer David Chase was the stepping stone for some people that grew out to be huge names in the television industry, like Mad Men’s 11 times Emmy winning creator Matthew Weiner, HBO’s once go-to director Timothy Van Patten, Martin Scorsese’s frequent collaborator on Boardwalk Empire and The Wolf of Wall Street Terence Winter and many others and of course changed the way television is made across all America- as mentioned before, by putting serialized one hour dramas heavily on the map. On episodes count, it’s also one of HBO’s longest-running dramas, yet it didn’t drop the ball even for a second and kept piling those awards until the very end. Every character in the show can give enough reason to hate him, yet as time goes by you learn to connect and sympathies with Tony Soprano’s character and all those around him (well, perhaps most) despite all the horrible things they are doing (from a fictional television character status, of course), while the show discusses serious subjects of mental health, family and how they are related. Dark humor, memorable dialogues, and beautiful character studies accompany the show from beginning to the very end, which I consider one of the best conclusions I’ve ever seen for a series. Even the infamous last seconds of the show, which caused a little uproar when first presented, managed to give a mafia story, which we’ve seen plenty of those since the rise of cinema, an extraordinarily original ending that ties up the story on an uncertain yet thought-provoking note.
2. Oz (1997-2003)
Despite the huge yet mostly under-appreciated cultural and industrial impact this show had on the TV landscape, it seems like it’s trying it’s best to erase any trace it ever existed from memory. Fewer and fewer people are even aware this show happened as years go by, and to be honest, it’s not really surprising since it’s really hard to get a hold of it- it’s never had an official Blu-Ray release or even a real HD iTunes remastering. I watched this show a long time ago, before the term “binge-watching” was even popular, but I remember devouring it’s 6 seasons the fastest I ever finished a series. While Game of Thrones gained a lot of its popularity from it’s brutality, unpredictability and the habit of pulling the rug beneath our feet- Oz has been doing the exact same thing more than 10 years before, and much more carelessly. On the first hour of the show you follow a character with a full belief he is the anchor of the show and the main character you’ll be following for at least the next season- only for him to get brutally murdered at the end of episode 1. You find yourself fascinated in every second of every episode, not knowing what to expect next and enjoying the amazing chronicles Tom Fontana had in store for us. I must warn though, that this show is not an easy watch. Sometimes it can get too cruel and brutal with scenes that makes me uncomfortable to just think about, years later. What’s most important to note is that this show, as HBO’s first hour-long drama, invented the format of television we see everywhere now, and did it better than most of its successors. This show definitely deserves a place of honor in TV’s hall of fame, and at least get the credit for the revolution it created.
1. Game of Thrones (2011-2019)
Had I said this six months ago, I’m sure I’d get a round of applause across the room but ever since it became so mainstream to trash the show’s final season unfortunately we’ve come to a state when it might raise some eyebrows and some people might look at this as an odd choice. So let me start by saying, I absolutely loved the final season. I can honestly say that I enjoyed the series from the beginning to the very end, and I certainly won’t let the unprecedented negative buzz going around on social media (which I truly believe is the main source of this excessive unwarranted hate) affect my overall opinion on the show. But since I don’t intend to start a fire here, I’d leave that subject at that. If you look at Game Of Thrones as another product in HBO’s line, you’ll find that it practically takes everything HBO has been excelling at throughout the years and amping them to a maximum. The story George R. R. Martin created is most definitely the richest most complicated story ever depicted on television, converted brilliantly to the television medium by show-runners David Benioff and D. B. Weiss. The production values are completely off the charts, taking less than 10% of a Hollywood big-budget production per episode and giving a better result than most of those, with Ramin Djawadi’s iconic score that is a masterpiece on its own in the background. The show also offers a huge cast with amazing performances and most of the top television directors that have been affiliated with HBO throughout the years, with a few new ones that made their breakthroughs right here. We can’t also ignore what a cultural phenomenon this show has been, and what an experience it was to enjoy it together as a community (at least in the first 7 seasons), whether it was in the on-season period or off-season. As a show that kept me captivated and invested like never before for around 8 years, and offered some of the most unforgettable moments in TV history, and also has an unbelievable re-watchability factor, Game Of Thrones is easily my pick for HBO’s greatest original production and my personal favorite television show in general.
Shows that almost made the cut: The Newsroom, In Treatment, Entourage and True Detective. Feel free to agree or disagree in the comments below.