The HBO Rankings: #23 – #12
Posted by therebelprince on February 2, 2012
Nerve.com recently ranked the major HBO dramas from worst to best, and the article got me thinking about my own feelings. Inevitably, here come my own biased views on the matter. Submitted for your consideration, my thoughts on HBO’s major programming of the last 15 years.
[This will be in two parts, with the bottom 12 today, and the other 11 coming in the next couple of days.]
Note: I have included 14 of the 15 shows listed by Nerve, but substituting K-Street – which I’ve never seen – with Band of Brothers, which seemed like a notable omission. I’ve also included the eight major ‘comedies’ of HBO that I’ve viewed. My apologies to the shows I don’t feel qualified to review, on the grounds of knowing little about them: Tell Me You Love Me, Enlightened, The Larry Sanders Show, How To Make It In America, Arli$$, and an “I’m not sorry” wave to Mind of the Married Man.
Second note: well, the second half of my article is now up. I made a boo-boo, so I’ve had to redo the numbering of these series. They all get to move up one. Yay!
23. Entourage (2004 – 2011)
If ever a show deserved a network’s dishonourable mention, it was this one. No disrespect to Jeremy Piven‘s ever reliable, always manic, possibly just himself performance as Ari, but the fact that Entourage lasted eight seasons is a testament to the boorish minds of a whole bunch of – I’m assuming – straight guys determined to believe that this collection of weak celebrity jokes was what passes for “satire” in these here parts. With four central characters who are basically all the same person – I’m stupid but surprisingly droll! – and who refuse to change or evolve in any noticeable way, Entourage could’ve been a network comedy in a heartbeat without losing anything other than some of Ari’s more choice expletives. That’s not to say there weren’t some enjoyable episodes and moments (none of the shows on this list are unworthy of a mention), but there was just nothing new to be said here. Even my adoration of Kevin Connolly couldn’t save this one.
[I have to interrupt myself to say that HBO’s limitless ambition and refusal to interfere with the creator’s desires is pretty much awesome. Only AMC – with the double whammy of Breaking Bad and Mad Men – can really measure up to the scope of these 22 shows, even if I often sound cruel to many of them. Although, after years of questionable dramas, Showtime has finally scored a true winner with Homeland.]
22. Hung (2009 – 2011)
Thomas Jane has a big penis. Never before or since could an HBO series be so boiled down to that one phrase. Hung, on occasion, could be an elegy for industrial America (it’s not by coincidence the thing is set in Detroit), and those surprising moments of bleakness and nostalgia were among its finest. The series also boasted a roster of powerhouse actors – Anne Heche in one of her least-quirky roles as Ray’s ex wife; Jane Adams as his down-on-her-luck writer-cum-pimp; and Gregg Henry as his desperate colleague. While the series was admirable in humanising Ray’s clients, rather than making this the TV equivalent of Deuce Bigalow, it was a series that felt entirely devoid of purpose, and lacking in either enough comedy or drama to justify the half-hour investment each week. Top marks go to Rebecca Creskoff, who became the series’ break-out star as Lenore, a rival pimp, whose sheer charisma sparked something in the writers that they could never find for the other characters.
21. True Blood (2008 – present)
Okay, I’m prepared for people to start sending me their bloodied teeth in the mail, but what can I say? True Blood serves one purpose at HBO: it sells subscriptions and merchandise that allow the rest of their series to be produced. I haven’t watched the series since I gave up during season three, but it’s really just sheer silliness. I actually don’t have any problem with that. Really, I don’t! True Blood is about the glorious campiness, about Alexander Skarsgard’s naked body, and a surprising array of talented guest stars, making every episode an unabashed romp. It’s just a shame that the series is more interested in piling on species after species to the already over-cooked broth, rather than trying to find something for characters to do (outside of the endless cycle of kidnap-rinse-repeat, I mean.)
20. Eastbound & Down (2009 – 2012)
Danny McBride has created something stark and original with Eastbound & Down, which begins its final season this month. As washed-up ball player Kenny Powers, McBride takes a very Saturday Night Live character, and deconstructs his already tenuous existence, piece by piece. Eastbound is filthy, politically incorrect, full of gratuitous tit shots, and often unbalanced by guest stars and the sheer force of Kenny’s ego. I get a fair deal of raised eyebrows whenever I mention that I like this show, but Eastbound – while not a great piece of work – is also a surprisingly human comedy. It’s the only HBO series to feature a guest turn from Will Ferrell, and this would fit right in as a big-budget movie starring him, but Kenny’s uncomfortable slide from the D-List to Nowhere, Middle America, finds something affecting to say underneath the crude laughs. And those few moments when Kenny lets himself see the truth of things are HBO comedy at its most affecting.
19. Oz (1997 – 2003)
Oz has a fair share of worshippers, and I can see why. HBO’s first real foray into the serial drama, it’s crude and experimental at times, but a real departure from… well, anything that TV had ever done. The politics of the Oswald State Correctional Facility play out amidst gangs divided by colour and creed, where the line between prisoner and warden is rarely black-and-white. With a powerhouse revolving cast including star turns from Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, J.K. Simmons, Lee Tergesen, and Kathryn Erbe, Oz was consistently interesting for six seasons, and there was really no line that it was afraid to cross. On the other hand, creator Tom Fontana and his writers were consistently given to flights of fancy, and to storylines that lasted too long and relied increasingly on convenience (Rita Moreno‘s investigation into her husband’s death, by way of a crazed Austin Pendleton, is like something from Encyclopedia Brown). It’s probably unfair to blast Oz too much: it was ambitious then (and would still be ambitious today), and – in an era when long-form storytelling belonged to soap operas – the series’ desire to incorporate such overarching themes and ideas was admirable. But it’s fair to say that Oz had its ups-and-downs, and has since been eclipsed by almost every other drama the network has attempted.
18. John From Cincinnati (2007)
David Milch is a god among men. His one-of-a-kind mind, and obsession with subtext and minutiae, elevate him unfairly in my mind above HBO’s other two Davids (Messers Simon and Chase), even if they probably have a firmer grasp of how to tell a story. But John From Cincinnati, which followed Milch’s epic Deadwood, never quite found its feet. A quiet, ruminative tale of a family of surfers and the unusual young man (Austin Nichols) who enters their life, wasn’t given much time to flourish, but either way, it was just a tad too uneven and structureless, even for HBO.
17. Sex and the City (1998 – 2004, plus movies)
There’s a lot that’s wrong with this series about female empowerment, and multiple orgasm: the increasingly terrible puns from Samantha (Kim Cattrall), Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker)’s often twee narration, and the fact that the characters rarely acted like anyone you’ve ever met in your life. It also lasted far too long, quite frankly. (Even its greatest advocates must regret Sex and the City 2.) But I can’t write off this – for lack of a better word – ballsy series. Sex and the City is probably Cynthia Nixon‘s series, at the end of the day, but all four leads developed a wonderful rapport, and the mere fact that a runaway success could deal with so many female-related subjects was a great achievement. It shouldn’t have been – we like to imagine that the ’70s freed women on television – yet it was. Alongside Ally McBeal, Sex and the City made it okay to objectify men, to ask questions about the role of sex in modern dating, and to seek love alongside the perfect orgasm. We’ll never understand how Carrie could afford her lifestyle, but it’s not hard to understand where this series went right.
16. Bored to Death (2009 – 2011)
The only series on this list I actively dislike is Entourage. I say this to preface that, being #16 on the list doesn’t make Bored to Death a bad show, or even an average one. But when you’re competing amongst gods, someone has to lose. The tale of P.I. and part-time writer Jonathan Ames (Jason Schwartzman), Bored to Death was HBO’s paean to the hipster. From the deliberately anti-climactic film noir spoof, to its investigations of everything from lesbian parenting to the weakness of modern man, I can’t imagine this was a show that would play in Peoria. At times this deliberate anti-mainstream push made me dislike the series, as did the fact that series creator Ames had styled this much funnier, much more adorkable lead character after himself (shades of Aaron Sorkin‘s… well, really anything by Aaron Sorkin). But in time, I was won over by Schwartzman’s geekiness, by clever turns from supporting players such as John Hodgman and the wonderful Ted Danson (how is that man’s career just improving and improving?), and even from Zach Galifianakis, who has been known to take enough rope, and then swing. I doubt I’ll ever watch Bored to Death again – its characters, plots, and attitude weren’t that original – but its cancellation came after a third season that managed to find the show a new footing, and I’ll miss its injection of inoffensive quirkiness, at least a little bit.
15. Rome (2005 – 2007)
Ah, Rome. Still HBO’s biggest purveyor of penis. A co-production with the BBC (I think…), Rome speeds insatiably from 52BC to 29BC, that is, from Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon to the downfall of Antony and Cleopatra, in just two short seasons. I’m not sure what compelled the writers to go so fast, but it definitely adds to the dizzying quality of the series as a whole. Rome was usually more interested in sex and gore than the politics of the era, evidenced by the delightful lifelong catfight between Atia of the Julii (a never-better Polly Walker) and Sevilia (Lindsay Duncan, who never fails to impress). As the everymen at the centre of the story, Kevin McKidd and Ray Stevenson proved themselves reliable, even if their stories paled in comparison to the power plays of historical figures. For budgetary and artistic reasons, Rome rarely showed battle sequences, instead focusing on the quieter moments of battle preparation or despair. I know Rome has its devoted followers, and it’s not hard to see why. In terms of design and set, Rome was HBO’s crowning glory until Game of Thrones came along. The bustling forum, the starchiness of the Senate, the increased exotica of Cleopatra’s realm: all are lovingly rendered, with an atmosphere unlike any other. And anyone who’s studied Roman history can attest to the old cliche that truth is stranger than fiction. However… I’m going to lay my cards on the table and admit that I never fully warmed to Rome. It was never as deep or intelligent as its defenders claimed, and the desire to speed through so much history made the series entertaining, but often completely disorienting. Ultimately, I’d recommend Rome as a lavish, colourful primer on the most dizzying period in Ancient Rome’s history. It’s an easily digestible 22 hours, and surprisingly funny to boot. But coming as it did, during the final days of three of the greatest works of art ever created in the medium of TV, I guess I was always bound to be a tad disappointed.
14. Big Love (2006 – 2011)
And yet sometimes I want to put Rome ahead of this very, very silly piece of TV. The adventures of Bill Paxton and his three Mormon wives were more fantastical than HBO’s trips to a vampire-plagued South, a land of dragons and wights, or the lurid adventures of two Kiwis in New York. Children were psychologically destroyed, much illicit sex was had, and somehow the most obviously polygamist family in the world managed to keep their vital secret for much longer than realistically possible. Big Love was full of over-the-top performances, rubbish plot twists, and a set-in-stone formula which the characters constantly hoped to escape, but the writers wouldn’t let them. (For context, I watched this entire series shortly after it ended last year, so it took on a different form in my mind, as I’d watched all the rest – bar Oz – roughly as they first aired.)
But Big Love is captivating, in its own twisted, beautiful way. As Paxton’s three wives, Jeanne Tripplehorn (the one who doesn’t really believe); Chloe Sevigny (the one who believes too much); and Ginnifer Goodwin (the confused, doe-eyed one), all gave revelatory performances, taking over-ripe parts and finding consistent characterisation. The supporting players included such luminaries as Bruce Dern, playing Bill’s manipulative father; Grace Zabriskie as his equally manipulative estranged wife; Mary Kay Place, as the matriarch of the Mormon ‘compound’ from which Bill and co escaped; and Harry Dean Stanton, beautifully underplaying things as the series’ big bad. The breakout star for me was probably Mireille Enos, whose pallid beauty and determinedly individual line readings lifted the Marquart twins from tertiary characters to fascinating angels of doom. As with many of HBO’s best, Big Love has a continuity in theme, subplots, and guest characters, which makes it a worthy candidate for a marathon rewatch. And, while the series could never escape its patently ludicrous plots, it was able to get away with much, being set in the heartland of some of America’s more bewildering religious zealots. There’s a beauty and pathos to the series that is sometimes overdone, but never feels out of place. In short, I’m not quite sure why I like Big Love, but I’m not willing to let go of it just yet.
13. Boardwalk Empire (2010 – present)
I’m on record as not really enjoying Boardwalk‘s first season, but I came to quite enjoy its game-changing second, and look forward with much anticipation to the third. By now, it’s a given that an HBO period peace will look amazing, and Boardwalk‘s rendition of 1920s Atlantic City is just that. The cast are almost impeccable, with Michael Stuhlbarg, Kelly Macdonald, and Jack Huston the MVPs. Season two also refined most of my problems with season one: the themes became far more cohesive, the supporting characters developed their own personalities (a struggle for most HBO ensemble pieces, even the greatest), and both Steve Buscemi and Michael Pitt – an actor I’d had a lot of issues with in season one – felt far more comfortable in their characters. Buscemi’s Nucky Thompson was much more interesting with the Sword of Damocles hanging over his head, and, as Pitt’s Jimmy Darmody rose to power, the depth of the characters around him – his wife (Aleksa Palladino), amoral mother (Gretchen Mol), and heartbreaking best friend (Huston) – allowed us to shade in the war-ravaged young upstart.
Boardwalk still has a long way to go if it wants to equal its spiritual predecessor, The Sopranos. So much hinges on the few central characters (whose numbers have depleted after the shocking final episodes of season two), that there isn’t really that sense that you could follow the secondary characters home and see a whole new story unfold, as there was on Oz or The Wire. Nonetheless, the series’ timeless beauty is slowly being joined by a sense of dramatic unity and character creation which will hopefully see it last a few more years. I suspect the third season is going to jump ahead a couple of years, so here’s hoping that the series doesn’t get too confused in the process.
12. Carnivale (2003 – 2005)
Carnivale is both the black sheep of the ‘major’ HBO dramas, yet also – amongst a small group of fans – the most missed. The series follows two stories: that of a young man (Nick Stahl) with the power to heal, who joins a travelling carnival during the Great Depression; and a psychologically damaged minister (Clancy Brown) whose own supernatural powers lead him on to found a great church. As the two beings cycle closer to one another, they discover they are only part of a mystery spanning generation after generation. One of them is a being of light; the other a being of dark. And, even as they destroy everyone and everything around them, their destinies are intertwined with the end of an entire Age, and the climax of the Second World War.
It sounds really interesting when I phrase it like that. Most of the time, Carnivale was not quite that good. The ensemble cast largely acted as barriers to the action rather than support, and the admirable six-season plan of creator Daniel Knauf may have been responsible for the longeurs that beset both of the two completed seasons. The series took a while to find the correct balance between plot and mood, which wasn’t helped by the fact that Stahl’s Ben was mostly a cipher (a deliberate choice by both actor and director, but one that was noted negatively by many reviewers). The series’ greatest strength lay in its American Gothic style, in the sheer beauty of even the darkest moments. After the first season, the carnival cast were trimmed (and I suspect that Knauf’s plan would’ve involved more and more deaths and absences as the series moved on), and the second season returned with a greater strength of purpose. In some ways, the already convoluted mythology was even more confusing, but there were fewer episodes of season two that felt like cast-offs from Lost, where sixty minutes would be spent on deliberately useless flashbacks just to get us to one final twist. The acting awards must go to Brown and Amy Madigan, as his sister/pusher/henchwoman/other naughty things Iris, who often stole the show from the more flashy activities of the carnival. It’s a great shame that a thematically rich period piece like this was only able to live out a third of its desired lifespan. And that ambition is why Carnivale almost makes it to my HBO Top Ten. But it’s not hard to see why things fell apart: even the languid plot movement and deliberately ambiguous characterisations could have been excused, if only the series ever created a sense of urgency. We knew the series was to end with the first nuclear bomb testing in 1945; why not make us aware that the world as our characters know it is on the brink of destruction?
Click here to check out my HBO Top 11.. I’m sure you can guess what they are, but hopefully I’ll be able to make a surprising statement or two somewhere, just for variety.