behind the list

What We Learned From Watching Every HBO Show Ever

Photo: HBO

Last week, we published a ranked list of every HBO drama and comedy series ever made — all 74 of them, produced over a 35-year stretch. Because the network curates its original shows so tightly, favoriting quality over quantity, the list became a kind of pocket history of HBO, containing all the defining moments and evolutionary leaps that has made it synonymous with prestige television. With indicators that HBO will ramp up production to compete with streaming giants like Netflix, it may also be the last time such an undertaking may be possible again.

With that in mind, we wanted to go behind the list, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss style, and expand the conversation about what we learned over the months-long process of putting it together. Where is HBO going and where has it been? What was our rationale for ranking the shows where we did? (How could we do that to Six Feet Under?) And beyond the canonical favorites like The Sopranos, Deadwood, and The Wire, what exciting smaller discoveries did we make along the way? We discuss those topics and more below.

SCOTT TOBIAS: Noel, when Vulture asked us to write a ranked list of every HBO original show ever made, the task seemed impossible on its face. The network has produced its own shows for around 35 years, and I knew there were plenty that you or I (or both) had never seen, so the time necessary to play catch-up would be daunting. Yet once we made some hard decisions about parameters — limiting ourselves to comedy and drama series only, leaving animation, anthologies, kids shows, and sketch comedy (sorry, top-ten lock Mr. Show) for another day — we were left with 74 shows, and creating the list became surprisingly plausible. It still left plenty of work for us to do, like diving into seasons of the execrable 1st & Ten (No. 74) and Lucky Louie (No. 59) on Amazon Prime or tracking down unavailable series through creative means. (Want to borrow my complete-series DVD of Steven Soderbergh’s Unscripted (No. 41)? It’s pretty clever.) But it was possible for two writers to cover the entire catalogue and get a sense of how HBO developed and evolved over time, and established its identity as perhaps the premier network on television.

The timing of the list was ideal. It was pitched to us shortly before Game of Thrones (No. 8) wrapped up its nine-year run with a six-episode burst of expensive battle sequences and hastily cauterized characters arcs. Game of Thrones had been the type of endeavor that only HBO could have the resources and nerve to produce — an immersive fantasy series for adults, with complicated palace intrigue, startlingly explicit sex and violence, and world-building on an unprecedented scale. There will be a prequel and other spinoffs to come — not to mention competing series from rivals, like Amazon’s Lord of the Rings — but the end of Game of Thrones also signaled the end of HBO as we know it. The departure of HBO boss Richard Plepler, who’d been at the network for 27 years, has suggested a dramatic change in programming philosophy under AT&T, the telecommunications giant that now controls its destiny. The expectation is that HBO will start producing shows at a much higher volume to compete with services like Netflix, and with the increase in quantity, it seems likely that the quality will suffer. With updates over time, it’s easy to imagine our HBO list ballooning into a project the size of Charles Bramesco’s ongoing list of Netflix original movies, which currently stands at 248 films and counting.

Of the 74 shows on our list, I’d consider the top 53 to be good or better, a truly staggering number. And plenty of the shows below that threshold are failures of ambition, like Vinyl (No. 67) or The Newsroom (No. 66), that took a big swing for the fences and whiffed on their potential for greatness. But HBO wasn’t always so impeccably curated. You and I have both been writing professionally since before The Sopranos (No. 1) debuted in 1999 and the “It’s not TV. It’s HBO” era began, so we’ve been fortunate enough to witness (and occasionally document) its growth in real time. But getting to The Sopranos took some work. And the flowering of the network after The Sopranos led to many mini-trends and experiments and the rise of certain showrunner-auteurs, and to occasional missteps and blind spots.

So going beyond the 10,000 words we’ve already written, what have we learned here, Noel? I want to talk about the discoveries and gems on the list, the reaction it’s gotten from readers so far, and the rationale behind some of the rankings, which took into account both our personal feeling as critics and the impact these shows had on shaping HBO as an institution.

NOEL MURRAY: I have an unusual relationship with HBO because I grew up in a house without cable. When I moved out on my own — first at college and then later when I shacked up with the woman who’d become my wife — I did get cable but no premium channels, which still seemed like a luxury. I used to binge-watch HBO the old-fashioned way: via DVD box sets of Six Feet Under (No. 14) and Deadwood (No. 2).

So part of the reason I wanted to tackle this project was to get a closer look at some shows I’d only seen in passing. But as you know, Scott, we ran into one big obstacle right away: A lot of those old series have disappeared into the ether. I remember when HBO first launched its streaming service, a lot of older TV watchers (like, ahem, ourselves) were excited about the prospect of digging back into old stand-up specials and half-remembered episodes of Philip Marlowe, Private Eye (No. 47). But alas … Either for rights reasons or because the HBO bean counters don’t consider it cost-effective to host them, much of the network’s early history is hard to revisit — a surprising roadblock, considering how entertainment companies are so eager to boast their massive libraries.

You have your Unscripted DVDs. I have my “can’t believe I dug this up” episodes of The High Life (No. 48) and Maximum Security (No. 61), unavailable even on YouTube but found hither and yon on services like Vimeo and Dailymotion. I’m glad I tracked those down — along with the likes of Dream On (No. 72) and, yes, low-ranked The Mind of the Married Man (No. 73) — because they really helped clarify the whole HBO story. It’s remarkable how many of those early shows really were just, “How can we give TV audiences something they already like, but R-rated?” Once you get to The Larry Sanders Show (No. 4), Oz (No. 10), Sex and the City (No. 6), and The Sopranos, the difference is obvious. They’re “mature” in a whole other way.

That’s why even the best of the pre-1998 HBO shows had a hard time breaking past the bottom half of our list. Scott, let’s take a moment to talk about the rankings because whenever anyone does a list like this, the placement is bound to rub some people the wrong way. No matter how positive we are in the actual write-up of a show, if it’s below something that readers think is more worthy, it’s almost like we said it’s garbage. Do you want to address some of the most challenged rankings on social media, like Six Feet Under not being in the top ten and Succession (No. 16) and Barry (No. 13) appearing so high?

TOBIAS: It’s funny that premium cable channels were so exotic to you for so long, Noel, because I remember you as a cable savant back in college, when you made a parlor trick out of memorizing the dozens of channels up and down the dial. But the notion of pay TV as a source for quality shows — as opposed to uncut movies and a little after-dark prurience — is a turn-of-the-century development, which definitely explains why 1st & Ten, The Mind of the Married Man, and Dream On are sitting at the bottom of our list. Working on this list also gave me an appreciation for Oz as a groundbreaking moment in HBO history because it’s the bridge between the network-TV-but-with-boobs-and-swearing years and the more sophisticated programming we’ve come to expect today. Because what is Oz but Tom Fontana uncut, bringing a harder edge to law-and-order docudrama he’d innovated as showrunner on Homicide: Life on the Streets. It deserves a spot in the top ten.

And that brings me to a point on list-making methodology. After compiling the raw list of show titles and divvying them up between us, we wrote our individual capsules, did our own rankings of the ones we were assigned, and put each title into a certain bucket (specifically: Canon, Very Good, Good, Fair, the Dregs) to get them organized. (During this process, Entourage magically landed at No. 69, and there it would stay.) We then started a conversation about where the shows should be ranked that was based partly on personal preference and partly on historical significance. On the latter front, there were a handful of HBO shows that were too foundational to deny: The flagships of the three Davids (Chase with The Sopranos, Milch with Deadwood, Simon with The Wire) are a standard top three, but series like The Larry Sanders Show, Sex and the City, and Oz were also key in establishing the network’s identity. There are plenty of series that I, personally, would watch again before revisiting SATC and Oz, for example, but the list is telling a story about the history of HBO and you can’t deny these critical plot points.

That said, I take full responsibility for Six Feet Under’s conspicuously low ranking at No. 14, behind current series like The Deuce (No. 12) and Barry, which both have only two seasons under their belt. Keeping in mind that No. 14 is still quite high — solidly in the “Very Good” organizational bucket — its luster is somewhat diminished by creator Alan Ball’s leaden touch, which was evident as early as his screenplay for American Beauty and ruinous in later HBO series like True Blood (No. 55), which drained the fun from its bayou vampire pulp, and Here and Now (No. 71), which makes an even more concerted bid for “relevance.” In retrospect, Six Feet Under probably deserved a top-ten finish for historical significance alone, especially in light of the post-Thrones conversations we’ve been having about series endings. However you feel about the show’s missteps along the way, it landed gracefully.

We did hear a few gripes, too, about recency bias, particularly with shows like The Deuce, Barry, and Succession, but I’m happy to stand behind those rankings. With The Deuce, it’s a reverse Alan Ball effect with David Simon, who has followed his signature show with one immersive, complex, superbly acted series or miniseries after another, namely Treme (No. 38), Generation Kill, and Show Me a Hero. The Deuce gets the edge over Treme for understanding its Times Square milieu as an ecosystem where the actions of powerful parties filter down the most vulnerable, from the gangsters and corrupt cops at the top of the chain to the pimps and sex workers hung up in a cycle of abuse and institutional rot. Many felt Barry shouldn’t have had a second season, but it quietly upstaged Game of Thrones week after week. On the night humankind battled the White Walkers in the murk of Winterfell, Bill Hader’s assassin squared off against father-daughter Tae Kwon Do masters in one of the year’s most surreal and surprising episodes. As for Succession, I think that series has locked into a cultural moment when the Murdochs and the Trumps and the Kochs are passing a toxic legacy to a generation of Large Adult Sons, and it’s got funnier and nastier with each episode of its first season. So consider that ranking a vote of confidence for its future.

How about you, Noel? Any ratings controversies you need to defend? And what were some of the hidden gems on the list? There were a handful of shows that neither of us had seen until doing this project, and I know I have a few that really knocked me out. And one more question: Where do you expect HBO to go from here?

MURRAY: When it comes to doing rankings for a big list, I was telling someone the other day that while it’s very important to me where something lands generally — like, say, whether it’s in the 20s or the 40s — when it comes to whether something is No. 18 or No. 19, or even No. 18 or No. 15, I’m not as fussy. Frankly, I sometimes pay more attention to what flows best as something to read, rather than focusing on the specifics of the number.

All of this is a way of saying that while I get why readers focus on those finer points — “How could you rank The Deuce over The Comeback (No. 21)!?” — I’m a little surprised at the pushback on the “low” ranking of shows that landed in the top 25. The top 25 is excellent! Heck, as you’ve noted, the top 40 is all pretty much in the “Very Good” range. If you read our write-ups of series like Enlightened (No. 11) or The Comeback, they’re glowing. The number isn’t everything.

Still, you ask for regrets. Perhaps Girls (No. 26) should’ve been higher. Personally, I kinda like The Newsroom (I’m a longtime Sorkin apologist), but I understand that it represents “the dregs” for many, so I didn’t see the need to stand up for it. I do look forward to revisiting and expanding this list somewhere down the road, so we can add in some of the miniseries that have now gone to series. (Have you seen Gentleman Jack and My Brilliant Friend? They’re excellent!)

Some of the standouts for me while doing my research weren’t necessarily shows that we ranked super-high. Revisiting Rome (No. 19) and Carnivàle (No. 37), I was struck anew by what a magical time that was for the network, when the success of The Sopranos allowed the programmers to load up the schedule with genuinely daring, mature dramas. In 2005, HBO aired Carnivàle, Deadwood, Rome, Six Feet Under, The Sopranos, and The Wire (No. 3). Plus Extras (No. 33), The Comeback, and Curb Your Enthusiasm (No. 7). That was a good year!

I hope HBO can get on that kind of run again. There are some really interesting projects in the works. I don’t know what the heck to expect from Watchmen, but with Damon Lindelof in charge, I’m definitely interested. And Lindelof’s former Leftovers (No. 5) partner Tom Perrotta is running another show based on his novels: Mrs. Fletcher, a comedy starring Kathryn Hahn and produced and directed by one of my favorite filmmakers, Nicole Holofcener. The original Veep (No. 9) creator Armando Iannucci is back with Avenue 5, a science-fiction comedy, starring Hugh Laurie. Matthew Rhys is playing a young Perry Mason in an upcoming miniseries.

I suppose this should be encouraging, that HBO is working with so many proven writers and stars, many of whom have been with the network before. But I’d also like to see them keep taking chances on newer voices like Issa Rae and Terence Nance (whose Random Acts of Flyness didn’t make our list because it’s ostensibly a sketch show … albeit a very avant-garde one). What stood out about those early 2000s series is that they were new. What we don’t need is for HBO to become just another generic prestige TV mill, turning out super-slowed-down genre shows that are dimly lit and low on plot.

TOBIAS: We can’t really know what HBO is going to look like in five or ten years, when presumably its initiative to offer more programming will start to show dividends. It might be reasonable to guess that the network will be more inclined to roll the dice on newcomers like Rae and Nance — and, perhaps, work toward solving the diversity issues that are laid bare on the list — but it’s also reasonable to assume that the quality-control button will be less scrupulously manned. My nightmare version of HBO in the future is to see it become another Netflix, full of under-produced, algorithm-friendly shows that have none of the boldness and innovation that we associate with its best shows. Look at the top ten here: Contemporary rivals would have been incapable of making anything like them at the time.

Part of the fun of making lists on this scale — and part of the utility of reading them, too, hopefully — is coming across new discoveries or experiencing shows you’ve already seen in a new light. So I want to end my part of this conversation by noting a few of them. The big standout for me was Tell Me You Love Me (No. 27), a one-and-done series that’s largely remembered for its sex scenes, which are so explicit that some speculated (falsely, of course) that they were unsimulated. But there’s so much more to appreciate about the candor and realness of the show, which reminded me a little of a Dogme 95 production in how much it stripped away the flatteries of a traditional drama. If you take the network’s mini-evolutions, you can see a show like Tell Me You Love Me as the connective tissue that made In Treatment (No. 34) and Togetherness (No. 43) possible.

Beyond that, quick binges on High Maintenance (No. 18) and Unscripted proved to be hugely rewarding — one a slice-of-life that changes every week yet is unified by a certain shaggy-dog humanity, the other a Steven Soderbergh improvisational comedy that gets the ritual humiliation of being a young actor in Hollywood hilariously right. (And if you’re looking for more HBO connections, you could pair it with the actors workshop in Barry.) I also gained a newfound affection for John From Cincinnati (No. 29) because it was easier to let go of the spiritual elements that baffled and frustrated me (and the country) on first viewing and enjoy all the evocative qualities (the burnt-out California surf town, the spiky dialogue, the superb ensemble work) that make it a David Milch production. HBO has given itself the freedom to gamble on eccentricity, and even when it comes up snake eyes, at least you know you’ve seen something.

Any interesting odds and sods for you, Noel? Our readers probably know all the big canonical shows, but what have they missed?

MURRAY: I wish more of those early originals were readily available because some of them are quite interesting. I really enjoyed Philip Marlowe, and thought The High Life was as bold an experiment in subverting the traditional sitcom model as Lucky Louie. As for the shows that people can actually see, I’ve had a soft spot for both How to Make It in America (No. 51) and Bored to Death (No. 28) since their original runs, but revisiting them, it was fascinating to see how much they both feel like warm-up acts for Girls, which is set in the same milieu but is much more distinctive about its point of view. I do think anyone who hasn’t seen How to Make It or Bored to Death should make time for them. They’re short! (Ditto Getting On (No. 31), which is one of my favorite “too bad nobody watched this” HBO series of recent years.)

To sum up, I have to say this one more time: My goodness, HBO has a really high winning percentage, at least creatively. (Ratings are a different story, alas.) Some critics and commentators used to mock the smugness of the slogan “It’s not TV. It’s HBO.” But give the network credit. For the past 20 years especially, HBO really has lived up to its branding.

What We Learned From Watching Every HBO Show Ever