For the last two decades, HBO has been considered the gold standard for television quality. The network routinely receives more Emmy nominations than any of its competitors, despite fielding a drastically smaller roster of programming.
HBO practically reinvented what could be done on the small screen. Each episode now had the same production values as a feature film, and the way the pay network could deal with risqué content led to a wide array of groundbreaking programming.
A quick glance at the roster of original shows produced by HBO over its first 25 years is almost like looking at the first couple pages of the greatest shows in the history of television. Of course, just like anything else, however, there are certain shows on HBO that received more credit than they deserved, and others that have been pushed aside over the years or never garnered the accolades with which they should have been showered.
The following are the most overrated and underrated HBO shows:
5. “The Comeback
This was the groundbreaking show that couldn’t quite pull it off. The revolutionary, genre-bending approach to comedy that felt all too familiar once the writing took over. “The Comeback” featured Lisa Kudrow
as a former television star trying to once again return to the limelight. Rather than produce the show as a conventional sitcom, it was shown as a behind-the-scenes and unedited version from a fictional reality TV show. The approach was novel, episodes were funny, and Kudrow was great. Still, nothing ever quite clicked on the show and HBO cancelled it after its first season.
Oddly enough, this show received lamentations normally reserved for great shows axed before their time. Kudrow’s performance was quickly hailed as genius by the critics who cited this show as the most criminally overlooked of the new season. None of this is really true, but the critics drove it home incessantly, championing the DVD release and insisting “The Comeback” be sought out on On Demand. In cancellation this show received way more accolades than it deserved. Remember it as a failed experiment with a fine performance and some funny moments, not the legend of the small screen that some would have you believe.
At first, “Carnivale” was underrated. It was the solid drama on HBO lost in a sea of shows such as “Six Feet Under
”, and “Sex and the City
.” Overlooked by critics and audiences alike, it was cancelled after completing only a third of its planned run, despite setting a ratings record for an HBO premiere. After its cancellation, all anybody could talk about was what an injustice it was, how the show was so underrated, and how HBO’s audience should have given it the same attention it had to its contemporaries.
Soon the legend began to grow. Fans proclaimed it was the best show ever on HBO and that its epic scale left all other shows drowning in its wake. On and on this went until somebody unfamiliar with the program would have thought the producers killed “Moby Dick” before it went to press. None of this true. “Carnivale” was good but uneven. Epically envisioned but clumsily realized. Its reputation fell into the classic trap of an underrated show that had everybody talking about how underrated it was only to make it become overrated.
3. “Taxicab Confessions
To call this show groundbreaking is like saying that an intern who accidentally loaded a XXX tape into a local network’s video feed and let it run for a few minutes is the greatest revolutionary in the history of the medium. What “Taxicab Confessions” was was oversexed and manipulated swill that masqueraded as a hard-hitting documentary. If getting drunken people to make wild claims in the back of a cab at two in the morning and having a camera there to capture it is supposed to give some insight into the human mind, then it never showed itself on this show. All the viewer did see was graphic sex talk in a smelly cab and then people signing waivers at the end of the show. Entertaining at times, but groundbreaking? Hardly.
1. “Sex and The City
” (1998-2004) and “Entourage
These shows tie at the top because they’re essentially the same series. They both feature rich people prancing around a destination city in expensive outfits. The characters on each series act as if money, clothes, and sex are all that any human being think about. Each series has purported to be a truly realistic look at how people behave, and the latter began right when the former finished.
The problem with these shows are that they are sitcoms that aren’t consistently funny and feature characters about whom we’re supposed to care but are intensely unlikable for the most part. Neither broke any new ground despite frequent claims to the contrary. The talk about sex on each show appeared nearly in step on “Seinfeld
” except they had to use euphemisms on that much funnier program.
The appeal of these two programs lies in their almost fairy tale-like quality. Viewers everywhere wish they could swap lives with any of the characters on these programs and live in their dream worlds where money flows like candy, designers craft new outfits specifically for you and beautiful sex partners come and go like the newspaper. This doesn’t happen, and neither of these shows deserve the credit they’ve gotten.
There cannot be a real tie in under/overrated, however so “Entourage” gets the nod as the most overrated of the two series due to its creators misuse of Ari Gold. Jeremy Piven’s
Gold is one of the funniest characters in the history of television and would have stayed that way if the producers limited him to the 12-15 minutes he was allotted during the series’ first two seasons. Instead, they made him a separate main character in the third season, killing the flow of the series and transforming the character into a distraction at the same time.
5. “The Sopranos
What? “The Sopranos” is underrated? But everyone said it’s the best show ever! How can it be underrated!? Well, imaginary protestor, “The Sopranos” is underrated because it never got the full credit it as due. David Chase
is the only man ever to use television to its full potential. “The Sopranos” was his grand thematic statement about how the drive towards material success guts the American family and ultimately leaves its patriarchs alone and empty. He presented this in the form of an incredibly entertaining mafia show that captivated the crime-loving American public. Not a lot of people got the message, however, leading to routine demands for more blood and action. This led to frequent claims that the show really isn’t that good, that too many episodes turned away from the gangland drama for which its audience was thirsty. The second part of that is true, but the show never wavered from Chase’s original vision and was all the better for it.
4. “Mr. Show with Bob and David
This was America’s real answer to “Monty Python’s Flying Circus
.” “Mr. Show” took the anarchy of the English troupe’s opus and put their twisted American view on the format. This show set a new standard for sketch comedy on television, picking up from the brilliance of late-80s SNL
and “The Kids in the Hall
” with extremely smart social satire from Messrs. Bob Odenkirk
and David Cross
. Each of these men would show up in excellent comedies for the next decade (“Arrested Development
” to name one) but this show remains their best work. Sadly, nobody even talks about it anymore.
Warning: contains adult language
3. “The Larry Sanders Show
This show certainly got the credit it deserved when it first hit the airwaves. Its Emmy Awards alone could have allowed its producers to print their own currency based on the gold standard. But a funny thing happened on the way to becoming a TV Legend - it didn’t. Along with “The X-Files
,” there is not a more popular or lauded show that has completely slipped out of the public consciousness as this gem. Garry Shandling’s
performance was one of the best comedic creations in television history, and his supporting cast was equally strong. The celebrity self-parody has only ever been equaled by “Extras
,” and its seamless backstage/onstage plotlines were always equally funny. “Larry Sanders” was a perfect show and one so forgotten that the full series has never even seen a DVD release. What a shame.
2. “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel
Doing a sports show is a sure path to becoming underrated. Nobody’s going to take one seriously, and the cognoscente takes pride in dismissing anything to do with sports. While this criticism is almost always deserved, it is not in any way in this case. Not only is “Real Sports” the best sports show on television, it’s the best news show on television. The reporters are impeccable, and every story produced is top-notch. The program never delves into the tabloid territory so popular in sports coverage now, choosing to feature in-depth profiles of our modern-day heroes and peering into issues on the sports periphery. Even if you don’t care about athletics in any way, it’s hard not to find every single story fascinating.
1. “Big Love
“Big Love” may end up becoming the best show in the history of HBO, which means it could probably be the best show in the history of television. Not bad for a show many dismiss for its polygamist premise. It’s really a shame because “Big Love” is a relentlessly genuine family drama that never judges its characters for their odd convictions. Instead, it shows us that this bizarre world is very real to them, shining a bright light on an otherwise shadowy existence. There isn’t a bad performance anywhere in the cast, particularly the work of Bill Paxton
in the role of his career as Bill Henrickson.
The show also features a deep-seated mystery revolving around Bill’s expulsion from Roman Grant’s polygamist and his eventual conversion back to living the principle of plural marriage. Rather than revealing the mystery through flashbacks, the writers give insight through the characters’ attitudes and relationships with one another. Despite all this, “Big Love” still gets written off due to its controversial premise. It’s a shame really, because “Big Love” is television at its grand cinematic best, and more than just a show about a dude with three wives.
What HBO shows do you thing are most overrated or underrated? Make a comment!
Check back next week for the most overrated and underrated candy bars.
Story by Andrew Payne
Starpulse contributing writer