Here, CultBox has picked out the channel’s ten best shows; no easy task, but we think you’ll agree that the following are all rather special…
10. Deadwood (2004-2006)
Noted for blistering profanity that would make John Wayne’s ears drop off, get past the historically accurate swearing and Deadwood is the kind of drama for those who like their Westerns truly gritty.
Partly adhering to historical events (as with two other entries on this list), the show pulls no punches in depicting Deadwood as a town writhing up from the dust and blood of the old West.
9. Six Feet Under (2001-2005)
While most other shows tiptoe around the topic of death, Six Feet Under used it like a magnifying glass to focus on life; specifically the lives of the dysfunctional Fishers as they ran their funeral home.
Tackling subjects like religious belief and bereavement could have made for a terribly depressing show, but there was a strong darkly comic and surreal streak balanced pitch perfectly against the morbid setting. And to this day is still has one of the most moving finales in TV history.
8. Game of Thrones (2011-)
HBO poured enough money to drown the 7 Kingdoms of Westeros in order to bring George R. R. Martin’s titanic series of fantasy novels to the screen, but the gamble paid off magnificently. In every single frame you can see the money and effort that’s been spent.
Don’t dismiss it just because it’s fantasy: it’s intensely character focused, with political and familial machinations that would give the Borgias a run for their money, meaning it’s accessible even if you can’t tell your Iron Throne from your elbow.
7. Band of Brothers (2001)
Condensing the horror and immediacy of war that he’d perfected in Saving Private Ryan onto the small screen, Steven Spielberg’s miniseries chronicled the actual experiences of Easy Company throughout WW2, meaning that the death and drama we see on screen is doubly affecting.
It took a production team the size of an army to make all ten episodes, and the result is a stunning tribute to the real men the series is based on, and to those laid down their lives.
6. Sex and the City (1998-2004)
One of the defining shows of the early noughties, SATC managed to permeate pop culture like Chanel No.5 through a sponge, to the point where fans still classify themselves as ‘such a Carrie’ or ‘such a Charlotte’.
Though not a favourite of male viewers or feminists, it nevertheless struck a strong chord among ladies on both sides of the Atlantic with its frank and funny expressions about sex, relationships, and where to get a decent pair of Manolos. It’s best not talk about the films though.
5. Boardwalk Empire (2010-)
Booze! Broads! Buscemi! Other things that begin with B! Boardwalk Empire follows the (real)life of criminal kingpin/political bastard Enoch ‘Nucky’ Thompson (Steve Buscemi) with such a gorgeous, cinematic attention to historic detail you’d think you were sitting in the middle of a smoky speakeasy.
But rather than glamorise the age it strips back the razor-thin veneer to reveal the corruption and brutality upon which runs Prohibition-era Atlantic City. It’s the kind of character drama that HBO does so well, and though a slow burner, it really pays off for the committed viewer.
4. The Larry Sanders Show (1992-1998)
The Larry Sanders Show was the lifeblood of HBO back in the ‘90s, scooping up awards like a hungry kid at the pic n’ mix stand. Following the life of fictional chat show host Larry Sanders (Garry Shandling), the show mixed chat show clips with behind the scenes footage, and hooked in celebrities from Jennifer Aniston to Robin Williams to play caricatured versions of themselves.
Though many have tried to depict the chaos behind the scenes of a show (30 Rock, Annually Retentive, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip) none have ever captured it with the wit and bite that The Larry Sanders Show did.
3. The Sopranos (1999-2007)
For many it’s still the godfather of TV drama, so what more can you say about The Sopranos that hasn’t already been said with gushing praise? It was the show which broke new ground, and then laid it for a new age of high-quality drama; from Six Feet Under to Mad Men.
Excelling in every area of production from start to brilliantly ambiguous finish, the story of Tony Soprano is a brutal one, but what attracts us to the Mafia boss is that – just like us – he’s a flawed human struggling against his own demons to keep control over his home and work life.
2. Curb Your Enthusiasm (2000-)
Larry David’s semi-improvisational comedy brainchild put the situation back in sitcom, with so many set-ups so hilariously cringeworthy that you think your forehead might just cave in; penis cake, respect for wood, the pants tent, harassing Michael J. Fox, and of course, the infamous ‘beloved aunt’ misspelling.
It also has the benefit of A-list guest celebs willing to send themselves up in the most outrageous ways. Hyperbole doesn’t quite cover the true genius of Curb, so let’s just put it in Larry David’s own words: “it’s pretty good. Pretaaay pretaaaay good.”
1. The Wire (2002-2008)
Renowned as ‘the best show on TV that no one watched’, it’s likely that more people have recommended The Wire than have seen it. Following the Baltimore war between cops and drug-dealers, it feels more like a dynamically shot documentary rather than a drama.
Using realistic colloquial dialogue and little-known character actors, it’s soaked in a street-level realism. It’s not a show that you can just dip into here and there, and nor should you. The Wire demands your full attention, and across its five seasons will reward you handsomely for it.
What’s your favourite HBO show of all time? Let us know below…
Watch the Boardwalk Empire Season 2 trailer…