Hot takes, TV essays, and lots of HBO expectations laid out below!
This is a week I’ve been excited about for a very long time. In just a few more days, HBO’s newest drama, a show I’ve been reading about for nearly three years now, will premiere. Indeed, Westworld is almost upon us. Of course, with such high expectations, I can only begin to wonder how good (or how terrible) Westworld has the potential to be! Will it be a contender for this list in the future? Will it end up like Vinyl and squander the ridiculous amount of potential it has? Time will tell.
However, let’s get on to the task at hand. Since 1997 when Oz debuted, HBO has been the gold standard in terms of quality television. From early shows like The Sopranos to modern giants like Game of Thrones, HBO has been the network to compare oneself to: only AMC and FX really getting anywhere close to the constant outpouring of good quality programming on HBO. Thus, when talking just about the history of great dramas on the channel, it’s a shockingly competitive list. Two of the shows featured on here (Game of Thrones and The Leftovers) are still going on, and thus have the opportunity to shift up or down a spot depending on how they conclude, but for the most part, this list is comprised of finished pieces.
So, without further ado, let’s dive right into this list!
10. Treme – 2010-2013
I’ll begin by just stating the obvious: David Simon has never made bad television. Of course, his opus, The Wire is going to appear further up this list, but just because Treme never quite reached those heights, it’s still one of the greatest dramas of all time, and in the HBO pantheon, is an underrated staple. Simon did almost exactly what he did with Baltimore in The Wire that he did with New Orleans in Treme. And, though the show was ultimately less compelling and insightful, it had a similar effect to watching The Wire. After finishing Treme, you were a smarter person: someone who understood the city of New Orleans, the importance of music to the city, and the effects of Hurricane Katrina. In addition, certain characters, most namely Antoine Batiste and Creighton Bernette, will always stick with me, showing the intellectual, political, and musical sides of the city almost within themselves. Treme ended without much fanfare, though the finale, much like the rest of the show, was quietly wonderful. Of course, as with all David Simon projects, the moral of the story is that life goes on in whatever place or period the show takes place in, but after spending four seasons with these characters, all story lines were wrapped up in a satisfying manner.
9. Rome – 2005-2007
The early 2000’s were a breeding ground for great shows on HBO, and Rome was another addition to the roster. Other than Carnivale, a show appearing farther up on this list, Rome is probably the number one candidate for having been cancelled too early. After only two seasons, beginning with the rise and fall of Julius Caesar and ending with the rise of Octavius, Rome was cancelled due to its exceedingly high budget and only mediocre viewership. Though I understand the cancellation, I still believe it was a major mistake. Not only was Rome a compelling show, it was one of the most beautiful artistic achievements in TV history. The amazing thing about Rome, most of it shot on location using CGI to re-create the old days, is that when watching, it almost felt as if you were there, right alongside hilarious protagonist Titus Pullo and the Roman aristocracy. It was like going to an art museum, a history lecture, and watching an episode of Game of Thrones all at once. Bruno Heller, creator of Rome researched the time period incredibly thoroughly, and though there are obviously dramatic departures from reality for plot reasons, the show really did give an accurate taste of history, culture, and the time.
8. Oz – 1997-2003
Transport yourself back to 1997, when TV hadn’t entered the era that we currently live in. One show was able to change all of that, bursting open the floodgates of creativity, pushing the envelope on what was allowed, and allowing television to take a darker, more artistic turn that would set the stage for the future of the medium. That show was HBO’s Oz, to date still the darkest and most graphic show ever on TV. Taking place in Ozwald High Security Prison, Oz took a close look at the nature of evil, how environment can transform someone, and how a civilization can be made, even in the most violent, hate fueled society. At the center of this maelstrom of darkness though, Oz was a character drama, most notably centering on the five season long rivalry between Tobias Beecher and the man whom I named the greatest villain in TV history: Vern Schillinger. When Oz was doing what it did best, I’d argue it was every bit as good as a Wire or a Breaking Bad, pumping out episodes and plots that were so wholly original and interesting it was difficult to find a better show. However, the reason it doesn’t make it farther up the list is because of some of the middle seasons wherein Oz meandered a bit. Some characters weren’t as fully realized as others, and not every plot worked quite as well as the eternal battle between Beecher and Schillinger. Oz still deserves all the credit in the world for the impact it had on TV, and if HBO hadn’t become so damn good as a result, it’d make it even farther up this list. As it stands, Oz is still an all-time classic.
7. Game of Thrones – 2011-Present
Even dating back to The Sopranos, no HBO show has been as culturally relevant or as widely viewed as the fantasy epic Game of Thrones. We’re now six seasons into this eight season long show, and though it could certainly move up (or down) on this list depending on how the last two seasons go, Thrones is already a landmark in conceptual storytelling, technical achievement, and pure casting. Taking place in the fantasy world of Westeros, Game of Thrones tells the story of multiple royal families warring for the throne, while in the background the looming threat of a race of undead army lurks, ready to end all life on Westeros when winter finally comes. It’s a complex story, and with so many Kingdoms, characters, and names to keep track of, it’s a wonder that Thrones is able to cover it all so well, and that it can display it simply enough for everyone to understand what’s going on. Thrones isn’t always the best written show on TV, a lot of the time relying on big moments to carry otherwise sluggish plotting, and sometimes the spectacle can outdo the quality of a given situation or episode, but in an overall sense, what Thrones does works, and even when I get angry at the writing, the sheer sight of dragons and medieval warfare can generally soften the blow.
6. Carnivale – 2004-2006
I can already hear people getting angry at how high up on the list Carnivale lands, even outdoing the infinitely more popular Game of Thrones. And, while it certainly doesn’t come close in terms of spectacle or viewership, allow me to plant the flag for the magic of this show. First of all, Carnivale had the most beautifully realized mythos on TV, well before even Lost hit the air. Set in the dust bowl of 1934, Carnivale dealt with a travelling carnival housing a man who was the vessel of good in this particular generation. At the same time, a California preacher trying to do good in the world, begins to realize that he is in fact the vessel of evil in this generation. The two begin to go through psychological, religious, and generally spiritual visions in order to realize their respective identities. All around both of them though, fascinating events begin to take place, magic entering the otherwise barren plains of the great depression. Carnivale was, all at the same time, an important period piece, a magical example of fantastical storytelling, a character study, a dive into what makes good and evil, and most of all, a compelling television show. If it hadn’t been cancelled prematurely after the second season, meaning the plot would never be resolved, there’s a good chance this could have topped the list. I’ve never been so taken by a mythos, and even today, it pains me that this show was cancelled. In many ways, HBO traded away magic for reason when they cancelled this one: confirming the monologue that begins the series.
5. Boardwalk Empire – 2010-2014
In many ways, the spiritual sequel to The Sopranos was Boardwalk Empire, an HBO drama about gangsters helmed by the right hand of David Chase, Terence Winter. And, while the show may not have been as revolutionary or as critically exalted, Boardwalk still holds a certain kind of magic that even Sopranos doesn’t quite have. The major difference to take into account, for starters, is the time period. Whereas Sopranos takes place in the contemporary age of organized crime, Boardwalk is in the Golden Age – a time when gangsters were king, and when the cities were ruled by both politicians and the mob. At the epicenter of all of this is Nucky Thompson, the leading man of Boardwalk played by the great Steve Buscemi. Nucky is somewhat of an ice king – a closed off man who must decide between being a cold professional or having a personal life and enjoying himself. As the series goes on, we watch as Nucky becomes more shut off, more isolated, and despite the gorgeous and roaring 20’s, more businesslike. All around him however, we also watch the heads of other cities – men like Al Capone, Arnold Rothstein, Lucky Luciano, and Meyer Lansky rise and fall. The show is an immersive experience in the time period, in mob history, and in fascinating character study. Though each season took a long time to get going, Winter and co. would always pay off the wait with expertise, exhibited the best in the third and fourth seasons wherein the show reached its peak. And, to this day, there’s never been a more visually beautiful show than Boardwalk.
4. The Leftovers – 2014-Present
Hot take, right?! Yep – just below the “big three” HBO dramas is, in my humble opinion, the best show currently on TV. Of course, The Leftovers is subject to change positioning based on how the final season is, meaning it could make a legitimate argument to barge into the top three conversation on HBO, or it could tank and drop a few spots. Damon Lindelof is almost certainly capable of either. The Leftovers tells the story of a world wherein 2% of the population mysteriously dissipated one day. Though no one knows the cause of the “departure,” it begins to unravel society, humanity, and the nature of our religious and philosophical perceptions. At the center of the story is Kevin Garvey, a man who didn’t lose anyone, but whose family has been torn apart by the departure just as badly as anyone who had disappearances. The first season was incredibly dark, plodding, and though ultimately rewarding, somewhat of a chore to get through. The second season kept the same dark consistency, but seemed to pay off every episode, marking perhaps the best season in TV since Breaking Bad‘s final installment. The show is certainly bleak, and has a lot to answer as the final season approaches, but it’s already impressed so much there’s no way it doesn’t earn the #4 spot next to the big three.
The next three dramas are almost interchangeable. For the sake of argument, I ranked them, but in many ways, they’re on an even keel. These are three of the greatest shows ever made, and if one were to put any of them in the 1, 2, or 3 spot, it would be hard to argue with any of them. All three are amazing for different reasons, and exist on a level of TV past almost anything else ever broadcast. So, without further ado…
3. The Wire – 2002-2008
In terms of size, scale, and scope, The Wire is the number one TV show of all time. As we have it, it’s a very close number three to the other two amazing HBO dramas on here, but that doesn’t detract from the sheer achievement of The Wire. The show takes a look at Baltimore as a whole – a city wherein everything is flawed, but everything can be humanized if developed enough. The first season is just the police system and the streets. The second season gives us the dock workers. The third introduces the politics. The fourth the schools. The fifth the newspaper. Every season, the plot starts to build on itself, adding layers to the depth of the show, as well as adding characters that, almost effortlessly, The Wire is able to juggle and develop as well as any show with only one major plot. David Simon spent twenty years working as a reporter for the Baltimore Sun, and the work shows: everything seen on The Wire is incredibly believable, thoroughly researched, and well thought out. What’s truly amazing about The Wire is that although there are antagonists and protagonists, the longer we spend with every plot or character, the more we get to like those within it. The worst villain in town becomes likable when the show humanizes them to a certain point. It’s all in the game, yo.
2. The Sopranos – 1999-2007
The show that started it all: the show that made HBO relevant and that set the standard for what exactly an anti-hero could be. In a lot of ways, this age of peak television we currently live in is completely credited to the success of The Sopranos. This is a story that chose to make its lead an objectively bad person – a man that takes pleasure in causing chaos in his loved ones worlds. However, when we start to see the inner machinations of Tony’s mind at work, expertly revealed through his therapy sessions and dream sequences, we begin to see the anatomy of a villain and actually side with someone supposedly bad. From there, The Sopranos also develops several other plots, following the lives of Tony’s two families: the one he has through the mob and the one he has through marriage. Each one pulls at him in different ways, and each causes its fair share of psychological trauma that can lead to Tony’s head almost exploding. The show is a masterpiece of character development, of slow and nuanced plotting, and of artistic film-making. Episodes like “The Pine Barrens” or “College” almost work well as independent short films and could be compared against any Oscar nominee with ease. Add to all of that the fact that the finale caused so much controversy that it’s still debated today, and we have one of the greatest creations in TV, film, or really just art history.
1. Deadwood – 2004-2006
In my humble opinion, Deadwood is the greatest show ever made. No other program tackled such ambitious themes with success, developed as well rounded and diverse of a cast, or featured Al Swearengen as a lead character. For that reason alone, Deadwood features the greatest character in TV history! Set in the mid 1870’s in the Western town of Deadwood, South Dakota, Deadwood tells the story of a lawless land that begins to build civilization out of the extreme bloodshed and chaos that the West brings. It’s a new look at the American West and a nuanced story of how even in the most violent areas, law and order will be naturally forged by simple humanity. The dialogue of Deadwood is also something to marvel at: showrunner David Milch wrote scripts that seemed to merge Western slang with Shakespearean dialogue, creating a new dialect of speech unique only to the show and the characters within it. Even though the word “fuck” was used excessively, it began to fit in with the way the show was written in general, Of course, there are the characters. The aforementioned Al Swearengen, expertly played by Ian McShane, led the cast, though his costar, Timothy Olyphant offered a colder, more law-oriented lead to the show as well. The rest of the cast, made up of amazing character actors and performers, all of whom brought life to the diverse and awesome set of characters laid out by the show. Finally, there’s the ending, a controversy as the show was cancelled before an ending could actually be given. However, in my opinion, the final shot of the series sums Deadwood up just about as well as any real finale could – Al scrubs blood from the floor of his saloon, showing one last time that civilization is born of chaos. The themes of the show were reinforced, and David Milch’s masterpiece became the greatest TV series of all time.
This is a hard list to make. All of these shows are amazing for different reasons. The top three especially are so close to one another that ranking them is almost impossible. The question now lies in the future. Westworld premieres tonight. The Deuce later in 2017. More shows will certainly follow after that. TV has never been this good, and with everything going as it has been, it may be time to crown a new “greatest of all time” given a few years. For now? Let’s forge on ahead, beginning with our arrival in Westworld.