When I set out to write about how HBO has signal handily changed television forever I did not realize how right I was. I found no less than 37 shows over the last 20 years of note. Not all of the classics have been seen by you but names of note to say the least.
As a youth growing up in this brand new era I remember thinking HBO was the stuck up older sister of the slutty sister Cinemax. As we have referenced many times HBO’s biggest contribution to Michael and I was running otherwise obscure 80′s movies ad nauseum in the early 90′s. It was because of this that gained my first respect of 80′s movies. During the 80′s HBO made their name off of stand up comedy and boxing. Those were the draws, I remember sitting with my family watching Tyson box or George Carlin manipulate the English language for everyone’s amusement.
Kids of that era will probably point to Fraggle Rock as their first HBO experience. I personally missed the Fraggle Rock era, my first memories of HBO television serials were 1st an Ten ( a show about semi pro football and now the entire series is located in your local Wal-Mart $5 DVD bin) and Tales from the Crypt. I remember the rare occasion my dad would let me stay up late on a Saturday night to get the witty barbs from the crypt keeper. These shows however did not change TV history in retrospect they were flat out bad.
Shortly after HBO’s first forte into producing original programming the second wave of shows hit. I did not have HBO during this time but I remember the whispers in the Jr high locker room of his show called Dream On about a man who would flash back to his childhood TV consumption to solve his adult problems. Why was this show being whispered about simply one word, BOOBS. This show to my knowledge was one of the first broadcast US shows that showed female nudity a big hit with the JR High crowd but not as big as HBO’s next offering Real Sex. So is my point HBO changed TV by showing boobs? It is not but don’t you smile at the word boobs, ladies are you with me?
As you will discover HBO new programming is not distributed and shown like a normal network show. They don’t often release new shows every season, they do them in groups. Some groups obviously have shows that just catch on but they like to group their hits together. HBO was also the first US channel who would spread their shows out through the whole year. They would run 10 straight weeks of new shows till the season is over. Now a common practice that cable channels with original programming have adopted.
That being said two shows stand out from there next wave. The Dennis Miller show, a half hour talk show were the former SNL weekend update host who never quite caught on with network TV audiences found a home for eight years ultimately being canceled when a rapid change in political views post 9/11 scared off his normal liberal audience. I myself looked forward to this show every Friday night. When I heard Tears for Fears Everyone Wants to Rule the World I would get excited. He would start each show with his signature “I don’t want to get off on a rant here but” a segment that created several best selling books that I still thumb through every now and then. He would then have a B or C level celebrity and end the show by reprising his weekend update bit from SNL. It was a show that proved that cable stations could have talk shows that succeeded and often times capitalized on being on cable where you could do or say anything. It’s not a stretch to say this show directly lead to Craig Kilborns Daily Show. You forgot it wasn’t always Jon Stuart Leibowitz or as you know him Jon Stewart show didn’t you. Did my knowledge of Jon Stewarts real name impress you, I bet it did.
The second show of the same era was in my opinion the best constructed and written show of our generation, The Larry Sanders Show. I recently went back and watched the entire series (was a little over my head at the time) and it is a who’s who of now famous comedians and stars who were given their first big chance on this show. Larry Sanders was played by Garry Shandling a man who was already in the public eye for being Johnny Carson’s guest host on The Tonight Show as well as starring in a series for rival Show Time and eventually Fox called “The Gary Shandling Show, most famously known for its catchy theme song. I’m almost to the part where I start to whistle this is the theme for Garry’s show. Sorry got distracted by that catchy theme song.
So where was I? Yes Larry Sanders as the story goes Garry was offered The slot behind Letterman on CBS and decided to make a show using tongue and cheek satire to show the inner workings of a talk show by using the fictional Larry Sanders to compete in the real life talk show war between Letterman and that Leno guy. This show started HBO on a path they continue on till this day. Programming a smarter form of comedy.
HBO’s next waive was a series of sketch shows with unknown comedians who are now house hold names. Mr. Show with David Cross. Tenacious D a show that helped launch the career of Jack Black and finally the Chris Rock Show. The Chris Rock Show was essentially The Dennis Miller Show for a different audience. This show spawned the movie Pootie Tang and gave the shows head writer Louie CK a chance at exposure. Add the Tracy Ullman vehicle Tracy Takes on and you have a steady diet of sketch comedy that HBO was selling to its subscribers.
The problem with sketch shows is that they have limited runs of 2 to 3 seasons before they usually go away, so HBO got series put together a original programming lineup that would cost them a significant amount more but had potential to add subscribers like myself who would only subscribe for the TV shows.
This started with OZ in 97 a show about the inside of a prison that made no Qualms about anal rape being a part of the show. The show got good reviews and was popular with in a certain niche audience but wasn’t the blockbuster the needed.
Their next attempt in 98 was a little show called Sex in the City. Knowing what we know now you would think this show was a mega hit right out of the gate. It was not the first season there was no core group of friends just randoms who would come in and out without character development. They also talked to the camera a lot. A shooting trick that hasn’t worked since Zach Morris retired it in 92. I in no way was a part of the SITC writing team but from my prospective after season one they realized your story is stronger if you had develop characters so they slowly starting introducing to in and outs of the characters back stories. Once they got the audience to care about the characters they had a huge storyline grabbing hit. HBO showed they programmed A legitimate hit and had another waiting in the pipeline.
In 1999 we met The Sopranos. A show about a current mob family that brought back water cooler talk at work and made Max from accounting feel bad for not having cable. America has long had a fascination with mob culture and this well written well cast and well-acted. Those combinations made it an instant block buster. The Sopranos attracted new viewers and helping HBO see there subscription increase. They realized there audiences expected higher production standards so they had to keep delivering new shows.
HBO decided to stand by unusual concepts and scripts that would normally have a smaller niche audience and may have been passed on as it can take a few episodes for those shows time to develop. HBO used its clout and added Six Feet Under. Six Feet Under was a remarkable show that focused on a family business that runs a funeral home. Once it caught on it was widely popular.
At this point they had a license to green light whatever they wanted. HBO set up shops with young writers to see if they are writing anything new that can be turned into a show but give the writer freedom. What followed was a series of block buster shows that have owned the Emmys throughout the last decade. Band of Brother, The Wire, Dead Wood, Entourage, Extras and Big Love.
Curb Your Enthusiasm has been one of their most discussed shows. Some people love it and tell you it can’t get any better. The rest of you usually respond with a look on your face like you know you should like it but just don’t. Curb written by Larry David who co-created Seinfeld and the basis for George Cozstanza character from Seinfeld. Although he will still say the show is about nothing it’s about Larry playing himself and always disrespecting some one’s personal boundaries. Larry keeps hinting he wants to stop doing the show but has an obsession with each season being better than the last, so I suspect we will have a few seasons left of cranky on Mr. David.
HBO has perfected must see TV. I currently watch 7 HBO:
Board Walk Empire~ a wonderfully constructed show where you need to pay attention. Steve Buscemi leads a strong cast and page turner storylines.
East Bound in Down~ Kenny Powers enough said.
Bored to Death~ a tongue and cheek pi story that gives Ted Danson a time to shine. I am currently starting to watch two new HBO shows, Luck with Dustin Hoffman and Life’s Too Short a show Ricky Gervais show that stars a dwarf trying to make it as a actor.
I hope to answer over the next few weeks of watching these two new HBO shows are good or if I just start watching it because it’s on HBO!
-Podcast Host Lawrence/Glen