The Sunday Dozen: HBO Series

I’ve written about music and movies in this feature. It’s time to turn our attention to television or as the slogan goes:  It’s not TV, it’s HBO.

My parents were among the first in our town to get cable. They also were early HBO subscribers; much to their more frugal friends’ dismay. It was before HBO became known for their original programming. I enjoyed watching recent movies with bad words in them at home. Simpler times.

Boiling HBO series down to a dozen wasn’t easy. I started off with 20+ shows before winnowing them down. There are NO mini-series on the list, which eliminated some good stuff. The hardest one to cut was the prison drama Oz. It’s the unlucky 13 of this list. Oh well, what the hell.

The list is in order of preference but the number 2 through 6 shows listed could be reshuffled in a different order. The die was cast once I made the featured image. Those poster collages are a pain to redo.

On with the show, this is it.

The Sopranos was an easy pick as the top show. I’ve rewatched it countless times from beginning to end and even from the middle to the end. The characters and cast are to die for and many of them died over the course of the series.

It’s not just a mob drama, it’s a family comedy. Greek and Italian families are similar, so I identify with Tony’s issues with Livia, Janis, and Uncle June.

The Sopranos has even influenced my life as a blogger. I’ve written many posts with  this refrain: Life Imitates The Sopranos.

Grading Time: I give it 4 stars and an Adrastos Grade of A+ What else?

Succession is my current teevee obsession or is that HBO obsession? I have kin who married into great wealth, so I have second-hand knowledge of that life. Succession nails it with its story of the Murdoch like media family, the Roys.

It’s not just a media drama, it’s a family comedy. Succession has some of the wittiest writing ever.

Special props to Brian Cox and Matthew Macfadyen for their brilliant performances as the potty mouthed patriarch and the scheming son-in-law. They’re both nice people in real life. That’s why it’s called acting.

Grading Time: I give it 4 stars and an Adrastos Grade of A.

Deadwood: I’ve always liked Westerns, both traditional and revisionist. Deadwood sits firmly in the revisionist camp. David Milch’s depiction of the Old West is dirty, gritty, and bloody with nary an expletive deleted.

We meet several legends of the Old West as we’ve never seen them before including Will Bill Hickox and Calamity Jane. Jane is a foul mouthed drunk but somehow still lovable. It’s down to the brilliant performance of Robin Weigert.

The centerpiece of the show is the relationship between Ian McShane and Timothy Olyphant. It was ruthless capitalism versus the law and order marshal. But the former wasn’t always sleazy, and the latter wasn’t always honest. Life is complicated that way.

Grading Time: I give it 4 stars and an Adrastos Grade of A.

The Wire debuted when my New Orleans neighborhood had a serious crime problem complete with corner boys. We even had our own D’Angelo Barksdale equivalent: a friendly dealer with redeeming characteristics. If there was a Stringer Bell equivalent, we never met him.

There are so many great characters in The Wire; some of whom are based on real cops David Simon met when he researched his book, Homicide, which became the basis of the great NBC series.

On the criminal side, Omar Little was my favorite character. I’ve lost count of how many times during the Trump era I posted this:

If not for an uneven final season, The Wire might have topped this list. Oh well, what the hell.

Grading Time: I give it 4 stars and an Adrastos Grade of A.

Six Feet Under is one of the weirdest shows in teevee history. Each episode began with a death, which became increasingly bizarre as the series progressed.

The core cast of Six Feet Under were the Fisher family, the eccentric owners of a Los Angeles funeral home. They lived above the shop, literally not figuratively.

The show featured what Dr. A and I called the Happy Ghost. Richard Jenkins played the patriarch whose death was the first in the series. He hung around to advise his namesake who never wanted to work in the family business but ended up running it.

Six Feet Under was one of the first teevee series to deal openly and sensitively with gay people. An alternate title: The Dead and the Gay. Strike that. I don’t want the Louisiana leg shutting us down.

Grading Time: I give it 4 stars and an Adrastos Grade of A.

Boardwalk Empire was the only one of these series that I recapped while it aired. It tells the story of Atlantic City political boss Nucky Thompson during the 1920’s. I’m a huge Steve Buscemi fan, I was pleased to see him play the lead and so very well.

The show has a rogue’s gallery of weird characters, which is something the shows on this list have in common. We also see actors from other series in the dozen such as Michael K. Williams from The Wire and Dominic Chianese from The Sopranos.

Boardwalk Empire  is something of a prequel to The Sopranos as both are set in New Jersey and Terence Winter who wrote Pine Barrens was BE’s showrunner.

I could go on and on about Boardwalk Empire, but I won’t. This post is long enough as it is.

Grading Time: I give it 4 stars and an Adrastos Grade of A.

On the surface, Veep seems like an absurdist comedy, but it’s surprisingly realistic. There are dipshits and dumbasses aplenty in our nation’s capitol. The chief dipshit is the great Julia Louis-Dreyfus. Her staff is full of weirdoes and sycophants. The result is hilarity.

My favorite performers are Tony Hale as body man Gary and Timothy Simons as Jonah the preternaturally obnoxious aide who somehow gets elected to office late in the show’s 7 season run.

Grading Time: I give it 4 stars and an Adrastos Grade of A-

The Larry Sanders Show was HBO’s breakout hit. It stars Gary Shandling as a neurotic and jerky talk show host. The show also focuses on two other outlandish characters: Jeffrey Tambor as Hank, Larry’s sidekick and my personal favorite, Rip Torn as Artie the producer. Artie was the most sympathetic regular character; Hank was an even bigger asshole than Larry. Oy just oy.

One of the pleasures of the show are the many guest appearances by Nineties celebrities who are there to plug their latest whatever.

Grading Time: I give it 3 1/2 stars and an Adrastos Grade of B+

True Blood: HBO gave writer-producer Alan Ball a free hand with this Louisiana set vampire, werewolf, and weirdo series. It’s full of OTT characters and ridiculous situations but the cast pulls it off.

True Blood was an erratic show that had a mediocre penultimate season before rallying for a triumphantly campy final season full of madcap antics and good old fashioned vampiric fun.

It also has one of the best theme songs this side of The Sopranos:

Grading Time: I give it 3 1/2 stars and an Adrastos Grade of B+

Big Love is a simultaneously scathing and sympathetic look at Mormon polygamists. I was born in Salt Lake City and lived there until age 7. I remember the family who lived across the street. I thought they were just a large extended family, but they were polygamists. My dad liked the father because he shot a rattlesnake in our yard. Lou never owned a gun. Like father like son.

The best performances are by actors cast against type: Chloe Sevigny and Harry Dean Stanton. They’re counterculture icons who play LDS traditionalists.

Big Love was somewhat erratic but when it was good, it was really good.

Grading Time: I give it 3 1/2 stars and an Adrastos Grade of B+

Curb Your Enthusiasm: Dr. A hates Larry David’s absurdist improv comedy but it makes me laugh. One could call Larry David a professional asshole. He’s a funny man who gets into tight scrapes because he’s such a misanthrope.

There was even a Katrina subplot one season, which is how the hilarious JB Smoove came to play Leon. He’s one funny motherfucker.

One of many quirks of Curb is that it has run for 11 non-consecutive seasons. That’s pretty, pretty good.

Grading Time: I give it 3 1/2 stars and an Adrastos Grade of B+

Game Of Thrones nearly didn’t make the list because of its so-so final season. But it was good enough before that to edge out Oz for the final slot. Besides, what’s not to love about a show featuring so many fine British actors?

Fantasy isn’t my jam, so I didn’t recap GOT but my much-missed colleague Athenae did.

Grading Time: I give it 3 1/2 stars and an Adrastos Grade of B+

Here’s a quick and dirty summary of the HBO Series Dozen:

  1. The Sopranos
  2. Succession
  3. Deadwood
  4. The Wire
  5. Six Feet Under
  6. Boardwalk Empire
  7. Veep
  8. The Larry Sanders Show
  9. True Blood
  10. Big Love
  11. Curb Your Enthusiasm
  12. Game Of Thrones

This week we’re combining lagniappe with the last word. Six Feet Under had one of the best finales in teevee history. It was obvious: everyone dies.

One thought on “The Sunday Dozen: HBO Series

Leave a Reply