The Home Box Office network is the United States premium cable channel, famous for creating and broadcasting programmes so shocking and challenging that no other network would dare air them. They have created a large number of programmes that have been both immensely successful and critically praised, airing over here on numerous networks, from Sky 1 to Channel 4 and even BBC 2, and here we present a brief summary of five of HBO’s best shows (in no particular order); shows that it is more than worth catching when repeated on TV, and even worth the hassle of a trip to the video shop.
James Gandolfini gives the defining performance of his career, several times over, as Tony Soprano; head of a New Jersey organized crime family; in a series that was constantly shocking, morally ambivalent and consistently brilliant. The series was created by gangster film fanatic David Chase and ran for six full seasons following Tony’s efforts to keep his bustling yet illegal business and criminal family afloat whilst simultaneously juggle his everyday family home life. Featuring countless metaphors, gangster film references and almost the entire cast of Goodfellas, The Sopranos was adored by audiences and critics alike; so much so that it attracted some big name talent in the form of fans like Steve Buscemi, who liked the series so much that he graduated from fan, to writer/director and eventually became a regular cast member.
Originally aired from Jan ‘99 – Jun ’07 and starred James Gandolfini, Lorraine Bracco, Edie Falco, Michael Imperioli, Dominic Chianese, Steven Van Zandt.
Co-produced with the BBC and littered with little known, but remarkably good, British actors, Rome only had a short, two season, lifespan; despite widespread praise and consistently high ratings, its engaging storylines and brutal depiction of Roman life, the series was cut short due to being ‘notoriously expensive.’ The series covered the period of history where Ancient Rome changed from a republic into an empire, with key events from Caesar’s invasion of Gaul and violent murder, to Cleopatra’s seduction of Mark Anthony and the rise of the Emperor Augustus, told from as large and political viewpoint, as well as the perspective of two everyday soldiers. Rome was a brilliant and unique series, sporting some interesting and unusual stories and the best recreation of Rome this side of Gladiator.
Originally aired from Aug ‘05 – March ’07 and starred Kevin McKidd, Ray Stevenson, Polly Walker, James Purefoy, Simon Woods, Ciaran Hinds.
A show that never won any major television awards and always had problems with ratings, The Wire was a huge critical success, often cited by many major newspapers, and even Barack Obama, as the best show on television. This unusually complex crime drama, set in Baltimore, follows one major case a series (for a total of five seasons) and focuses on a different facet of city life and culture with each new case/series; moving from the drug trade to the port system, city government to the school system and printed news. Created by ex-police reporter David Simon, The Wire was one of the most realistic shows ever produced by any network, and a truly gripping show despite its seemingly slow plot development, which actually served to enhance the shows realism and character development, leading to much bigger and better emotional payoffs towards the end of each season for invested viewers.
Originally aired from Jun ’02 – March ’08 and starred Dominic West, John Doman, Idris Elba, Frankie Faison, Wood Harts, Wendell Pierce, Deidre Lovejoy.
Band Of Brothers:
Technically a miniseries (which was coproduced by the BBC) Band Of Brothers was developed, from the book of the same name, by Steven Speilberg and Tom Hanks, following their collaboration on Saving Private Ryan; and luckily Band Of Brothers lost none of the sense of scale, attention to detail or gritty realism when the pair essentially brought Ryan to the small screen. Praised by just about everyone, particularly for its accurate and often bloody recreation of the Second World War in all its gory detail, the show follows the men of ‘Easy Company’ of the 2nd Battalion, 506th Infantry regiment, 101st Airborne, from their training camp at Tocca to their air drop behind enemy lines in Normandy (pre D-Day), their toil at the Battle of the Bulge, and right through until the end of the war. The series was clearly made with a good deal of heartfelt admiration towards the men involved and although some literary license was taken, all of the characters and events depicted are based on real people and real events, following them as closely as possible, and even receiving the seal of approval from the depicted survivors (who appear in pre-episode interviews).
Originally aired from Sept ’01 – Nov ’01 and starred Damian Lewis, Ron Livingston, Donnie Wahlberg, Neal McDonough, Kirk Acevedo, and featured the final score from composer Michael Kamen.
Written and created by Tom Fontana this one of a kind prison drama was HBO’s first one hour long drama, and remains one of the networks best. Its frequent use of harsh language, drug use, murders and other violence, as well as regular full frontal male nudity, homosexuality and male rape, meant that it was avoided by many international networks for the very reasons that the fans loved it; remaining brutal, shocking, challenging and totally uncompromising, as well as being one of the most violent representations of a prison on both the big and small screen. Oz is more engaging than pretty much any other prison drama on film or TV, despite its rather peculiar style (episode events are often explained through strange metaphors spoken directly towards the audience by a main cast member) and perplexing yet brilliant choice of not having one innocent man incarcerated during its entire run (finding another prison drama with an entirely guilty cast is no easy task). The show is centred around an experimental unit known as Emerald City inside the Oswald State Penitentiary, and as with any other prison show/film it follows new and existing inmates during their time inside one of America’s most violent prisons; with issues from drug use/smuggling, religious and racial conflicts, relationships, the possibility of violence and the importance of reputation being key. But where Oz excels is in its fast paced storytelling, its supreme ability to shock right until the sixth season finale and most importantly its character development; because despite people dying every episode, the long lasting characters become so important, and are written with such a truth and hidden pain, that it is hard not to care for them, and grown men have been known to cry at the disappearance of certain cast members.
Originally aired from Jul ’97 – Feb ’03 and starred Kirk Acevedo, Ernie Hudson, Terry Kinney, Dean Winters, Scott Winters, Eamonn Walker, Harold Perrineau, Christopher Meloni.
Unfortunately the five programmes discussed have all ended (but can thankfully all be picked up on DVD, some on Blu-ray, and are often rerun on various TV channels) but fortunately HBO has a large catalogue of other original series that are available to own, currently on TV, and some that are up and coming. Some of the other HBO series to look out for include Deadwood, Entourage, True Blood, Six Feet Under, Bored To Death and Big Love, and although the series discussed have ended, they may not all be dead; there are rumours (nothing substantiated) of a Sopranos movie, talks of a Rome film, and although the Wire and Oz show no signs of a comeback as yet, Steven Speilberg has produced another Band Of Brothers style series entitled The Pacific (focussing on the U.S. campaign in the Pacific theatre of war during World War II), which is due to air in the states this spring.
So here’s hoping that 2010 is the start of another groundbreaking decade for America’s premium cable network, HBO.