I watch too much TV. That is clear. But what I hadn’t realized until talking with my coworkers, is that I’d actually seen at least part of almost every scripted show HBO has ever put out. And so, in honor of the Game of Thrones season finale, a new mission crystalized: watch the rest of the HBO shows, be it through HBO GO, YouTube, LaserDisc, etc., avoiding miniseries I hadn’t already seen (sorry Mildred Pearce), HBO film productions (apologies Angels in America), anthologies (that means you Tales From The Crypt) and sketch series (no Little Britain USA). Rank them definitively. Eat sea-salted pita chips. Go on with my life.

The shows were ranked on overall quality, dialogue, originality, influence on culture, and my subjective preferences. While I’ve tried to make this list exhaustive, there will be some omissions, especially for shows I couldn’t find to re-watch from 1984 called 1st & Ten featuring OJ Simpson. Comments insulting (or praising?) my taste can go in the comments section, aka the most valuable portion of the Internet. Let’s get to it:

54. In Treatment

Best character: Wallowing despair
If I wanted to watch uncomfortable therapy sessions, I’d rent an office space next to a psychologist, and — late at night — drill a peep hole into the wall and insert a tiny camera purchased on one of those spy sites like a normal person.

53. Tell Me You Love Me

Best character: No
I can’t tell you I love you, because I actually just feel very uncomfortable watching your “honest” depictions of couples’ sex lives, relationships, and therapeutic sessions with Jane Alexander.

52. The High Life

Best character: Earl. He was mad subtle.
From David Letterman’s production company and created by Adam Resnick of Cabin Boyfame, it told the story of two self-centered guys who owned a storage company in 1950s Pittsburgh. Anyway, I managed to see only a little of this show, but true TV junkies have called it a precursor to selfish protagonist shows like Always Sunny or Workaholics, and cite Resnick as being too far ahead of his time with the concept. So basically, this might’ve been the Friendster of modern television comedy, but the lack of availability gives me no choice but to keep it up here, next to the therapy shows. Sigh.

51. Hello Ladies

Best character: Stephen Merchant?
Stephen Merchant is a tall skinny Englishman who isn’t good at picking up women due to a confluence of factors. That’s pretty much the show. Plus Nate Torrence and the geeky guy from Alias.

50. The Mind of the Married Man

Best Character: Jake Berman. He keeps the company of a hooker named Monica. She “poses as his computer consultant.”
Mike Binder’s show “focusing on the challenges of married life from a male perspective” came out when I was in college and wanted nothing to do with learning about the challenges of married life from a male perspective. After watching some of it, I can safely tell you the best part of this show is the dated Wikipedia summaries of each episode. For example, from episode five: “Donna gives Micky an ‘electronic tether’ in the form of a pager.” And my favorite, from the second season episode two: “Micky has a problem programming his TiVo, and wonders if it’s a metaphor for his relationship with his mind.”

49. Dream On

Best character: Eddie Charles
I watched this show secretly in my basement after my parents had gone to sleep when I was 11, because it had nudity. And now that I’ve seen it again, I’m somewhat disappointed by how infrequent that nudity is. Also somewhat hilarious: the weird use of other TV show clips within the show to express emotions. And the son being a total NARC.

48. K Street

Best character: Constitutional democracy. Or Howard Dean.
This was an “improvised” show on HBO in 2003 featuring James Carville and Mary Matalin as fictional/real or maybe real/fictional political consultants. Per Jay Z’s logic, it’s not real (read: available) to HBO GO, therefore it doesn’t really exist. But I watched some of it again on YouTube. One of the clips featured Rick Santorum. Don’t watch that clip.

47. Life’s Too Short

Best character: That random black dude in the pilot who gives Warwick Davis all sorts of shit before pressing the office buzzer for him.
If you’d like to see the small guy from Willow basically do his own version of Ricky Gervais from The Office, but in a sadder, and kind of real-feeling way, this is your show.

46. Angry Boys

Best character: S.mouse. No one else can pull off one ski boot.
When this first came out, I was very ready to think it was hilarious, mostly because it would also give me an excuse to tell people about the year I spent in Australia (shout out to Glebe Point Road!). The only problem in executing that plan was the fact that it wasn’t that funny. I’d still like to talk about my time in Australia, though, if you don’t mind?

45. Family Tree

Best character: Bea Chadwick/Monkey
As much as I like Chris O’Dowd/Christopher Guest and love the fact that Ed Begley Jr. is back in the mix (and “trained in Native American survival tactics!”), I couldn’t get into this search for an old guy in a photograph, and it seems like no one else could either, since it was canceled after one season.

44. The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency

Best character: BK
Adapted from author Alexander McCall Smith’s series of novels about what is allegedly the top-ranked ladies’ detective agency in Botswana, No. 1 Ladies’ was the first major television show actually filmed in the country and so there was a lot of good feeling and a light touch. But ultimately, a) it was hard to feel like the character development was very strong (possibly due to the light touch?) and b) the clever words and turns of phrase in McCall Smith’s novels sound weird spoken aloud. It was a noble, but definitely flawed effort.

43. Doll & Em

Best character: Doll. No, wait. Em.
Did you know that this show exists? I bet you did not. Well, I am the person who watched this. It stars Emily Mortimer as famous actress Emily Mortimer, whose friend Dolly Wells (as played by her friend Dolly Wells) gets dumped or maybe divorced and goes to live with Emily and becomes her assistant. I’m 80% sure the show was created during a smoke break at The Newsroom, in which Mortimer told an HBO executive an anecdote about her friend getting dumped or divorced and moving in with her, then a big miscommunication ensued, and six weeks later this show appeared. All said, it’s actually not that bad. I would buy a long-sleeve Doll & Em crewneck sweatshirt from the HBO store.

42. Arli$$ 

Best character: Tommy Lasorda
I thought this show was so damn good when I was in high school. Agents! Athletes! Sandra Oh! But really, it was basically K Street with more cameras and sports instead of Rick Santorum. One of those things that doesn’t hold up upon further inspection 20 years after the fact.

41. Looking

Best character: San Francisco
Huzzah for creating a gay-focused cable show set in my town so I can feel popular when they eat at Zuni Cafe or drink at Doc’s Clock or the Press Club. Boo for making that “where are they now?” aspect essentially the most interesting part of the show.

40. Togetherness

Best character: Alex Pappas
It should speak highly of the overall quality of all these shows that I actually enjoy the 39th-ranked show. The Duplass brothers’ show sounds like it’ll be touchy feely but it’s more just awkward, and the dude I want to call Steve Zissou (Steve Zissis) is hilarious in a defeated, but gentle and redeemable sort of way.

39. John from Cincinnati

Best character: Luke Perry. Just kidding, of course, it was Ed O’Neill, but seriously Luke Perry was on this show!

38. How to Make It in America

Best character: Kid Cudi. Or he might’ve been the worst character? It’s really hard to tell with this show.
Ian Edelman’s Entourage East, or Sex and the City for Bros Who Used to Rent a Two Bedroom on Mott and Houston had everything you need in a series: a good-looking lanky white dude “from Brooklyn,” his fast-talking Latin buddy, plus Eddie Kaye Thomas, etc. I watched it initially because it sounded like they were targeting it exclusively at me, and then, upon realizing it wasn’t very good, just to hate-watch it. Though, to be fair, in the second season they got a bit disciplined and settled for trying to maybe just capture an ephemeral moment in what that kind of fashion-y cool kid scene was like in 2010 when everyone was really into wearing old Pervis Ellison throwbacks with shawl collar cardigans.

37. The Comeback

Best character: The “Smelly Cat” lady from Friends
You might think nine years between seasons would throw a show off its axis, and you’d be right.

36. Getting On

Best character: Dr. James
It takes a dark depressing topic (hospitals, death, sickness) and makes you laugh about it. But you still ultimately feel depressed. STOP MAKING ME FEEL CONFUSING EMOTIONS.

35. The Leftovers

Best character: Anyone but the Guilty Remnant.
I am a Tom Perrotta fan. I once profiled him for a magazine, and he was kind of the best dude, and I won’t forget that time we had together in Charlestown, Tom. I WON’T. The Leftovers — though artfully done and compelling — was somber and scary. And once I had nightmares on three consecutive nights about the Guilty Remnant, I stopped watching it. It will go on for another season (allegedly now set in Texas), but I will (insert hilarious Sudden Departure from viewing the show joke here).

34. Rome

Best character: Marc Antony
Alessandra Stanley of the Grey Lady once called this show “X-rated Masterpiece Theater.” I know enough to know I’m not going to do better than that.

33. Lucky Louie

Best character: Come on.
There is a live studio audience awkwardly laughing. On an HBO show. Starring Louis CK. That is why this is ranked where it is.

32. Carnivàle

Best Character: Ben Hawkins. He’s a damn Avataric Creature of the Light, okay?!!?
There is a weird cult of people (called “rousties”) obsessed with Daniel Knauf’s show. Take for instance, the first sentence of this description of the show from Rick Paulas’ piece on The Awl in 2013: “On the surface Carnivàle was about a traveling carnival roaming America’s southwest during the Dust Bowl, but the true story — the actual tale being told — went a little something like this: Since a long, long, long time ago, there’s been one Creature of Darkness and one Creature of Light running around the world.” Yeah man, shit gets DEEP. When it was on, I tried to watch because I recognized there was something artful and beautiful going on in this show and it was running while I was getting an MFA so you can imagine how insufferable I was, and yet I STILL couldn’t finish one season. I blame Brother Justin.

31. Summer Heights High

Best character: Ja’mie King
(NOTE: I’m not including all of the spinoff shows that HBO also agreed to distribute internationally, like Jonah from Tonga and Ja’mie: Private School Girl because it’s just too many of the same damn show). Lilley’s original show is by far his best. I want to say he very accurately lampoons Australian high school culture, but I didn’t go to Australian high school, so I’ll just say that this is the Lilley show to watch if you’re trying to figure out which of his eleventy shows on HBO GO to peruse.

30. John Adams

Best character: Ben Franklin, inventor/perv
As a miniseries, it doesn’t really count, but I just wanted everyone to know I watched this entire thing and am interested in history/a patriot.

29. Bored to Death

Best Character: George. It’s not even close.
I wish I actually hated this show, so I could use its name to hilariously adverse effect, but Ted Danson is too damn good.

28. Hung

Best character: Charlie, the pimp mentor
I stuck it out for all three seasons of Hung, based on the fact that I had never heard the premise of a high school baseball coach becoming a gigolo so he can afford to keep his sweet lake house. And though I found Tanya infuriatingly annoying, and the wife somewhat uninteresting, the rest of it (Lenore, Charlie the pimp, crumbling and stubborn Detroit, nudity) was enough to keep me locked in for the whole ride.

27. Luck

Best character: Jerry, the gambler
Three tragic horse deaths effectively canceled this Milch show, which had already been renewed for a second season, and that’s shitty… Luck… because Hoffman’s character was a force, and the show was actually starting to get pretty damn good by the end. DAVID MILCH, TELL ME WHAT HAPPENS?!?

26. Extras

Best character: Maggie Jacobs
More and better dry English humor from Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant. No Warwick Davis, though, if you happen to be weighing pros and cons.

25. Entourage

Best character: Ari Gold (seasons 1-4)
Entourage is not that bad. Of course, there are the bad parts everyone knows: E remains the worst “normal” character in the history of characters, and Adrian Grenier is quite obviously not an actor, but more just a handsome dude occasionally memorizing lines to say in front of a camera. But luckily, Ari’s original rants were some of the freshest insults going in 2004, and Turtle and Drama’s furry fetish bet will live on in my mind for at least another couple of years. Plus, you know: boobs and stuff. If this show was four seasons long, it would have good will and gratitude surrounding it. But this show is eight seasons long, and by the time it ended, the rest of television had caught up to and gone past the Entourage bro bonds-are-forever aesthetic.

24. True Blood

Best character: Lafayette Reynolds
There is only so long that you can live in a world filled with vampires, werewolves, shifters, faeries, and something called a maenad. For the creator Alan Ball, that was five seasons. I tried to get through the last two without him, but couldn’t, as things got even more convoluted and I found myself wishing for the halcyon days when Jason Stackhouse was just at the Fellowship of the Sun doing weird stuff with the preacher’s wife.

23. The Newsroom

Best character: Leona Lansing
I was one of those people who watched The West Wing then thought they should be a speechwriter (and did a tiny bit of speechwriting for a lieutenant governor candidate in NY back in the day who eventually LOST TO DAVID PATERSON) so I have a high tolerance for Sorkinese. And, for a while, I was captivated by his take on the TV newsroom, where he envisioned producers knowing absolutely everything about obscure Finnish poetry and market fluctuations in the Thai stock exchange firing zingers back and forth while hilariously walking into incorrect bathrooms. And then the Boston Marathon portion came on, and the “guy from Boston” on the news team pronounces “Watertown” as “Waterton” and I stopped making excuses for the show, turned it off, and rewatched that scene from West Wing where Martin Sheen yells at God in Latin.

22. Eastbound and Down

Best Character: Kenny Powers. Or maybe his Jet Ski.
If this was a one-season show, it might be in the my top 10. Danny McBride’s dickish tour de force was unlike anything else on television at the time, from his love of that damn Jet Ski, to his book on tape playing in his car, to his peculiar vernacular that was somehow simultaneously hyper aware and negligent (a precursor to Archer, one could argue). I just rewatched the amazing middle school dance scene from the second episode of the first season, and you should do that right now too.

21. Enlightened

Best character: Tyler. Mike White is good at being awkward/shy/uncomfortable (himself?).
Mike White’s underrated comedy about office culture and being zen after pulling a Jerry Maguire flip-out was the type of show you’d watch and say, “Wow that was actually very good and subtle and pretty funny.” But then you didn’t feel that compelled to go and watch the next one.

20. Curb Your Enthusiasm

Best character: Cheryl David. Yowza.
Larry David’s brilliance in making everyone feel uncomfortable stuck with me for three seasons, and then I just got too much anxiety watching this show to be able to deal with the laughter payoff. I did, however, have a weird thing for Cheryl Hines, aka Dallas Royce on the ABC sitcom Suburgatory.

19. Big Love

Best character: Frank Harlow. So, so crazy.
If anyone could juggle the responsibilities of illegally having three (then four, then back to three) wives, it was Billy Paxton.

18. Sex and the City

Best character: Bunny MacDougal. No one plays a frigid Scottish WASP hybrid like Frances Sternhagen.
Some people might be upset that all the single ladies of Manhattan in the ’90s is not higher up, especially because THEY STARTED THE COSMO TREND IN AMERICA, and I will admit that theirs was a groundbreaking show in lots of ways. But no show involving an insufferable character named Berger (especially spelled like that) moves past 17.

17. Treme

Best character: Antoine Batiste
The Wire was David Simon’s opus, a tribute to the land that he grew up in, that he knew so well. Treme is a tribute to a land he loved so hard, and the difference is what separates these shows. I stuck with Treme, because I love Simon and New Orleans, and get excited about chef storylines and music and unique cultures. And when that worked, it worked beautifully. But when it didn’t, it felt preachy, and judgmental of the viewer. People watch shows for the story, and if they happen to learn something in the process of that story, all the better. But it shouldn’t be the other way around. The music was fantastic though, and nothing makes me happier than people throwing drinks in Alan Richman’s insufferable face.

16. Flight of the Conchords

Best character: Mel
I spent a good amount of 2007 eating French bread pizza and laughing at this incredibly underrated show at 1am, then putting on Jay Z’s Fade to Black DVD and making my dental student roommate watch the scene where he first hears “Dirt Off Your Shoulder.” Which is to say: this is a damn good show, and my life then was sad/beautiful.

15. Girls

Best character: Shoshanna Shapiro
It doesn’t matter how you feel about Girls — whether you find Lena Dunham and her friends doing their “rarefied white hipster thing” annoying or masturbatory or, ew, just, like, about girrrlllsss. It is here, and it will continue to be part of the national conversation both through its unflinching look at sex and sexuality, and just because it’s a damn entertaining show, which never forgets that it is there to entertain while it informs. Plus there was that whole, um, Allison Williams scene in the kitchen or whatever.

14. Generation Kill

Best character: US Marine Corporal Josh Ray Person
An incredibly underrated sevenepisode series based on journalist Evan Wright’s experience while embedded with the Marines during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and partially written with help from David Simon and Ed Burns. It is third in HBO’s trifecta of fantastic war miniseries, as you’ll become very aware when you look at the next two.

13. The Pacific

Best character: Private First Class Robert Leckie
Extremely well done, and also the most brutal of all these war series to watch, Pacificfocused on three marines in different regiments (rather than one company like Band of Brothers). The Peleliu section in particular was not the thing to watch before bed.

12. Band of Brothers

Best character: Major Richard Winters
The only reason this show is not in the top 10 is because it’s technically a miniseries and that didn’t feel fair, but this is indeed one of the greatest accomplishments of the golden HBO era, and the best of the war trifecta. Spielberg and Hanks, coming off Saving Private Ryan, knew the tone to capture, and using each of the 10 episodes to focus on a different character helps turn it into something very close to the television version of a collection of connected short stories. Go watch it now in the one private bathroom at your office.

11. Boardwalk Empire

Best character: Richard Harrow
If, like me, you enjoy learning semi-fictionalized historical things while watching people shoot at each other, do sex, and attend Irish-based drinking events, this is your show. It also contains one of my favorite tough-guy lines in any show, courtesy of Al Capone: “We’ve been on the road for 18 hours. I need a bath, some chow, and then you and me sit down and talk about who dies.”

10. The Larry Sanders Show

Best character: Hank Kingsley
This show was so far ahead of its time, it might’ve been filmed inside a DeLorean. Garry Shandling played a fictional late-night talk show host, and while that in and of itself is not very exciting, it offered so many layers. Here was a celebrity being interviewed like normal, and now — during the alleged commercial break — cussing out Sanders. You’d see the talent bookers, and the assistants, and Sanders’ wives, and you felt like you were peering behind the curtain, and that was wonderful and different and like nothing going on at the time.

9. Veep

Best/worst character: Jonah Ryan
Never has a collection of insults tossed at each other been so fresh. It’s like real life, if real life just consisted of the most creative and mean people in the world each trying to top each others’ put downs. To wit: “Jonah, you’re not even a man, you’re like an early draft of a man where they just sketched out a giant, mangled skeleton but they didn’t have time to add details like pigment or self-respect.”

8. Silicon Valley

Best character: Erlich Bachman
Probably the most underrated show on the network right now, Silicon captures and skewers the tech scene better than anything that has ever come along, and I’m including the movie Sneakers AND the Sandra Bullock vehicle The Net. But yeah: look up the masturbation equation scene. Just maybe not at work.

7. Six Feet Under

Best character: Nathaniel Fisher, Sr.
The original Alan Ball classic about mortality has arguably the most satisfying ending of any television show ever. Oh, and the rest of the show is pretty damn great, too.

6. Oz

Best character: Bob Rebadow
If you factor in that this was HBO’s first “dramatic television series,” and that it originally launched in 1997 when nothing this risky or inventive was happening on TV, then you can understand why the 56-episode land of Simon Adebisi is ranked as high as it is.

5. True Detective

Best character: Rustin Cohle
Of course there has only been the one season, and of course all the characters are different and so that doesn’t really get us very far into knowing how this upcoming season will be. With all that said, the first season of TD brilliantly teased out the tension, and had some of the most memorable action sequences of the last decade. Plus Matty McConaughey made aluminum men out of his beer cans.

4. The Sopranos

Best character: Darkness. Eternal darkness. Or Pauly.
Either way, we don’t need to spend much time on the show that possibly did more than any other show to usher in an era of golden television, but I will say that it would be closer to the top if it didn’t hit some middle season lulls involving a certain Christopher horror movie project.

3. Game of Thrones

Best character: Grey Worm. Hahahaha. Just kidding. Of course it’s Tyrion.
A show so complicated, its plot lines need maps, and those maps need maps, GoT is the most ambitious, fantastic, unpredictable, and alarming series currently on the network. There is a reason people have viewing parties: every episode seems like a small movie, as if you’re getting 10 Lord of the Rings in three months. And now, as the TV series overtakes the books, everyone is in the dark together. Winter is coming, friends, and no one wants to be left outside.

2. The Wire

Best character: Omar Little. Come at the king, you best not miss.
I’ve seen this show all the way through more times than any other HBO show, includingSex and the City, and that is basically the only thing ever playing on E!. In fact, because of this piece, I started over again, and every time I do, I find something else fascinating that I never saw before. Simon stacks layer after layer, like some complicated and beautiful brickwork, and when you’re finished and you step back, all you can do is shake your head and marvel at what he’s accomplished, how he’s managed to paint a portrait of a city more accurately than even a book or film. The reason such passionate, creative work isn’t in the top spot is because of the fifth season — the journalism arc, closest to his heart, seemed to play out with an agenda and didn’t bother fully developing the new characters caught within it. But that’s a minor squabble in what is otherwise the seminal profile of a small, struggling city and its inhabitants.

1. Deadwood

Best character: Al Swearengen
“Pain or damage don’t end the world. Or despair, or fucking beatings. The world ends when you’re dead. Until then, you’ve got more punishment in store. Stand it like a man, and give some back.”
There are arguments to be made regarding the greatness of David Milch’s Gothic Western drama about a camp turning into a town, from the  profanity-laced poetry of the language to the hyper-focused refusal to fit into any Western stereotypes to the camera’s tight angles which create that claustrophobia-inducing feeling that the viewer, like the average Deadwood resident, is in a place that can be ugly and beautiful, often simultaneously. We can make the case that it should’ve gone for five or six seasons, and that would’ve been more fair, but by capping it at three, we got to say goodbye whileDeadwood was still cresting upward, just like Al Swearengen’s middle finger. And surely Milch can find some twisted poetry in that.



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