On Monday night, British television viewers with a Sky Movies subscription (and I suspect thousands more with a reasonable internet connection) will be treated to the first two episodes of HBOs latest stunning mini-series The Pacific. We have already offered up a preview article, and reviews of the first two hours, and it looks as though HBO have another Band of Brothers style mega-hit on their hands.
But what is it that makes HBO so ridiculously good at making TV shows? I was recently in my new local HMV store trying not to spend too much when I came across a display of HBO series and mini-series celebrating the giants of American television and the forthcoming airing of The Pacific, and I was astounded to see so many high-achiever boxsets in one place. I ended up coming away with both series of Carnivale, The Corner and Season One of Six Feet Under (as well as an astonishingly cheap Planet of the Apes boxset), but in all honesty I could have, and probably will return to, cleared them out of every single DVD on display.
There are seldom few other TV companies who can claim even half of the success that HBO has sustained throughout their run- if you take for example just the list of miniseries that they have put out it is almost impossible to pick out any that were not essential viewing. Aside from Band of Brothers and The Pacific, there have been eight real miniseries under the HBO banner: from 1988's Tanner '88- which would still be the definitive political satire mockumentary were it not for In The Loop, through the absolutely peerless From the Earth to the Moon (1998) to the exceptional The Corner from 2000.
The only low points in that run for me have been Dane Cook's Tourgasm, simply because it is a little imposing, and crucially quite unforgivably features Dane Cook and 2003's Angels in America. How, you might ask, can I qualify such an assertion when Angels in America was one of the most critically acclaimed and award-winning TV productions of 2003, with multiple prestigious Golden Globe and Emmy wins under its belt? Well, personally- and I realise I will be in the minority- I find the series far too pretentious and posturing; it forces itself on the viewer, and doesnt cease until the final credits role. Admittedly, it features some remarkable acting performances, from Al Pacino and Jeffrey Wright most notably, and I do wish I could love it (I own it and watch it once a year religiously) but I cannot shake off the unbearable feeling that it is overbearing and insists upon itself terribly.
Like Doubt- another play-to-screen adaptation that I simply could not like- I fear Angels in America suffered in my eyes because of the lack of artistic economy or restraint that would have made it more than just a filmic version of the seminal play- I wanted more, but sadly all I saw in the mini-series was to quote another critic a long and arduous voyage, fraught with never-ending monologues, clichéd characters and a brutal lack of brevity.
But, of course, it is the exceptions that prove the rule, and HBO have certainly kept them down to a minimum.
This got me to thinking about the absolute best HBO series or miniseries out there, and I can honestly say Ive never been charged with a more difficult endeavour. There are the inevitable contenders: The Sopranos is a behemoth of critical acclaim, as was Generation Kill, and True Blood is occupying a whole new realm of popularity thanks to it finding it feet in a ludicrous vampire-fetish time. But there is a veritable feast of options to be considered here, so I've come up with a list of contenders (minus Band of Brothers and The Pacific); most arent in any order, but the winner is definitely in the right place.
This is definitely not an exhaustive list- to attempt such a compilation would simply be too much, so excellent shows like Deadwood, Oz and Rome dont get a mention when they would be embarrassingly high on a list of another network's best productions. It is due to the strength of the few listed below that the rest have had to be ignored.
Just stunning. The best looking thing to come out of HBO ever- which made some of the few problems a lot more easy to forgive. The storytelling on show is jam packed with panache, it is convoluted, curious, but fun, in a brave style not seen since Twin Peaks made everyone in the world really confused. Sadly, Carnivale was supposed to be six seasons long, but falling viewing figures during the second meant a huge drop in confidence- the initial key to such a strange concept getting air time- and the show was cancelled after just twenty four episodes. A true casualty of the itchy-trigger-finger generation of TV executives that have seen the end of personal favourites like The Black Donnellys and My Name is Earl.
Six Feet Under
Before Dexter and Dirty Sexy Money, you would have been forgiven for blinking blankly at the names Michael C Hall and Peter Krause (though the latter was in a ridiculous amount of sitcoms early in his career, most notably Sports Week), were it not for the phenomenal dramedy that was Six Feet Under. The series about the Fisher boys' LA funeral home is about as cool as they come, and achieved a raft of critical acclaim, especially for the performances of Hall and Krause (and the wider cast including a never better Freddy Rodriguez performance), which cemented them as two of the hottest properties in American television. The writing too is tight and slick throughout, with the greatest ending in HBO's and any other channel's history bar none- none of this fade to black for them. And they certainly werent scared to mix it up- there was a lot of focus put on the series graphic depiction of sexuality, and regardless of the supposedly quite liberated environment of mainstream American culture having a homosexual relationship at its centre can still only be counted as ground-breaking- to have it viewed in the same light as heterosexual ones was even more so.
If you dont already own the 5 seasons, youre missing out- it is one of those series that will have sustained success long after it has been gone, with the style and content to guarentee that it will age extraordinarily well.
By far the best historical TV adaptation of living memory. Paul Giamatti is the darling of indie-artsy films for good reason, but he shows in John Adams that he is not averse to putting in a truly astonishing powerhouse performance as the titular politician. Alongside Laura Linney- in an equally good performance as Adams' wife- Giamatti is mesmorising, and around the two central leads blossoms a period drama of such magnitude that it looks a lot like it could have been made by the kings of period drama- the BBC. It may be rife with historical inaccuracy, but the artistry at work here is breathtaking in places- director Tom Hooper has managed to paint a perfect sepia-toned vision of the early formative years of the United States, and for good reason John Adams went on to be nominated for a vulgar amount of Emmys (winning an unprecedented 13 gongs in the process). One look at the list of producers could go someway to explaining this- among the list is one Tom Hanks.
I have had a difficult relationship with Thomas Jane for a while not. I hated him unreservedly, viewed him as a talentless hack actor, who looked too much like Christopher Lambert and thought acting consisted of whispering and narrowing his eyes while looking abit dirty. And even worse, he didnt even know I existed. Probably.
But then I saw Hung, on the back of a lot of American critical love, and I was blown away. Jane is excellent as the lead- a penniless ne'er-do-well teacher who decides, spurred on by a positive thinking seminar that teaches him to channel his natural gifts, to become a male prostitute to make ends meet. He has a massive cock you see. Hence the title. While the plot sounds a lot like a thrown away episode of Desperate Housewives, the writing is hip enough, and the characterisations strong enough to make sure that HBO had their latest hit. The writing too is a lot less Sex & The City and far more Six Feet Under, channelling the dark spirit of comedy that made that so deliciously entertaining.
Sex & The City
Probably a controversial choice among some of our readers, but Sex & The City enjoyed an amazing level of longevity at six seasons and ninety four episodes and that's not something to be sneezed at. As much as it is viewed as a cliche of handbags and personal crises, with limited brains and even more limited artistic value, Sex & The City was built on the most solid base of characters and relationships. Okay so Im a sucker for romantic comedy that enables all of the characters, both male and female, and I dont really dial into the idea that Sex & The City is an exercise in immasculation, so I'm bound to see a lot of good in Miss Bradshaw's schmaltzy vehicle. The real joys of the series, in my opinion, are the legion of smaller characters, like Burger and Aidan, who last only relatively briefly, but who show an attention to detail in character development and formation that makes them instantly worthy of our empathy. For the weak of heart as well- or the romantically inclined at least- this means that every time Carrie, or one of the other girls, has her heart broken, the heartbreak is almost tangible. And this type of subtlely complex relationship plotting from a comedy, no less.
The Wire is an astonishing success story when you think about it- just look at the cast. The majority of the players were character actors, little known for anything else like the now legendary Idris Elba, who went from bit-parts in British TV series to playing one of the great stand-out roles- as Stringer- in The Wire. The scripts are fantastic, and David Simon should be given his own award for that achievement, and somehow manage to balance literary aspirations with stunning characterisations and genuinely intriguing sociopolitical themes without neglecting the entertainment value that made it so beloved by critics and fans alike.
What really shines from the show is the intricacies in its formation- David Simon clearly knows his subject matter. His is a stunningly real portrayal of urban life, based upon the personal experiences of his friend and writing partner Ed Burns, a former homicide detective, and set against a Baltimore backdrop that he was intimately familiar with. The Wire, then is a motivated, politicised labour of love, and it is no surprise that that love should be revisited upon it.
Such is my fondness for the show that it only missed out to the top choice marginally, and in any alternate reality that hadnt heard of Journey loving mafiosas, it would have walked it.
Every one of these choices pieces of modern televisual history drips with the achievements of perfect characterisation, beautiful and intricate staging, and the familiar je ne sais quoi that makes HBO productions so recognisable as different to every thing else. Each is hallmarked by a willingness to scuff the line of traditional acceptibility, whether through highly visible sexuality (Sex & The City, Hung), or uncomfortable moralities (The Wire), but all are deeply invested in human relationships at their cores and can make their audiences care about the characters.
And the winner is...
Of course it had to be. I refused early on to consider Band of Brothers and The Pacific in the same breath as these series because they have such obviously cinematic aspirations and should more rightly be considered as lengthy feature films broken up into chapers- but even those heavyweights would have come up short against The Sopranos, which is the televisual event that will come to be called the definition of our time. Forget Lost, forget 24 and forget Heroes- The Sopranos is the most rounded, phenomenally built series to have ever been made under any networks control: that it was made under the advert-free watch of HBO ensured that the show was offered far more artistic freedom than its off-channel competitors, and the jurisdiction to wander around the moral universe without prejudice.
The characters are wonderfully drawn, full of the welcome cliches of every old gangster from filmic history, and furnished with the more personal details of familial dysfunction that make them all the more compelling. The reason for its success is that The Sopranos is a portrait of familiarity- in every dysfunction we can see ourselves, and we can empathise with every one of Tony Soprano's anxieties, because in one form or another we have suffered them too. Chris Albrecht- the man behind the decision to bring The Sopranos to HBO sums it up best:
I said to myself, this show is about a guy who's turning 40. He's inherited a business from his dad. He's trying to bring it into the modern age. He's got all the responsibilities that go along with that. He's got an overbearing mom that he's still trying to get out from under. Although he loves his wife, he's had an affair. He's got two teenage kids, and he's dealing with the realities of what that is. He's anxious; he's depressed; he starts to see a therapist because he's searching for the meaning of his own life. I thought: the only difference between him and everybody I know is he's the Don of New Jersey.
And that, my friends, is the power of exceptional writing.
The Sopranos was, and will continue to be an astounding production, and I urge every one of the readers to click on this link, and buy this truly astonishing boxset.
And Brits, remember- the first two episodes of The Pacific are showing on Monday 29th March on Sky Movies.