Five Great "HBO" Shows that Were on TV, Not HBO
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Five Great "HBO" Shows that Were on TV, Not HBO

By Rob Payne | Seriously Random Lists | July 3, 2013 | Comments ()


It's a common refrain amongst followers of popular culture -- whenever rumors of an adaptation for some well-liked book or cult-sensation series is announced, the cry goes out across the electronically interconnected lands, "HBO or GTFO!" Nearly 40 years after the pay-cable network's inception, it's a well-deserved reputation.

But as much as we might want to see a quality adaptation of Stephen King's The Dark Tower, Neil Gaiman's Sandman, or Brian K. Vaughn's Y: The Last Man on the Home Box Office (among many, many other well-warranted projects), it isn't the only network producing critically acclaimed, audience adored, and zeitgeist-y television shows. There are other creators besides David Chase, Lena Dunham, and David Benioff doing equally great, if not better, work out there, but they tend to be alongside much lesser shows. AMC might have two of the most written about shows in the last 10 years, but it also airs the brainless, frustrating "The Walking Dead" and the polarizing, equally frustrating "The Killing." Showtime, too, has produced some pretty excellent television, but shows like "Weeds" and "Dexter" prove greatness is fleeting when the need to churn out more product overwhelms a narrative's logical endpoint, which is something HBO seems to err on the opposite side of, cancelling beloved shows like "Deadwood" or "Rome" or "Carnivale" because they're too expensive for the relative smallness of their ratings. Starz and FX seem to pump out better original programming on a consistent basis, but despite this they're still considered silly backwaters or basic cable dumping grounds.

Below are some truly fantastic television shows that could have fit right in on the HBO schedule, though perhaps they couldn't necessarily have been improved by having free rein over violence, language, and adult situations. (Let's face it, the world is becoming more like HBO, anyway.) A couple even nearly started there before winding up on their eventual home channels. Why only five? Because, when I went beyond that number, the list ballooned exponentially and the point, and the overall, inarguable quality of each selection, became diluted. As per usual, this list is far from exhaustive, but these are Five of the Absolute Best "HBO"-type Shows that Weren't on HBO, but on TV:

"Mad Men" (AMC, 2007-2014, presumably)
Obviously. Matthew Weiner's ode to America in the 1960s by way of deconstructing his central character, Don Draper, is simply one of the best TV shows ever made. Full stop. And while AMC gives Weiner and his writers a lot of flexibility, and probably more than nearly any other network would allow, imagine what they could do with almost a full hour every week and even fewer limitations? I don't want to change anything about the show, I just want more, more, more of it. Here's hoping the show sticks its incredibly difficult landing next year.

"Party Down" (Starz, 2009-2010)
Ostensibly, with its penchant for creative cursing and no hang-ups about nudity and sexy times, it's hard to say what could be gained by going from the very permissible Starz to HBO. Namely, if Rob "'Veronica Mars' not Matchbox Twenty" Thomas' and Paul Rudd's charming and compassionate look at what creatives in Hollywood do when they aren't living their dreams had the HBO machine behind it, perhaps it could have garnered a larger (and equally devoted) audience. Thus, earning more than two too-short seasons. Again, more is all I want, but more episodes is all "Party Down" needed.

"Battlestar Galactica" (Sci Fi Channel, 2003-2009)
But, arguably, more isn't at all what Ron Moore's re-imagining of the 1970s classic-ish sci-fi TV epic needed. There are at least two endings to this series, and neither is ultimately as satisfying as they were likely intended, and some of that is due to the WGA writers' strike/strife around its latter seasons. "Galactica" certainly didn't pull any punches, but it often seemed to be attempting to elevate itself artistically above its network -- while "Caprica" and "Blood and Chrome" later seemed to wallow there -- rather than just telling its story confidently. If this seminal sci-fi series had been on HBO instead, I like to imagine it would feel as comfortable in its spacesuits as "Game of Thrones" does in its heavy armor, rather than being grim for grim's sake.

"Louie" (FX, 2010-?)
Louis C.K., the writer/director/editor/producer/star of his titularish pseudo-sitcom, did once have a series on HBO, and it wasn't nearly as good as his current one on FX. This had nothing to do with the network, though, and everything to do with "Lucky Louie" just missing the perfect execution as the post-modern "Honeymooners." On the other hand, C.K. seems to get nothing wrong in his new pared down, semi-autobiographical new show, and if it were on HBO, it's doubtful much would be different now. It just seems apiece with the subscription service's vibe -- more like "Girls" or "Family Tree" than "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia" or "The League."

"Breaking Bad" (AMC, 2008-2013)
Obviously, part two. Vince Gilligan's ode to the American dream by of building up and tearing down his central character, Walter White, is also one of the best shows ever on TV. And, like the rest here, there probably isn't too much missing from the show simply because it isn't on HBO, aside from a meth-head prostitute's stray nipple or an even gorier demise for Danny Trejo's Tortuga. It's unflinching as it could possibly be, and right alongside "The Sopranos" in finding a way to make its family drama as compelling as the crime drama most of its audience initially tuned in for. When those two threads come together, the show is downright explosive. Often, literally so. Unlike pretty much all the rest (here or not), I've little doubt that this show won't nail its ending.

In the end, maybe it's only fair that HBO isn't the only home for compelling, rootable anti-heroes. But it sure would be nice if even more networks tried.

Rob Payne also writes the indie comic The Unstoppable Force, tweets on the Twitter, tumbls on the Tumblr, and his wares can be purchased here. He thinks maybe Brian Fuller's "Hannibal" could eventually make a list like this, but it could easily end up becoming NBC's "Dexter."

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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not

  • リン バン

    Uh where the fuck is Hannibal on this list? Bryan Fuller is kicking some major ass for regular network tv.Hannibal shits all over some of these shows in terms of aesthetics, writing, and general plot direction and pacing.

  • junierizzle

    I heard HBO turned down Mad Men. If that is true then I can never forgive them for robbing us of an obligatory Christina Hendricks nude scene.

  • e jerry powell

    Not enough gratuitous naked sexy time for these to be truly HBO-worthy, though. I mean, we could have done many of the great HBO shows with different edits (as the syndicated versions kinda-sorta prove) without all the simulated sex, right?

    (But forgive me, I do love the gratuitous naked sexy time on just about every HBO show.)

  • RilesSD


    that is all

  • IngridToday

    I'm constantly amazed Hannibal is on NBC. It's bewildering.

  • BigBlueKY

    Sons of Anarchy. Okay... maybe I say that because I want some Charlie Hunnam full frontal...

  • $27019454


  • F'mal DeHyde


  • Crystal Holt

    None of these are HBO shows, but maybe Breaking Bad and Louie is a better version of a shitty HBO show. But it's most definitely an FX show. More networks ARE trying to have more compelling shows even the Big 5. Television is evolving, as should the writing and knowledge of your contributors.

  • AudioSuede

    Did....did you even read the headline of the article?

  • Marc Greene

    I think the best shows I've seen (Breaking Bad, Mad Men, The Wire, et al) is that there is a very well conceptualized and finite arc for the primary characters. I think more series should take the model of a limited series run (3-5 seasons or so) with an end game in mind from the beginning. The list is far too long of series that started out so strong then meandered around until the show runners were forced to make their various plot threads resolve, and often with clumsy consequences. The two that immediately come to mind are Dexter and Lost. I'm getting the feeling that Homeland and Walking Dead are starting to steer into that territory, too.

  • Lovely Bones

    Walking Dead has always been in that territory, ever since the second episode.

    You're tragically right about Homeland, though. I'm incredibly scared and optimistic for that series all at once.

  • snrp

    BSG is another one that lost control of its own mythology--I wonder if it's a syndrome common to shows that are more successful than expected, outliving the showrunners' initial two-or-three-season plans?

  • Marc Greene

    I agree completely. So much of BSG was great, but that train started to jump the track with the revelation of the Final Five and magic Starbuck. Really, if they had the series end date at their discretion, wouldn't it have been more palatable to have at least some of the Final 5 be new characters we hadn't seen yet; maybe even some that made more sense (i.e not Tigh and Tyrol?). The inclusion of Tyrol retroactively unmade the importance of the single hybrid child (Boomer and Helo's kid). Unfortunately, no amount of retcon via The Plan can unmake my disdain for that plot clusterfuck. Fortunately, all I need to do is watch "33", "Exodus", and "Kobol's Last Gleaming" to fall back in love with the series. I wonder if the whole series would have been better off with the mystical element. Religion: yes, but keep the actual plot developments secular.

  • AudioSuede

    God, the ending of that show made me want to punch Ron Moore straight in the face. Spoiler alert: All the best mysteries of the show? Angels. So stupid and infuriating.

  • emmalita

    From watching the commentaries, I felt like Ron Moore and David Eick started to develop the "genius syndrome" where people stop telling them no.

  • JJ

    But it seems like you're begging the question here. HBO "isn’t the only network producing critically acclaimed, audience adored, and zeitgeist-y television shows." Who argues against that? These are just good shows. Period.

    The real reason people want HBO specifically to do things like The Dark Tower series, World War Z, and Y: The Last Man because at this point, no network in the US does the miniseries format better than HBO.

  • AudioSuede

    If you're gonna pick a show from Starz, as much as I liked Party Down, it has to be Boss. That show fits especially well because it was passed on by HBO before being picked up by the new president of Starz who used to be HBO's president, who then spent an absurdly large percentage of the network's budget just to produce that one show. And, despite the fact that no one watched it at all, it was one HELL of a show. Also, Party Down doesn't make much sense for HBO, because they never mastered the sitcom format. It would probably have floundered there.

    Also worthy of this list: Playmakers (the only ESPN original series, a show so gritty and realistic that the NFL threatened to pull all their content from the network, to which ESPN caved and cancelled the show), Kings (fuck everything, that show was amazing), and Friday Night Lights (though it might have been too touchy-feely for a network that asks its showrunners to include as much graphic content as possible to justify the cable subscription).

  • RilesSD

    Kings! That show was amazing. Ian McShane was fantastic, as always.

  • Spyro

    Boss was amazing. Absolutely gutted that it was cancelled. Kelsey Grammar was a revelation in it.

  • BWeaves

    I've recently discovered "Archer" and have been binge watching it on DVD's. It's the first show in years that has me actually laughing out loud. I cannot believe the stuff the characters say and do. I suspect if this was live action, it would have to be on HBO. Cartoon characters and puppets can get away with a lot more violence, nudity, and bigotry than live actors.

  • zeke_the_pig


    Welcome to the Archer fold.

  • Marc Greene

    Frisky Dingo.

  • prestocaro

    Seriously! See also: Metalocalypse. The shit Brendan Small gets away with because those dudes are animated... Well, let's just say Skwisgar's mom getting double-teamed upside down would not have made the cut if it were live action.

  • MrsAtaxxia

    Pickles furry. PICKLES FURRY. Cannot be unseen. And oddly I would not want it to be unseen. It's perfect in its horror.

  • nachosanchez

    yeah but if Archer were a live action show, we'd lose H Jon Benjamin as the main character. And that would be simply unacceptable.

  • BWeaves

    Actually, on the extras on one of the DVD's they've replaced Archer with a cartoon that looks exactly like H. Jon Benjamin, and it's freaky.

  • emmalita

    You just talked me into buying the DVDs.

  • RilesSD


  • BWeaves

    On the extras for the first season, they said that they auditioned a different actor for the part of Archer, but he skewed too old for the demographic. They then show you the alternative pilot episode with the "other actor."


    It's the exact same as episode one, except they've replaced Archer with a raptor. The sex scenes are a bit kinky.

  • emmalita

    Gasp! Now I want to marry the DVDs (I can do that now that DOMA is down). Will you be my Maid of Honor?

  • BWeaves

    I do! I will!

    The extras on the Archer DVD's are really pretty good. They went to some effort.

  • ZizoAH

    Agree with all but "Party Down", which I loved, but I think it's more of an NBC kind of show, like on a Thursday night with "Parks & Recreation" and "Community".

  • emmalita

    I agree with you on the tone of the show - it would fit with Community. But NBC wouldn't have the balls to do the really funny stuff on Party Down.

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