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.”