It's hard to believe, but HBO celebrated its 40th anniversary in November. What was once a pay cable station that ran blockbuster movies mixed with some obscurities is now a network known for groundbreaking television. Viewers have been drawn to shows such as Dream On, The Sopranos, Entourage, Sex and the City and True Blood, among others. For all of the network's success it has run shows that, while great, haven't been quite as popular with viewers. Check out the DVD box sets of some of these underrated HBO gems.
Oz (1997 - 2003)
Starring Christopher Meloni, Ernie Hudson, and Rita Moreno, among others, this edgy prison drama explores the lives of different facets of the prison population who reside in an experimental cellblock called Emerald City. Run by unit manager Tim McManus and Warden Leo Glynn, inmates are placed in Em City with the goal of being rehabilitated. A gritty, realistic portrayal of prison life, this show took full advantage of being able to show things that cannot be shown on network television, such as violence and drug use. Oz showcases the struggles that come as people from different social groups, most with criminal backgrounds, interact and try to assert their place in a confined environment.
Generation Kill (2008)
This miniseries chronicles the beginnings of the Iraq war in 2003. Focusing on a Rolling Stone reporter who tags along with the 1st Recon Marines as they descend upon Baghdad, Generation Kill offers a first-hand look at a war that has defined this generation. Based on the 2004 novel of the same name, this series stars Alexander Skarsgard as a Sargeant in the 1st Recon and Lee Tergesen as the reporter. This miniseries offers a striking narrative of life on the front lines complete with subtlety and attention to detail. Much like HBO's The Wire (which was produced by the same team), the show does not take sides or attempt to vilify one side over the other; it simply gives an honest reflection of the subject matter.
Rome (2005 - 2007)
Chronicling the last days of the Roman Empire, this epic drama offered a relatable glimpse into a long passed society. The show followed the lives of two soldiers in Julius Caesar's 13th Legion, Lucius Vorenus and Titus Pullo, played by Kevin McKidd and Ray Stevenson as they interacted with major players of the day. The first season depicts events leading up to the assassination of Julius Caesar, and the second season shows the civil war between Marc Antony and Augustus that followed. By mixing the lives of somewhat ordinary people with those of the social elite, Rome manages to draw viewers into the story by pulling them into situations that are as modern as they are historical. Though not always historically accurate, Rome is always entertaining. The plotlines are rather contemporary though they are set in an ancient world, showing that the more things change, the more they stay the same. The characters are easy to fall for and care about, and their story ended rather abruptly with the show's cancellation.
Arliss (1996 - 2002)
This show stars Robert Wuhl and Sandra Oh as the President of a sports agency and his assistant. Somewhat like the professional sports version of Entourage, Arliss is known for obscure sports references and notable guest appearances by everyone from Bob Costas to Katarina Witt. Though it has often been panned for potentially appealing only to sports enthusiasts, Arliss' fan base was able to keep the show on the air for a respectable seven seasons. Satirizing everything from fantasy leagues to the next big thing, Arliss also explores the subtleties of professional sports. From the trades to the inevitable decline in performance ability, Arliss presents a funny, yet heartfelt look at athletes and the ones who deal for them.
How to Make it in America (2010 - 2011)
Produced by Mark Wahlberg, How to Make it in America follows Ben Epstein and Cam Calderon (played by Brian Greenberg and Victor Rasuk) as they attempt to succeed in the New York fashion industry. Though the show got off to a rocky start, it began finding its legs in season two with more developed characters and better storylines. The main characters were in the beginning stages of success and dealing with it. Season one showcased the determination and resourcefulness of people chasing a dream, and Season two showcased the beginnings of those efforts paying off. A standout performance by rapper Kid Cudi in the role of Domingo Brown as party host, dealer and friend of the main characters is reason alone to watch. It would have been interesting to see what How to Make it in America could have grown into if given another season to progress.
The Newsroom (2012 - current)
Starring Jeff Daniels as an anchor for a cable news program, Emily Mortimer as his executive producer and Olivia Munn and Dav Patel (among others) as newsroom staff, this drama is underappreciated. Aaron Sorkin created this show to showcase another side of cable news shows. These types of shows are often portrayed as biased and quite loose with facts. Sorkin wanted to show a functional, capable staff dedicated to offering quality programming. The Newsroom is a great show with likeable characters, and it is not afraid to explore subject matter that is sometimes considered taboo. Rather than showing stiff, stodgy caricatures of cable news show personnel, The Newsroom portrays them as people with real problems and complicated lives. It is a breath of fresh air in an overcharged political time.
Bored to Death (2009 - 2011)
Revolving around novelist by day and an unlicensed private detective by night, Jonathan Ames (Jason Schwartzman) and his friends, Bored to Death offered quirky and funny characters reminiscent of the Clerks of yesteryear. When Jonathan posts a Craigslist ad offering his services as an unlicensed private detective to supplement his income, he finds himself in some novel situations. The series also stars Zach Galifianakis and Ted Danson as Jonathan's friends and sometime assistants. Ted Danson is brilliant in his role as a magazine editor who struggles to find love for his career as the years role on. Witty and amusing without being insulting, Bored to Death is perfect for anyone who likes shows such as The Office or Seinfeld. It is definitely worth a spot in the DVD queue.
The Mind of the Married Man (2001 - 2002)
This show is the complete opposite of Sex and the City, which was hugely popular on the network during this show's run. Starring Mike Binder and Sonya Walger as married couple Micky and Donna Barnes, The Mind of the Married Man focused on Micky and his married friends who work together at a Chicago newspaper. With the whipped friend on the right and the cheating friend on the left, Micky and his friends air their grievances and advise to one another on the perils of married life. Exploring situations that plague many married couples, such as boredom, dealing with newly single parents and watching people who seem happier than you, The Mind of the Married Man is an interesting take on marriage.
Deadwood (2004 - 2006)
HBO is always down to explore historical fiction. Deadwood is similar to Rome and Boardwalk Empire in that it takes historical situations and populates them with characters that could easily fit into the present day. Set in Deadwood, South Dakota before and after its annexation, the show stars Timothy Olyphant and Ian McShane as business owners in the gold rush boomtown, Deadwood. The show is a study of the human ability to find order in chaos. Known as a lawless and often chaotic period in American history, the old west is the perfect setting to examine how people interact with one another when there are no real laws and many conflicting personalities. Several historical figures, such as Wild Bill Hickock, Calamity Jane and Wyatt Earp have made cameos in various episodes.
Flight of the Conchords (2007 - 2009)
Jemaine Clement and Bret Mckenzie star in this series about a New Zealand rock band called Flight of the Conchords who are living in New York trying to make it big. Jemaine and Bret are a real-life comedy duo from New Zealand, though their characters have been fictionalized for the show. As the duo try and attract an American audience, they are faced with an obsessed fan named Mel and are schooled in the art of American women by pawnshop worker Dave. This show is a hilarious look at culture shock and the quest for fame. Flight of the Conchords expertly blends American and foreign humor consistently. An eclectic cast of characters who spontaneously burst into song in a non-annoying manner make for a highly entertaining show.