The 20 HBO Shows That Transformed TV

HBO has given us 50 years of football, Fraggles, and much more.

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Few television networks can lay claim to as many firsts as HBO. When it launched fifty years ago this month as Home Box Office, it was the first pay channel, and it’s the oldest subscription service. HBO was also the first channel to be carried by satellite. But along with its technical innovations, HBO completely changed the game in terms of programming. In addition to running unedited theatrical films, the channel would launch a slate of shows that changed the face of television. From to sports to drama to comedy, HBO built a stable of programs that become Emmy magnets and prime drivers of water cooler conversation. From humble beginnings to world-conquering franchises, here are the most important shows in the history of HBO.

1. Boxing (1973-2018)

HBO had sports on the schedule from day one, broadcasting NHL hockey and soon picking up Major League Baseball, NCCA Basketball, and more. But the defining sport of the early days was boxing. Beginning in 1973 with “The Sunshine Showdown” between George Foreman and Joe Frazier, the network turned HBO World Championship Boxing into a decades-long franchise. Some of the biggest bouts featured the likes of Muhammad Ali, Mike Tyson, and Evander Holyfield. HBO finally dropped boxing in 2018 for a variety of reasons, but mostly because the service’s programming identity had drifted away from live sports.

2. Inside the NFL (1977-2008)

The longest-running series on cable, Inside the NFL gave unprecedented access to the league in terms of both game-film and personnel interviews. After 30 years, HBO cancelled the show, citing competition from other sports offerings. Showtime picked up the series until 2021, when it transitioned to its current home, Paramount+. HBO’s relationship with the NFL continues today with the long-running Hard Knocks.

3. Not Necessarily the News (1982-1990)

Comedic news segments were a staple of sketch shows like Saturday Night Live and SCTV, but NNTN made the fake, funny news the whole show. After launching as a stand-alone special, HBO’s satire on the nightly news became a regular series. Along the way, a number of familiar names in comedy would work in front of and behind the camera, including Conan O’Brien, Merrill Markoe, Stuart Pankin, and Harry Shearer.

4. Fraggle Rock (1983-1987)

The original Fraggle Rock theme (Uploaded to YouTube by The Jim Henson Company)

Muppet mastermind Jim Henson created this international co-production with TV companies in the U.S., Canada, and England. Featuring a completely new set of characters, the series followed the denizens of Fraggle Rock, a cave network accessible to the human world (“outer space,” according to the Fraggles) through a hole in Doc’s invention workshop. The series took HBO’s commitment to programming for both kids and adults to another level. A long-time cult favorite, the show was revived with Fraggle Rock: Back to the Rock on Apple TV+ this year.

5. HBO Original Movies, Documentaries, and Specials (1979-present)

The Angels in America trailer (Uploaded to YouTube by HBO)

The first HBO documentary series, Time Was, launched in 1979. Since then, the network has continued the tradition with specials and investigative series like America Undercover, The Jinx, and the trio of Paradise Lost documentaries that contributed to the eventual release of the West Memphis Three. Beginning with The Terry Fox Story in 1983, HBO launched a slate of high-quality films and miniseries that continues to this day. 2003’s Angels in America, which was based on the play about the AIDS epidemic, made history by sweeping the major categories (Outstanding Miniseries, Lead Actor for Al Pacino, Lead Actress for Meryl Streep, Supporting Actor for Jeffrey Wright, Supporting Actress for Mary-Louise Parker, Directing for Mike Nichols, Screenplay for Tony Kushner), in addition to taking four technical awards. HBO also deployed its Specials label for a number of purposes, notably music and stand-up comedy for the likes of the late, brilliant George Carlin.

6. 1st and Ten (1984-1991)

One of the earliest original sitcoms on cable, 1st and Ten followed the ups and downs of fictional football team the California Bulls. The show was notorious at the time for its full embrace of the allowances for foul language and nudity that HBO afforded original shows. Delta Burke starred as the team owner until she departed for Designing Women in 1986. Other stars included Shanna Reed, O.J. Simpson (we know), Sam J. Jones, and, in his first regular TV series role, Christopher Meloni.

7. Dream On (1990-1996)

Dream On also took advantage of the potentially adult nature of HBO, but its aspirations were higher. Created by Marta Kauffman and David Crane, the show had several episodes directed by its co-executive producer, John Landis; Landis, of course, was famous for directing films like Trading Places and Coming to America. The series followed a divorced dad whose reactions to situations were often represented by footage from old TV shows and movies. That artful approach and a strong cast (Brian Benben, Wendie Malick, Denny Dillon) drove the show to a number of nominations from the Emmys and CableACE Awards. Kauffman and Crane would also create Friends, which launched in 1994.

8. The Larry Sanders Show (1992-1998)

The Larry Sanders Show trailer (Uploaded to YouTube by HBO)

One of the most acclaimed and awarded shows in HBO’s library, The Larry Sanders Show marked the second time that Gary Shandling reinvented the comedy series format. In his earlier It’s Gary Shandling’s Show (1986-1990 on Showtime and Fox), Shandling broke the fourth wall and deconstructed sitcom conventions. On Sanders, he looked behind the stage curtains of late night talk shows; the “talk show” segments were shot like television video, but the behind-the-scenes bits were done in documentary style (presaging The Office, Parks and Recreation, and others). The show won piles of awards (including three Emmys off of 56 nominations) and was on Time’s list of the Greatest TV Shows of All Time.

9. Oz (1997-2003)

Oz trailer (Suggested for Mature Audiences; Uploaded to YouTube by HBO)

Tom Fontana, the executive producer of the critically-acclaimed Homicide: Life on the Streets, brought his brutal lyricism to HBO with the prison drama Oz. One of the toughest shows ever put on TV, Oz shied away from nothing in terms of storylines or graphic violence. Its diverse cast opened up a multitude of story possibilities and offered early visibility for a number of actors that went on to bigger careers, including Edie Falco, J.K. Simmons, BD Wong, Dean Winters, Jon Seda, Bobby Cannavale, and (again) Christopher Meloni.

10. Sex and the City (1998-2004; And Just Like That sequel series, 2002-present)

Sex and the City trailer (Suggested for Mature Audiences; Uploaded to YouTube by HBO)

Adapted from Candace Bushnell’s column and book, Sex and the City brought a frank, funny take to the subjects of relationships and, of course, sex. The series had a major impact on the fashion of the time and it, along with the next show on the list, has received serious credit for dramatically expanding the subscriber base of the network. Sex was popular enough to receive two follow-up feature films and a sequel series earlier this year.

11. The Sopranos (1999-2007)

The Sopranos trailer (Uploaded to YouTube by HBO)

Is any explanation required at this point? David Chase’s dissection of family dynamics and the dynamics of “The Family” was an instant classic. Anchored by a towering performance by James Gandolfini, the show will continue to be the standard by which other TV dramas are measured. With 21 Emmys and universal acclaim, only a handful of shows come close.  Years from now, audiences will still debate the series finale as they try to answer the question of

12. Curb Your Enthusiasm (2000-present)

Comedian and Seinfeld co-creator Larry David starred in a self-aware 1999 HBO “mockumentary” called Larry David: Curb Your Enthusiasm. That special’s reception was enough to launch a series that’s, remarkably, still going. David’s misanthropic take on, well, himself, has made him a cultural icon of frustration, while a veritable parade of stars (like Ted Danson, Mary Steenburgen, and many more) have lined up to take swings at their own public images by playing fictionalized versions of themselves.

13. Six Feet Under (2001-2005)

“Family that runs a funeral home” might not sound like the most gripping TV pitch, but in the hands of Oscar-winner Alan Ball, it became an addictive ensemble show that juggled dark comedy and deeply-felt drama. A magnet for awards and critical acclaim, Six Feet Under has been lauded as one of the great TV dramas. In particular, its series finale, which set a new standard for revealing the fates of cast members, is regarded as among the best of all time.

14. The Wire (2002-2008)

The Wire will always be in the conversation about the greatest shows of all time. Created by journalist and producer David Simon (whose work inspired Homicide: Life on the Streets), The Wire took an unflinching look at the police, the drug trade, bureaucracy, and all of the shifting structures of a major American city (in this case, Baltimore). Written like a sprawling novel, The Wire deployed a massive cast, many of whom (like Idris Elba and Michael B. Jordan) would go on to greater stardom. But the indisputable MVP of the show was Michael K. Williams’s Omar Little; a study in contradictions (a robber of drug dealers who refused to swear, a gay man feared by the criminal underworld, a willing killer who took his grandma to church), Omar was one of the great TV characters. So beloved was Omar that the Baltimore Ravens added the character’s trademark “A Hunting We Will Go” whistling to players’ entrances after Williams died in 2021.

15. True Blood (2008-2014)

HBO tapped into a broad horror audience with Alan Ball’s adaptation of Charlaine Harris’s The Southern Vampire Mysteries. Rife with metaphor for disenfranchised groups, the series was set in a world where the invention of a synthetic blood product allowed vampires to join mainstream society. Of course, bad elements in vampire society and other supernatural threats offered immense complications. Oscar-winner Anna Paquin played the lead, telepathic waitress Sookie Stackhouse.

16. Game of Thrones (2011-2019)

The original Game of Thrones trailer (Uploaded to YouTube by HBO)

George R.R. Martin published A Game of Thrones, the first installment of his epic A Song of Ice and Fire series, in 1996. By the time producers D.B. Weiss and Dan Benioff came calling, the books were already worldwide bestsellers. With the TV adaptation, it became a worldwide phenomenon. Viewers were captivated by the machinations of the various ruling families of Westeros, who struggled for the throne while oblivious to the encroachment of a larger, supernatural threat. Thrones set a record for Emmy wins with 59. While it’s difficult to name a series MVP in a cast so vast, Peter Dinklage’s turn at Tyrion Lannister made him a pop culture icon while netting him a record four Emmys for Outstanding Actor in a Supporting Role. Today, the Thrones saga continues with the extremely popular prequel series House of the Dragon, while hints abound about a sequel series with the working title of Snow.

17. Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (2014-present)

Last Week Tonight on voting (Uploaded to YouTube by HBO)

A veteran of The Daily Show, John Oliver put a different spin on a familiar format for Last Week Tonight. While the bones of the show are “guy at desk making both jokes and serious points about the news,” Oliver and company tackle it by examining one story or issue in depth. So scathing have been some of the show’s critiques that the media has noted “The John Oliver Effect,” a phenomenon where real-world changes occur after the show casts a light on a problem (such as bit on the underfunded New Orleans Public Defense Office that resulted in thousands of dollars in donations from viewers).

18. Sesame Street (1969-present)

For decades, Sesame Street ran on PBS. Since 2016, it’s been brought to you by the letters H,B, and O (new episodes run later on PBS). A landmark of educational programming, with more than 1000 research studies that demonstrate its impact on early childhood educational development, Sesame Street remains one of the basic arguments for the very existence of television. HBO’s involvement ensured the show’s survival amid an uncertain climate for public television. To date, the show has won an astounding 205 Emmys.

19. Succession (2018-present)

Succession trailer (Uploaded to YouTube by HBO)

One of the current powerhouses of the network, Succession has become firmly ensconced as a media obsession/water cooler show (maybe we need an updated phrase for that). The show deftly combines drama and satirical dark comedy in its depiction of the power struggles inside a family-owned media company. No spoilers here, but you should know that new episodes will begin in spring of 2023

20. Euphoria (2019-present)

Euphoria trailer (Uploaded to YouTube by Rotten Tomatoes TV)

A blistering teen drama, Euphoria established itself as the second most-watched show in the network’s history (behind only Game of Thrones). Acclaimed for its frank depiction of teen sexuality and drug abuse, Euphoria made stars of previously unknown cast members (like Sydney Sweeney and Hunter Schafer) and lifted lead actress Zendaya to new heights. Zendaya’s performance as recovering addict Rue has netted her two Emmys for Outstanding Lead Actress (her first win in 2020 made her the youngest actress to ever win that award). Though the show has drawn criticism for its unflinching portrayals of a number of issues, it has weathered that storm via a devoted fanbase. It’s one of the jewels of today’s HBO.

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