With now-iconic shows like The Sopranos, Game of Thrones, The Wire, and Sex and the City on its resume, HBO Entertainment has become synonymous with quality television programming. However, when measuring its productions against the gold standard it has established for the rest of the premium cable TV landscape, some HBO shows have unsurprisingly fallen short, while others have simply failed to get noticed.
With our list of 10 Most Underrated HBO Shows, we intend to shine a spotlight on the series that are most deserving of more attention and more praise. Some of them were forgotten over time, some ended unceremoniously and others might have had too narrow an appeal, but we celebrate them all here. See our list below!
Bored to Death (2009-2011)
Before helping bring Patrick Stewart back to television with Starz’s Blunt Talk, creator/showrunner/author Jonathan Ames was perhaps best known for his noir-comedy Bored to Death, which starred Jason Schwartzman as a New York writer who moonlights as a private detective. The series — which prematurely ended after three seasons and 24 episodes — also starred Ted Danson and Zach Galifianakis in scene-stealing supporting roles.
Despite receiving generally favorable reviews and featuring an ensemble full of comedically-gifted talents — including Patton Oswalt, Kristen Wiig, Jenny Slate and John Hodgman — alongside its name stars, Bored to Death may have been too quirky and offbeat to attract and maintain a large enough viewership to survive. Still, it’s well-defined characters, sharp writing and unique comedic tone certainly make it stand out from the traditional sitcom fare that’s typically offered on television — even if the series is sadly forgotten by most when mentally flipping through HBO’s prestigious program catalog.
Around the same time AMC was telling the story of a terminally-ill and cash-strapped teacher who used his knowledge of chemistry to manufacture methamphetamine to alleviate his financial woes, HBO produced Hung, a series also about a desperate, down-on-his-luck educator — one who also happens to be well-endowed, leading him to a life of prostitution as a way to get out of a financial rut. Of course, that’s where the comparison between the two shows ends, as Breaking Bad went on dominate awards seasons, while Hung (ironically enough) went almost completely unnoticed during its three-season run.
Now, we’re not saying HBO’s 30-minute dramedy comes close to measuring up to Vince Gilligan’s inventive series, but Thomas Jane’s sympathetic performance at the center of the often funny and always engaging show certainly deserved more acclaim. Yes, Jane was nominated for a Golden Globe each year the show was on the air, but neither he nor the series ever got a whiff of an Emmy nomination in a major category (acting, directing, outstanding series). Perhaps this was due to the show’s rather objectionable subject matter, but in speaking honestly and frankly about sex and relationships, Hung certainly deserved to hang around at least a little big longer at HBO, a network that seemed to be the perfect home for it.
The Leftovers (2014-)
Based on the novel of the same name by Tom Perrotta, The Leftovers centers on the lives and relationships of those left behind from a rapture-like event that causes millions of people around the globe to vanish. Despite its out-there premise, the series — currently in its second season — has maintained an admirable sense of realism through a grounded stylistic approach, terrific dramatic performances and emotionally-moving narrative twists.
The series has garnered some positive reviews from critics (including our own Kevin Yeoman), but has been mostly overlooked for major awards. Sadly, viewership has taken a steep decline from seasons 1 to 2 as well; and with network counterparts like Game of Thrones and True Detective attracting most of the buzz on social media and at the water cooler, The Leftovers has lived up to its title by mostly being left out of the conversation.
Mr. Show with Bob and David (1995-1998)
Now primarily known for roles in Better Call Saul and Arrested Development, comedians Bob Odenkirk and David Cross first came into fame for their sketch comedy series Mr. Show with Bob and David. While the extremely low-budget show doesn’t look like much today, its creative comedic concepts, memorable characters (Ronnie Dobbs), unconventional format, and bold, punk-rock attitude have earned the show credibility among contemporary comedians and critics, many of whom consider Mr. Show to be one of the greatest sketch comedy programs in television history.
However, in breaking convention and satirizing traditional television forms and norms, Mr. Show‘s alternative (and often controversial) comedic stylings ultimately prevented it from entertaining the masses, ushering the show into permanent cult status instead. With loyal fans and four Emmy nominations to its credit, Mr. Show has certainly received its fair share of praise, but the fact that it still remains relatively unknown to such a large portion of the TV-watching world makes it hard not to consider the show vastly underrated and its influence on sketch comedy today somewhat underappreciated.
Perhaps the upcoming release of With Bob and David, a long-overdue followup series on Netflix, will direct viewers back to the show, Mr. Show, that started it all.
Set in post-Katrina New Orleans, Treme had the undesirable task of measuring up to the incredibly high bar co-creator David Simon had set with his supremely-lauded (now, but not as much at the time) crime drama The Wire a few years earlier. While few would argue that Treme ultimately met that nearly unachievable standard, the series did contain some of Simon’s signatures — including an authentic portrayal of place, people and culture — as well as amazing performances, and compelling characters and stories.
Like The Wire, Treme bravely, deftly and accurately tackled social and economic issues and institutions, such as the city’s criminal-justice system, political corruption and public housing; however, also in the case of The Wire, Treme went largely unrecognized when it came to accolades. The series did receive some Emmy love in terms of nominations, but failed to win any statues in a major category. Considering it took The Wire several years after its on-air run to finally earn the public recognition it deserved, the same could happen for Treme, but for the time being, it’s a show that clearly lives in The Wire‘s shadow.
Flight of the Conchords (2007-2009)
Playing fictionalized versions of themselves and their folk-rock comedy duo, Bret McKenzie and Jermaine Clement brought their charmingly harmless and understated comedic sensibility to HBO for Flight of the Conchords, quickly finding an audience and success. The show became a fairly popular comedy for the network, partly due to the fact that the native New Zealanders already had a built-in fanbase, but also due to the show’s hilariously droll tone, clever writing and catchy musical numbers.
Unlike many of the shows on this list, Conchords was not canceled, but only lasted two seasons after the show’s creators and stars realized they couldn’t keep up with the workload required to write, produce and star in a television show. While this reasoning for the decision is certainly understandable for TV first-timers, the show’s premature conclusion certainly prevented it from finding an even larger audience, and may have damaged its staying-power — as the comedy seems to have dipped out of viewer consciousness in recent years.
In Treatment (2008-2010)
Centering on the in-depth conversations and complex relationships between psychologist and patient, In Treatment was a groundbreaking five-night-per-week series that featured the same guest stars each week of the season as patients of Dr. Paul Weston, played brilliantly by Gabriel Byrne (The Usual Suspects). Dialogue-heavy and often confined to a single room, the series was a showcase for some of the best acting and writing on television, running for three seasons and more than 100 episodes.
While the series did nab two supporting actor Emmy wins in its rookie season and several other awards during its run, In Treatment is almost always left out of the conversation of HBO’s best shows. To make matters worse, the series is rarely highlighted by its own network, causing the timelessly relevant and resonate series to have virtually disappeared in the years since its conclusion. Fortunately, it is available on HBO GO.
Lucky Louie (2006)
Today, Louis C.K. is known worldwide as one of the finest, funniest and hardest working stand-up comedians of his generation, but back in 2006, he was still a relatively unknown talent, waiting for his big break.
Before he took his career to new, acclaimed heights with his FX dramedy Louie, C.K. first thought that break might come at HBO with Lucky Louie, a multi-camera sitcom filmed before a live audience. Unfortunately, the series failed to draw a large enough viewership and was axed by the network after just one season and 13 episodes, but even in its brief TV stint, the show put C.K.’s strong comedic chops and distinctive voice on display, as storylines tackled tricky subject matter such as sex, racism, marriage and parenting in an honest and realistic way.
Even though many comedy fans still haven’t discovered the short-lived series, Lucky Louie unquestionably occupies a special place in TV comedy history as a precursor to C.K.’s eventual success and subsequent hour-long stand-up specials.
The Larry Sanders Show (1992-1998)
As one of the HBO’s earlier original scripted series, The Larry Sanders Show is often credited with helping establish the network’s tradition of excellence in premium cable programming. The show — which followed the host (Garry Shandling) of a fictional late-night talk show through production — worked as a satire of the television industry and of show business at large, and as a mockumentary-styled sitcom of the behind-the-scenes world of entertainment at the same time. Its comedic approach and the use of celebrities playing fictionalized versions of themselves inspired and influenced countless successful comedies that followed, including 30 Rock, The Office, Entourage, and Curb Your Enthusiasm.
Along with being extremely influential, the comedy was also recognized as of the best of its time, collecting numerous awards — including three Emmys and two Peabodys — during its original run. So, how could the iconic series be considered underrated? Well, after being off the air for nearly two decades, the genius and impact of Larry Sanders seems to be lost on younger generations of viewers who can barely keep up with the plethora of current TV offerings, let alone cult classics from decades ago. In a list of Best 90s Sitcoms on Ranker, this sad truth reared its ugly head as The Larry Sanders Show landed at #39, behind shows such as Saved by the Bell: The College Years. That’s simply unacceptable!
Like the previous entry on this list, David Milch’s western Deadwood was a critical darling, earning eight Emmy awards during its much-too-short three-season run. Much of the praise was directed at the show’s lead performances, particularly that of Ian McShane, who took home the 2005 Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Television Drama for his role as notorious real-life pimp and saloon owner Al Swearengen. The series — set in the Dakota Territory in the 1870s and around the outlaw town of Deadwood — was also lauded for its unflinching depiction of the lawless era in U.S. history.
However, as seemingly successful and popular as the series was, it ended abruptly after just 36 episodes when HBO chose not to renew cast members’ contracts. While talk of a return and even a feature film version of the series has circulated for several years, the series remains as one of the network’s more underrated dramas due simply to the fact that it left audiences too soon, leaving them to wonder what could have been. Had the series continued, perhaps it would be regarded by more critics and industry experts as one of the medium’s brightest gems.
Well, that’s our list of the 10 Most Underrated HBO Shows! Which of your favorites should have made the list? Are there any here you would actually consider overrated? Share your opinions with us in the comments!