Both from critical and from commercial standpoints, HBO has become synonymous with hit television series. Game of Thrones, Sex And The City, The Sopranos, The Wire, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Six Feet Under, True Blood, Girls, Westworld… the list of successful TV shows goes on and on.
HBO started to create original content in the 1980s, but truly picked things up in the 1990s. By the 2000s, the network was already well-regarded as a place for premium television content to be aired. With Netflix and Hulu entering the original content foray with great TV shows in the 2010s, the battle of the networks (and streaming services) intensified even more.
Contrary to popular belief, not everything HBO touches turns to gold, and some big (and expensive) bets didn’t pan out the way that the network expected. The network seems to have virtually unlimited access to huge movie stars (recently, most notably, Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon came on board for the Big Little Lies miniseries) and decades of data regarding what its subscription base wants to watch.
At times, though, all the star access, viewership data, and premium cable money were not enough to make these HBO television shows work.
These are the 15 TV Shows HBO Wants You To Forget About.
HBO got Martin Scorsese, Terrence Winter, and Mick Jagger to create an original TV series, budgeted it at $100 million, and secured Bobby Cannavale as the lead. The series was renewed for a second season almost immediately after it was premiered. There was no way Vinyl could flop.
Except, it did. The network soon reversed its season two renewal and canceled the series for good. Vinyl is arguably the most expensive commercial and critical failure in the history of HBO, and a property that the network has been trying to ignore ever since. With the impending end of Game of Thrones on the horizon, there was a rush to find the next big property that would earn viewers and awards for HBO, but it turned out that Vinyl was just not it.
The Martin Scorsese/Terrence Winter partnership might’ve worked out well for Boardwalk Empire, but the lightning did not strike again with Vinyl.
14. THE NEWSROOM
With the exception of the brief TV show Studio 60 on the Sunset Trip, critically-acclaimed writer Aaron Sorkin hadn’t done television since the end of The West Wing in 2006. He went on to write films such as The Social Network and Moneyball, both of which earned him Oscar nominations in the Best Writing (Adapted Screenplay) category.
So it seemed like a no-brainer that getting him to do a new TV series for HBO would surely be a successful proposition. The Newsroom was very The West Wing-esque, with the exception that it took place in a TV newsroom, and not inside the White House. The dialogue was sharp, the acting was on point, the production looked expensive, and the material was intelligent but accessible.
All and all, The Newsroom didn’t work. It had a fan following of sorts, but never enough to keep it going for many years. The series ran for three years before it was canceled. Actor Jeff Daniels credited Aaron Sorkin’s intention to be fully involved in the writing as one of the challenges for the show.
HBO was on the hunt for a new LGBTQ-oriented TV show. Showtime, HBO’s longtime premium cable competitor, had experienced quite significant success with Queer As Folk and The L Word. But according to HBO, Looking would not just be an improved version of Queer As Folk, nor would it be a gay version of Girls (which was a huge success for the network at the time).
However, Looking premiered, it turned out to be a disappointment The show’s characters were presented as stereotypes, and backlash from the gay community ensued. The show was never given proper time to develop the characters beyond what was seen on their surfaces.
Looking had a second season that improved things dramatically, but it was also not good enough for HBO to renew it for a third year. It was then announced that a TV special – titled Looking: The Movie – would wrap up the plots left hanging on season 2 and that was that.
Luck was another very high-profile failure for HBO. Starring the legendary Dustin Hoffman, this TV show was about the world of horse racing, clubhouses, and betting.
Because of the subject matter, many actual horses were featured in the series, which quickly drew criticism from organizations such as American Humane Society and (AHA) and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). Some horses were shown stumbling, falling, and clearly getting hurt in the process of shooting the show. Some even died.
But regardless of the ethical implications, the show just did not work. Luck was almost immediately renewed for a second season, but as it went on to air all of season 1’s nine episodes, the plans for the series’ return were scraped, canceling the series altogether. Safety concerns in regards to animals were cited as the main reason for cancellation.
11. LUCKY LOUIE
Though Louis C.K. has become an Emmy darling with his FX television series Louie, it wasn’t always the case. As a matter of fact, five years before Louie, there was HBO’s Lucky Louie – a sort of experimental sitcom inspired by Norman Lear’s style of TV comedy that just did not work in Louis C.K.’s or HBO’s favor.
The short-lived Lucky Louie only ran for one season, and out of its 13 planned episodes, only 12 aired on HBO. Also starring in it was Pamela Adlon (currently on air with Better Things), who played the family’s breadwinner in the series.
The comedian recently made a splash at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) with his second feature-length film ever, I Love You, Daddy, due for a November 2017 release.
10. THE BRINK
HBO loves Veep, the Emmy Awards love Veep. The press and the public love Veep. So why not get Jack Black and Tim Robbins together and create another political satire television series for the network?
The show was created by Roberto Benabib (known for his extensive writing work in Weeds) and Kim Benabib, his brother. The thought process behind The Brink made sense, but it did not work as well in reality as it did on paper. Unlike Veep, which made fun of the White House, The Brink focused on political issues in Pakistan, which was probably of less interest to the general public and a little problematic to the people who watched it.
The critical and commercial success of Girls caused HBO to try to multiply that formula several times. Since the show premiered in 2012, HBO attempted to launch several other shows that focused on “awkward”, “anti-social”, “complicated” adults surviving their “complicated” and, at times, “pointless” lives. One of these was Togetherness.
Created by the Duplass brothers, Togetherness was a more adult and less New York-esque version of Girls. It was about marriage, friendship, and reinventing yourself as a fully grown adult. While there were sparks of brilliance in the show’s awkwardness, audiences ultimately did not tune in and critics did not pay attention.
HBO canceled Togetherness after two seasons and pretty much buried the show in its catalog of past comedies. Most recently, however, the Duplass brothers launched an anthology series on the network, called Room 104, which has captured a lot of praise and attention.
8. TELL ME YOU LOVE ME
Tell Me You Love Me premiered in 2007 on HBO. It was entirely shot with handheld cameras and had no soundtrack or opening credits. The whole thing felt like a documentary more than fiction.
The show centered on three separate couples seeking help from a therapist (played by actress Jane Alexander). Because of the raw manner in which the series was shot, it was perceived by the public as if they were really watching these couples go through their problems in a therapy session, and then go home and really have sex.
It seems funny now, but in 2007, but people were really shocked by the “raw sex scenes” featured in Tell Me You Love Me, going as far as pressing HBO to comment whether the actors were actually having real sex in the scenes.
In 2008, we saw a poorly paid high school teacher resort to cooking meth in order to make some money, and we loved Breaking Bad. In 2009, HBO released Hung, where a low-paid middle school teacher dove into selling his body for sex to make some money on the side.
The problem with Hung is that it never truly decided whether it was a comedy or a drama. Was it funny that the protagonist was hung and prostituting himself (a la Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo), or what it just kind of sad that a middle school teacher had to resort to that?
HBO gave the show three seasons to figure itself out, but it never happened. Unlike Breaking Bad, which dealt head-on with the issues surrounding drug abuse and drug trafficking, Hung also missed the opportunity to tackle the subject of male prostitution (or prostitution in general).
6. HELLO LADIES
There was an undeniable quirky charm to comedian Stephen Merchant, who created and served as the protagonist to HBO’s Hello Ladies. It was a classic “fish out of water story.” A tall, awkward man trying to overcome his shortcomings and find a woman to date.
While Hello Ladies surely had the sympathy of the public, it was just not enough to have viewers stick around. The series ran for 9 episodes and was never renewed for a second season, as viewership just kept dropping week after week. Like Looking, HBO produced a TV movie (Hello Ladies: The Movie) in order to conclude the show’s plot, but there was arguably not an overwhelming fan demand for it.
Most recently, Stephen Merchant portrayed Caliban in Logan.
It’s quite clear that Carnivale was ahead of its time. The show had a lot of promise and, in the current age of “Prestige Television,” it would’ve received the budget and attention it deserved. However, it premiered in 2003 – before the Mad Men era of cinematic-level of TV.
The reason HBO likes to ignore this series is because it ended with several unfinished storylines. Carnivale ran for 2 seasons and 24 episodes, but was ultimately considered too expensive to make, and had to be canceled. This prompted all of season 2’s complications to be left unresolved, which makes re-watching the show ultimately pointless since there is no proper end to its plot.
4. HOW TO MAKE IT IN AMERICA
Starring Bryan Greenberg, Scott Mescudi (otherwise known as the rapper Kid Cudi), Victor Rasuk, and Lake Bell, How To Make It In America was a pre-Girls version of young people trying to succeed in New York City.
It ran for two seasons before it was canceled by HBO due to very low viewership, which prompted Mark Wahlberg (an executive producer on the show) to tell GQ Magazine that he wanted another network to pick up the series for a third season.
How To Make It In America drew many comparisons to HBO’s Entourage, except that it was set on an East Coast context. Most of the critics who compared the two, however, mentioned that Entourage was much funnier and better. Ultimately, it seems like HBO subscribers agreed.
From Jurassic Park to Blue Velvet to Wild to The Fault In Our Stars, Laura Dern has had a heck of a career. But when she created a show with fellow actor Mike White for HBO, things did not go so well.
Enlightened was a critical darling that never found an audience. The show even tried to pivot quite strikingly during its second season – in an attempt to be more humorous and commercial – but viewership remained low, prompting it to be canceled after season 2.
It’s quite interesting that years later, with HBO’s Big Little Lies, Showtime’s Twin Peaks, and Star Wars: The Last Jedi, a Laura Dern 2017 renaissance would take place. Meanwhile, Enlightened seems to have been completely forgotten by the general public, and HBO is not bothered about it at all.
2. DOLL & EM
HBO purchased the rights to Doll & Em after seeing it as a two-hour long film during the London Film Festival in 2013. In 2014, it premiered on HBO as a television series.
Doll & Em was created by Dolly Wells and Emily Mortimer, both of whom also starred as the protagonists. Emily Mortimer was on a roll with HBO at the time, since she also starred in The Newsroom, which had just come to an end.
Unfortunately, Doll & Em never really found viewers in the United States and was largely ignored by critics as well. The show was renewed for a second season by Sky Living in the United Kingdom, but HBO was not involved in the production of those new episodes.
1. JOHN FROM CINCINNATI
John From Cincinnati was set in Imperial Beach, California, and was all about surfing. Starring Austin Nichols (from One Tree Hill) as John (the title character), this show was about a dysfunctional family of professional surfers being impacted by a mysterious guy who, at times, seemed to have mind-reading superpowers.
This show was created by David Milch (also responsible for HBO’s Luck) and Kem Nunn, who was, for the most part, a novelist famous for a genre of books called “surf-noir.” John From Cincinnati premiered right after the series finale of The Sopranos, which was a very coveted timeslot since viewers would certainly be tuned in to see how the legendary mafia TV show would end.
But even from the very beginning, John disappointed in ratings, losing as much as 70% of viewers who had just watched The Sopranos’ finale.
Are you a fan of any of these “forgotten” HBO shows? Let us know in the comments!
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