5. “The Leftovers“
To have a show about the end of the world engender so much humanity amongst the sadness is an accomplishment worth celebrating. “The Leftovers” is a simple love story in a bleak time, cushioned by the tenuous family connections that helped each of these two central figures cope with varying degrees of loss. Their specific tragedies may be invented ones, but the boldness of the series’ storytelling only served to underline how their struggles connected a universal understanding of what it means to grieve something that’s gone. From the fierce, charged conversations that only took two people baring their souls to create something explosive, to the transformative “International Assassin” trilogy of episodes, “The Leftovers” took an unconventional approach to its source material and turned it into legend.
4. “Band of Brothers“
War is always a delicate experience to capture in a fictional setting. By incorporating interviews with veterans, telling the story of real-life individuals of Easy Company’s Paratrooper division helped “Band of Brothers” lend authenticity to a television event already brimming with gravitas. But the true strength of the series rested in its ensemble, a collection of actors with some familiar faces and others who would later come to highlight the TV landscape in other venues. The swells of Michael Kamen’s score may evoke a particular sense of heroism, but the best moments of this series showed ordinary men being called upon to do extraordinary things. Through the vulnerability of performances from folks like David Schwimmer and Damian Lewis, delivered in a visual template set by executive producer Steven Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan,” it condensed a entire battalion’s worth of experiences into 10 hours and still made it feel like a story that had time to breathe.
Hey now! There have been countless Hollywood parodies over the years, including others on HBO. But none have ever been as biting or realistic as “The Larry Sanders Show,” because perhaps no other show has better captured the ego, self-hate, insecurity and fear that actually drives this business. The late, great Garry Shandling had already become a cable pioneer with Showtime’s “It’s Garry Shandling’s Show” when he came up with “The Larry Sanders Show” as a way to satirize his experience as a “Tonight Show” guest host and standup comedian. Jeffrey Tambor played sidekick Hank Kingsley and Rip Torn was producer Artie, while the show also featured Janeane Garofalo, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Jeremy Pieven, and Bob Odenkirk in major roles. “The Larry Sanders Show” legacy also includes the parade of guest stars playing heightened versions of themselves. That’s commonplace now, but it was always surprising to see stars being self-deprecating on “Larry Sanders” (including David Duchovny, who famously played himself as having a massive crush on Larry). No flipping!
2. “The Sopranos“
It’s almost easy now to forget how revolutionary “The Sopranos” was – to HBO, to pop culture, to the talent involved, to the industry, and to the way we watch television. Cable TV had produced original scripted programming in the past, but never at this scale – or with this kind of audience. Tony Soprano, played by James Gandolfini in the role of a lifetime, scared the networks – as he should have. “The Sopranos” was an early nail in the broadcast networks’ coffin, inspiring this modern era of Peak TV as every cable network and streaming service began looking for its own breakthrough show (and HBO became a go-to destination for top-tier talent). From a storytelling perspective, David Chase’s story of a New Jersey mobster visiting a therapist (Lorraine Bracco) in an effort to balance the demands of his life ushered in an age of the anti-hero, and also helped re-popularize episodic serialized television, breaking the stranglehold that procedural dramas had on TV. “The Sopranos” ultimately won 21 Primetime Emmys, and became the first cable series to be named Outstanding Drama in 2004. Plus, “The Sopranos” ended with one of the most infamous – and highly debated – series finales of all time, when the show just abruptly
1. “The Wire“
David Simon’s magnum opus is one of the most thoroughly constructed and physically detailed looks at American life that American TV has ever put forth. But “The Wire” also helped teach generations of TV viewers how to approach televised storytelling of that caliber. The season-as-chapter approach was a fresh concept, and it showed that a TV series was more than just a handful of sets and some series regulars locked into a single viewpoint. As a result, HBO proved that gambling on shows that don’t have an established star at the head or that take place outside of the familiar New York and LA environs could be an artistic boon, something that would have a lasting legacy beyond its airdate. With the eye of a journalist, the ear of a novelist, and the heart of a city, “The Wire” shepherded Baltimore’s identity and established a blueprint for all the shows that came in its wake.