Looking through DVDs in JB Hifi the other day, I was surprised to see Everybody Loves Raymond in the HBO section. Wtf, Everybody Loves Raymond was an HBO show? (I say this not out of disdain for Raymond, which I actually think is a well-made and generally underrated sitcom in the classic mould, but you know what I mean when I say it doesn’t feel like an HBO show.)

It turns out that Raymond does indeed have a connection to HBO: it was the most successful product of an obscure entity called HBO Independent Productions. But it was broadcast on network TV, not on HBO the cable channel. So that’s that.

But this got me thinking about the reputation that HBO has built as a purveyor of “quality” TV. In Australia in particular, HBO occupies approximately the same cultural position that the BBC used to: it’s cited as a byword for “the best the medium has to offer”. By default, HBO shows will be spoken of in reverential tones by our TV critics. (If I’m not mistaken, this is not so much the case in the US any more.)

HBO has this aura in Australia despite the fact that Australians don’t actually get HBO as such. Those with pay TV don’t have the option of receiving HBO as a channel; instead, HBO shows are put out on a channel called Showtime, which advertises itself as the “Home of HBO” but also includes non-HBO shows like Dexter, Mad Men and Orange is the New Black. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if many Australians assume that these three are all HBO shows, in the same way we used to assume that any vaguely prestigious UK show must be from the BBC. (I get it wrong too; I’d assumed until I checked that the Clive Owen period drama The Knick was HBO because it sounded like Deadwood with scalpels…but it’s not, it turns out.)

So how deserved is HBO’s exalted reputation? Well, looking over the roster of HBO’s major shows (sticking to drama and comedy), here’s my own (obviously purely personal) taxonomy:

Shows that are among the best ever

  • The Wire
  • The Sopranos
  • Deadwood
  • Enlightened
  • The Comeback

Shows that are very good indeed

  • Curb Your Enthusiasm
  • Eastbound and Down
  • Flight of the Conchords

Shows that are good but with major problems

  • Six Feet Under
  • Game of Thrones
  • True Detective

Shows that are pretty bad

  • Sex and the City
  • True Blood
  • Luck
  • Every Chris Lilley show post-Summer Heights High 1

Shows that are the absolute worst

  • The Newsroom

Shows I really wish I could get behind

  • Girls
  • Looking

Shows I can’t get into but still admire to some extent

  • Treme
  • Boardwalk Empire
  • Oz

Shows I haven’t seen

  • Veep
  • Entourage
  • Big Love
  • Hung
  • In Treatment

So…I mean it’s not a bad strike rate, is it! But it does seem that it was only for a brief period (the Sopranos era, to give it a name) that you could genuinely say that a significant number of the very best shows on TV were on HBO.

In 2015, to my way of thinking, you have to go quite a long way down the list of TV’s best before you even hit an HBO offering. Of series currently in production, I’d list The Americans, The Good Wife, Orange is the New Black, Broad City, Better Call Saul, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Fargo, and even Mad Men (which I’m not even that crazy about) before any HBO show gets a look-in. I suppose I’d pick Game of Thrones and True Detective to round out my top 10, but not with anything like full conviction.

If I was on a pop culture podcast (does anyone want to start a pop culture podcast with me?), I’d ask the panel a question at this point. Which HBO shows would be better if they weren’t HBO shows, and which would be worse? Answering for myself, I’d submit Girls as a case of the former (imagine Lena Dunham not feeling like she had to create an “important” show…if that’s even possible), and The Sopranos as an obvious case of of the latter, a show you can’t imagine being anywhere near as good without the freedom and confidence of being backed by HBO.

What about the opposite question, shows on other networks that would be better or worse on HBO? This might seem odd, but I suspect the obviously HBO-inspired Mad Men would be better if it actually was an HBO show. Judging by the best of the other HBO shows, there’s a chance it might lose some of its glibness and obviousness, especially in the way it deals with historical events and sensibilities. (Compare it with, say, Deadwood in this respect.) As for shows that would be worse …I’m sure Orange is the New Black would be a more cynical show on HBO, and that would obviously be a bad thing.

I’m not sure I have a conclusion to all this! Given the vicissitudes of making television, it’s probably not fair to presume that even the greatest ever TV production house or network would have the same “buy on sight” level of quality as, say, a really good independent book publisher or record label. But that’s exactly how HBO seems to be treated by TV critics in Australia. So I guess the essential point is, don’t believe the hype.

  1. Cited because they’ve been HBO co-productions. I’m on record as saying that Chris Lilley should be given enough money to do anything he wants. This is my Iraq War moment and I apologise.