A few days ago I got into a debate with some friends. What's the best show in HBO's history? The usual suspects emerged, in the same way Sgt. Pepper's and Pet Sounds will come up immediately whenever someone discusses the best albums of all time. Someone had The Sopranos, another said Deadwood. One guy argued for The Wire and made it sound like friendships were at stake if everyone in the group didn't agree with him. Someone probably wanted to mention the Real Sex series but was too embarrassed.
No one changed anyone's mind. I didn't argue forcefully about any of them. I suppose I'd go with Sopranos.
But I did bring up some candidates that have been lost to cable history. Some of which deserved to be lost, others that didn't. Cable came to Janesville in the mid 1980s. Its arrival heralded a new beginning for the town, in much the same way the railroad did a century earlier. The big three networks no longer held us prisoner. Exotic stations and shows awaited, from Australian Rules Football on a still-humble ESPN, to Commander USA's Groovie Movies on the USA Network. But my parents went that extra step and ordered HBO and Showtime. In the ensuing years, Showtime's primary purpose, at least to my friends, was to show sort-of-dirty movies late at night, which were a big hit in the Fury basement.
But HBO had the best movies - replaying classics like Real Genius, Johnny Dangerously and Midnight Madness dozens of times - and the best shows. Those original programs haven't been seen in years, and compared to HBO's offerings since the turn of the century, they'd seem to suffer by comparison.
What were some of those shows? How about 1st & Ten? It's the show that displayed OJ Simpson's acting range, as he played a retired running back struggling to cope with life after football in nonmurderous ways. It was about the always entertaining California Bulls. It was the show that had Delta Burke as the team's owner. It was the show that used footage from USFL games whenever the Bulls were in action. It was the show that had more T & A than PATs. It was the show that was pretty terrible. Friday Night Lights, it was not.
In this clip, OJ plays a great prank on a gullible rookie.
1st & Ten - The Veterans Arrive
One of the best shows was The Hitchhiker, not to be confused with the movie The Hitcher starring Rutger Hauer. The Hitchhiker exuded creepiness, from the music to the storylines. The show shared similarities with the Twilight Zone, with a mysterious hitchhiker serving the Rod Serling role at the beginning and end of each episode.
For comedy not involving OJ Simpson as a football general manager, there was Not Necessarily the News, the Daily Show of the mid-80s. If nothing else, the show deserves a spot in TV history for introducing Sniglets, which were "any word that doesn't appear in the dictionary but should."
Example: Cheedle-The residue left on one's fingertips after consuming a bag of Cheetos.
Kids watched Fraggle Rock, although even as a child The Hitchhiker held more interest to me than the story of the Fraggles.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, HBO brought out two more superb series, in Dream On and Tales From the Crypt. Dream On was about a New York City book editor, whose thoughts were always depicted through clips of old movies. Tales from the Crypt starred the Cryptkeeper and each week brilliantly dispatched of people who usually deserved to suffer. But they usually at least died in an ironic, as well as painful manner.
No critic or message board ever labeled any of these shows the greatest series in TV history, honors given at various times to The Sopranos and The Wire. None of them changed the culture, in the way Sex and the City did. But they at least set the stage for those shows, as HBO proved it could create outstanding original programming and didn't just have to rely on replaying Mr. Mom 46 times a week. More importantly, they introduced me to the true joys of cable TV.