“It’s not TV; it’s HBO.”
The premium cable network has long looked down on traditional television like the snobby blonde kid in every high school movie ever. While HBO has delivered some of the finest TV in the medium’s history – Game of Thrones, The Sopranos, The Wire, etc. – it is not immune to the occasional misfire. As we’ve learned from GoT, the path to the throne is littered with setbacks. No network has a perfect batting average.
Here are some of HBO’s more notable whiffs:
Lucky Louie (2006) – One Season
“A show so vile, it makes you think the company’s arrogant It’s Not TV – It’s HBO slogan isn’t a brag – it’s a threat.” – USA Today.
Looking back on it, it isn’t so much that Lucky Louie is out-and-out bad, but more so that comedian Louis C.K. was still finding his footing as a storyteller. He had to continue to tweak the formula and play around with structure until he hit his stride with FX’s Louie.
What really makes this a bomb for HBO is what they missed out on. As we know now, C.K. is a television auteur and arguably the best comedian in the business currently. Had it worked out with HBO, the network could have kept him in house for years and made a killing.
John From Cincinnati (2007) – One Season
“Watching HBO’s surfing drama ‘John From Cincinnati’ is like sitting through a bad play at a tiny experimental theater…In short, if Gary Busey were a TV series, he would be ‘John From Cincinnati.’” – The Boston Globe
Oof, that’s harsh…but accurate. John From Cincinnati was a nonsensical mess that tried and failed to be a walking-talking think piece. The most damning aspect of this failure was that it was entirely HBO’s fault.
Creator and showrunner David Milch was only working on John because the network canceled his expensive western series Deadwood. At the time, you cold see their logic; Deadwood cost a bundle to make and was never a ratings behemoth.
Today, Deadwood is considered one of the most criminally underrated shows ever with a strong case for the best dialogue in television history. Critics have lauded Milch’s impeccable character drama for its nuance and flavor and consistently placed the series in many Top 10 All-Time lists. Hindsight is 20/20, of course, but if HBO had put a little more faith in Deadwood, audiences would have never been forced to suffer through John From Cincinnati.
What could have been…
The Brink (2015) – One Season
“The show operates at a tone of constant hysteria, which, as justified as that may be, begins to feel exhausting.” – Variety
A quality cast couldn’t save this dramedy, which was never quite funny or serious enough to be consistently good. Some half-baked gag always undermined the international politics and the punchlines were always a bit blunted by the show’s ham-handed attempts to be political. Talk about a double-edged sword.
Vinyl (2016) – One Season
“’Vinyl’ will leave you dancing to the music, but may leave you wondering why you should care.” – New York Post
I love me some Bobby Cannavale, but not even his charisma could buoy this dead weight. While Vinyl looked gorgeous, it turned out to be hollow inside. There was little character development to be found and sadly no true emotional anchors for audiences to latch onto.
But what really makes Vinyl one of HBO’s bigger missteps is its ridiculous price tag. The show’s first and only season cost a reported $100 million thanks in large part to its star studded library of musical license fees. HBO may not think of itself as TV, and that’s good because a $100 million hole is a situation only movie studios tend to find themselves in.