HBO & The Start of Quality US Drama TV in the 90’s & 00’s

Those aspiring to take a first dive in the massive riches of modern American drama television are up for a challenge, but a hugely enjoyable one. During the 1990’s and 2000’s American drama television has accumulated into an intransparant mass of solid cultural quality, possibly taking at least two years in viewing time to get through. In this article I will take a closer look at the beginning of the ‘new’ tv drama, and list the best American drama tv shows of the nineties and early 2000’s of the cable network it all started with: Home Box Office.

HBO, an operating subsidiary of Time Warner, is the oldest and longest continuously operating pay television service in the United States. The network was founded in 1972 and has been a home to a wide variety of content: sports, documentaries, films, politics, and drama series. In 1997, HBO launched its first one-hour dramatic narrative series Oz, which tells the raw and uncompromising stories about the prisoners and staff within the fictional prison Emerald City.

With regard to the production of this new show HBO’s funding model was of the utmost importance. The pay subscription model means add free television, which leads , more importantly, to no interference in any way. Until Oz, television drama was heavily pressured by (mostly republican) CEO’s and advertisers, who wanted their commercials to be squeezed in by life affirming moments, decent language and happy endings. Plotting narratives for television was a matter of marketing and consumer psychology; Oz was one of the first tv shows ever that was freed from this burden and hence, could be developed in absolute artistic freedom. A new format was born, along with the realization that tv drama could actually entail rich and compelling story-telling.

Although Oz received critical acclaim, it was The Sopranos (1999) that paved the way for the many high quality tv series that would follow. Today’s hits like Mad Men, Boardwalk Empire and Game of Thrones would never have seen the light without David Chase’s mob tales. As such, the pioneering on HBO’s account can be seen as the beginning of the ‘second golden age of television’ and the series that followed The Sopranos quite quickly as modern-day classics. The overview below depicts an overview of the best these ‘first’ HBO series, some of which may never be surpassed in their superiority.

Top 5 US drama shows of the 90’s & early 00’s by HBO

Here are listed the best HBO drama’s of the nineties and the 2000’s, which revolutionized American scripted series.

5. Carnivàle (2003)

Created by Daniel Knauf

One of the finer American dark mystery shows from HBO

Despite it’s (very) premature ending, many who’ve seen Carnivale remember the show for it’s distinctive context and it’s captivating darkness. The show centers around a kind hearted fugitive named Ben Hawkins, who finds shelter within a traveling carnival during the thirties. Parallel to the group of carnies a mysterious priest, Brother Justin Crowe, shares cryptic and prophetic dreams with Hawkins. Both characters follow a path that will lead them to a grand clash between good and evil – and there it ends. Although the ending contrasts the dramatic and mysterious plot that leads to it too much in my opinion, both seasons are a thrilling and rewarding experience.

4. Oz (1997)

Created by Tom Fantana

Incredibly violent US television show of the nineties

Violence, violence. At best, Oz is a fantastic, honest study of social dynamics within an unusual prison facility. The prison wards, priest, nurses and unit manager are depicted with the same nuance as the prisoners and in general, the show gives a no-holds-barred review of prison life. At worst, Oz is a brutal layering of beatings, rape and torture that makes the show tough to swallow in its entirety. Yet, the insertion of the blurred lines between good and evil have been a soothing and honorable pursuit that has inspired many, many writers who’ll always be dutiable to the crass world of Oz.


3. Six Feet Under (2001)

Created by Alan Ball

Six Feet Under (2001)

Alan Ball’s Six Feet Under bravely faced the largest taboo in our Western civilization: death. It did so through the Fishers, a California family that runs an independent funeral home. The series’ darkly comical approach to life’s challenges is warming and confrontational at the same time, not to say groundbreaking. This show may get boxed in between all the good shows that have been made since it’s origin – I sincerely hope this show won’t ever be forgotten. The controversial themes it explored (homosexuality for instance) and the marvelous characters that constitute the Fisher family make Six Feet Under deserve a very strong place in television-history.

2. The Sopranos (1999)

Created by David Chase

By far the best gangster series of the nineties in American television

David Chase’s modern mob story is very unlikely to be lost in oblivion the next 100 years. Everyone has at least heard about this show and is familiar with the concept: a mafia capo from New Jersey seeks help upon a psychotherapist. Both his families (blood and gang) are formed by an astonishing range of beautiful characters and the plots they’re put through are simply brilliant. Although hugely indebted to the Godfather series and Martin Scorcese’s Mafia pictures, The Sopranos transcends its influences in every way. The accomplishment of James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano is breath taking. The layered, contradicting and vulnerable aspects of Tony’s personality marked the beginning of a trend: putting forward a protagonist that clearly is on the ‘wrong’ side on the good vs. bad continuum. Yet, the mob boss and the ones that have to walk with him win the viewer’s sympathy every single season and every single episode. This series left its fingerprints on the medium that is television, probably forever.

1. The Wire (2002)

Created by David Simon

The Wire (2002)

Pitching The Wire to non-believers is a tough job. ‘An anti-cop show disguised as a cop show’ doesn’t tingle anyone. “Truthful, complex stories about the American people left behind in a postmodern urban society” may cover the series’ content, but will not invite a lot of people to start viewing the best tv show ever made. The cult status The Wire (slowly) received probably has a lot to do with word-of-mouth, and for good reason. The show is simply ingenious and will leave a lasting impression, leaving the restraint one might have before watching the show far behind. Despite it’s ambition to make a harsh point, it’s complexity and the vast amount of characters, The Wire tells unheard stories in an original and thought provoking way. I am confident we’ll see lots of great and innovative drama shows in the years to come, but I can hardly believe one of them is going to beat The Wire in all its strength.

Interested in current HBO tv shows? Check out the best HBO shows in 2014 & the 10?s – Review & preview