The HBO Television Network has a history of producing stellar content that, until the last decade or so, had been unrivaled in quality (and indeed, we here at Goliath recently spent some time talking about which HBO shows we felt were the very best). But even with all that success, there had to have been some duds right? Nobody’s perfect, after all. With success (or lack thereof) on the mind, we went back and did some research into the very worst HBO series of all time, and we were able to find out that yes, the much ballyhooed television network is not infallible. There’s been some very sub-quality programming aired on the network, although its fewer and further between than you might guess for a network that’s been around for forty odd years. But it does exist, and that’s why we’re bringing you the 20 worst HBO series ever made.
20. The Brink
The Brink was a political comedy that was supposed to be somewhat of a satire of real-life events. Starring Tim Robbins and Jack Black (huh?) as the U.S. Secretary of State and a lowly Foreign Serive Officer, respectively, the show revolved around a fictional geopolitical crisis in Pakistan, with the idea that every season of the show would feature a new crisis in a new place.
Unfortunately, those dreams were never realized. Despite originally renewing the series for a second season, HBO backtracked on that decision and cancelled The Brink after just 10 episodes. It was a decent concept, but simply poorly executed.
19. Any Given Wednesday with Bill Simmons
After ESPN and Bill Simmons had their infamous (and very public) break-up in 2015, the Boston-based sportswriter needed a new outlet. Rather than being sticking to traditional sports media, Simmons surprised everyone by announcing he had signed a deal with HBO to produce a weekly sports talk show.
Despite lining up big name guests like Ben Affleck, Mark Cuban, Aaron Rodgers, Kevin Durant, and Wayne Gretzky, the show floundered from the very start, never reaching more than 375,000 viewers and routinely attracting less than 200,000. HBO cancelled the series after just 17 half-hour episodes, and Simmons was forced to admit that the show was a failure.
18. Angry Boys
Angry Boys was a Australian mockumentary series that starred Chris Lilley, who actually played all six main characters, each with different personalities. The characters ranged from rapper, to Japanese mother, to surfing champion, to prison guard. Oh, and a set of identical twins. It’s a concept that shows like Orphan Black would later nail, but it just wasn’t in the cards for Angry Boys.
The series received mixed reviews, with critics saying that it was a lot of curse words, but not much comedy. It lasted only a single season of 12 episodes before HBO (and show partner the Australian Broadcasting Corporation) pulled the plug.
As seen with how successful Game of Thrones has been, there’s definitely an audience for a gritty drama about politics and scandal at the heart of an ancient empire. Unfortunately for HBO, Rome didn’t have the same magic that GoT does. Maybe it was just too entrenched in real history, as the first season tackled the rise and fall of Julius Caesar and the second depicts the power struggle that was created after his death.
Although the show definitely had a following and even won some Emmy Awards in Season One, the real problem for HBO was the cost. Rome was one of the most expensive shows ever produced when it debuted in 2005, and they simply couldn’t justify the cost. That resulted in a hastily crammed together conclusion that didn’t really satisfy anyone except the HBO accountants.
We struggled with putting Entourage on this list, because the early seasons of the bro-comedy were genuinely funny and entertaining. Just watching Jeremy Piven bellow and rage as super agent Ari Gold is worth your time. The rest of the cast forms a great dynamic, which is loosely based on executive producer Mark Wahlburg’s rise to fame. The show featured numerous famous guest stars, often making cameo appearances as themselves.
Unfortunately for Vinny Chase and the gang, the show seemed to run out of stream after three or four seasons. The same tired plotline took over (Vinny gets a movie deal, everyone’s rich, Vinny screws up the movie deal, everyone’s poor again). The trend would continue for a full eight seasons before HBO realized that many Entourage fans had lost interest. For some reason, they then made a poorly-received feature film to conclude the series.
15. Ja’mie: Private School Girl
What is it about HBO and Australian-based comedies? Just like Angry Boys, this series about an exclusive private girls’ grammar school in Sydney lasted only a single season. Actually, that first season only lasted six episodes. Once again, a joint project between the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and HBO, starring Chris Lilley as the main character, fell extremely flat.
The series was actually a continuation of the Ja’mie King character, who had previously appeared in other Lilley series like We Can Be Heroes and Summer Heights High. One critic wrote “You’d have to be the biggest of Ja’mie fans to want to watch her talking nonstop for 30 minutes.” Well, we’re not Ja’mie’s biggest fan, and we didn’t want to. So we didn’t.
14. Vice Principals
Here’s a show that hasn’t even officially been cancelled yet, although it’s scheduled to finish at the conclusion of 2017’s Season Two. After the success Danny McBride found on Eastbound and Down (one of the good HBO series), the premium cable channel hoped his popularity with viewers would transfer over to Vice Principals, where he plays (surprise) a high school VP who is trying to scheme his way to the top of the school administration.
The average review scores for Vice Principals are only around 5 or 6 out of 10 on most sites. If you expected this series to be “Kenny Powers works in a school and hilarity ensures,” you’ll be disappointed
We’ll never figure out how HBO failed so miserably with Vinyl. The series, about the music business in 1970s, was created by Mick Jagger, Martin Scorsese, and Terrence Winter (Boardwalk Empire, The Sopranos). Star Bobby Cannavale is a great actor and the show featured fictional cameos from the legends of rock and roll. This literally should have been a home run for HBO.
For whatever reason, audiences barely noticed when it debuted in 2016. HBO announced they had renewed it for a second season just days after the Season One premiere. The ratings they expected never materialized though, and they embarrassingly had to backtrack four months later and admit they were cancelling the show. What a shame.
12. Tell Me You Love Me
Tell Me You Love Me was a drama that revolved around three separate couples, each seeking the help of therapist May Foster (played by Jane Alexander) for a variety of reasons. Unfortunately, the show gained more notoriety for its very explicit sex scenes than it did for it’s writing or acting. In fact, some of the cast had to make it clear to the media that they weren’t actually having sex on camera, and that the scenes were in fact simulated.
Despite being a fictional drama series, Tell Me You Love Me was presented in a weird format that included no open credits, no theme song, and no musical score or soundtrack. In fact, the whole thing was shot with handheld cameras, making it feel more like a documentary about dysfunctional relationships than a series that was supposed to be engaging. Viewers didn’t stick around. Once again, HBO was forced to change their mind and cancel the show, despite originally announcing there would be a Season Two.
HBO brought back Sex and the City star Sarah Jessica Parker to be the headliner for Divorce, a comedy about a woman with two children and a failing marriage. She eventually has an affair and works up the courage to ask her husband (Thomas Hayden Church) for a divorce. Unfortunately, the topics of infidelity and divorce are hardly suitable to make people laugh.
Audiences tuned in with interest early on, but the ratings gradually fell. In fact, the Season One finale was the lowest rated episode so far – never a good sign! Perhaps out of loyalty to Parker, HBO did renew Divorce for a second season in 2016, although it hasn’t aired yet. We still think the writing is on the wall for this series, though. It’s not like HBO has never backtracked on a renewal before.
10. True Blood
Yeah yeah, we know. There are fans of this show out there, and they’re a vocal bunch who are more than likely to vampire hiss at its presence on this list. However, there’s simply no denying that True Blood, which followed an increasing number of supernatural creatures as they navigated life in Bon Temps, Louisiana, went sharply downhill after a strong first season. Rooted in the horror mystery genre, True Blood starred Anna Paquin as Sookie Stackhouse, a young waitress who finds herself in over her head when vampires, werewolves, witches and the like all take a pointed interest in her. Like we said before, True Blood started off well enough. That said, the show quickly devolves to the point where it’s little more than cringeworthy shock attempts intermingled with shots of beefy, shirtless men or naked women. Also starring Alexander Skarsgaard, Stephen Moyer and Ryan Kwanten, True Blood ran for seven seasons, which is probably six seasons longer than it needed to run, in retrospect.
We understand why Luck, the HBO drama which premiered in 2012 and ran for just one season, was greenlit. We imagine television executives drooling while thinking on a series about competitive horse racing, created by David Milch (a longtime TV stalwart who also created the much celebrated Deadwood for the network), and starring legendary actors such as Dustin Hoffman, Dennis Farina and Michael Gambon. Sign us up! Unfortunately, Luck turned out to be far better in concept than it was in practice. While the show received lukewarm reviews, with some suggesting it was on the “right track” as it moved towards its second season, it was ultimately cancelled after several of the show’s horses died on set. While HBO had greenlit the series for a second season, it was decided that the show was unable to continue after the deaths of these animals, and the show was the subject of much criticism from organizations such as PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals). As it stands, Luck remains a murky and somewhat underdeveloped addition to the HBO catalog, and most definitely not one of the network’s finer efforts.
We mean it when we say we’d watch Tom Jane in just about anything (the guy just wants his kids back, people), so color us surprised that Hung, which sees Jane starring as a poorly compensated middle school teacher who resorts to using his below-the-belt assets to start making a little extra cash on the side, turned out to be kind of a dud. Also starring Jane Adams, Anne Heche and Charlie Saxton, Hung premiered in 2009 and ran for three seasons before being cancelled. However, the show never managed to distill the appropriate mix between comedy and drama, instead struggling to find a balance which made use of the show’s funny and apropos subject matter (we live in dire times… who among us couldn’t use a little more cash?). Hung, which also whiffed on the opportunity to further examine both male prostitution and the sex trade in general, rates as one of the weaker HBO series in our minds.
7. The Comeback
Make no mistake, there’s nobody that loves Friends as much as the team here at Goliath. Most of us grew up watching it in one form or another, and many of us actively make efforts to watch the show nowadays as well (especially since it’s been added to Netflix). That said, we just can’t find a way to love The Comeback, which stars Friends alum Lisa Kudrow as Valerie Cherish, a former sitcom star who has fallen out of the limelight and attempts to make a comeback through a type of “found footage” reality TV show. It’s all a bit too meta for us, and the astonishing ten year gap between the show’s first season (which aired in 2005) and the show’s second season (which aired in 2014) is just so jarring that we’re unable to invest ourselves wholly in what otherwise might have been an astute and intelligent satire of celebrity and what it means to be famous in America. That said, there’s no denying Kudrow’s immense charm, an asset which can’t quite save the show entirely but does manage to save the show enough to make it watchable.
6. Lucky Louie
Before there was Louie, the FX comedy hit, written and starring comedian Louis C.K., there was Lucky Louie, the funny man’s first attempt at a television series. Lucky Louie, which aired on HBO for one season in 2006, was anything but the smash hit that Louie has been for FX. The show, which saw C.K. star as a down on his luck mechanic attempting to navigate the difficult terrain of the middle class while providing for his wife (Pamela Adlon) and his daughter (Kelly Gould), received extremely mixed reviews upon release, with most critics landing closer to negative than positive when it came to discussing the show. Lucky Louie, which dealt with many of the same issues that C.K. now deals with on Louie, could be said to be a bit ahead of its time by those attempting to defend the series, but overall it’s a rather lackluster attempt from both a network and a comedian who we expect better from. Lucky Louie does hold the distinction of being the first HBO show filmed in front of a live studio audience, but that’s more novelty than anything else.
5. Hello Ladies
We wanted to like Hello Ladies. No really, we did. Our love for Stephen Merchant, the British comedian best known as Ricky Gervais’ writing and producing partner, runs deep and true. That lanky Englishman knows how to make us howl with laughter, which is why it’s such a shock to the system to find that Hello Ladies, the HBO series starring Merchant as a gawky foreigner looking for love in modern day Los Angeles, isn’t really very funny. In fact, it’s not funny at all. Hello Ladies, which ran on HBO for one season in 2014, was cancelled before the show had a chance to develop a second season, and as much as it pains us to say it, the cancellation was justified. While the “fish out of water” shtick has proven effective time and time again, it simply didn’t work on Hello Ladies, which attempts to blend dry British sarcasm with the crassness and vapidity of contemporary Hollywood life to lukewarm results at best.
There’s nothing worse than wasted potential. It pains us when we come across a show that is clearly bad, but hidden in all the terrible are the kernels of something good, glimpses of what could have been. That’s the case with Carnivale, the dark fantasy series that aired for two seasons on HBO from 2003 to 2005. Carnivale, which starred Nick Stahl, Michael J. Anderson, and Adrienne Barbeau, was set during the Great Depression and followed the exploits of a travelling carnival troop, albeit with much grander themes incorporated into the show’s ethos. A grand story of good and evil, Carnivale used the weirdness of its setting to attempt to bridge topics as varied as Christian and religious mythology, ethics and destiny; however, whether the show is successful in building this mythology effectively is very much up for debate. A show that still maintains a fan base (most of whom likely saw the same potential in the show that we did), Carnivale may have been cancelled too soon, and perhaps another season or two to unpack the majority of what was going on here would have helped make it a stronger series.
3. How to Make It in America
It’s never a good thing to underestimate the astuteness of your audience, but that’s just what HBO did when they greenlit How to Make It in America, the comedy drama which ran on HBO for two seasons starting in 2010. An obvious attempt to fill the post-Entourage void in the HBO lineup, How To Make It In America was so akin to that show that many viewers were put off by the blatant similarities between the two series (Mark Whalberg acted as an executive producer on both shows, and the influence is most definitely felt). How To Make It In America, which starred Bryan Greenberg, Lake Bell, and Eddie Kaye Thomas, felt far too much like an East Coast version of Entourage to take off, and was cancelled after the conclusion of the show’s second season.
2. In Treatment
One of the true faults of In Treatment rests in the idea that we, as an audience, would like to sit through someone else’s therapy session. For whatever reason, those involved in the making of this HBO drama, which aired for three seasons starting in 2010, thought that this would make for compelling television. Spoiler alert: it didn’t. In Treatment, which starred Gabriel Byrne as a Dr. Paul Weston, a psychologist with more than a few problems of his own, received decidedly mixed reviews upon its release, with more than a few critics labelling the show as “tiresome” rather than compelling. The series, which also starred Dianne West, Michelle Forbes, and Melissa George, was adapted from an Israeli television series titled BeTipul, and from our understanding In Treatment sticks very close to the source material.
1. John From Cincinnati
We’ve circled back round to Deadwood creator David Milch again, and this time we’re going to talk about his extremely poor HBO series John From Cincinnati. A collaborative effort between Milch and acclaimed surf author Kem Nunn (of Tapping the Source fame), John From Cincinnati is a broody melodrama which follows the ripple effects of a mysterious young man’s appearance and influence in the surfing community of Southern California. The series, which was almost universally panned despite a strong push from HBO to position it as a hit, remains one of the biggest flops in the network’s history; it was cancelled after only one season, despite a strong cast which included the always underrated Bruce Greenwood, Rebecca De Mornay, and Ed O’Neil.