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10 HBO Shows That Paved The Way For 'Game Of Thrones'

Features
by The Playlist Staff
June 10, 2014 1:56 PM
18 Comments
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We've survived the fight between the Mountain and the Viper, and (for now) the battle for control of the Wall, and this Sunday brings the grand finale to the fourth season of "Game Of Thrones." In the four years since the show began, a curious thing happened—it became a phenomenon.

The show was the biggest gamble the pay-cable monster had ever taken, a hugely expensive take on a genre that had generally been seen as niche and uncool, with too many dragons to attract the chattering classes that had turned "The Sopranos" and "The Wire" into must-see television, and potentially too much blood and gore to become the mainstream blockbusters that "The Lord of the Rings" films had been.

And yet thanks to an outstanding cast, high production values, and perhaps most importantly, a truly remarkable job of adapting George R.R. Martin's books by showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, the show picked up stellar reviews and proved to be a hit right out of the gate. But that was just the beginning. Viewing figures have skyrocketed with every season, and it's now not just HBO's biggest ever original series (recently overtaking "The Sopranos"), but one of the biggest dramas on TV, something that would have been unthinkable in the days of network TV dominance.

With this coming Sunday's season finale, we're probably approaching the halfway point of the show, and as such, it seemed like a good point to sit down and take a look back at the road to "Game Of Thrones." HBO had already established themselves as a brand name for quality TV, and so we've picked out ten of their shows that directly or indirectly proved to be forerunners to their biggest ever blockbuster. Take a look below, and let us know your favorites in the comments section.

"Tales From The Crypt" (7 Seasons, 1989-1997)
Not the very first original HBO drama (it followed British co-production "Philip Marlowe, Private Eye" and Jim Henson and Anthony Minghella's excellent anthology show "The Storyteller"), but the first seminal hit, albeit somewhat overshadowed now by what came after, "Tales From the Crypt" was an anthology series based on the classic EC Comics horror series (though most of the episodes were actually lifted from other EC titles like "Vault Of Horror" or "Crime SuspensStories"), with each episode narrated by eerie old-school horror host the Crypt Keeper (a puppet voiced by John Kassir, who became something of an icon). The show doesn't have much of an impact on pop culture these days, but was a big hit at the time, being recut for primetime showings on Fox, spawning theatrical features (1995's "Demon Knight" and 1996's "Bordello of Blood"), a Saturday morning cartoon, a game show, a short-lived sci-fi spin-off called "Perversions Of Science" and three soundtrack albums. While the anthology structure doesn't share much DNA with "Game Of Thrones," there were other crucial ways in which it served as a forerunner. Firstly, the way in which it married genre material with unrepentant, only-on-pay-cable nudity and gore, something that the network would try only sparingly over the next twenty years. Secondly, it was the first ongoing show to borrow big movie names for the network: A-list directors and producers Robert Zemeckis, Joel Silver, Walter Hill and Richard Donner were executive producers on the show (and all directed episodes), while helmers including William Friedkin, Tobe Hooper, Peter Medak, Brian Helgeland, Tom Hanks (!), Michael J. Fox (!!) and Arnold Schwarzenegger (!!!) stepped behind the camera for episodes. There was a who's who in front of the camera, too, with faces like Kirk Douglas, Daniel Craig, Benicio Del Toro, Demi Moore, Donald O'Connor, Christopher Reeve, Brad Pitt, Martin Sheen, Isabella Rosselini and Ewan McGregor all popping up (some pre-fame, some after it). These days, it's a little ropey in places, particularly when the Crypt Keeper is involved, but can be a lot of fun too. With the success of the EC-indebted "American Horror Story," maybe it's time for a reboot? Indeed, Cinemax were said to be interested a few years back...

"Oz"

"Oz" (6 Seasons, 1997-2003)
Though overshadowed by "The Sopranos" and "The Wire," "Oz," the network's first hour-long drama, is essentially patient zero for the pay-cable drama as we know it. Without it, shows like "Breaking Bad" and "Sons Of Anarchy" on rival networks, and yes, "Game Of Thrones," might not have existed at all. Created by Tom Fontana, best known for his work on "Homicide: Life On The Street," and who had a writing credit on every one of the show's episodes, it's set in the Oswald State Correctional Facility, a maximum security prison in which an idealistic manager has set up a unit called Emerald City, a controlled, experimental place with glass walls intended to show that even the most dangerous prisoners can be rehabilitated. It's safe to say that the experiment doesn't work. More than fifteen years since it started to air, it remains something of a high watermark for brutality on television, with rape, racism, death-by-fire and worse all on the cards from the off, and things only getting more grotesque from there. The pioneer of the kind of expansive cast that would come down the line, with early roles from notable TV figures like Christopher Meloni, Harold Perrineau, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Dean Winters and Edie Falco, there is still a strange humanism to the show. No matter how monstrous the characters get (and they are particularly monstrous, given that a large number of them are Aryan Brotherhood members, and the most obviously sympathetic character is Lee Tergesen's Beecher, an alcoholic who drunkenly ran over a child), there's a kind of compassion towards all of them, with the twisted romance between Beecher and Meloni's bisexual serial killer being a curiously tender example. Given what's come since, it doesn't quite stand up as the finest example of the genre. The realistic docu-drama style borrowed from "Homicide" jars awkwardly with the absurd Grand Guignol melodrama of the plotting, and the semi-poetic narration by Perrineau's wheelchair-bound inmate often grates. But there's still an enormous amount of compelling drama to be found here, and if nothing else, the way it pioneered making sympathetic figures out of those who'd be villains elsewhere can be reflected all the way through to "Game Of Thrones."

"Sex And The City" (6 Seasons, 1998-2004)
"Oz" was the show that got its foot in the door, but "Sex & The City" was the one that kicked it wide open. It was the first HBO show to really take over pop culture in the way that was restricted to network shows before that point ("The Larry Sanders Show," which SATC essentially succeeded, came closest, but was always more of a critics' favorite, its highest ratings a full seven million lower than its successor). Darren Star and Michael Patrick King's show, adapted from Candace Bushnell's book, essentially shaped a generation of women (and many men), making Cosmos the hottest drink around and putting Jimmy Choo on everyone's shopping list. It's harder to remember having been tarnished by the two increasingly awful movies, but the show itself, which revolved around narrator Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker), the sexually confident Samantha (Kim Cattrall), uptight, preppy Charlotte (Kristin Davis) and careerist Miranda (Cynthia Nixon), was also very good for the most part; sharp and funny and, most importantly of all, sexually frank. "Oz" hadn't shied from sexuality, but that show's sexuality mostly revolved around prison rape. Here, though, as you might have imagined from the title, was a show that had sex at its very center, and in a more explicit and honest sense than had ever really been shown on TV, and particularly bold in making its older character, Samantha, the most unabashed and upfront about her sexuality. Obviously, Lena Dunham's "Girls" is the more obvious successor to the show, but sex is just as crucial to "Game Of Thrones" as the violence. Sometimes—often, even—it's gratuitous and titillating, not least with the "sexposition" it pioneered (livening up lengthy backstory monologues by having an orgy in the background), but it also uses fucking to tell a story or reveal character in a refreshingly adult way, and that's something that Carrie and her gang led the way towards.

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18 Comments

  • Mimi | June 22, 2014 11:45 PMReply

    Last nights episode of a Game of Thrones did it for me !! I'm done,,
    Through lay enjoyed it until now, but when you put a baby in the snow to be picked up by the devil-that's where I call it quits,and so should all the millions of other viewers too, I'd you have any ethics or morals left in this disgusting world!

  • Martin | June 25, 2014 3:20 PM

    You sound like nut case! There have been much more disturbing scenes than that in the show. And they are not devils anyway but fictional characters much like the aforementioned Devil.
    Go preach your misguided ethics and Devil mumbo jumbo somewhere else and leave us to enjoy a great show

  • mike | June 19, 2014 3:20 PMReply

    So.....let me get this straight: "Sex & The City" is ON the list, and "Larry Sanders" gets HONORABLE MENTION?

    More and more you reveal yourselves as privileged twenty-somethings with a limited world view and too much time on that laptop you parents bought for you when you moved to the big city.

  • Cartman | June 17, 2014 11:46 PMReply

    To put Game of Thrones in the same sentence as The Wire, Carnivàle, The Sopranos, Deadwood, Rome and OZ is a gigantic insult to art. GOT is embarrassing, it's mindless entertainment. The writing sucks in every season and while on The Wire you have all the best characters in TV-history, all incredibly detailed, in GOT you have characters that are just there to serve the plot, characters you don't care about and don't know anything about. The problem is that today's audiences are dumb and lazy, so obviously they see GOT as something good, while it's actually one of the worst cable series i've ever seen. It doesn't mean anything(like Breaking Bad), it doesn't say anything about anything and doesn't make us think about anything. It's not even a good entertainment product considering that basically there are 100 different series in one, in every episode. It is so incredibly shattered and confused. Season 5 will start in 10 months and yet nothing has moved since the beginning. Only people dying for whatever reason...and people walking in ancient gardens...all the time, while talking about nonsense.

  • airjosh | July 3, 2014 11:08 PM

    Confusing?? Characters you don't care about? Maybe you should read the books, they're a good clarification, or perhaps pay attention to the show more instead of approaching it with the attitude that it is a wast of your time, which is the feeling that I am getting from you. Also it has some of the best and most fleshed out characters you will find anywhere, plenty of people care about them. Not every show has to say something world changing, creating an entirely new WORLD that you can get lost in is impressive too. The fact that the show is in its fourth season and only half over is evidence of its intense plotting and realism, in the real world things don't just happen extremly fast like they do in most fiction, Game of Thrones is more organic

  • Heartfeltman | June 16, 2014 3:31 AMReply

    Honorable Mention? John From Cincinnati?
    Nothing honorable there, as the creation of this show was the death of Deadwood.

  • Airjosh | July 3, 2014 10:49 PM

    Confusing?? Characters you don't care about? Maybe you should read the books, they're a good clarification, or perhaps pay attention to the show more instead of approaching it with the attitude that it is a wast of your time, which is the feeling that I am getting from you. Also it has some of the best and most fleshed out characters you will find anywhere, plenty of people care about them. Not every show has to say something world changing, creating an entirely new WORLD that you can get lost in is impressive too.

  • creambean | June 16, 2014 2:01 AMReply

    I came to this article fully ready to rail on it for not including Carnivale, Like so many other articles do. I was pleasantly surprised.

  • Eric Robert Wilkinson | June 13, 2014 10:58 AMReply

    DEADWOOD though the fact you don't even name check TREME hurts a bit...

  • MikeH1 | June 12, 2014 5:03 AMReply

    EPIC GAME OF THRONES REMIX !

    /watch?v=UwIsfno0hsM

  • Glen | June 11, 2014 3:28 PMReply

    Hey, I'll accuse Game of Thrones of social realism.

    Martin starts with what I will flat-out call the deepest and most realistic depiction of medieval society, politics, economics and government in the history of fiction, and then gradually layers magic on top of it. Human interaction: family, love, enemies, and every other kind of interpersonal dynamic is there, and rich.

    It's extremely socially realistic.

  • Bunglemas | June 10, 2014 10:23 PMReply

    Ok, I'm happy with this

  • s | June 10, 2014 6:20 PMReply

    I believe Benioff and Weiss pitched Game of Thrones to HBO as "The Sopranos in Middle Earth." I'd argue that there's really nothing out there like Game of Thrones, but in terms of complexity, The Wire is the closest comparison. All the details matter in both series.

    Thanks for reminding me about the awesome show, Carnivale, that was canceled too soon. What a cliffhanger, too!

  • KL | June 10, 2014 4:50 PMReply

    Yet again Playlist, decent article, shame about comments.

  • WOW | June 10, 2014 4:30 PMReply

    "And yet thanks to an outstanding cast, high production values, and perhaps most importantly, a truly remarkable job of adapting George R.R. Martin's books by showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss"

    Wow. I expect so much more from The Playlist. Not a mention of the rapes and sexual violence these esteemed show-runners added? Or is a blithe nod to the fact that the sex is "sometimes" gratuitous enough for you guys? I agree, this is click-bait - but worse, it's click-bait that glorifies something which good critics should be deconstructing not propping up for the sake of a few $$.

  • benutty | June 10, 2014 2:05 PMReply

    this is a ridiculous post because it's literally just a list of shows that came before Game of Thrones on HBO rather than a critical assessment of things within the genre and void that GoT fills that might actually have paved the way for it. click-bait, click-bait, click-bait. sad.

  • dave | June 10, 2014 2:28 PM

    yah, these two aren't exactly the A-Team at playlist

  • Benfail | June 10, 2014 2:19 PM

    What's sad is that you actually obvious didn't read it and get the context.

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