enlightened

The Best HBO Deep Cuts for Your Quarantine Viewing Pleasure

When else are you gonna have the time to watch all 501 minutes of ‘John Adams’

HBO has forsaken us. All of this talk about hundreds of hours of original programming being made available for free, only to leave us with a total of nine shows from its back catalog. That’s an especially cruel bait-and-switch at a moment when we actually have the time to sit down and watch John from Cincinnati. Or Treme. Or Hung. Or How to Make It in America. Or The Mind of the Married Man. Or any of the other deep cuts that weren’t necessarily cultural touchstones on the level of The Sopranos and Sex and the City but are worthwhile and entertaining enough to check out when there’s nothing else to do but binge on old TV all day (and you’ve already gotten your fill of Tiger King). 

Allow us then to do HBO’s job for it, and dig into the network’s deep cuts on your behalf. Ideally, they’d also be streaming gratis on HBO NOW, but if we prove enticing enough, you can find almost all of them (with a subscription, of course) on Hulu, Amazon Prime, YouTube, etc. (as well as the aforementioned subscription side of HBO NOW or HBO GO).

Mr. Show with Bob and David

Tim Grierson, Contributing Editor: “We have the technology. The time is now. Science can wait no longer. Children are our future. America can, should, must and will blow up the moon.”

Before they were Saul Goodman and Tobias Fünke, they were Bob and David, the masterminds behind Mr. Show, the terrific, short-lived HBO sketch show that occasionally popped up on your television in the mid- to late-1990s. The world knew Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Saturday Night Live, SCTV, The Kids in the Hall, The Ben Stiller Show and In Living Color, but Bob Odenkirk and David Cross’ cult classic still feels like the essential ground zero for much of the cool comedy we have today. Proudly anti-humor, yet still laugh-out-loud funny, Mr. Show was what happened when comics who couldn’t get much going in Hollywood because they were too weird decided to join forces. Everything from Arrested Development to Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! to I Think You Should Leave feels indebted to its pointedly strange brand of sketch humor.

Like a lot of similar programs, Mr. Show consisted of a bunch of bits tied together, all filmed in front of a studio audience in a nondescript studio space. (One of my big thrills as a college kid was being able to go to a couple tapings. It felt like watching the Beatles in Hamburg.) But what set Mr. Show apart was how demonstrably snotty it was. The sketches weren’t necessarily mean-spirited, but Odenkirk and Cross carried a chip on their shoulder, as if they knew they weren’t nearly appreciated enough for how funny they were. And because you were watching this under-the-radar show, you were part of the cool club — you got what was so great about Mr. Show. Pre-internet, programs such as Mr. Show were like the zines of television — something you passed around, sharing them like secrets.

The sketches could be absurd or satirical. Or sometimes, they could be both, like an extended bit in which NASA decides, for the Fourth of July, that they will blow up the moon. (“And we’ll be doing it during a full moon, so we make sure we get it all.”) What followed was a ridiculous, but completely plausible, scenario in which America is gripped with feverish excitement at the prospect of destroying the moon. U!S!A! U!S!A!

Odenkirk and Cross were the stars, but they helped introduce a whole collection of rising talent, including Paul F. Tompkins, Jack Black, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Brian Posehn, Scott Aukerman and Sarah Silverman. Mr. Show was decidedly Gen X in its sensibility, suspicious of institutions and disdainful of anything resembling “selling out.” Perhaps the most representative Mr. Show sketch involved a soulless conglomerate buying San Francisco, turning it into a godawful amusement park with sanitized hippies and a special “BachelorLand” for tourists who are scared of homosexuality. It articulates everything that needs to be said about the corporatization of America in the last 20 years.

Like the Velvet Underground, Mr. Show was heavily influential, as opposed to actually popular at the time. But it laid the groundwork for every Key & Peele and Inside Amy Schumer that came in its wake. Nowadays, there’s a whole cottage industry of sketch-comedy shows, whereas back then, Mr. Show still felt odd and different. That, as much as its huge quantity of laughs, has been what’s made it stay so special.

John Adams

Brian VanHooker, Staff Writer: John Adams is a seven-part miniseries chronicling the life of perhaps our most under-appreciated founding father. Adams lacked the natural gifts that some of his more famous compatriots enjoyed — deficient in Thomas Jefferson’s knack for poetry, which aided him in the drafting of the Declaration of Independence; short on the charm and scientific genius of Benjamin Franklin; and without the natural leadership skills that made George Washington an effective Commander-in-Chief. But Adams made up for these shortcomings by working harder than any of them. His efforts for the cause of liberty extended from his days in the Continental Congress, through his years in Europe where he gathered America’s first allies and negotiated peace with Britain, to his embattled days as our second president. Plus, he did it all without the aid of slaves — finding slavery morally repugnant, unlike many of his fellow founders.

The HBO series does justice to Adams by making him the centerpiece of a revolution that often casts him as a supporting player. The time period is beautifully crafted, and the pacing is extraordinary for a series based on a 750-page biography (which is also fantastic, but I digress). While the impressive supporting cast includes the likes of Laura Linney, Tom Wilkinson, David Morse and Danny Huston, the series is really a vehicle for the acting genius of Paul Giamatti, at a time when we were only just starting to understand how fucking great he is. Giamatti plays the stubborn, brilliant, indefatigable Adams with the right amount of nuance to make him accessible, while also making clear why Adams so often alienated others. 

Honestly, there is so much to like about this series, but at its core, John Adams is amazing simply for how it shows off the extraordinary talents of two men: Paul Giamatti and John Adams.

The Larry Sanders Show

Miles Klee, Staff Writer: Long before we became familiar with the foibles of Larry David in Curb Your Enthusiasm, another curmudgeon named Larry was the funniest character on TV. 

The Larry Sanders Show, a dry-as-the-desert sitcom starring the irreplaceable Garry Shandling in the title role, by rights should have killed the late-night talk show format once and for all — that’s how ruthlessly Shandling skewered the phony, hack-driven, mind-numbing world of Hollywood celebutainment. The daring of the comedy lies in its discomfort: Larry Sanders is an insecure, unlikeable whiner whose show amounts to unfunny dreck, but behind the scenes, petty industry politics and personal grudges make for a hilarious symphony of discontent. 

The whole ensemble shines, with plenty of 1990s up-and-comers, but Jeffrey Tambor (if you care to forget the harassment allegations) is a perfect moron as Hank Kingsley, the couch-bound sidekick with one stupid catchphrase, “Hey now!” 

Best of all, however, is the magnificent Rip Torn as Artie, a Rabelaisian producer and fixer who steers the sinking ship with titanic bluster (there’s a reason Torn was later cast as Jack Donaghy’s boss on 30 Rock, one of many shows that owes a debt to Larry Sanders). Overall, it’s the best possible antidote for anyone bored with the work-from-home version of Kimmel, Colbert and Fallon, as well as a sharp-elbowed reminder that even under the best conditions, the people paid to make us laugh are miserable. 

Garry and Rip, we miss you lots — and thanks for leaving us this scathing masterpiece.

Dream On

Jeff Gross, Social Media Editor: I’m pissed HBO hasn’t figured out how to get Dream On into their streaming offerings. Looking back on the early 1990s sitcom about a Manhattan divorcee shacking up with his teenage son (and the hijinks that ensue, mainly via a parade of oft-naked lady callers), the reviews of the show weren’t spectacular. But for young Jeffy sneaking HBO when his parents weren’t home, Dream On was the kind of formative, sexual-awakening type of stuff a young millennial could hang his hat on. I can still remember the episode where the son, played by Chris Demetral, has his first sexual experience — that shit was like crack to an 11-year-old. 

I’d really like to rewatch it to find out how it holds up, but Dream On has never been available on HBO GO or NOW. Word on the street is that it’s because it’s too expensive to get the music rights cleared. I guess I’ll just have to continue remembering it fondly.

Enlightened

Alana Levinson, Deputy Editor: A lot of people love to stunt online like they’re part of the Laura Dern hive because they loved Jurassic Park growing up and can’t get enough of her rich bitch in Big Little Lies. But the real ones know about possibly her greatest (and most underrated) role: Amy Jellicoe in Enlightened. The 2011 dark comedy follows the story of a mid-level corporate manager who has an affair with her boss and gets demoted, prompting a complete mental breakdown, a trip to rehab and a return to the company to try and instill her newfound woo-woo values. While being reassigned to work with the dregs (other people they couldn’t fire for fear of legal action), she becomes aware of the massively evil shit the company is doing and decides to work with a reporter to blow up the whole thing. 

Dern is at her best as a delusional — yet well-meaning — psycho as we watch her slowly radicalize, and in doing so, inspire others around her to say “fuck it” to the toxic ways they’ve been living. It also has Luke Wilson as her ex-husband, a former cokehead she can’t seem to quit. 

I struggle to understand why this show was canceled after two seasons, and I can’t help but think it was too ahead of its time. It has a #MeToo storyline, explores issues of mental health, wellness and addiction, and gets viewers amped to stick it to the man. There might not be a better show for this current moment. 

Flight of the Conchords

Nick Leftley, Senior Editor: Flight of the Conchords only ran for two seasons, between 2007 and 2009, and the second season was — with the best will in the world — not that great. And yet the duo are still remembered with the awe and affection people normally reserve for genuinely legendary bands, because that’s how astonishingly funny the first season was. 

Music aside, the genius lay in the performances of Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie as the titular band, who played their parts with a mumbling, understated self-seriousness that turned their characters from obvious cliches — hipster musicians living in Brooklyn — into fully recognizable (if painfully awkward) human beings. Seriously, imagine any average SNL-er being given the same material and picture what we would have got instead — it doesn’t bear thinking about.

As memorable as the show itself — and I don’t want to be too hard on the second season; it did, after all, give us the “Unnatural Love” episode where Jemaine inadvertently starts dating an Australian, which is up there with the absolute best of the show — were the frankly bizarre doors it opened for the pair. Clement has been the more visible of the two, appearing in everything from The Simpsons to Legion, and co-writing, co-directing and co-starring in the original What We Do In the Shadows movie with Taika Waititi (alongside former co-star Rhys Darby, who’d played the band’s sublimely useless manager and who, as he so often did on Conchords, once again threatened to completely steal the show).

But perhaps Clement’s most notable mainstream moment has been playing the villainous giant crab Tamatoa in Disney mega-hit Moana, channeling the David Bowie persona he perfected on Conchords.

Considering he’s slated to appear in at least two of the Avatar sequels, though, that might well change. As for McKenzie? Well, he won an Oscar for his work on the recent Muppets movies, specifically, the “Man or Muppet” song, which earned him the Best Original Song statuette — something I actually kind of regard as a travesty (but only because “Life’s a Happy Song” is clearly the superior tune).

Oh, and he was in at least three Lord of the Rings movies, because why the hell not? With the good will the pair earned from Conchords, it’s amazing the two haven’t appeared in front of the camera even more frequently. But then, that was always their genius — the ever-underappreciated talent for understatement.

The Leftovers

Andrew Fiouzi, Staff Writer: The Leftovers isn’t a show you should watch right now. I was barely prepared for it in 2014, a full six years before a global pandemic would literally take people from their families and the mortal plane. Because this show is more or less about that. Specifically, it’s about the aftermath of a sudden global event wherein two percent of the world’s population disappears for no explicable reason. It’s three seasons of sad people fumbling through their even sadder lives — for “comic relief,” there’s a nihilistic cult referred to as “the guilty remnant” whose members chain-smoke cigarettes for three seasons. 

Again, it’s got all the stuff that you don’t need to bear witness at this exact moment: character’s coping with the sudden loss of their loved ones, suicidal teens, religious rationale for why the world is being punished, and of course, cigarettes, lots and lots of cigarettes. The Leftovers is basically sadness porn for the melancholic. 

And yet, as much as I don’t think this is the sort of show that you should probably be watching during quarantine, I’m here to tell you to watch it anyway. Not because I’m a masochist, but because there are scenes like the one in the second season in which Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux) croons the song “Homeward Bound,” backlit by an ethereal blue hue where you feel like you’re watching something genuinely hopeful. It’s not your typical hope. You don’t watch The Leftovers to feel warm and fuzzy. That’s what High Maintenance — another great HBO show — is for. You watch The Leftovers because it reminds you that even amidst absurd levels of sadness, there are still small moments of humanity that bubble up to the surface. 

Looking

Joseph Longo, Staff Writer: Looking was plagued from the start. The straights saw gay Sex and the City, and the gays railed against another straight-assimilating queer program. What Looking really was, though, is an imperfect portrait of three gay best friends navigating an increasingly apps-based 2014 queer San Francisco not centered around cis men.

Jonathan Groff stars as Patrick, a narcissistic techie who wants the storybook romance but can’t overcome his fear of intimacy. He’s joined by Dom (Murray Bartlett), a sweet daddy sommelier, and Agustin (Frankie J. Alvarez), an uncompromising artist’s assistant. 

Queerness has changed since 2016 when the show was canceled after two seasons (and a movie). As such, Looking is less timely and more a memento of a bygone era it’s probably best we’ve moved on from. Still, when you’re sitting at home alone and full of wistful nostalgia for those days when you could go dance till 4 a.m. in a packed club smelling of poppers and weed, plop on Looking and sink into the hazy bay of San Francisco boys.

7 Days in Hell 

Eddie Kim, Staff Writer: God help me, I actually watched most of the epic, three-day tennis match — more of a brawl with racquets, really — between John Isner and Nicolas Mahut at Wimbledon in 2010. It’s the longest match in tennis history, and my roommates and I followed the match each day with rapidly mounting incredulity. The rules of tennis make an infinite match technically possible, but no pair had ever tested the limits of chance and the human body like Isner and Mahut. You could see their bodies withering out there under the lights. The whole thing felt like a fever dream. We couldn’t stop laughing at the heinous humanity of it all.

HBO’s 2015 mockumentary 7 Days in Hell captures the loopy insanity of that real-world fiasco by stretching out the timeline and letting the antics unfold for fictional stars “Aaron Williams” and “Charles Poole.” In prototypical sports-feud fashion, the two couldn’t be more different. Aaron (played by a frenetic Andy Samberg) is the oversexed, overstimulated adopted brother of the Williams sisters; Charles (Kit Harrington) is a former child prodigy who seems dumbfounded by common sense and the broader world. The two collide on a grass court in a Dadaist diorama of suffering — endless and existential and rife with hyperbole. It makes fun of everything tennis is, while celebrating why people could care so much.  

There’s so much stupid, smile-inducing stuff that unfolds in this movie, all buoyed by an A-list stream of cameos, including from Serena herself. It’s got wry nods to real-life tennis gods like Agassi and Federer. It’s got slapstick antics (barf, cocaine, on-court coitus). It is, in other words, a mess of escapist humor perfect for a time when we don’t have any sports at all. 

Bonus round: If one mockumentary isn’t enough, consider the 2017 cycling send-up Tour de Pharmacy, also directed and written by Jake Szymanski and Murray Miller.

The Newsroom

Lauren Vinopal, Staff Writer: The Newsroom is an Aaron Sorkin drama about a team of journalists fighting to grow a backbone in the spineless world of 24-hour cable news. The series opens with Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels), an anchor for the fictional show News Night, speaking on a panel at Northwestern. When a student asks why America is the greatest country, he gears up to offer a pat answer, but spurred on by imagining his producer ex-girlfriend in the audience holding signs encouraging him not to peddle bullshit, he rants about the country’s shortcomings while articulating why he didn’t think it was a lost cause either. The message was over-the-top, but clear: Real reporters value the truth no matter how harsh it may sound — oh, and we fuck. 

The latter part of this message is clearer than ever when McAvoy gets back to the station, where his intern Maggie is openly dating the show’s former executive producer, Don, in a very pre-#MeToo professional environment. Don is ousted to a later time slot, not for sleeping with a subordinate, but so McAvoy’s aforementioned ex, Mackenzie aka “Mac” (Emily Mortimer), can come in and clean up the mess he created. McAvoy, desperate for a ratings rebound after his seemingly unpatriotic comments, agrees to work with the woman who broke his heart under the pretense that he can fire her whenever he wants. Meanwhile, Mac promotes Maggie, and promptly encourages token nice guy Jim (Maggie’s new supervisor) to seduce her away from Don. It’s one hot HR nightmare. 

I watched the series when it first aired eight years ago and re-binged it for the first time since becoming a journalist the second week of March, as one of the darkest stories of my generation eclipsed the news cycle indefinitely. In any other context, telling a pilot we caught Osama bin Laden while stuck on the tarmac, or ending a pitch meeting about Bigfoot to earnestly address the very real attempted assassination on former Representative Gabrielle Giffords in 2011, would be wildly unrealistic. But the coronavirus pandemic had me primed for the melodrama of a group of intense, flawed and horny reporters spouting with platitudes like, “The doctor pronounces her dead, not the news.”

The Newsroom has always had its loyal fans, like the 109,000-plus followers on a McAvoy-themed Twitter account — a parody account with no sense of humor that’s still very active today. But for most people who haven’t thought about McAvoy’s “mission to civilize” since 2014 when the series ended (or not at all), now may be the best time to binge it. I’m not only saying that because I’m a few weeks more of quarantine away from shooting my shot with the actor who played Jim (DM me, John Gallagher Jr.). I’m saying that because seeing a group of journalists care about communicating information above all else feels nice, and the fact that everything works out a little too conveniently is more comforting than irritating. 

The only issue is that it’s nearly impossible to make it through the first season without wondering what an episode about COVID-19 would be like. But one thing is for certain — Maggie would try to date the virus.