11 Retro HBO Shows You Might Not Remember

Before 'The Sopranos,' HBO was the home of some pretty out-there programming.
Before 'The Sopranos,' HBO was the home of some pretty out-there programming. / SOPA Images/GettyImages

This year marks the 50th anniversary of HBO, the premium cable network that grew from televising the 1973 Pennsylvania Polka Festival to ushering in the Golden Age of television dramas with The Sopranos. In between, the channel produced a number of series that are relatively obscure, even if the names aren't. (Who knew Ron Howard produced a gritty prison drama?)

How obscure? Hardly any of the titles are available on the company’s HBO Max streaming service. Many, however, seemed to act as dress rehearsals for future HBO hits. Check out some of the station’s lesser-known fare.

1. Dream On (1990-1996)

Before Sex and the City wrote the book on sexually-charged sitcoms, HBO had Dream On. Brian Benben plays Martin Tupper, a book editor going through a divorce and exploring the singles scene while drawing parallels between his life and clips from vintage television shows. Thanks to sharp humor—and a generous dose of nudity—Dream On was arguably HBO’s earliest hit series, drawing 5 million viewers weekly and attracting guest stars like Sylvester Stallone and David Bowie. (The clips were from semi-obscure shows owned by MCA Universal.) Though critics sometimes decried the excessive lack of clothing—co-star Wendie Malick said she once hoped for “less nudity” on the series, while The Deseret News dubbed it “utter trash”—it was a favorite of the Cable ACE Awards. Producers David Crane and Marta Kauffman went on to create Friends.

2. Spicy City (1997)

Risqué adult animator Ralph Bakshi (Fritz the Cat) created and produced this anthology series about a futuristic city populated by a variety of seedy characters. The Jessica Rabbit-esque Raven (voiced by Michelle Phillips) was the show’s host. Spicy City was part of the network’s push into mature animation, but its companion—Spawn, based on the Todd McFarlane comic—remains the more fondly remembered of the two.

3. The Hitchhiker (1983-1987)

Tales From the Crypt may be HBO’s best-remembered thriller anthology, but the network had a dry run of sorts with The Hitchhiker, the network’s first dramatic series which one critic dubbed "The Twilight Zone with skin.” Actor Page Fletcher was the Rod Serling of the enterprise, playing a mysterious drifter who addresses the viewer and tees up the moral turpitude to follow. A typical episode? Gary Busey as a con man preacher who has good reason to believe Judgment Day may be near; Jenny Seagrove as a woman in a wheelchair who discovers she’s the mouse in a cat-and-mouse game with a home invader; Paul Verhoeven (Robocop) directing an episode about a predatory film director. Even if you saw the (edited) syndicated version, the haunting intro music (above) probably stuck with you. The series later hitched a ride and moved from HBO to the USA Network in 1989.

4. 1st and Ten (1984-1991)

Sports programming (both fictional and live) has been a part of HBO’s strategy practically since its inception. 1st and Ten was unique in that it often aired to coincide with an NFL football season. The series documents the California Bulls, a fictitious pro team owned by Diane Barrow (Delta Burke) as part of her divorce settlement; O.J. Simpson joined in the second season as coach T.D. Parker. HBO went on to produce other sports programs like Arliss, Ballers, and, most recently, the Los Angeles Lakers drama Winning Time.

5. Not Necessarily the News (1982-1990)

Taking the air out of politics was the purview of Not Necessarily the News, a kind of longform version of Saturday Night Lives "Weekend Update" segment, which presented a faux-newscast that interspersed clips of real figures (Ronald Reagan, Jesse Helms) responding to questions that were never posed to them. (A reporter asks if televangelists are only in it for the money: Reverend Robert Schuller is shown answering “I can neither confirm nor deny that, but I know the answer.”) One of the show’s writers was Conan O’Brien, who later graduated to a late-night talk show of his own.

6. Maximum Security (1984-1985)

If you thought Oz was HBO’s inaugural prison drama, you’d be incorrect. That honor goes to Maximum Security, a drama that lasted one season after premiering in 1985—12 years before Oswald State Correctional Facility went on air—and produced by Ron Howard’s Major H Productions. The show was filmed in the abandoned Lincoln Heights jail in Los Angeles and centers on convicts who try to cope with their surroundings with the help of the prison psychologist (Jean Smart). The pilot aired in 1984, with HBO airing additional episodes in 1985. Critics seemed to appreciate its gritty realism, but it failed to catch on.

7. Philip Marlowe, Private Eye (1983-1986)

The late Powers Boothe played Raymond Chandler’s famous gumshoe Philip Marlowe is this hourlong drama that aired in 1983 before returning in 1986. It was one of the network’s few period dramas of the era, with Marlowe navigating a hard-edged Great Depression and its myriad depravities. The network launched another period crime piece, Perry Mason, in 2020; Liam Neeson is set to play Marlowe in a new film due in 2023.

8. Braingames (1983-1985)

Challenging the idea that television only produces passive and slack-jawed viewers was Braingames, which purported to provide at least some neurological activity. The animated children’s puzzle show was created by HBO executive Sheila Nevins, who said she was annoyed by her nephew’s video game habits and wanted him more engaged when in front of the television. Young viewers were tasked with counting how many stops a bus made or finding the anachronistic object in a historical scene. In testing, kids appeared to perform better with the problems than adults, but the show itself didn’t seem to make a huge impact on either demographic.

9. Encyclopedia Brown (1989)

The beloved children’s book series by Donald J. Sobol got a small-screen live-action adaptation in 1989. Scott Bremner played the titular character, a precocious boy detective able to solve small-stakes cases in his neighborhood with the help of his police chief father and friend Sally Kimball. But rights holder Howard David Deutsch was apparently unhappy with HBO’s promotion of the series and walked away from it after just six episodes. (Somewhat confusingly, HBO also aired the edutainment show Encyclopedia around the same time.)

10. Hotel Room (1993)

In the wake of Twin Peaks becoming a cultural phenomenon on ABC, director David Lynch had a comparatively less successful venture on HBO. Co-created with Monty Montgomery, Hotel Room was an anthology show that aired for just three episodes in 1993 and focused on the occupants of New York’s Railroad Hotel in different periods. (Lynch directed two of the three installments.) Actors Crispin Glover, Mariska Hargitay, and Harry Dean Stanton featured in the series, which focused on a blackout, a call girl encounter, and a not-very-amicable split. The three stories were intended to be part of a pilot, but HBO opted not to continue with the series. It later aired Room 104, another anthology based around a hotel room and its peculiar occupants.

11. Tanner ‘88 (1988)

This political miniseries had a very ambitious premise: Airing during the 1988 Democratic primary, Tanner ’88 followed (fictional) candidate Jack Tanner (Michael Murphy), who went on the (real) campaign trail in a mockumentary-style effort. Cartoonist Garry Trudeau (Doonesbury) wrote the script; Robert Altman (Nashville) directed. The effort, which blended scripted material with semi-improvisational scenes, often confused real candidates like Bob Dole. If you’re curious, it’s one of the few retro HBO programs available on HBO Max.