8 experimental '80s shows you watched on HBO and totally forgot until now
Parody news, brain games, fake football teams and other HBO growing pains.
It was an uphill battle for HBO when the premiere cable company first tried to convince audiences to pay more for television. People did not get on board. In fact, in the company's initial surveys, more than 99% of respondents said they would never subscribe to the service.
A lot has changed since then. Today, HBO has an estimated 134 million subscribers. That's a huge difference, and it's largely due to a streak of critically acclaimed original series that the network's been known for since Oz premiered in 1997. Now it's a dependable source of quality television, whether the channel is producing popular dramas (The Sopranos), detailed period pieces (Deadwood) or acclaimed comedies (Curb Your Enthusiasm).
Before HBO hit its stride in the late '90s, though, it was making valiant efforts with a string of hit-or-miss series throughout the 1980s. Some of these concepts managed to translate into feature films, while others were cancelled after a mere six episodes. All of them are largely forgotten by pop culture, their memories obscured by the massively successful series that followed.
If you were tuning into HBO in the '80s, you'll recall that these experimental series actually ended up launching the style of television that HBO's widely acclaimed for now. Check out this list and see how many of these early sparks of genius you remember as HBO went through some growing pains.
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'1st & Ten' (1984)
HBO got an itch to crack into sitcoms in 1984, and they scratched it by creating 1st & Ten. It starred Delta Burke as Diane Barrow, the unlikely owner of a football team she wins through a highly unusual divorce settlement. Featuring the fake football team the California Bulls, it ran for six seasons, and yet pop culture seems to have forgotten it. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that halfway through the show, Burke left to pursue Designing Women, a CBS comedy series we all know scored way more points with sitcom fans.
Among the most obscure of 1980s misses for HBO was Braingames, an animated children’s show that sought to make kids think. It featured games like Earplay (where you hear five sounds then find out what’s making all that noise), Safari Solitaire (classic Solitaire with an animal twist) and Museum Misstakes (where you guess what’s wrong in a photo of a museum). There was a host named Chuck Roast and an announcer of sorts with an egg for a head. In the ‘80s and ‘90s, you could buy Braingames on VHS, but so far HBO has yet to tease our brains with a potential DVD release.
'The Hitchhiker' (1983)
Between 1983 and 1987, HBO put out six seasons of The Hitchhiker, an anthology mystery series that explored Twilight Zone–like themes. In that time, the series featured a ton of guest stars, including Kirstie Alley, Gary Busey, Helen Hunt and Alan Thicke. For some actors, it was a platform that could launch your career. Then, like the mysterious hitchhiker who serves as the show’s narrator, the series vanished from popular consciousness. Select episodes were released on DVD, but those are out of print now, so if you caught this the first time around, you may be among the few who had the chance to enjoy the entire series.
'Not Necessarily the News' (1982)
Today, parody news shows are a hit, moving beyond SNL’s “Weekend Update” to entire shows made popular by comedians like Stephen Colbert, Jon Stewart, Samantha Bee and John Oliver. The same was true for HBO’s earlier offering Not Necessarily the News, which is notably the first-ever writing gigs of both comedian/TV host Conan O’Brien and The Simpsons writer Greg Daniels. It ran intermittently from 1983 to 1990, including two standalone specials, and yet this pioneering show remains often forgotten in the annals of news satire.
If a kids show that starts with a letter of the day sounds super-familiar, we’re willing to bet it’s because Sesame Street might have had something to do with teaching you your ABCs. However, the one we’re referencing is a 1988 show called Encyclopedia that ran for one season only on HBO. Unlike Sesame Street, though, Encyclopedia was meant to bring reference books to life, exploring topics you’d see in an encyclopedia through comedic sketches. The show also had a radical house band called BETTY.
'Maximum Security' (1984)
Before there was Oz in 1997, HBO put out a six-episode series called Maximum Security in 1984. It was a tense drama that followed a group of convicts with names like Puck and Papa Jack in a supermax prison. They released it on July 3, expecting it to make fireworks and immediately promising future episodes. As you’d expect, the premium cable network pulled in the tremendous talents in producer Ron Howard, Emmy-winning director Sharron Miller (Cagney & Lacey) and Roots director Gilbert Moses.
And it had the desired impact, for the most part. People critic Jeff Jarvis praised its sympathetic characters and likened it to successful series like Hill Street Blues. The “future episodes” never came, though, and in the end, the original six episodes seem to be currently locked down in the HBO vault.
'Philip Marlowe, Private Eye' (1983)
At last, we come across HBO’s earliest period piece, Philip Marlowe, Private Eye. It debuted in 1983 but was set in Los Angeles in the 1930s, giving the premium cable network its first chance to gaze backward intent on capturing culture with sincere authenticity. The mystery series starred Powers Boothe as the highly principled private detective Philip Marlowe, who sticks his neck out for people who are down on their luck and need his help the most. Although the cinematography was utterly gorgeous, the series has slipped away from the public eye over the past 30 years, obscuring what could be considered the spark of HBO’s proudest legacy.
'Tales from the Crypt' (1989)
Based on a popular 1950s comic, this horror anthology series was a shock to the system when it debuted on HBO in 1989. Hosted by a rotting corpse with a penchant for puns, it ran for seven seasons and even expanded into movies. It drew impressive guest stars, including some of our favorites like Don Rickles, George Wendt and Adam West. Famous directors flocked to steer episodes, including Tom Hanks, Michael J. Fox and horror moviemaker Tobe Hooper. Even with a legacy of this proportion, Tales from the Crypt remains largely forgotten by the public, and attempts to reboot it as recently as this year have failed to gain enough steam to actually follow. (TNT also says there was a pesky rights issue in their way.)