Across the past five decades, what was once a simple catchphrase has become an unassailable fact: “It’s not TV. It’s HBO.”
Home Box Office first began broadcasting as a pay-cable network 50 years ago today, and what used to be just a channel for old movies and boxing matches has grown into arguably the single greatest producer of quality programming in television history. HBO’s original programming ambitions started out small with raunchy comedies like 1st & Ten and Dream On, but the arrival of The Larry Sanders Show in 1992 announced it as a serious player in the TV content wars. Then with the debut of The Sopranos in 1999, HBO blasted off into an era of massive success, with a tidal wave of critical acclaim (it regularly tops all networks in Emmy wins each year) and a flurry of buzzy watercooler hits from Sex and the City to Game of Thrones.
HBO’s pay-cable status allows its original series to push the established boundaries around sex, violence and subject matter, resulting in an offbeat, thought-provoking and often groundbreaking lineup of shows. And those shows have introduced us to a host of unforgettable characters over the years: heroes and villains, superstars and sidekicks, kings and court jesters. To celebrate HBO’s 50th birthday, we’re naming the 50 greatest characters ever to appear on its original series and ranking them, based on how fascinating, complicated, and original they were. Now HBO’s exemplary output over the years did make this a truly daunting task, but we debated, we voted — and we’re happy with the results.
Read on to see how we ranked the 50 best characters HBO ever gave us — and of course, we want to hear from you, too: Hit the comments to tell us your favorite characters we left off and who you’d rank in your personal Top 5.