Before there was Netflix, or Apple TV+, or Amazon or any of the myriad of streaming services, there was only one place to go for ‘prestige’ TV, and that was HBO.

HBO changed television forever with the debut of The Sopranos 25 years ago. Since then, HBO has produced a raft of the best TV of this century. Happily, the HBO catalogue is available via HBOMax, part of Crave. If I may be so bold – and really, who’s going to stop me? – I’d like to recommend a couple of HBO series that I think are deserving of your attention.

Boardwalk Empire is top drawer TV. HBO spared no expense in perfectly recreating this gangster series, based in the Roaring Twenties and the prohibition era in the U.S. The series is anchored by Steve Buscemi as Nucky Thompson, the deeply corrupt treasurer of Atlantic County, N.J., home of the famous boardwalk. Nucky’s personal life is complicated by his romance and marriage to proto-suffragette Margaret Schroeder (Kelly McDonald). But his personal life is routine compared to that of Gillian Darmody (chillingly portrayed by Gretchen Mol) and her son James (Michael Pitt), with whom she is, oh, let’s just say, ‘close’.

Buscemi is terrific as Thompson, as we track over five seasons his changing circumstances. Buscemi is joined by a stellar cast, some of whom play characters loosely based on real gangsters of the time, such as Al Capone, Lucky Luciano, and Arnold Rothstein. Standout performers include Michael K. Williams (Omar from The Wire); granite-faced Michael Shannon as the tragic Nelson Van Alden; Bobby Canavale as the frighteningly psychotic Gyp Rosetti; and Jack Hustas as the war veteran Richard Harrow, whose deformed face is hidden behind a half-mask. Great character actors like Shea Whigham, James Cromwell and the always excellent Stephen Root make appearances.

HBO spared no expense in recreating the America of the 1920s. The producers spent $5 million creating the boardwalk set alone, and the pilot episode – directed by no less than Martin Scorsese – cost a staggering $18 million. Future episodes cost $5 million each, and it shows; the costumes and sets are feature-film quality.

Editor’s note: In 2012, Bill Brioux visited the Boardwalk Empire set in Brooklyn, N.Y. In this short video, director Tim Van Patten points out some of the features of the astonishing outdoor structure

While Boardwalk Empire is an outstanding series, among the best in the HBO catalogue, I should issue a warning. Being an HBO series, there is copious (mostly female, always gratuitous) nudity and sex. Naturally there is also a lot of graphic, often shocking, violence. (I have to admit I closed my eyes at one killing, not because it was so graphic, but because I couldn’t believe it was happening.) And don’t get too attached to any character; you never know who’s going to survive an episode. If you’re not put off by sex and violence – a lot of violence – check into Boardwalk Empire.


Silicon Valley, co-created by Mike Judge (King of the Hill, Beavis and Butt-Head), follows programmer Richard Hendrix (played to stammering perfection by Canadian actor Thomas Middleditch) and the ups and downs (and ups and downs) of this start-up, Pied Piper. The ensemble cast is outstanding, with T.J. Miller as arrogant pothead Erlich Bachman, Martin Starr (Party Down) as dour and sarcastic Gilfoyle, Kumail Nunjiani as Gilfoyle’s foil Danesh, and Zach Woods (Gabe from The Office) as perpetually worried Jared.

Not being a tech guy, I have no idea if anything the nerds talk about is remotely realistic (their Holy Grail is compression software, whatever that is), but it doesn’t matter. The dialogue is sharp (and very vulgar), the situations comedic and the story arc is engrossing. It is best viewed in rapid succession, because there is a lot of storyline to unpack in each episode. 

Boardwalk Empire and Silicon Valley couldn’t be more different, but they have one thing in common – HBO’s spare-no-expense production values. Silicon Valley ran for six seasons and 153 episodes from 2014-19. It was Emmy-nominated five straight years as best comedy, never winning, losing three years in a row to fellow HBO comedy Veep, and inexplicably once to The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.

Boardwalk Empire and Silicon Valley are two examples of how HBO changed TV. Thanks to streaming, they are still available today. 

Based in Edmonton, Alta., journalist, editor and guest columnist Maurice Tougas walks the boardwalk of broadcasting, streaming and cable in search of TV’s hidden gems.

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