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The 8 Ball 07.09.13: The Top 8 HBO Series Protagonists
Posted by Jeremy Thomas on 07.09.2013

Welcome, one and all, to the 8 Ball in the Movie Zone! I'm your host Jeremy Thomas and as always, we will be tackling a topic and providing you the top eight selections of that particular category. Keep in mind that this list is meant to be my personal opinion and not a definitive list. You're free to disagree; you can even say my list is wrong, but stating that an opinion is "wrong" is just silly. With that in mind, let's get right in to it!

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Top 8 HBO Series Protagonists

Hello and welcome to the 8 Ball folks! First off, I would like to thank Mr. Jack McGee for substituting for me last week while I was busy with other stuff; his Top 8 Comic Book Movie Annoyances is well worth the read. I was going to do what I planned for last week tonight, which was the Top 8 Movies of 2013 So Far, but I decided to hold that off for two reasons. First, I have a couple movies I still want to try to see so I can possibly fit them in. Second, I was reminded that The Newsroom returns next Sunday on HBO. The first season of the show, while having some flaws to it, was a great show that I really enjoyed and was anchored by Jeff Daniels' performance as Will McAvoy. With that in mind I decided to look at the top protagonists of HBO's shows this week.

Caveat: For someone to qualify for this list they had to be the lead character on an HBO original narrative (i.e. non-reality) series. That was the only requirement. It is worth noting that this left an amazing show off the list because there was no primary protagonist in The Wire; instead of doing one protagonist it went with the "rotating protagonist" format. I actually loved that concept but it meant that I couldn't place any one character on the list fairly. The same goes for Game of Thrones. Also of significant note, some may complain about the low ranking of Tobias from Oz; this is kind of the same situation and while Tobias is essentially the primary protagonist, it's a murky sort of situation as far as I'm concerned so I included him but couldn't work him into the top eight.

Just Missing The Cut

Carrie Bradshaw (Sex and the City)
Tobias Beecher (Oz)
Nate Fisher (Six Feet Under)
Vincent Chase (Entourage)
Ben Hawkins (Carnivale)

#8: Selina Meyer (Veep)

It is perhaps a sad statement that on a network like HBO, we only have one female protagonist that made the list. There have been other protagonists of the opposite sex, to be sure, but often they just aren't written in a way that allows them to become true heroes and strong leads. (A great example of this is True Blood, where Anna Paquin's Sookie went from interesting lead character to "plot device for the male characters to fight over" in less than three seasons.) But I certainly can't deny the greatness of Selina Meyer. Veep is the creation of Armando Iannucci, who is best known for his BBC series The Thick of It and the film version titled In The Loop. Veep follows that sort of biting political satire featuring jaded and often-inept power players in government, with Julia Louis-Dreyfus delivering consistent knockout work as Vice President Meyer. Louis-Dreyfus has a strong supporting cast around her including Anna Chlumsky, Tony Hale and Matt Walsh but she stands out not only within the show but as the most consistently-funny character on the network right now. Louis-Dreyfus' comic timing has never been better than it has here; her manic explosions of impotent frustration are brilliant and she puts a hilarious spin on the combination of imperious attitude yet complete lack of power that people often imagine the position of Vice President to engender. It's a hilarious show and Meyer easily stands as the greatest female protagonist that an HBO show has yet created.

#7: The Cryptkeeper (Tales from the Crypt)

Okay, I might be cheating here a little bit. As an anthology series it is completely fair to argue that Tales from the Crypt has no particular protagonist. But by the same token, you don't think of the series without thinking of the cadaverous, pun-cracking host. Of course, the character--much like the series proper--was based on the old EC horror comic books and while Cryptie had other narrators to butt heads with on the page in Vault of Horror's Vault-Keeper and Haunt of Fear' Old Witch, he got the silver screen all to himself. Voiced with malicious and campy glee by the one and only John Kassir, the character served as the identifiable character for the anthology series to the point that his fame almost transcended the show completely. The character would go on to appear in front of the Tales from the Crypt films and even kids shows like ABC's Tales from the Cryptkeeper and CBS' Secrets of the Cryptkeeper's Haunted House game show, but it was on the HBO series where he truly shined the brightest and bloodiest. He may not fit a by-the-numbers definition of a protagonist but I don't think anyone would deny he's the lead character of the series.

#6: Kenny Powers (Eastbound & Down)

It's rare that a series is so beloved that after the final season is complete it gets brought back for one more run. Eastbound & Down has accomplished that rare feat, as HBO will be bringing the show back for a final FINAL season in September. Much of the reason that the comedy is making its return a year and a half after its finale has to do with Danny McBride's top-notch portrayal of protagonist Kenny Powers. Powers is a former baseball pitching star who has found his way into hard times due to his own poor choices and habits. He heads back home in order to teach P.E. at his old middle school while trying to revive his Major League career and ends up constantly done in by his racist, sexist and egocentric attitudes on a regular basis. McBride has an incredible talent at making Kenny a character you can enjoy watching even though he has as many flaws as he does; he is humanized by the connections he has to people, even if those connections are often incredibly dysfunctional. McBride makes a case in this show for why he should be doing bigger and better things on a regular basis, but I'm also not going to complain about the opportunity to see if Kenny can make it back to the big leagues once and for all either.

#5: Lucius Vorenus and Titus Pullo (Rome)

I considered just putting one of these two on the list but they really should come as a pair. Rome is one of the more underappreciated series in HBO's broadcast history, perhaps because it only ran for two seasons due to complex financing deals that made it prohibitively expensive for the network despite good ratings and viewer/critic response. Perhaps it is for the best as we got two exceptional seasons and the show never had the chance to stray off course. Lucius and Titus really came as a pair and it is difficult to separate them in order to put one over the other; they complemented each other so perfectly that I rarely just think of either individually. Ray Stevenson had a (deservedly) star-making turn as the devil-may-care Titus, who tends to get most of the attention because he's the flashier character. However, that unfairly takes something away from Kevin McKidd who essentially played the foil for Titus as the more traditionally-minded Lucius. Both characters were incredibly well-developed and went through character arcs that saw them grow and develop even further, challenging their belief systems and their outlooks on the world. There have been rumblings for years about a potential film based on the show and I would love to see that come about, because I feel like there are still some great stories to tell with these two. (And yes, Lucius could return; his fate was left ambiguous at the end of the series for that reason.)

#4: Will McAvoy (The Newsroom)

Will McAvoy had me from the first five minutes of The Newsroom. When we first meet Will, he is in a Q&A panel at a university, watching with bland disinterest as a pundit on each side of the liberal/conservative divide argue over each other on either side of him. Will looks like he would rather be anywhere else and is just tolerating it until he can go, but he's not getting off that easy. He's interrupted from his daydreaming by questions sent his way and when asked what makes America the greatest country in the world by a poorly-spoken sophomore, he throws out pithy answers. When pushed for a real answer though, he snaps and goes off on a spellbinding rant about how America is not the greatest country in the world but it can be. That drives the show through a tumultuous first season that--while it undeniably has its flaws--rises on the strength of its performers, the greatest of which is Jeff Daniels as Will. He is a prototypical HBO protagonist in a lot of ways; he is a deeply flawed and incredibly talented individual whose character arc is to transcend his flaws and become a better person. Daniels shows both dramatic weight and comic skills in force as Will; he is just as good in the scene where he puts a tabloid reporter in her place regarding stories about his people as he is in the scene where he tries to convince Mac to let him go on the air for a suddenly-urgent broadcast despite the fact that he's baked out of his mind. The rest of the cast is great as well, but Daniels is the captain of the ship and he steers it confidently through the narrative's occasionally-choppy waters.

#3: Nucky Thompson (Boardwalk Empire)

How it took Steve Buscemi as long as it did to get a leading role on an HBO show is beyond me. He is the perfect HBO leading man: an immensely talented actor who plays compelling antiheroes but doesn't fit the standard "leading man" image. Buscemi first appeared on the network as ex-con Tony Blundetto on The Sopranos and had a highly memorable run there during the show's fifth season in 2004. It would be seven years before he would come back to the network, this time as Enoch Malachi Thompson on Terence Winter's Boardwalk Empire. Enoch--or Nucky to everyone around him--is the treasurer of Atlantic County, New Jersey, a position he uses to rule the area and facilitate his real business as a gangster and bootlegger. Buscemi is great in his role here, making Nucky a compelling character who we grow to love despite his less honorable traits. He's charming and intelligent but also ruthless and deeply Machiavellian, the latter being traits that are further explored as he begins a moral descent through the second and third seasons. The juxtaposition between his life as a family man and his heinous acts as a mobster make us want to reconcile the character in our minds and it is Buscemi's portrayal that makes it all come together. While the character may be prototypical, he isn't stereotypical and that makes him a more interesting and captivating character.

#2: Seth Bullock (Deadwood)

I had Deadwood on my list of the top 8 wanted TV revivals a bit back and I'm not going to lie; no small part of that was because of how much I loved Tim Olyphant as Seth Bullock. Olyphant is rocking it on Justified at the moment and delivering work there that is just as good but I really loved his performance as the real-life hardware store owner and eventual sheriff of Deadwood, South Dakota. Ian McShane came out of the show as the true star thanks to the fact that (like Stevenson in Rome) he had the meatier, more show-stealing character but Olyphant was also fantastic as Seth. In a town full of corruption and moral grays Bullock attempted to remain the noble man of the law and while he didn't always succeed, that struggle made for must-see television. Olyphant didn't get the acclaim or awards attention that McShane did for Swearengen, but to my mind he certainly should have gotten at least some of it.

#1: Tony Soprano (The Sopranos)

I don't think this should remotely surprise anyone. David Chase and the late, great James Gandolfini's creation of TV's most famous made man was a moment that changed everything for not just HBO, but television in general. Tony was the first of the modern-day antiheroes to find real success on television and it not only set the template for the character archetype, it established HBO as a major player in the original programming market. Gandolfini sucked us in and made us like Tony, challenging us to avoid getting sucked into his world and viewing him with sympathy, no matter how terrible of a human being he was. And make no mistake...he was a terrible person, betraying anyone and everyone around him while he ruins everything he touches, often by choice. With Tony we understood the man behind the criminal and Gandolfini's charisma and dramatic skill brought out Chase's exceptional writing in a way that made it impossible to ignore. Of all HBO's great lead characters, none have ever come close to capturing the unique and unavoidable appeal of this one.

Current Doctor

Note: Now that I am caught up to current, I have gone back to watch the episodes that have become available in the US since I started watching and thus were previously unavailable to me (thus why I have episodes remaining despite being caught up).

Current Series/Season: Season Thirteen (1975)
Episodes Watched: 621
Last Serial Completed: The Android Invasion - The Doctor and Sarah find themselves in the English village of Devesham near a Space Defence Station. The village seems deserted, the telephones don't work, calendars are stuck on the same date and white-suited figures are wandering about aimlessly. Who are the Kraals and what are their plans for Earth?
Surviving Episodes Remaining: 20

And that will do it for us this week! Join me next week for another edition of the 8-Ball! Until then, have a good week and don't forget to read the many other great columns, news articles and more here at 411mania.com! JT out.


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