Showtime subscribers may not realize this, but Showtime has been creating original content for over 30 years. Looking back at Showtime’s history, it’s early original programming was largely comedy oriented, including the influential sitcom, It’s Garry Shandling’s Show. I was also particularly fond of Showtime’s sci-fi phase, during which it produced Stargate SG-1, The Outer Limits, Odyssey 5, and Poltergeist: The Legacy.
But for the last 15 years or so, Showtime has largely focused on making dramas and comedies that can stack up against the best that cable and broadcast networks have to offer. As a premium network, Showtime is one of the few outlets that can take creative chances without having to water down its content or hold back in any way. Because of that freedom, Showtime has done a lot to push the boundaries of television.
Showtime has also been one of the leaders of a cable-free experience. Internet users can get access to Showtime’s programming directly through Showtime Anytime. And that brings us to today’s installment of The Binge, which is all about the best Showtime original series that you can stream online or catch up on demand. It’s an eclectic group of series, but they are also Showtime’s most important contributions to the medium.
Showtime has mastered the art of the guilty pleasure costume drama. The Borgias was based on the historical family of Rodrigo Borgia, a man who is widely believed to have bribed his way into becoming Pope of the Catholic Church as Pope Alexander VI in 1492. For the series’ three-season run, Jeremy Irons was deliciously corrupt as Rodrigo/Pope Alexander, and the actions of his children also drove the series.
It’s unfortunate that The Borgias never got a proper series finale, but the script for what would have been the final episode was released as an e-book.
Ten years ago, Showtime gave TV its first serial killer as a lead character. Based on the Darkly Dreaming Dexter novels by Jeff Lindsay, Dexter put its audience in the odd position of rooting for Michael C. Hall’s title character as he targeted other serial killers and criminals who escaped justice…in Florida, of course. Because what state would have such a variety of insanity for Dexter to deal with?
Dexter had its ups and downs over its eight seasons, but when it was on top of its game it could be transcendent. The fourth season was particularly strong, as Dexter met his match in the form of John Lithgow’s Trinity killer.
Homeland is Showtime’s most acclaimed original series, but the show has had to reinvent itself a few times. In the first two seasons, Homeland dealt with CIA officer Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) as she attempted to prove that former prisoner of war Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis) had been turned by the enemy before Carrie attempted to use Brody as an asset…and more.
To run down the lists of twists along the way would do a disservice to the series, which took home the Emmy for best drama in 2012. Homeland is a very enjoyable show to binge watch because the cliffhangers almost always hook viewers to come back again and again.
Masters of Sex
Masters of Sex is a series that only Showtime or a handful of other premium networks would even dare to consider. It’s a period series set in the ‘50s and ‘60s as Dr. William Masters (Michael Sheen) and Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Caplan) conduct their groundbreaking research into human sexuality. Masters and Johnson were real people, and Masters of Sex appears to add certain elements to heighten the drama between them. But it’s a very entertaining series that doesn’t have to shy away from its own subject matter.
Who knew that what the writer of Skyfall really wanted to do was a show about some of literature’s most famous monsters? John Logan’s Penny Dreadful unites characters from Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein into a new story set in Victorian era England. But the biggest attraction for this series is Eva Green’s towering performance as Vanessa Ives, a woman whose immortal soul may be swallowed by the very darkness that she and her friends attempt to confront.
Showtime’s Ray Donovan brings a different kind of amorality to its original programming. The title character, as played by Liev Schreiber, is a Hollywood “fixer.” Basically, he’s someone who cleans up the crimes of other people so they can escape the consequences of their actions. Of course, Ray has plenty of sins of his own. The real treasure of this show is Jon Voight’s turn as Ray’s estranged father, Mickey, a man who has gone even further than Ray himself.
Shameless is a series that can be a comedy one moment and a drama the next. It’s based on a British series of the same name, and it revolves around William H. Macy’s Frank Gallagher, and his six kids who try to survive without his emotional or financial support. Emmy Rossum is a particular standout as Fiona, the oldest Gallagher daughter who desperately tries to keep her siblings together.
Perhaps the most striking thing about the Gallagher clan is how self-destructive they are. Even Fiona isn’t immune to that, as she’s tossed aside relationships and her own well being. It’s not always a pretty thing to watch, but the ongoing trials of the Gallaghers have made Shameless one of Showtime’s longest running series.
Sleeper Cell was very much ahead of its time in terms of content and the way it was consumed. Instead of running episodes every week, Showtime ran through seasons of Sleeper Cell on consecutive nights in under two weeks! The premise of the series also predated Homeland by five years, as it followed Michael Ealy’s undercover FBI agent Darwyn al-Sayeed attempt to maintain his cover within a terrorist sleeper cell while trying to derail their plans.
There were only two seasons of Sleeper Cell, and that ending was not the way the series should have gone out. But it was compelling viewing while it lasted.
The Tudors was Showtime’s first and best period drama, which followed the reign of King Henry VIII of England, as played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers. Who cares if the real Henry VIII didn’t look much like Meyers at all? The Tudors wasn’t concerned about strict historical accuracy, it was all about entertainment. On that level, it succeeded.
Weeds was a dark comedy…for the most part. But the series had its occasional dramatic moments as Mary-Louise Parker’s Nancy Botwin became more and more entangled with the criminal underworld after attempting to sell marijuana as a way to keep her family financially afloat. Like the other Showtime originals, Weeds didn’t shy away from nudity or the consequences of violence. And that’s the way we like it!
What is your favorite Showtime original series? Let us know in the comment section below!