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Emilia Clarke in Game of Thrones. (HBO)
Emilia Clarke in Game of Thrones. (HBO)

Andrew Ryan

All the HBO you ought to know Add to ...

So what are the cool kids watching?

How bizarre that television still funnels down to that single question. The broadcast industry moves, shark-like, ever forward in pursuit of that next big show that will break new ground and ideally make scads of money for the people who create and air it. But at the end of the day, success is determined by what shows have us gabbing at the water cooler.

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And you don’t win friends and impress co-workers with recaps of Pawn Stars or Dragons' Den. For all the reality rot clogging the airwaves, TV elitism remains reserved for high-end scripted cable dramas. It's the reason why people still gush over The Wire, even four years after it signed off.

Of late the most talked-about programs are Mad Men, Game of Thrones and the new HBO entry Girls. Herewith, a primer on what’s coming out on top.

MAD MEN

The basics

Season five, set in 1966, still revolves around rakish ad man Don Draper (Jon Hamm) – who despite a booming business at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce and a sexy new wife becomes increasingly morose with each new episode. Last week he didn't even join in the fun with clients at a brothel. Moving in the other direction, expect more from secretary-turned-copywriter Peggy (Elisabeth Moss). Plus see Betty pudgy, and the joys of sixties-era single motherhood with Joan (Christina Hendricks).

The buzz

Obviously – spoiler alert – the boardroom fisticuffs last Sunday between insufferable Pete (Vincent Kartheiser) and Lane (Jared Harris). Message boards and blogs were flush with approval from fans thrilled that the Englishman soundly thumped the upstart and called him a “grimy little pimp.” Elsewhere, cracks are showing in Don's marriage to the gamine French-Canadian Megan (Jessica Paré), who declared she cannot, or will not, bear his child.





The bottom line

In the U.S. ratings are up more than 20 per cent – which means viewers either can’t stop watching or caught up on Wikipedia to keep up with the in crowd on show gossip.

GAME OF THRONES

The basics

Season two of HBO's lavish George R.R. Martin adaptation picked up the fantastically complicated storyline where it left off: With everyone fighting for control of the Iron Throne and the cunning dwarf Tyrion (Emmy-winner Peter Dinklage) becoming the Hand of the King. In the near future, viewers can also expect witches, giant wolves, dragons, and of course, more gratuitous nudity.

The buzz

Unbridled by network censors, Game of Thrones still boasts more adult content than any program on TV today. The sure sign the show has crossed over to the mainstream: last week's sketch on Saturday Night Live, in which the author's muse for the series is revealed to be a 13-year-old boy fixated on “boobies.”





The bottom line

It's true: GoT is actually pulling nearly a million more U.S. viewers than Mad Men each Sunday night – even though HBO is a premium subscription service.

GIRLS

The basics

Twentysomething wanna-be writer Hannah (creator Lena Dunham) is living raw and on dwindling parental dollars in Brooklyn with equally aimless besties Jessa (Jemima Kirke) and Marnie (Allison Williams) and with no support whatsoever from her crude boyfriend Adam (Adam Driver). Expect more angst, and if she’s lucky, an agonizingly slow climb up the New York literary ladder for Hannah. Though she’s off to a bad start, given that she's already been fired from her unpaid internship.

The buzz

This is not Sex and the City: The Early Years or Friends. The apartments are (almost) realistic, perky hairdos are mussed during loveless, frequently humiliating sex and the young grads have no clue and no job opportunities. In other words, youth as some of us might remember actually living it.





The bottom line

Glowing reviews, yes. But last Sunday's debut drew fewer than a million U.S. viewers. Worse, the opener lost nearly a quarter of the audience for its lead-in show, Eastbound & Down. Fans better get their friends watching this.

ALSO AIRING THIS WEEKEND

20/20: Sunset Boulevard (Saturday, ABC, CHCH, 9 p.m.) is an unsettling snapshot of the most notorious street in America. The two-hour film rolls languidly down the 22-mile long roadway that begins in the mean streets of East Los Angeles and winds through Hollywood and opulent Beverly Hills before ending at the Pacific Ocean. Since the first days of the movie business Sunset Boulevard has been a magnet for starry-eyed dreamers, but today it’s attracting all manner of damaged and delusional characters. ABC correspondent Jay Schadler profiles several such lost souls, including a teen runaway, an embittered Iraqi war veteran and a struggling rock group.

As though to offset the gloom, Schadler also interviews a handful of people who made the pilgrimage to Sunset Boulevard years ago and went on to hugely successful careers, including Johnny Depp and Keanu Reeves. Life worked out nicely for these stars, but for everyone else in this film, Sunset Boulevard is the street of shattered dreams.

All times ET. Check local listings.

John Doyle will return on Monday.

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