Greatest HBO Original Series Ranked
Home Box Office, which has been around since 1972, helped to create what is now known as “prestige TV. And ever since the late 1990s and early 2000s, the prestige-series juggernaut has solidified itself as a place for original quality content, creating such hits as The Sopranos, The Wire, and Six Feet Under, to name just a few. It was the first modern premium cable network, and back in the ‘70s, the idea that you could sit in your living room and watch a movie without commercial breaks or network censors was revolutionary! Of course, with it came a subscription fee, and so to justify the charge, HBO would have to ensure their product was worth paying for. And that it was!
Over the years, HBO has proved time and time again to be a prestige player in both the comedy and drama genres, telling stories that are far more mature and far more creative than its competitors. But with so much programming coming out of HBO, it left us wondering what the best HBO shows are? And so, to answer that question, we’ve put together a list of the 50 best HBO shows ever made. Hopefully, this will serve as a starting point for our readers to catch up on any shows they might have missed. Enjoy!
25 Best HBO Shows Ever!
25. True Blood
One of HBO’s tentpole series, True Blood, wasn’t a total success, but it was wildly entertaining and innovative take on the vampire genre thanks to its manic energy, bloodthirsty politics, occasional gore, gothic romance, and central mystery. Based on the Sookie Stackhouse novels by Charlaine Harris, True Blood features a great ensemble cast and contains a lot of wry humor that it interestingly blends with social commentary while touching upon a number of thematic ideas, including an obvious play on civil rights and some would argue gay rights in particular. At its core, however, True Blood is really just a biting, erotically charged soap opera with a fierce performance by Anna Paquin, who seemed destined to play leading lady Sookie Stackhouse. Unfortunately, there is a dramatic drop-off in quality in the final two seasons after showrunner and creator Alan Ball left the show. Those first five seasons, however, received highly positive reviews and won several awards, including a Golden Globe and an Emmy. True Blood is addictive, ridiculous, and over-the-top. Oh, and did I mention wildly entertaining? (Ricky D)
Long before Game of Thrones, there was Rome, one of the most ambitious and enthralling series ever made. In fact, it was so ambitious that the production was, at the time, the most expensive in the history of television, costing an estimated US$100–110 to make. Unfortunately, the series ran for only two seasons out of the planned five due to high production costs, with much of the material for the third and fourth seasons telescoped into the second one. Yet despite being cut short, Rome received largely positive reviews, had a high number of viewers, and won numerous awards, including four Emmy Awards, seven Primetime Emmy Awards, and a Visual Effects Society Award. And much like HBO’s massive hit Game of Thrones, Rome follows an intricately plotted story about political power, conquest, and loyalty. It also boasts an outstanding cast, incredibly choreographed bloody battles, and plenty of political machinations to keep you watching. More importantly, Rome accomplished what any successful drama must do— and that is to keep viewers caring about the characters to the very end. (Ricky D)
Devastatingly unknown to many, Barry sits as quietly and masterfully as Breaking Bad did in its early seasons. Created by Bill Hader and Alec Berg, Barry is about an ex-marine turned hitman (Bill Hader) who becomes enamoured with an acting class in L.A. and tries to move on from his violent past. Finding a father figure in veteran actor Gene Cousineau (played by Henry Winkler), and finding companionship with a bright, inspiring actress, Sally (Sarah Goldberg), he becomes torn between lives as his mentor Monroe Fuches (Stephen Root) tries to keep him on a darker path.
At times it is hard to tell if it’s the darkest comedy ever or the funniest crime drama ever. Barry masterfully walks a tightrope of tone that can horrify you one second and have you laughing the next. Its plot is completely unpredictable, constantly surprising, and moves at a pace that never stretches out major plot points where a lesser show would turn its brief seasons in to eight long ones.
Hader’s performance, writing, and even direction are a rare revelation. Hader can switch gears in a heartbeat. Blending Barry’s acting class with his social mask that hides his darkness is handled with nuanced, poetic writing and camera movement that punctuates every emotion. Stephen Root and Henry Winkler also give a career-defining performance that you can only pull off after a lifetime of experience and wisdom. Each episode continually reveals you are watching something truly special in the making. Barry is not to be missed as it will undoubtedly stand as a classic. (Geordi Ferguson)
It was easy to overlook Girls when it was first released since Lena Dunham wasn’t the omnipresent cultural force she later became. Yet, it’s hard to overstate the show’s influence on comedic storytelling and TV more broadly. No Girls means no High Maintenance, no Broad City, no [insert your favorite millennial-antics-in-NYC show here]. But more importantly, Girls was, for most of its existence, one of the sharpest, funniest, and best-acted shows around, making fantastic use of the episodic format while never losing sight of its characters’ overall evolutions (or, just as often, their stubborn refusal to evolve). It wasn’t always the most consistent series – some seasons were plainly more successful than others – but any of its supposed successors haven’t matched its highs. And hey, it gave us Adam Driver, and for that, we are forever thankful. (Simon Howell)
21. Band of Brothers
This diary of the Army’s 101st airborne regiment, Easy Company, is perhaps the crowning achievement of World War 2 media. The ten-part, 125-million-dollar mini-series was produced by Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks coming off their film, Saving Private Ryan, and went on to win multiple awards. Based on the book of the same name by Stephen E. Ambrose, Band of Brothers follows the true story of Easy Company through its grueling tour, deftly handling the nuanced tasks of showing the valor of those involved and the ugliness of war.
Void of the cliché heroics of many war films, Band of Brothers shows the multi-faceted lives of deployed soldiers like no other, from the periods of monotony waiting on orders, the small moments of joy as they revel during a night in comfort, and the sheer terror of survival, facing bombardment while hunkered down in fox holes. It’s a show that never shies away from the reality of these men’s lives, the good and the bad, giving equal attention to the smaller moments and the landmark battles. It’s a story of the men of Easy Company, and by focusing on every single member, the war is seen from every angle from men of different roles and mettle. Words from the real-life members of Easy Company before shifting to their actor counterparts connected audiences with veterans of the “Greatest Generation” in a way that was never possible before.
Towns built from the ground up on location, stunning audio design, and a cast of incredible talent have made Band of Brothers a timeless masterpiece. In a genre tapped out of material from an era slowly receding in time, Band of Brothers stands as a monument to not only these brave men but the triumph of the human spirit. (Geordi Ferguson)
It’s been a quiet year for horror series during the first half of 2019 – until Chernobyl arrived in the spring, with the terrifying reminder that nobody is safe from the unseen terror of radiation, the toxic, silent killer at the heart of HBO’s harrowing, moving (and most terrifyingly, historical) account of the Soviet nuclear disaster. Centered around the doctors, scientists, and politicians ensnared by the government to “fix” the un-fixable, Chernobyl is a moving account of the mistakes, guesses, and half-truths that, over time, transformed bad calculus into an international disaster with an immeasurable human cost.
Perhaps the most cogent terror of Chernobyl is not the big explosions and uncertainty of early episodes: it is the creeping realization of how close we are to this happening a (third) time, and how unprepared the bureaucracies of the civilized world are prepared to handle it. Chernobyl is a powerful reflection on human persistence, and what a dangerous double-edged sword it is for the world, and particularly its most powerful men, to wield.
Led by a trio of powerful performances from Jared Harris, Stellan Skarsgard, and Emily Watson, Chernobyl is an intoxicating mix of terrifying images and anxiety-inducing foreshadowing, a damning account of the lives lost at the expense of playing politics (or in the case of a young military recruit, a damning loss of innocence). Even without the horrifying images of seeing what happened to the unsuspecting first responders to the disaster (and the creeping realization of its main players of their own fates), Chernobyl‘s depiction of a government’s ineptitude to deal with the fallout of its own ambition makes it the most frightening show of 2019. (Randy Dankievitch)
19. Angels in America
Theatre scholar David Román argues that the importance of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America extends to its subtitle: “A Gay Fantasia on National Themes.” This title simultaneously implies two things: on the one hand, queer stories are important enough in their own right that we deserve “a gay fantasia” that highlights these stories. On the other hand, queer perspectives are also important enough to the larger cultural world around them that they provide valuable commentary on “national themes.” Thus, Angels in America set out to prove that queer stories matter, both because queer lives are meaningful on their own terms and also because they provide valuable perspectives on the world at large. These statements, still powerful now, were particularly meaningful in the 1991 context of the original 8-hour epic play and its remarkable 2003 HBO adaptation.
The HBO miniseries, like the play on which it is based, is primarily concerned with the impact of the AIDS crisis on queer communities in the 1980s and 90s. It shows the struggles, joys, beauty, hardships, pain, and celebration of queer people living through a harsh era that many did not survive. It also shows the role that the Reagan administration and homophobic structures had in causing the deaths of many people living with AIDS. In an era of trauma porn, people have become accustomed to stories about marginalized groups that focus primarily on struggles and sadness. It is, therefore still extremely empowering to have a story that manages to balance these struggles with the life and humanity that are often missing from stories about AIDS.
The story also uses the perspective of its cast of misfits to comment on major political issues of the time. The series centers commentary on everything from Reagan to McCarthyism to the hole in the Ozone layer, all coming from people whose voices are typically seen as small or insignificant. A Black, gay nurse and an unemployed Mormon woman with serious mental illness are shown as having the answers to some of life’s biggest questions. The series was a major challenge to assumptions about whose perspectives matter and whose stories are worth telling. (Steven Greenwood)
18. Boardwalk Empire
Boardwalk Empire may not have gained the popular acclaim of The Sopranos, but that doesn’t change the fact that it is one of the best dramas of the last decade. Created by Sopranos producer Terence Winter, Boardwalk Empire is the show you recommend to fans of gangster films—and not just because Martin Scorsese directed the pilot episode but because no other show of its kind could top Boardwalk Empire’s production values. The pilot alone was made for a reported $18 million (the most expensive pilot in history to that point), and HBO did everything in its power to recruit the most talented filmmakers and cast to get the job done.
Thinking back, the show really does feel under-rated. It arrived at the dawn of a new decade, at a moment when it was clear to everyone that TV was changing in big ways, yet nobody knew yet how far television would come. Everything from the budget to the presence of Terence Winter to the big-name filmmakers attached to direct to the award-winning cast— made Boardwalk Empire feel like the first show to really give Hollywood films a run for their money. One could write an entire book about the cinematography and camerawork alone; the writing is impeccable; the costumes are beautiful; the sets are gorgeous, and the acting is across-the-board sublime. Even the music (something often overlooked) is great, and not just the opening track by The Brian Jonestown Massacre but the entire soundtrack composed by such artists as Regina Spektor, Leon Redbone, and Martha Wainwright, to name some. And did I forget to mention the large and incredibly talented cast, one of the best ensembles for any drama, ever! (Ricky D)
17. Mr. Show with Bob and David
The 1990s were a glorious time for alt-sketch comedy, with Comedy Central, MTV, and other networks featuring the likes of The Kids in the Hall, The State, The Vacant Lot, and Exit 57. But one of the greatest sketch shows of that time was Mr. Show, created by Bob Odenkirk and David Cross, and featuring a cast that they led.
Odenkirk, as he laid out in his excellent recent memoir Comedy Comedy Comedy Drama, was a writer for Saturday Night Live in the early 1990s but didn’t find his comic sensibility a good fit for what was expected at 30 Rock. So he branched out, first as a writer for The Ben Stiller Show, and later with Mr. Show, which ran for four seasons on HBO between 1995 and 1998 (it remains available to watch, in its entirety, on HBO Max.)
The humor wasn’t topical and it wasn’t political. But it did feature some brilliantly oddball stuff, like the “Pre-Taped Call-in Show,” Cross’ madcap audition sketch, and my personal favorite, the job interview/lie detector test bit. (Stephen Silver)
16. Sex and the City
Sex and the City’s cultural influence is undeniable. Samantha, Miranda, Charlotte, and Carrie were more than simply characters: in the late 90s and early 2000s, they became representatives of entire personality types. Similar to astrological signs or Meyers-Briggs personality types, deciding whether you were a pragmatic Miranda or a glamorous Samantha was a major way that many people explored their identities. Furthermore, the show was known for destigmatizing a lot of major taboos: single women over the age of 30 were encouraged to explore things like big-city nightlife, hookups, sexual liberation, and types of fashion that had previously been reserved for those in their 20s. The show combated ageism and advocated for a sex-positive mindset that was groundbreaking for many at the time. There are still many topics like sex toys, masturbation, and casual sex that are a lot easier to talk about openly now because of the work Sex and the City did to destigmatize them.
The show is also known for its innovative structure that allowed it to tackle hot-button issues without ever becoming preachy. Because the core four characters are so vastly different, they disagree on almost every major social or political issue that they encounter. Almost every episode features an iconic brunch or dinner scene where the four all share their different takes on the issue of the week. The result is that the show never settles on a totalizing, singular take on any of the issues they present, but gives space for a multiplicity of different views. At least four distinct opinions on any issue are given a voice, and since all characters are supposed to be likable (although some aged better than others), most of the opinions are given a more or less equal platform. Rather than settle on preachy “very special episode” teaching moments or completely avoiding serious topics, Sex and the City manages to deal with big issues while giving the viewers options for different ways of thinking about them. (Steven Greenwood)
15. Eastbound & Down
When Eastbound and Down premiered in 2009, Danny McBride was already well on the path of becoming a star – however, with his series (co-created with David Gordon Green, Ben Best, and Jody Hill) about a disgraced pitcher trying to find his way back to the big leagues, McBride firmly established himself as a cultural institution, with one of the best, most underrated – and more importantly, criminally misunderstood – series of the 21st century.
For all the bravado and vulgarity that gave Eastbound & Down a deserved reputation as an absurdist comedy, the show was really about so many other things – at its best, it was a deconstruction of American masculinity, led by a fearless leading performance from McBride, and a quiet reverence for the quasi-religious themes offered by its framing device of baseball. Though most assuredly a show about a degenerate drug addict given 14,000-second chances he doesn’t deserve, Eastbound & Down is something much richer, a series as willing to make a cum joke as it was willing to explore the slow death of the American dream, of the toxic identities that lead people (especially famous people) to become destructive, harmful entities.
Kenny Powers was the hero and villain of his own story, one that Eastbound & Down told with infectious confidence, willing to lean into the cringiest elements, as well as the most emotional. Eastbound & Down was often hilarious and depressing in the same breath, a harmonious balance the show consistently finds, even as the show constantly changed settings, ancillary characters, and plot arcs between its abbreviated seasons. Nearly a decade and a half since its premiere, Eastbound & Down remains one of the greatest sports stories told in American media and, today (somehow), one of its hidden gems. (Randy Dankievitch)
HBO’s most daring original dramatic show may very well have been the first. That was Oz, a show set in a prison that ran for six seasons between 1997 and 2003.
Created by Tom Fontana, the series was set in a prison and featured day-to-day life there, which committed heavily to realism. That meant lots of violence and death, Nazi and Muslim gangs, and plentiful graphic gay sex and full-frontal male nudity. It also featured a talented cast of short- and long-term actors, including prominent early roles for the likes of J.K. Simmons, Harold Perrineau, Chris Meloni, and Dean “Mayhem” Winters.
Beginning at a time when HBO wasn’t yet known for prestige drama and concluding at a time when The Sopranos was already into its run, Oz was among the first series to show what HBO could do. Sure, the show dipped seriously in quality in its later seasons and at times got extremely weird, but its legacy is secure. And there’s no telling what types of debates and culture wars it might have started had it debuted 15 years later than it did. (Stephen Silver)
13. Larry Sanders Show
For years, it was rumored that Garry Shandling would host a late-night talk show. He never did, but he instead played his most memorable on-screen role by portraying a talk show host.
The comedian, who had previously starred on the delightful meta-sitcom It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, starred for six seasons on The Larry Sanders Show, which he created along with Dennis Klein.
It was the behind-the-scenes story of a late-night network TV show, starring Shandling as Sanders, an insecure TV host constantly struggling with his love life, awkward moments with star guests, and his fear of losing his show.
The show featured three iconic comic performances of Shandling, Jeffrey Tambor as his even more insecure sidekick Hank Kingsley, and Rip Torn as producer Artie, a foul-mouthed, seen-it-all showbiz lifer. The show’s staff was played by a revolving cast of talents that included Jeremy Piven, Sarah Silverman, Janeane Garofalo, Scott Thompson, and Wallace Langham. There were also frequently memorable cameos by stars playing themselves, most notably David Duchovny and Jon Stewart.
The Larry Sanders Show shared most of its run with Seinfeld, even ending the same month. It was never nearly as popular, with its appeal mostly confined to people who had HBO in the ’90s. But it’s a brilliant, hilarious show whose appeal isn’t the slightest bit dated. After a long delay, it was added to HBO’s streaming channels in 2016. (Stephen Silver)
“Hey, aren’t rich white people gloriously f*cking awful human beings?” has been a sound premise for television through the decades, from Dynasty to DuckTales to Arrested Development. Succession, from Peep Show co-creator Jesse Armstrong, initially didn’t feel like it would ascend to that level of cultural cache when it debuted in 2018 (in part due to another mediocre Adam McKay-directed HBO pilot… will someone stop this guy, please?) – but by its sixth episode, “Which Side Are You On?”, Succession had firmly established itself as the show to watch on HBO, the next in a great line of shows about terrible people with way too much money, and the beautiful, twisted reflections of life, morality, and family that storytelling palette offers.
After a hit-and-miss second season in 2019, Succession roared back to life last fall, with a third season that this writer would unironically argue belongs in the HBO TV Season Hall of Fame. With a slightly expanded cast and a rich tapestry of established relationships and characters to build on, Armstrong and the writing team craft a magnificently magnanimous tale of corporate intrigue, daddy problems, and identity crises television’s ever seen. It also helps Succession features some of television’s best performances (literally everyone on this show brings it), chaotic moments – and perhaps most importantly, the genuine ability to surprise the audience, an exceedingly difficult task to pull off in the Reddit-brained, freeze-frame addled age we live in today. Plus, that theme song f*cking slaps. (Randy Dankievitch)
“You tell me all you wanna do is get high, play trumpet and barbecue in New Orleans your whole life?”
In 2008, David Simon and Bret Overmayer followed up their critically-acclaimed HBO Series, The Wire, with HBO’s Treme, another extraordinary work that must be watched (if not binged quite as readily).
Like The Wire and Baltimore, Treme is an intimate portrayal of New Orleans in all its sparkle and squalor. And like The Wire, this is neither a tourist guide nor a schoolbook text; this is art. But Treme feels like a very different show in many ways.
Arguably less readily digestible than its predecessor, Treme is no less important or well-crafted. Set squarely in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Treme paints the lives and the city but with less focus and more feel. And this portrayal is often simply heartbreaking, particularly set against so much beauty.
In the center of this exquisite show and its love of the subject is the question of whether or not to stay or go in the face of such a tragedy. It pulls you apart to watch and to feel.
Of special note, underscoring everything is the music of the city, coming to life, its own voice in the story. It is a character unto itself.
What emerges is a true portrait, less focussed on singular gritty protagonists than on a spiraling and effectual portrayal. Unique and important, the result is yet another challenging and worthwhile work of art from the great David Simon. (Marty Allen)
In an age of adaptations, sequels, reboots, prequels, trilogies, and shared universes, Damon Lindelof’s stylish, driven Watchmen series stands out – in fact, it may be the single most affecting dystopian fiction of 2019. It is undeniably the most fascinating; set 37 years after the events of the seminal graphic novel, Lindelof (along with a writing staff that includes Carly Wray, Cord Jefferson, and Nick Cuse) creates an allegorically rich world of masked police, Rorschach-quoting white supremacists, and a couple of essential familiar faces.
Watchmen may be the biggest surprise of 2019; not in its quality, but because of the creative talent on both sides of the camera (the cast boasts Regina King, Don Johnson, Tim Blake Nelson, Jean Smart, Jeremy Irons, and Lou Gossett Jr., among its regulars) is quite obvious. What makes Watchmen so unexpected is its fearlessness in both continuing the legacy of a particularly pernicious, critical piece of American literature and as a timely series about race in America.
It succeeds wildly at both: led by King’s performance as Sister Night (along with a stunning Jovan Adepo as young Will Reeves), Watchmen is the expected tour-de-force of dramatic prowess, a show capable of beautifully crafted character moments and genuine moments of awe and surprise. But more important is its bracing honesty, a dystopian sci-fi series that is willing to be strange, funny, and strikingly critical all in a single breath. Though we all expected Lindelof’s take on Watchmen to be a gorgeously crafted, wonderous funhouse of weirdness, the unexpected sociopolitical weight of his ruminations on the nature of gods and men firmly establishes Watchmen as one of 2019’s great series. Also, the Trent Reznor/Atticus Ross score fuckin’ slaps. (Randy Dankievitch)
Mike White’s Enlightened is the ultimate “ahead of its time” and “destined to be criminally underrated” series; despite critical acclaim for both of its seasons, Enlightened‘s short, 18-episode run was barely watched and remains surprisingly absent from most conversations about the Era of Too Much Television.
Which is an absolute shame; led by Laura Dern’s stunning performance as the infuriating, inspiring Amy Jellicoe, Enlightened is perhaps the decade’s most poignant mediation on the state of modern living. After an epic breakdown and subsequent trip to anger rehab, Amy returns to her post-divorce, corporate-defined life with a new goal: to find her true self among the madness.
Straddling the line between comedy and drama, Enlightened was a challenging half-hour series, asking fundamental questions about society’s ills, through the lens of a woman firmly in the middle of an existential crisis, surrounded by people similarly stuck on the treadmill of corporate life, a melange of personalities that included White himself, Sarah Burns, and Timm Sharp, not to mention career-defining performances from both Molly Shannon and Luke Wilson.
Though intensely focused on Dern’s Amy and all her starkly defined strengths and weaknesses, Enlightened delivered some of the most impressive character studies of the decade with episodes like “Consider Helen” and “The Ghost Is Seen,” powerful anecdotes focused on supporting characters that echoed in the show’s central narrative.
A story of failure, resiliency, and finding peace, Enlightened remains one of the beautifully singular achievements of the decade, a combination of creative direction, performance, and writing that deservedly sits in the highest echelon of HBO’s library. (Randy Dankievitch)
8. Curb Your Enthusiasm
Curb Your Enthusiasm began as a lark, a mockumentary in 2000 about Seinfeld co-creator Larry David’s fictitious return to stand-up comedy. That soon segued into a full-on sitcom, and it’s still running almost two decades later. For much of its run, it’s been the most consistently funny show on television.
The show, which is heavily improvised, has long featured a core cast of Larry David as himself, Cheryl Hines as his wife, Jeff Garlin as his manager, and Susie Essman as the manager’s profane, screeching wife, along with a strong core of supporting actors and guest stars. Comedian Richard Lewis, in particular, has done the best work of his career on the show.
The show is largely about Larry being an asshole and finding himself in awkward situations, but even after two decades, it hasn’t gotten old or tiresome yet, even at a time when the behavior of entitled wealthy white men plays very differently was the case in 2000. (Stephen Silver)
Normally I get irritated when awards bodies, particularly the Television Academy, award the same person year after year for a performance when there are dozens of equally talented performers that should be getting recognition. However, I will never be mad about Julia Louis-Dreyfus winning six times for the role of Selina Meyers in Veep. Veep is the most accurate representation of majority of contemporary American politicians. Everyone is either woefully inept, morally grey but ultimately self-serving, and/or a monster wearing human skin. That sentence alone should be depressing. Somehow, Veep is consistently absurdly funny despite the subject matter.
Jokes about taboo subjects and outright demeaning vulgar comments about each other’s appearances are exhilarating. My top three favorite insults of all time are in this show; when Jonah Ryan (Timothy Simons) is called a “mangled abortion coat hanger,” a “sentient enema,” and “the police sketch face of a rapist.” On top of making audiences darkly chuckle every episode, the show highlights the outright hypocrisy and enduring systemic issues present in American politics at every turn.
Selina Meyers is a true anti-hero at a time when most female anti-hero stories still find a way to make the lead redeemable. Not so with Selina. She’s surrounded by a cadre of fools and idiots who encourage her villainy and shameless narcissism. They should be unwatchable, and they’re not. Now excuse me while I go re-watch Veep for the millionth time. (Leah Wersebe)
6. Game of Thrones
What The Lord of the Rings did for fantasy in the cinematic realm, Game of Thrones did for fantasy in the TV realm. Based on George R.R. Martin’s world-class fantasy series, Game of Thrones isn’t just the best fantasy show on television, it’s also one of the best fantasy properties of all time.
By supplanting tropes, and turning them on their heads for the fun of it, Game of Thrones creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss made the ultimate in must-watch TV. Sunday nights became events, as fans tried to predict where the story would be going next, who would die, and who would ultimately win the titular “game of thrones”. As political intrigue and social questions clashed with the limitations of medieval times and primitive ideologies, the omnipresent threat of ice zombies and fire-breathing dragons loomed in the background. Somehow Game of Thrones managed to mash all of these disparate entities and ideas into a single show, not just managing to succeed but soar in the process.
Even if the last two seasons left a bad taste in some fans’ mouths, Game of Thrones remains one of the best, and most important, television shows in the history of the medium. (Mike Worby)
When it comes to challenging HBO shows, David Milch is one of the all-timers. Despite his shows’ incredibly nuanced characters and totally original tones, few of them have hit it big on the network. His most famous work is Deadwood, but don’t let that fool you into thinking it’s any less challenging than his other stuff; it just happened to be in the right place in time for HBO, and it still got canceled.
Still, the three seasons of western mythologizing that do happen in Deadwood and the tie-in movie that came over a decade later to tie things up are well worth your time. If you have any interest at all in westerns, they don’t get more authentic than this, and if you like quality writing, then you can savor 20 chews a bite from these scripts. Deadwood may not be for everyone, but if it’s your flavor, you will absolutely love it.
Capped with all-time great performances from actors like Timothy Olyphant, Ian McShane, Keith Carradine, Anna Gunn, Brad Dourif, and Molly Parker, Deadwood fires on every cylinder imaginable, culminating in a western show unlike anything else. (Mike Worby)
4. Six Feet Under
Death and drama often go hand in hand, and Alan Ball’s Six Feet Under tackles that weighty subject matter with deliciously morbid drama and dark humor.
It’s a look into a family whose life is surrounded by death and how that colors their personalities and relationships. Following on the mighty heels of The Sopranos–the show that marked the advent of Prestige TV and, at the time, the unparalleled HBO drama–the Fisher family joins the ranks of the crime famiglia as one of the most fascinating families in TV history.
When Nathaniel Fisher dies, he leaves behind a wife, three children, and a funeral home. Ruth, Nate, David, and Claire have to navigate life and business in the wake of his death. It brilliantly sets up intense theatrical drama and then follows through with excellent scripts, performances, and cinematography. Six Feet Under is death as art, and it is superbly executed. (Erin Allen)
3. The Wire
Few shows in HBO’s history as a network are as intimidating as The Wire. Often heralded among the greatest television shows of all time, The Wire focuses on the city of Baltimore and analyzes it through different vantage points among the many crossroads of a functioning society.
While the story begins as a more straightforward police drama, it morphs from season to season afterward, exploring how crime, the police, the government, labor, and even schools tie together into the grand tapestry of Baltimore, Maryland: murder capital of the US.
With incredible performances from a massive cast including Michal K Williams, Idris Elba, Lance Reddick, Dominic West, Deidre Lovejoy, and Aidan Gillen, The Wire is a sprawling and deeply challenging watch but it’s also one of the most eye-opening shows in television history. Want to know how kids end up in the drug game or how systemic racism enables violence in vulnerable communities? This is the show for you. (Mike Worby)
2. The Leftovers
Damon Lindelof has always loved himself a good mystery. With his previous show, Lost, being built almost exclusively around mysteries, it was no surprise that Lindelof’s post-Lost successor would have a major mystery at its center as well. The difference here is that Lindelof has no interest in solving the mystery in The Leftovers.
Based (somewhat loosely) on Tom Perrota’s novel, The Leftovers focuses on how humans deal with the aftermath of the sudden disappearance of 2% of the world’s population. Was it the rapture or a dimensional rift? Can it be explained at all? And if so, where did everyone go? Rather than answering these questions, The Leftovers is more comfortable (or uncomfortable) with ruminating on them. This isn’t a huge surprise, as the other thing that Lindelof loves is studying characters and going in-depth on what makes them tick. Some characters grieve and obsess, creating their own narrative in the process, while others simply wait to die or mock the whole process of existence in and of itself.
It makes no difference, really, and that’s what makes The Leftovers a show as frustrating as it is endearing. Like in real life, there are no easy answers to the eternal questions, and The Leftovers doesn’t just understand that; it embraces it. We have to let the mystery be, but The Leftovers is still an intriguing and worthwhile exercise in examining the question, and for that, it’s like nothing else on television. (Mike Worby)
1. The Sopranos
Arguably the most prolific show in HBO’s entire oeuvre is The Sopranos. Created by David Chase, the mafia drama follows a high-level captain in the New Jersey mob who begins to have panic and anxiety, which inhibit his ability to do his high-stress job. With no recourse for this internal trauma and no one to talk about it with, he decides therapy is his only path.
It’s a brilliant premise and one that has Tony Soprano hiding things from both his criminal family and his actual family. As the two collide and Tony scrambles for a foothold amid the scheming and opportunism on both sides, The Sopranos gradually escalates into one of the best television dramas of all time.
Anchored by a dedicated performance from James Gandolfini and aided by a brilliant ensemble, The Sopranos is a crime drama that offers heart and soul between the occasional bursts of violence and, as such, is really unlike anything on television, before or since its legendary reign. (Mike Worby)