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50 Best HBO Shows of All Time


50 Best HBO Shows of All Time (Part 1)

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!

One quick note: Our list consists of 49 shows and one special mention. The reason why Kids in the Hall is a special mention is that the show wasn’t exclusive to HBO in North America. The Kids in the Hall series debuted as a one-hour pilot special that aired on HBO and CBC Television in 1988 and began airing as a regular weekly series on both services in 1989. The regular series premiered July 21, 1989, on HBO and on September 14 on CBC. In the United States, the first three seasons were on HBO before it moved to CBS in 1993, where it stayed for two more seasons airing late Friday nights. CBC aired the show for the whole duration of its run.

50 Best HBO Shows Ever!

Kids in the Hall HBO
Image: CBC

(Special Mention): Kids in the Hall

“A man works all day, he expects a normal ham meal, not goddamn BASTARD BRINE!”

Since 1984, Dave Foley, Kevin McDonald, Bruce McCulloch, Mark McKinney, and Scott Thompson have been The Kids In the Hall. The original pilot aired on HBO and Canada’s CBC in 1988, and these five transcendentally goofy and brilliant men transformed comedy. There’s a reason we begged our older brothers to tape episodes of The Kids in the Hall. We needed to be warped.

From iconic characters like The Chicken Lady and The Head Crusher to iconic the subtlety of the obsessive pen guy, the magic of KITH exists not in an overarching philosophy but in the glorious chemistry of five brilliant minds getting completely weird.

Every fan has their favorite sketch and favorite “Kid,” but every fan also loves them all. It’s impossible not to feel as if you are witnessing one monumental comic voice and point-of-view, but it’s equally impossible not to appreciate the individual perspective and brilliance of each player.

“Fresh out of my body and onto your plate,” The Chicken Lady caws to her shell-shocked date-in waiting, offering some eggs), and it’s Dave Foley’s straight-man scream that stays with us forever. Over-the-top characters are pushed to such extremes that we fall in love.

But for every caricature of a Head Crusher, there are also restrained outcasts, like Kevin McDonald’s legendarily over-bullied diner worker from A**hole bringing us back to Earth. The interplay of such extremes looked effortless but was the mark of a perfect and rare mix of comic voices.

Stirred in among the short-form sketches were more ambitious short films; whether they were the surreal and haunting glory of “The Pear Dream” or the hummable and beautiful nonsense of Bruce’s “The Daves I Know,” it all exuded confidence that transcended its time and is still funny as hell.

From the subversive glory of Buddy Cole to the glorious refrain, “Not now, Murray!“, The Kids in the Hall are legends of HBO and comedy that warped a generation. Thank the Flying Pig for every moment with them. (Marty Allen)

The Comeback

49. The Comeback

Unlike Michael Patrick King’s other well-known HBO property, The Comeback is a series I’ll always be interested in seeing more of. In the summer of 2005, the King and Lisa Kudrow-created satire/mockumentary aired its first (and what was assumed to be only) 13 episodes, a precursor to the impending era of Meta Comedy that still hasn’t been topped by The Comeback. Kudrow stars as Valerie Cherish, a television actress experiencing a career resurgence, as she’s followed around by a documentary crew filming her return to the small screen – and across 13 episodes, delivers one of the finest performances HBO’s ever featured on one of its television series; a dedicated, devastating performance of a damaged, difficult woman.

Nine years later, Kudrow and King shocked everyone when they released a second season somehow more meta than the first in 2014 – this time, with a documentary group following Valerie, trying to film a reality show pilot… while she is starring in an HBO series as a fictionalized version of herself, on a show about the writer and producer who tormented her during The Comeback‘s first season. The Comeback was uber-meta before it was cool, and did it without pretense and with a surprising amount of pathos and heartfelt emotion, even as it skewered Hollywood and celebrity culture, reality television – and in some of its best moments, the misogynist ageism that still defines the film industry. King and Kudrow have talked about doing another season of The Comeback once the Sex and the City reboot finishes up – I’m just sayin’, a couple of Peloton bikes in a few scenes, and we could have King back where he belongs, working on one of the great satirical works of the 21st century. (Randy Dankievitch)

best HBO shows
Image: HBO

48. Extras

This showbiz satire, created by and starring Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, predicted the future.

In just the third episode of the subversive series, Kate Winslet, playing a dramatized version of herself, is on set with Andy Millman (Gervais), a background artist who aspires to much more than lowly gig work. The movie star tells Andy why she took the role of a nun in a period film: “I’m doing it because I’ve noticed if you do a film about the Holocaust, you’re guaranteed an Oscar. I’ve been nominated four times. Never won. The whole world is going, ‘Why hasn’t Winslet won one?’

At the time, it was true. Winslet had been nominated four times. Three and a half years later, as fate has it, she would go on to win Best Performance by a Leading Actress for her role in the Holocaust drama, The Reader. Not only does the series eerily foreshadow Winslet’s Oscar win, but it pulls back the curtain and pokes fun at the various egos and stereotypes that make up Hollywood. The awkward, sometimes cringe, humor is similar to Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, from which Gervais is said to have taken inspiration for Extras. He also appeared on a Season 8 episode as himself, in much the same capacity as Winslet did on his show.

Merchant plays Andy’s hapless agent, and Ashley Jensen is Maggie, his friend and colleague (who hilariously gets phone sex advice from Kate Winslet on her titular episode). 

This mockumentary-style comedy has loads of celebrity guest stars, witty dialogue, crazy shenanigans, and Gervais’ particular brand of dry British humor. (Erin Allen)

47. Peacemaker

The glorious opening credits for Peacemaker, which features John Cena and the rest of the cast in a choreographed dance number, perfectly set the tone for what’s to come. And by that, I mean the most entertaining TV show about a superhero we’ve seen yet! Move over Marvel, James Gunn’s spinoff of The Suicide Squad is so good that not only is it better than any of the Marvel shows on Disney+, but it might be the one thing Marvel and DC fans can both agree on. Peacemaker features a great comical script, first-rate production values, a fantastic soundtrack, and an incredible performance by Cena, who gets to flex his comedy chops while bringing a certain vulnerability to this unconventional superhero. Cena is 100% committed to everything Gunn throws at him, helping to elevate a dirty, raunchy show into something that feels equally warm and wholesome, especially when addressing generational trauma & abuse. All in all, James Gunn has crafted a heartfelt, twisted, laugh-out-loud, and absurd superhero workplace comedy about a damaged man doing his best to become a better person. (Ricky D)

Flight of the Conchords
Image: HBO

46. Tales from the Crypt

Before Game of Thrones became famous for its sexposition, nudity, and excessive violence, HBO had Tales From the Crypt. As its full name – Home Box Office – suggests, a long-time goal of HBO has been to break down the dividing lines between cinema and television by pushing the boundaries of what television can do. Tales From the Crypt embodied this goal in many ways. It was known for abundant nudity and violence in a time when these things were hard to find on television. It was also known for featuring big-name celebrities from film at a time when film actors and television actors were typically kept separate.

In addition to challenging the divide between film and television and inspiring a lot of HBO’s later signatures, Tales From the Crypt was also, quite simply, a phenomenal show. Many of its episodes are horror classics – including the famous “And All Through the House,” featuring a Santa Claus-themed killer – and its combination of all-star actors like Demi Moore and big-name directors like Robert Zemeckis ensured a high level of quality between episodes. Tales From the Crypt still stands as one of the most beloved anthology series of all time, and it has a special place in many horror fans’ hearts. (Steven Greenwood)

Bored to Death HBO

45. Bored to Death

Bored to Death is a series I’m convinced aired either two years too early, or three years too late, airing three seasons and a quaint 24 episodes between 2009 and 2011. Had it existed more squarely in the era of Mad Men and Breaking Bad – the great White Male Mid-Life Crisis Era post-The Sopranos – I’m convinced Jonathan Ames’ first foray into television would’ve drawn a larger audience, and be more widely remembered today.

Regardless of its notoriety, Bored to Death remains one of the network’s best forays into dramedy, starring Schwartzman as the fictional Jonathan Ames, a failed novelist who takes up a career as a Craiglist private investigator following a painful breakup. Co-starring Zach Galifianakis (in what I consider his true breakout role, not The Hangover) and Ted Danson – who was coming off his Emmy-nominated run on DamagesBored to Death is one of those authorial series, where one can feel the synergy between the writing and performances, between creator and performers. It’s a strange, idiosyncratic little series that satisfyingly blurs the line between traditional case-of-the-week stories, and the contemporary overarching narrative structures of modern series (the show also had a magnificent series of directors, including Alan Taylor, Nicole Holofcener, Paul Feig and Adam Bernstein). Bored to Death was both way ahead of its time, and well before it, a three-season experiment that runs for almost exactly as long as it feels it should (would’ve been nice to see the wrap-up film Ames drafted) and remains an untainted hidden gem in HBO’s extensive catalog. (Randy Dankievitch)

Mare of Easttown
Image: HBO

44. Mare of Easttown

HBO has often found itself in the catbird seat when it comes to capturing the discourse with a scripted drama. A recent coup was the Keystone drenched mystery series Mare of Easttown. The show captivated audiences with its detailed depiction of working-class Pennsylvania, the intriguing whodunit murder, and stellar performances.

The tremendous Kate Winslet vapes her way through the mysterious murder of a young girl in Easttown, Pennsylvania. Winslet guzzled Rolling Rocks, chomped on hoagies, and draped herself in the leisurely splendor of Jersey Shore souvenir apparel. It’s as if she pulled the purse-lipped vowels of the eastern Pennsylvania accent directly from the shelf of a Wawa. Along with Hacks, the show was part of the celebrated reemergence of Jean Smart, who plays Mare’s mother, Helen. Guy Pearce and Evan Peters contributed their charisma to a large cast where many were considered a suspect.

As evidence grew with each episode, one Easttown denizen after another was implicated, with plenty of room left for Mare, and the audience, to come to their own conclusions. The careful disbursement of information through the limited series bounced blame from one character to another and then back again. With the murder mystery acting as a narrative propeller, Mare’s own troubles revealed themselves. Her ex-husband, once again engaged, lives right next door as she attends therapy to work through a tragic loss.

Mare, once a star high school basketball player, is the town’s top detective. She is the exceptional child of the economically depressed Easttown. Mare is like a once impressive Mercedes-Benz that has worn off its shine, dents covering its chassis, and not had an oil change in over a decade. She’s the best of what the town has to offer, which it seems well aware of and just adds to its greater malaise. (Kent M. Wilhelm)

White Lotus
Image: HBO

43. White Lotus

When the pandemic-influenced content started popping up in 2021, I was not impressed. In fact, I was pissed. I didn’t want to see that nonsense in my escapism. Mike White was able to overcome the pandemic-exhaustion stupor everybody had fallen into with The White Lotus. Mike White projects have always been charming, smartly funny, and thought-provoking. (In-the-know folks remember the Laura Dern-starring Enlightened show with heavy hearts.) A show about the guests and workers at a Hawaiian resort with an amazing pulse-racing score was a perfect Mike White creation. 

The cast were all brilliant, but extra shout-outs for Jennifer Coolidge playing the role of grieving guest Tanya McQuoid and Murray Bartlett as the hotel concierge Armond. The Jennifer Coolidge renaissance is going strong and those who didn’t watch Looking are now Bartlett -converts. Some shows highlight how alike we all are no matter our background, socio-economic status, race, etc. We all have problems, right? The White Lotus is an apt reminder that the difference between those with privilege and those without can be stark. We aren’t all the same. Some people get to leave the resort and go back to their lives no matter what kind of shenanigans they engaged in while on vacation. Others have to face the consequences. (Leah Wersebe)

Vice Principals
Image: HBO

42. Vice Principals

Vice Principals came together in a way unique among, well, anything in recent memory: It ran for exactly two seasons and 18 episodes and was always planned to run exactly that way. 

The follow-up to Danny McBride’s first HBO show, Eastbound and Down, and another collaboration with his longtime collaborators, co-creator Jody Hill and frequent director David Gordon Green. The show had a fantastic hook, once against featuring these filmmakers exploring the subject of Southern masculinity. 

McBride and Walton Goggins starred in the show as rival school administrators who both had designs on the principal job at their high school, only to be both be passed over. So they spend much of the run of the series either at war with each other or teaming up in a doomed question to take down the woman who got the job ((Kimberly Hébert Gregory’s Dr. Belinda Brown.) 

Like many McBride-associated projects, it’s mostly a show about impotent male rage, and the way it comes out as everything from hostility to violence. And also like many of those projects, it finds a way to mix big laughs with having something to say. (Stephen Silver)

Silicon Valley
Image: HBO

41. Silicon Valley

Geek comedy got a bad rep from The Big Bang Theory, but fortunately for fans hoping for something more authentic, Silicon Valley went from little-known sitcom to fan-favorite. The show was the creation of Mike Judge and based on his personal history as an engineer working in Silicon Valley in the late 1980s, capturing the frustration of working for tech overlords, much how Office Space tapped into the minds of apathetic cubicle jockeys in the ’90s.  

Silicon Valley wasn’t one of HBO’s most watched shows, but it wound up surprising quite a few critics as well viewers. Featuring talented comedians Thomas Middleditch, Kumail Nanjiani, T.J. Miller, and Martin Starr, Silicon Valley went beyond references to Steve Jobs and Google, and featured sharp writing that was never afraid to skewer the big boys. More impressive is its willingness to lay into the character’s personal failings as highly qualified engineers completely unready for success.

Flight of the Conchords
Image: HBO

40. Flight of the Conchords

New Zealand funny men Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement bring their musical talent to this one-of-a-kind situational comedy that follows the eclectic two-man band struggling to make ends meet while looking for their big break in the Big Apple. The show extends from the duo’s live musical comedy performances–the stand-up humor delivered in a personable, conversational, and musical way by two really good mates translates strangely well into a half-hour TV comedy.

That success is due to its multi-talented creators. McKenzie and Clement are not only funny comedians and skilled musicians, but they are brilliant writers as well. McKenzie won an Oscar for Best Original Song for The Muppets and the pair also share a Grammy win and several Emmy nominations.

Each episode is finely crafted into charming little vignettes that give us a glimpse into the lives of these two adorable, socially-awkward besties. The songs fit into the stories seamlessly and many episodes have full-on music videos with impressive production value. If you’re a fan of comedy and music, this show is a pretty perfect mix of the two. (Erin Allen)

Last Week Tonight HBO
Image: HBO

39. Last Week Tonight

John Oliver hit it big as a comedian on The Daily Show, and it’s no surprise that his own show has a very similar focus. Diving into the major news events of each week before going deep on a heavily researched topic, Last Week Tonight does the George Carlin trick and presents you with often troubling information but gives you a little of that humor-sugar to help the medicine go down.

While Last Week Tonight can be heavy at times, the issues it explores are ones that are in genuine need of journalistic integrity, which Oliver and co. have in spades, even if they will occasionally pull out a smoking panda mascot or blow up a billboard to make their point.

Known for its ridiculous publicity stunts and its f-you attitude to its business daddy, Last Week Tonight is most impressive for its integrity and its ownership over every single minute of content it ever produces, good and bad. It’s a show with chuckles and scruples, and if you need a few laughs between all of the misery, it’s the perfect place to go for your news. (Mike Worby)

best HBO shows
Image: HBO

38. True Detective

Blasting onto screens as a southern gothic murder mystery and dark conspiracy drama in 2014, True Detective benefitted greatly from boasting such notable leading men as Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey and supporting cast members like Michelle Monaghan and Alexandra Daddario.

However, True Detective had a lot more to offer than simple star power. Bringing a unique premise and vibe to TV, the series catapulted up critics’ lists for the best show of the year due to its clever writing by creator Nic Pizzolato and some of the most impressive television direction ever from Cary Fukanaga.

While the second season received more of a mixed reaction than the first, the third season, starring Mahershala Ali and Stephen Dorff, re-lit the fire under True Detective, exploring race and marking a brilliant return to form along the way. A fourth season is currently in early production, but details remain scant for now. (Mike Worby)

Image: HBO

37. Westworld

What if we built a magnificent theme park filled with cutting-edge scientific creations and let them go wild? What could possibly go wrong?!? 

So goes the ever-engaging premise of much of Michael Crichton’s work. In Jurassic Park, we have dinosaurs. In Westworld, we have robots. 

Originally developed as a film by Crichton in 1973 (and defined by Yule Brenner’s haunting lead), HBO’s update landed in 2014, well after Crichton’s death in 2008, and managed to carve out an identity of its own.

The show shares its central premise with the film. It follows the cascading results of a Wild West theme park populated by cutting-edge AI robot hosts who exist to allow the human guests to live out their darkest fantasies. The robots, however, are not supposed to achieve sentience, and both the film and TV series asks what happens when they do. Spoiler: it’s not great.

The result is a captivating examination of morality and sentience, an increasingly relevant rumination as specters of AI-intelligence become ever-more real. The HBO series benefits in many ways from getting a bit more time to lean in and think about these heavy-hitting ideas. And it does so amongst some of the most stunning cinematography and vistas that the network has crafted.

Ultimately the series transforms into its own new space as it progresses, continuing to ask the relevant question of what makes a thing become a person. Rather than the simple malfunction of the original film, here we have an evolution, and we are eventually rooting for the robots (much like we should be rooting for the dinosaurs, too). 

At times, the show actually moves a little more slowly than it needs to, taking its ponderous questions out for very long walks on the prairie. But it’s filled with twists and memorable performances that are well worth your time in yet another magnificently crafted show for the network. (Marty Allen)

Big Little Lies
Image: HBO

36. Big Little Lies

Adapted from the book of the same name from Liane Moriarty by David E. Kelley and directed by Jean-Marc Vallée (Sharp Objects), the first season of Big Little Lies was a huge hit for HBO. It received 16 Emmy Award nominations and won eight, including Outstanding Limited Series and acting awards for Nicole Kidman, Alexander Skarsgård, and Laura Dern. The trio also won Golden Globe Awards in addition to a Golden Globe Award for Best Miniseries or Television Film win for the series. Kidman and Skarsgård also received Screen Actors Guild Awards for their performances. So, of course, there was going to be another season of a closed-ended story starring one of the most talented ensemble casts on television ever. And this time around, gifted filmmaker Andrea Arnold (Fish Tank, Red Road) has taken over direction from Vallée, with Meryl Streep joining the cast as Mary Louise Wright, the grieving mother in pursuit of the killer(s) of her beloved son. After the critically acclaimed first season, the biggest question going into this new installment was can it live up to the tension of the first season? The answer is yes!

This time around, the central question commanding the series isn’t who murdered who, but rather how the Monterey Five deal with the aftermath of Perry’s death. Season two raises the stakes for all five women at the center of the show and it doubles down on the dark humor while also giving its cast even more juicy drama to chew on. Needless to say, if you like season one, you’ll love season two but if there is one reason to watch, it is for the performance from Laura Dern who breathes dragon fire into Renata Klein — she’s by far the most fascinating character on television this year. (Ricky D)

best HBO shows
Image: HBO

35. Luck

2012’s biggest television punchline also happened to be one of its best shows. Even before it aired, HBO’s horse-racing drama Luck seemed destined for either legend or disaster, combining as it did two famously tempestuous creative minds in Michael Mann and David Milch (not to mention the show’s unfailingly opinionated star, Dustin Hoffman, making his series-television debut). Instead, it turned out to be just as idiosyncratic as Milch’s other recent series, unafraid to coat its dialogue in thick brogues and dense racing lingo. Yet the show quickly built up a reserve of great characters, memorable dialogue, and stellar acting, not to mention a set of truly stunning horse-racing sequences. Alas, the rest is history. Hopefully, Milch, Mann and company can reconvene for a more equine-friendly series in the future. (Simon Howell)

The Deuce - best HBO shows
Image: HBO

34. The Deuce

David Simon never truly left television, even it had been some time since he created anything as impactful as The Wire. He’s created a full-blown series – Treme – since that show ended, as well as smaller projects like Generation Kill and Show Me a Hero. And like all of Simon’s work, those three series shared attributes: a journalistic attention to detail, a sympathetic view of the proletariat, and extremely low viewership numbers. With The Deuce, though, Simon found a story with the potential to match both the popularity and the urgency of his masterpiece ode to the dying American city.

Like The WireThe Deuce paints a broad portrait of a city in flux – in this case, the New York City of 1970. Simon and his longtime collaborator George Pelecanos have a knack for interrogating the factors that shape economies while weaving detailed and humanistic tapestries of the laborers who flounder as work disappears. The Deuce focuses on the sex workers of 1970’s Times Square and commits to illustrating that world in unflinching, loving detail. It can be uncomfortable, tense, and occasionally harrowing, but Simon also allows the joy of characters’ everyday life to bleed into the frame, with grace notes that echo the most memorable exchanges from The Wire.

Without some dramatic inciting event or McGuffin for narrative thrust, The Deuce meanders through a short period of time in New York, focusing our attention on events both cataclysmic and not. We will remember the quiet, human moments: pimps and cops joking around at a shoeshine stand, or with the Times Square prostitutes grousing over cigarettes like any other weary workforce. Importantly, Simon sensed his own limitations writing for such an overwhelmingly female cast, and enlisted the help of renowned crime fiction authors Megan Abbott and Lisa Lutz to add perspective to the series’ writers room. The result is a series with a sprawling cast of fully realized characters and a world that beckons the audience and has us wanting to simply spend time with The Deuce. (Michael Haigis)

Looking HBO - best HBO shows
Image: HBO

33. Looking

When Looking premiered in 2014, it was touted as HBO’s first prestige drama about the lives of contemporary gay men. The show was a pioneer of sorts, charting the everyday struggles of three thirty-year-old men navigating life, relationships, family, and careers in modern-day San Francisco. It was referred to in the press as the gay version of Girls and distinguished itself by moving past the tired clichés involving gay life to a more down-to-earth and intensely personal snapshot of a tight-knit group of friends in search of love and lasting relationships. Unlike Girls, however, Looking never had a chance to find a larger audience and after only two seasons, HBO pulled the plug just when the show was finding its rhythm.

Those who have watched all two seasons and the 90-minute series finale would agree that the second season was a vast improvement over the first— and those of you who’ve watched every minute of Looking will remember the best episode by far, titled “Looking for a Plot.” It is the seventh episode of the second season when Doris finally gets her moment in the limelight as Patrick takes a back seat (literally), and unsurprisingly, the leading man becomes all the more likeable for it. “Looking for a Plot” is an episode devoted to memories of troubled childhoods and desperate attempts to break free from your past while making the leap into adulthood. And when the characters finally do accept their current place in life, their celebration is short-lived as their car swerves off the road, sending the characters once again into a tailspin. “Looking for a Plot” is just one of many examples of why Looking is on this list. It’s not just the network’s best and most original effort in the half-hour category this decade, but it demonstrated the potential of what the series could be if only HBO hadn’t cancelled it too soon. (Ricky D)

Carnivàle - best HBO shows
Image: HBO

32. Carnivàle

Before Lost swept the world with its blend of realism and layered, mythological, serialized storytelling, there was Carnivale. Incredibly ahead of its time, it followed a traveling carnival through the dustbowl of America in the depression of the 1930s and its collision course with an avatar of light and one of dark. Its gritty and raw majesty is permeated by its magical storytelling, like a primordial tar rising through the cracks of the drought-scarred earth. Today it would fit in among the swath of fantasy and sci-fi shows, but in 2003, this was something breaking ground.

Hauntingly beautiful, eerily dreamlike, nightmarish at times, and achingly romantic at others. Its grounded drama is backed by prophetic dreams, ghostly visions, and otherworldly magic. It displays a vivid reality created by stellar production design with an impossibly beautiful soundtrack by Jeff Beal. From cast to crew, this was, for many involved, a defining work.

For all its production value and fascinating mythology, it’s the ensemble of incredibly human outcasts that are at the heart of the show and keep viewers returning all these years later. Despite the greater looming threats, the struggles of the characters are very human. Nick Stahl and Clancy Brown give standout performances as the cursed avatars, Ben Hawkins and Brother Justin Crowe, a convict of light and a priest of dark. Each is reluctant to participate with a bit of good and bad in them standing in stark contrast to their “gift.”

Deemed too expensive and not pulling the numbers of The SopranosCarnivale was cancelled at two of its six planned seasons. Since plot-wise, they were separated into groups/arcs of two, there is a good amount of closure for core plot points and Daniel Knauf has since revealed his plan and ending, making the show absolutely worth a watch for newcomers.

As a rare masterpiece, had Carnivale aired just a year or two later, it would be chiseled on the Mt. Rushmore of HBO’s legends. (Geordi Ferguson)

The Righteous Gemstones - best HBO shows
Image: HBO

31. The Righteous Gemstones

Though Danny McBride’s HBO work is often remembered for its audacious humor, it’s the fascination with modern Americana that truly makes Eastbound and Down and Vice Principals memorable series – which in a way, makes him an unnatural fit for a series as big and loaded as televangelism. And yet, The Righteous Gemstones hits the ground running, a comedy about the intersection of religion, business, and family, in one of 2019’s more interesting shows about inter-generational conflict – and, more prudently, honesty and forgiveness.

Led by Edi Patterson’s mesmerizing performance as forgotten Gemstone sibling Judy (who surprisingly outshines John Goodman, an unhinged Walton Goggins, and Danny McBride), The Righteous Gemstones is the rare comedy that is as reflective as it is funny: even in the age of Peak TV’s hybridization of traditional genres, Gemstones is one of few series able to nimbly jump between identities.

Perhaps most importantly, it is as confident a comedy as there is on television, a conviction of theme and character that only grows stronger as the season builds its dramatic crescendo, resulting in one of the most satisfying season finales of the year. (Randy Dankievitch)

Sharp Objects - best HBO shows
Image: HBO

30. Sharp Objects

The surprise of the 2018 television season came in HBO’s wildly ambitious take on Gillian Flynn’s novel of the same name, Sharp Objects. With a never better Amy Adams as its centerpiece, Sharp Objects follows middling reporter Camille’s return to her hometown to write the story of her life. An alcoholic with a truly intense history of self-harm and suicide attempts, Camille is one of the most flawed protagonists to grace the small screen in years, but that doesn’t stop the audience from rooting for and sympathizing with her; thanks in no small part to Adams’ one-of-a-kind performance.

This slow burn of a murder mystery format, mixed with painful flashbacks and PTSD fade-ins, lead to what may be the best thing on TV that year (and in 2018, that’s saying quite a lot). Few dramas have made audiences feel the trauma of a character in the way that Sharp Objects succeeded at doing. (Mike Worby)

Insecure - best HBO shows
Image: HBO

29. Insecure

It’s hard to believe that just six years ago, Issa Rae was a veritable unknown. She’s now one of the most singular voices in Hollywood, having been key in ushering in a new era in television that showcases stories about Black women. Insecure was a risk for HBO in 2016 (proven to be a fallacy repeatedly, production companies tended to insist Black-starring and Black-created content would not garner accolades and/or funding). Rae stuck to her convictions even when HBO officials wanted her to partner with established producers and directors. Thanks to Rae’s determination, the world now knows what a Melina Matsoukas project looks like outside of music videos. 

Issa Dee and her friends are young Black women in Los Angeles navigating their careers, relationships, and a tumultuous period of transition for women in their late 20s-30s. It feels like everybody is running at completely different speeds. Some are getting married to their boyfriend of ten years and starting a family. Others are wholly focused on their law career, and their romantic relationships are messy and inconsistent. Some women, like Issa, are floating in a stagnant pool and are unsure how to get out of it. It becomes easy to care about the characters in Insecure. I just want the best for them, but more importantly, I want them to find the courage to tackle their issues, support each other, and move forward in life. I can’t think of a better sign of an excellent character-driven television show. (Leah Wersebe)

Big Love - best HBO shows
Image: HBO

28. Big Love

Back when HBO changed the television landscape in the early 2000s, it only had a handful of shows. In 2006, they introduced Big Love, and while it did not gain the traction of some of its heavy hitters, the show presented a unique and nuanced look at marriage, family, and religion.

Big Love follows the Henricksons, a polygamist family hiding in plain sight in the suburbs of America, separating themselves from the Mormon compound while trying to uphold their beliefs in a world that would move in to rip their family apart.

While many viewers initially tuned in out of curiosity for the quaint polygamist angle, it quickly became easy to invest. The foundation of its plot is empathy, family, and love which is easy to relate to even as a stranger to the Mormon background. Bill Henrickson, played by the late Bill Paxton, gives a tender and sympathetic performance as a man who struggles to defend his beliefs and love while rejecting the practices of the compound that continues to marry young girls to older men.

Big Love tackles these complex and even taboo themes with the deftness required when dealing with such grades of grey. It never truly condemns or supports the Henrickson’s beliefs and practices but simply deals honestly with what comes with it. It ends up tackling family drama better than many others and is surprisingly relatable as viewers settle in past the initial culture shock.

Its cast, both main and supporting, is wonderful, with Jeanne Tripplehorn, Chloe Sevigny, and Ginnifer Goodwin as the wives of Bill. Harry Dean Stanton plays the prophet of the compound of polygamist families, while Grace Zabriske and Bruce Dern play Bill’s unhinged parents.

Big Love is often left out in discussions of HBO’s arsenal and retrospectives, but it stands in the golden age of tv with the rest of them. (Geordi Ferguson)

Euphoria HBO - best HBO shows
Image: HBO

27. Euphoria

HBO’s button-pushing new drama Euphoria zeroes in on the lives of several high school students living in California and how they navigate a world filled with violence, profanity, drug use, overt bullying, and sexual abuse. The show has been billed as a parent’s nightmare, no thanks to the explicit sex scenes, nonconsensual-sex tapes and child pornography, but beneath the show’s explicit exterior is a compassionate examination of adolescent longing. Told from the perspective of a 17-year-old drug addict named Rue, who is desperately trying to self-medicate her severe depression with whatever drugs she can get her hands on, Euphoria is both an exploitive and a surprisingly tender look at the overwhelming anxieties faced by teens today including neglect, anxiety, and loneliness. Some scenes contain powerful messaging while others seem designed simply to shock, but more often than not, Euphoria will have viewers thinking long and hard about the current modern challenges facing youth today.

Euphoria channels the spirit of movies like Kids and Gummo, and like those films, it’s best to view the series as a mood piece rather than a guide to Gen Z behaviors. If the series can slow down and stop trying so hard to shock adult viewers, it could become an ever more important addition to the HBO pantheon. There’s a lot of potential here, but like the characters it follows, Euphoria is sometimes lost and trying to find its voice. That said, despite its shortcomings, it is still one of the better shows of the past decade. (Ricky D)

I May Destroy You - best HBO shows
Image: HBO

26. I May Destroy You

Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You was a groundbreaking show for several reasons. It marked the emergence of an extremely unique filmmaking voice, both in front of and behind the camera. It told a story that was mostly about sexual assault without being didactic or preachy. It was one of 2021’s most visually inventive shows. It allowed its protagonist to be an imperfect victim, and its ending was a huge risk that managed to pay off.

The 12-episode series, which debuted on BBC One in Brittan and on HBO in the U.S. and ran through August, was a semi-autobiographical effort from Coel, who starred in and wrote all 12 episodes and co-directed nine of them.

Coel’s character, Arabella, is a young woman with some success as a writer and influencer. One night, she’s drugged and sexually assaulted at a club and spends much of the ensuing episodes both trying to figure out what happened and coming to terms with it. The series, though, also stretches into other corners, including the characters’ childhoods, Arabella’s struggles with her second book, and revenge against #MeToo abusers.

It’s been quite a year for the representation of Black immigrant communities in Britain, between Steve McQueen’s Small Axe movies and I May Destroy You. And I May Destroy You as well as the upcoming film Promising Young Woman, both found wonderfully creative and original ways to treat the subject of sexual assault.

There has been a lot of popular culture made about sexual assault and other trauma, but none of done it quite the way I May Destroy You did.

The show was not specifically marketed as a limited series, but it felt an awful lot like one, and it’s since been stated that another season is “unlikely.” The existing season can be streamed on HBO Max. (Stephen Silver)


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