Last updated November 14th, 2016
I watch too much TV. This much is clear. But what I hadn't realized until talking with my co-workers is that I'd actually seen at least part of nearly every single scripted series HBO has ever put out. And so, in 2015, I set out to complete the mission and watched the rest. The idea was to rank these shows definitively, eat some sea-salted pita chips, and go on with my life.
But HBO keeps putting out new ones, so my work is never done. This update behaves the way it always has, and the way my Netflix originals ranking does: Programs are ranked on overall quality, dialogue, originality, influence on culture, and my subjective preferences. I've tried to make this list exhaustive, but there are a few omissions for shows I couldn't track down, like the 1984-1991 sitcom 1st & Ten, featuring O.J. Simpson. I include some miniseries in here (I've marked all miniseries with an asterisk), but not all. I've left out HBO films (like Angels in America), sketch and topical shows (e.g., Mr. Show with Bob and David, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver), and anthology series (Tales From the Crypt, etc.). And this update only series who have completed at least one full season by November 14, 2016 -- which explains why Westworld, Insecure and Divorce aren't on here.
Got it? Comments insulting (or praising?) my taste can go in the comments section, aka the most valuable portion of the internet. Let's get to it.
64. In Treatment
Best character: Wallowing despair
If I wanted to watch uncomfortable therapy sessions, I’d rent an office space next to a psychologist, and -- late at night -- drill a peephole into the wall and insert a tiny camera purchased on one of those spy sites like a normal person.
63. Tell Me You Love Me
Best character: No
I can’t tell you I love you, because I actually just feel very uncomfortable watching your “honest” depictions of couples’ sex lives, relationships, and therapeutic sessions with Jane Alexander.
62. The High Life
Best character: Earl. He was mad subtle.
From David Letterman’s production company and created by Adam Resnick of Cabin Boy fame, it told the story of two self-centered guys who owned a storage company in 1950s Pittsburgh. Anyway, I managed to see only a little of this show, but true TV junkies have called it a precursor to selfish protagonist shows like Always Sunny or Workaholics, and cite Resnick as being too far ahead of his time with the concept. So basically, this might’ve been the Friendster of modern television comedy, but the lack of availability gives me no choice but to keep it up here, next to the therapy shows. Sigh.
61. Hello Ladies
Best character: Stephen Merchant?
Stephen Merchant is a tall, skinny Englishman who isn’t good at picking up women due to a confluence of factors. That’s pretty much the show. Plus Nate Torrence and the geeky guy from Alias.
60. The Mind of the Married Man
Best character: Jake Berman. He keeps the company of a hooker named Monica. She “poses as his computer consultant.”
Mike Binder’s show “focusing on the challenges of married life from a male perspective” came out when I was in college and wanted nothing to do with learning about the challenges of married life from a male perspective. After watching some of it, I can safely tell you the best part of this show is the dated Wikipedia summaries of each episode. For example, from Episode 5: “Donna gives Micky an 'electronic tether' in the form of a pager.” And my favorite, from Season 2, Episode 2: “Micky has a problem programming his TiVo, and wonders if it's a metaphor for his relationship with his mind.”
59. Dream On
Best character: Eddie Charles
I watched this show secretly in my basement after my parents had gone to sleep when I was 11, because it had nudity. And now that I’ve seen it again, I’m somewhat disappointed by how infrequent that nudity is. Also somewhat hilarious: the weird use of other TV show clips within the show to express emotions. And the son being a total NARC.
Best character: Pass
“Entourage with football players” is a fantastic elevator pitch for a recently fired former mid-level Spike TV executive trying to get a foothold at a pay cable station. And as much as I enjoy Dwayne Johnson’s hairless polish and Denzel Washington’s son occasionally sounding just like Denzel Washington when I close my eyes, this show is, um, really quite not great.
I watched five episodes, and after each one, I got weirdly introspective about why I was wasting my life watching Weymouth native Rob Corddry cannonball into hot tubs. The “issues” that they “tackle” (drug use, financial problems, having sex with groupies in club bathrooms and then punching people who are rude to you while someone videos it) seem like flimsy straw men that just need to be checked off before they can get back to celebrating the glamour of the football life. I took a recent spin through the latest season as well. It's not any better.
Best character: One of those cats
The bar for animated shows is really high. BoJack Horseman and Archer and Bob's Burgers are all ridiculously entertaining, and manage to use their animation to push things forward in a way that takes old tropes and freshly paints them; you know, like that old one about the bunch of kids stacked up on top of each other in a coat dating a cat entertainment agent. Animals is none of those. The entire premise of this show seems to be: BUT WAIT, INSTEAD OF HUMANS, THEY'RE CATS! There are funny elements, and some of the set pieces hit, but you have no reason to attach yourself to any of the random characters. In BoJack, you actually feel his pain and depression coming through. In Archer, you can see how he developed into an entirely insecure, lacrosse-loving secret agent. In Animals, you just kind of wish you were watching something else.
56. K Street
Best character: Constitutional democracy. Or Howard Dean.
This was an “improvised” show on HBO in 2003 featuring James Carville and Mary Matalin as fictional/real or maybe real/fictional political consultants. Per Jay Z’s logic, it’s not real (read: available) to HBO GO, therefore it doesn’t really exist. But I watched some of it again on YouTube. One of the clips featured Rick Santorum. Don’t watch that clip.
55. Life's Too Short
Best character: That random black dude in the pilot who gives Warwick Davis all sorts of shit before pressing the office buzzer for him.
If you’d like to see the small guy from Willow basically do his own version of Ricky Gervais from The Office, but in a sadder, and kind of real-feeling way, this is your show.
54. Angry Boys
Best character: S.mouse. No one else can pull off one ski boot.
When this first came out, I was very ready to think it was hilarious, mostly because it would also give me an excuse to tell people about the year I spent in Australia (shout out to Glebe Point Road!). The only problem in executing that plan was the fact that it wasn’t that funny. I’d still like to talk about my time in Australia, though, if you don’t mind?
53. Family Tree
Best character: Bea Chadwick/Monkey
As much as I like Chris O’Dowd/Christopher Guest and love the fact that Ed Begley Jr. is back in the mix (and "trained in Native American survival tactics!"), I couldn’t get into this search for an old guy in a photograph, and it seems like no one else could either, since it was canceled after one season.
52. The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency
Best character: BK
Adapted from author Alexander McCall Smith’s series of novels about what is allegedly the top-ranked ladies' detective agency in Botswana, No. 1 Ladies' was the first major television show actually filmed in the country, and so there was a lot of good feeling and a light touch. But ultimately, a) it was hard to feel like the character development was very strong (possibly due to the light touch?) and b) the clever words and turns of phrase in McCall Smith’s novels sound weird spoken aloud. It was a noble, but definitely flawed, effort.
51. The Brink
Best character: Rafiq Massoud
Take Veep, put its characters in Pakistan embassies, Naval planes, and wherever the Secretary of State lives (Crystal City?). Turn the volume up. Make the jokes half as funny. Add in Jack Black trying to Jack Black every scene rather than just letting them absurdly play out, and you have a semi-black comedy that can’t quite figure out if it wants to be an edgy satire about the possibility of a horrible international incident, or a wacky updated Naked Gun 2 1/2 without the benefit of Leslie Nielsen. Still, that's somewhat decent faint praise!
50. Doll & Em
Best character: Doll. No, wait. Em.
Did you know that this show exists? I bet you did not. Well, I am the person who watched this. It stars Emily Mortimer as famous actress Emily Mortimer, whose friend Dolly Wells (as played by her friend Dolly Wells) gets dumped or maybe divorced and goes to live with Emily and becomes her assistant. I’m 80% sure the show was created during a smoke break at The Newsroom, in which Mortimer told an HBO executive an anecdote about her friend getting dumped or divorced and moving in with her, then a big miscommunication ensued, and six weeks later this show appeared. All said, it’s actually not that bad and gets even better during the part of the second season I've watched. I would buy a long-sleeve Doll & Em crewneck sweatshirt from the HBO store.
Best character: Tommy Lasorda
I thought this show was so damn good when I was in high school. Agents! Athletes! Sandra Oh! But really, it was basically K Street with more cameras and sports instead of Rick Santorum. One of those things that doesn’t hold up upon further inspection 20 years after the fact.
Best character: San Francisco
Huzzah for creating a gay-focused cable show set in my town so I can feel popular when they eat at Zuni Cafe or drink at Doc’s Clock or the Press Club. Boo for making that "where are they now?" aspect essentially the most interesting part of the show.
47. Vice Principals
Best character: Creepy Lee Russell
When I first heard of this show, I was so excited. Walton Goggins was easily the best actor on one of my favorite shows, Justified, and seemed like the only person capable of reining in the blustery anarchist humor of Danny McBride. And yes, this show has particularly funny parts as you watch these two power-hungry small men attempt all sorts of subterfuge, but nearly all of the humor seems to come with a side of internal uneasiness. And as I watched more episodes featuring Goggins and McBride engaged in all sorts of abominable and fiendish behavior, I stopped rooting for them, and started rooting for the show to stop.
46. Philip Marlowe, Private Eye
Best character: Philip Marlowe, Private Eye.
Do you like the short stories of Raymond Chandler? Do you like pianos? And people shooting old-timey pistols into water and saying things like "wanna use the sweat rag?" and "busier than a flea on a fat lady" and "hotter than a buzzard's crotch"? Well, then you likely wrote this halfway decent mystery series from the 1980s featuring Powers Boothe, which is entertaining if only for the throwback language and the amusing way people in the '80s portrayed people from the '30s.
Best character: Alex Pappas
It should speak highly of the overall quality of all these shows that I actually enjoy the 41st-ranked show. The Duplass brothers' show sounds like it’ll be touchy feely but it's more just awkward, and the dude I want to call Steve Zissou (Steve Zissis) is hilarious in a defeated but gentle and redeemable sort of way.
Best character: Julie
In this Golden Era of Television, there is a tendency to aim big and ambitious. And sometimes, the summary of a thing is greater than the actual thing produced. So it's been for Vinyl, a show created by Terence Winter (Boardwalk Empire) with Martin Scorsese and Mick Jagger as executive producers, featuring Bobby Cannavale and detailing the music scene in NYC in the 1970s. I mean, that show sounds pretty fucking good, right? And yet the entire first season feels like a tour around a writers room, in which each person is asked to lay out their vision for the show, and they're all slightly different and confusing.
The nearly two-hour pilot (directed by Scorsese) is bloated in the wrong ways, and features a strange Goodfellas/Sex in the City pilot voice-over that is quickly abandoned, as well as a bunch of clunky moves. Do we really need to use the German executives there to buy the company as an excuse for Richie Finestra (Cannavale)'s exposition theater on "how things work in the record industry"? Did that whole building really need to collapse around Richie for us to get that this is the artifice around the bullshit rock 'n' roll he's been peddling and when he comes out from being buried, he's essentially born again? In future episodes, things improve, but they still can't help themselves. Do we need a quick transition from cocaine sniffing to powdered sugar on pancakes to show how different Olivia Wilde's life has become with children now that she's not a Warhol muse? Do you really need to call an episode that's basically a bunch of flashbacks "Yesterday Once More"? Is it surprising that this show took 20 years to develop?
And now it is all over. The second season that was supposed to happen never materialized, HBO canceled the project, and so we are left with just the blubbery carcass of what was supposed to be a truly great whale of a show.
43. John from Cincinnati
Best character: Luke Perry. Just kidding, of course, it was Ed O’Neill, but seriously, Luke Perry was on this show!
I AM NOT APOLOGIZING FOR KIND OF LIKING DAVID MILCH’S WEIRD SHOW ABOUT SURFING, ASTRAL PROJECTION, AND LUKE PERRY.
42. How to Make It in America
Best character: Kid Cudi. Or he might’ve been the worst character? It’s really hard to tell with this show.
Ian Edelman’s Entourage East, or Sex and the City for Bros Who Used to Rent a Two Bedroom on Mott and Houston, had everything you need in a series: a good-looking lanky white dude “from Brooklyn,” his fast-talking Latino buddy, plus Eddie Kaye Thomas, etc. I watched it initially because it sounded like they were targeting it exclusively at me, and then, upon realizing it wasn’t very good, just to hate-watch it. Though, to be fair, in the second season they got a bit disciplined and settled for trying to maybe just capture an ephemeral moment in what that kind of fashion-y cool kid scene was like in 2010 when everyone was really into wearing old Pervis Ellison throwbacks with shawl collar cardigans.
41. The Comeback
Best character: The "Smelly Cat" lady from Friends
You might think nine years between seasons would throw a show off its axis, and you’d be right.
40. Tenacious D
Best song played live: "Double Team"
Airing on HBO in the late '90s, just before Jack Black became "Jack Black" with his breakout roles essentially playing versions of himself in High Fidelity and Orange County, this is just a simple, weird show about members of the real band Tenacious D playing open-mic nights (my favorite recurring gag features the MC introducing them each time by saying "this next act asked me to read this" and then reading off some hilariously over-the-top description of the band) and overcoming small obstacles, like writing a new song or talking to a girl. It is a show that will either please you if you remember Tenacious D fondly from your youth, or have zero effect on your life either way.
39. Getting On
Best character: Dr. James
It takes a dark depressing topic (hospitals, death, sickness) and makes you laugh about it. But you still ultimately feel depressed. STOP MAKING ME FEEL CONFUSING EMOTIONS.
38. Lucky Louie
Best character: Come on.
There is a live studio audience awkwardly laughing. On an HBO show. Starring Louis C.K. That is why this is ranked where it is.
Best character: Ben Hawkins. He's a damn Avataric Creature of the Light, okay?!
There is a weird cult of people (called "rousties") obsessed with Daniel Knauf’s show. Take, for instance, the first sentence of this description of the show from Rick Paulas' piece on The Awl in 2013: "On the surface Carnivàle was about a traveling carnival roaming America's southwest during the Dust Bowl, but the true story -- the actual tale being told -- went a little something like this: Since a long, long, long time ago, there's been one Creature of Darkness and one Creature of Light running around the world." Yeah man, shit gets DEEP. When it was on, I tried to watch because I recognized there was something artful and beautiful going on in this show and it was running while I was getting an MFA so you can imagine how insufferable I was, and yet I STILL couldn’t finish one season. I blame Brother Justin.
Best character: Marc Antony
Alessandra Stanley of the Grey Lady once called this show "X-rated Masterpiece Theater." I know enough to know I’m not going to do better than that.
35. Summer Heights High
Best character: Ja’mie King
(NOTE: I’m not including all of the spinoff shows that HBO also agreed to distribute internationally, like Jonah from Tonga and Ja’mie: Private School Girl because it’s just too many of the same damn show.) Lilley’s original show is by far his best. I want to say he very accurately lampoons Australian high school culture, but I didn’t go to Australian high school, so I’ll just say that this is the Lilley show to watch if you’re trying to figure out which of his eleventy shows on HBO GO to peruse.
*34. John Adams
Best character: Ben Franklin, inventor/perv
As a miniseries, it doesn’t really count, but I just wanted everyone to know I watched this entire thing and am interested in history/a patriot.
Best character: Charlie, the pimp mentor
I stuck it out for all three seasons of Hung, based on the fact that I had never heard the premise of a high school baseball coach becoming a gigolo so he can afford to keep his sweet lake house. And though I found Tanya infuriatingly annoying, and the wife somewhat uninteresting, the rest of it (Lenore, Charlie the pimp, crumbling and stubborn Detroit, nudity) was enough to keep me locked in for the whole ride.
Best character: Jerry, the gambler
Three tragic horse deaths effectively canceled this Milch show, which had already been renewed for a second season, and that’s shitty... luck... because Hoffman’s character was a force, and the show was actually starting to get pretty damn good by the end. DAVID MILCH, TELL ME WHAT HAPPENS?!
31. The Leftovers
Best character: Anyone but the Guilty Remnant.
I am a Tom Perrotta fan. I once profiled him for a magazine, and he was kind of the best dude, and I won’t forget that time we had together in Charlestown, Tom. I WON’T. The Leftovers -- though artfully done and compelling -- is somber and scary. And once I had nightmares on three consecutive nights about the Guilty Remnant following Season 1, I stopped watching it. Season 2 was purportedly great, and it will go on for another season, but I will [insert hilarious Sudden Departure from viewing the show joke here].
Best character: Maggie Jacobs
More and better dry English humor from Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant. No Warwick Davis, though, if you happen to be weighing pros and cons.
Best character: Ari Gold (Seasons 1-4)
Entourage is not that bad. Of course, there are the bad parts everyone knows: E remains the worst “normal” character in the history of characters, and Adrian Grenier is quite obviously not an actor, but more just a handsome dude occasionally memorizing lines to say in front of a camera. But luckily, Ari’s original rants were some of the freshest insults going in 2004, and Turtle and Drama’s furry fetish bet will live on in my mind for at least another couple of years. Plus, you know: boobs and stuff. If this show was four seasons long, it would have good will and gratitude surrounding it. But this show is eight seasons long, and by the time it ended, the rest of television had caught up to and gone past the Entourage bro bonds-are-forever aesthetic.
28. High Maintenance
Best character: The dog from the third episode
What a lovely show. Unlike almost everything else on HBO, which gets caught up in the hype and publicity machine months before it airs, I had zero expectations for this when I started watching it -- a nameless, chill pot dealer in NY with a beard and a bike serves as the connecting tissue of small little vignettes about people all around NY. And though the longer, more traditional episodes seem to just be 30 minutes for the sake of being 30 minutes, the smaller episodes offer just the right amount of character-sketch porn to keep you moving forward. And if you do nothing else, just watch the third episode.
27. True Blood
Best character: Lafayette Reynolds
There is only so long that you can live in a world filled with vampires, werewolves, shifters, faeries, and something called a maenad. For the creator Alan Ball, that was five seasons. I tried to get through the last two without him, but couldn’t, as things got even more convoluted and I found myself wishing for the halcyon days when Jason Stackhouse was just at the Fellowship of the Sun doing weird stuff with the preacher’s wife.
26. The Newsroom
Best character: Leona Lansing
I was one of those people who watched The West Wing then thought they should be a speechwriter (and did a tiny bit of speechwriting for a lieutenant governor candidate in NY back in the day who eventually LOST TO DAVID PATERSON) so I have a high tolerance for Sorkinese. And for a while, I was captivated by his take on the TV newsroom, where he envisioned producers knowing absolutely everything about obscure Finnish poetry and market fluctuations in the Thai stock exchange firing zingers back and forth while hilariously walking into incorrect bathrooms. And then the Boston Marathon portion came on, and the “guy from Boston” on the news team pronounces “Watertown” as “Waterton” and I stopped making excuses for the show, turned it off, and rewatched that scene from West Wing where Martin Sheen yells at God in Latin.
25. Bored to Death
Best character: George. It’s not even close.
I wish I actually hated this show, so I could use its name to hilariously adverse effect, but Ted Danson is too damn good. Also, I've moved this show down several spots since my first ranking, in which I somewhat drastically underestimated how good it was. Apologies all around.
24. Eastbound and Down
Best character: Kenny Powers. Or maybe his Jet Ski.
If this was a one-season show, it might be in the my top 10. Danny McBride’s dickish tour de force was unlike anything else on television at the time, from his love of that damn Jet Ski, to his book on tape playing in his car, to his peculiar vernacular that was somehow simultaneously hyper-aware and negligent (a precursor to Archer, one could argue). I just rewatched the amazing middle school dance scene from the second episode of the first season, and you should do that right now too.
Best character: Tyler. Mike White is good at being awkward/shy/uncomfortable (himself?).
Mike White’s underrated comedy about office culture and being zen after pulling a Jerry Maguire flip-out was the type of show you’d watch and say, “Wow, that was actually very good and subtle and pretty funny.” But then you didn’t feel that compelled to go and watch the next one.
*22. The Night Of
Best character: Freddy
It started so beautifully. A procedural crime story very much in the vein of the new wave of true-crime stories (the O.J. shows, Making a Murderer, the chilling Amanda Knox documentary), the show follows a young man, Naz, through the worst night of his life and a series of shitty decisions after the fact, which land him in prison and on trial. John Turturro and Bill Camp and Michael Kenneth Williams are all great, and midway through I honestly believed I was watching the finest crime procedural ever. And then two things happen:
1) It becomes a much more basic legal thriller.
2) (SPOILER ALERT!!) Naz makes out with his lawyer in his cell, and the wheels look like they are about to come off.
The show rights itself, but never catches up to the magic of the first few episodes. Nonetheless, it's definitely worth a look.
21. Big Love
Best character: Frank Harlow. So, so crazy.
If anyone could juggle the responsibilities of illegally having three (then four, then back to three) wives, it was Billy Paxton.
*20. Show Me a Hero
Best character: Nick Wasicsko
Created by David Simon (written with William Zorzi) and based on a fantastic book by the New York Times’ Lisa Belkin focusing on the legal, political, and very personal ramifications of a federal order to build housing projects in Yonkers, Show Me a Hero once again breaks my miniseries rule, mostly because I actually watched it and would like to point out that the name comes from an F. Scott Fitzgerald quote (“Show me a hero and I’ll write you a tragedy”) because I’M INSECURE AND FEEL THE NEED TO POINT OUT THAT I HAVE AN MFA.
Anyway… the show isn’t perfect. I give Simon a ton of leeway because his shows -- like books -- often take a little bit of an investment to get hooked, but once you are, you’re in there for good. And there were many of the same sort of compelling hooks here: you really wanted to see what happened with Nick Wasicsko, the former cop running for mayor. And you wanted to know why you were learning about this older black woman losing her vision, and this older white woman advocating against the housing projects, and many other character sketches. Eventually, of course, it all comes together, but it takes a pretty big Simon fan (or lover of city politics) to stick with that commitment to get to the payoff. Regardless, the examination of race, class, politics, and the complications underlying all of them is superb, and Oscar Isaac deserves some kind of fancy, gold-plated award.
19. Sex and the City
Best character: Bunny MacDougal. No one plays a frigid Scottish WASP hybrid like Frances Sternhagen.
Some people might be upset that all the single ladies of Manhattan in the '90s is not higher up, especially because THEY STARTED THE COSMO TREND IN AMERICA, and I will admit that theirs was a groundbreaking show in lots of ways. But no show involving an insufferable character named Berger (especially spelled like that) moves past 17.
Best character: Antoine Batiste
The Wire was David Simon’s opus, a tribute to the land that he grew up in, that he knew so well. Treme is a tribute to a land he loved so hard, and the difference is what separates these shows. I stuck with Treme, because I love Simon and New Orleans, and get excited about chef storylines and music and unique cultures. And when that worked, it worked beautifully. But when it didn’t, it felt preachy, and judgmental of the viewer. People watch shows for the story, and if they happen to learn something in the process of that story, all the better. But it shouldn’t be the other way around. The music was fantastic, though, and nothing makes me happier than people throwing drinks in Alan Richman’s insufferable face.
17. Flight of the Conchords
Best character: Mel
I spent a good amount of 2007 eating French bread pizza and laughing at this incredibly underrated show at 1am, then putting on Jay Z’s Fade to Black DVD and making my dental student roommate watch the scene where he first hears "Dirt Off Your Shoulder." Which is to say: this is a damn good show, and my life then was sad/beautiful.
16. Curb Your Enthusiasm
Best character: Cheryl David. Yowza.
Larry David’s brilliance in making everyone feel uncomfortable stuck with me for three seasons, and then I just got too much anxiety watching this show to be able to deal with the laughter payoff. I did, however, have a weird thing for Cheryl Hines, aka Dallas Royce on the ABC sitcom Suburgatory.
I also decided, upon this most recent ranking, to move this show up to 16, because I realized I'd underrated it, especially considering the level of comedy it was bringing at a time when there were so few other funny shows. Apologies to Larry David and everyone yelling at me in the comments.
Best character: Shoshanna Shapiro
It doesn't matter how you feel about Girls -- whether you find Lena Dunham and her friends doing their "rarefied white hipster thing" annoying or masturbatory or, ew, just, like, about girrrlllsss. It is here, and it will continue to be part of the national conversation both through its unflinching look at sex and sexuality, and just because it's a damn entertaining show, which never forgets that it is there to entertain while it informs. Plus there was that whole, um, Allison Williams scene in the kitchen or whatever.
14. True Detective
Best character: Rustin Cohle
After the first season was over, I had the show as the fifth best ever thanks to Matty McConaughey and his skill making aluminum men out of beer cans (coupled with one of the most memorable action sequences of the last decade), with high hopes for the second season. And then I watched the second season, and now it sits at 14.
Apparently the director of the first season, Cary Fukunaga, did not get along with writer Nic Pizzolatto (or so the rumors go!), and so he was given an EP role while multiple directors sat in his chair. And maybe that was partly why it took six episodes to get to the point where I didn’t feel like someone cast Vince Vaughn as Frank Semyon just to fuck with him. I mean, did Nic Pizzolatto really write dialogue in which he forced Vaughn to say “Sometimes your worst self is your best self” and utter other dark cliches that would’ve even felt clunky in Sin City: A Dame to Kill For? Anyway, I have to admit that, by the end, I was off the hater bandwagon and kind of liked how it all played out. But so many elements that -- in the first season -- were treated with just the right touch ended up feeling over-the-top or pasted on to let you know that you were watching something “different.” Please, Mr. Fukunaga, come back.
*13. Generation Kill
Best character: US Marine Corporal Josh Ray Person
An incredibly underrated seven-episode series based on journalist Evan Wright’s experience while embedded with the Marines during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and partially written with help from David Simon and Ed Burns. It is third in HBO’s trifecta of fantastic war miniseries, as you’ll become very aware when you look at the next two.
*12. The Pacific
Best character: Private First Class Robert Leckie
Extremely well done, and also the most brutal of all these war series to watch, Pacific focused on three marines in different regiments (rather than one company like Band of Brothers). The Peleliu section in particular was not the thing to watch before bed.
*11. Band of Brothers
Best character: Major Richard Winters
The only reason this show is not in the top 10 is because it’s technically a miniseries and that didn’t feel fair, but this is indeed one of the greatest accomplishments of the golden HBO era, and the best of the war trifecta. Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks, coming off Saving Private Ryan, knew the tone to capture, and using each of the 10 episodes to focus on a different character helps turn it into something very close to the television version of a collection of connected short stories. Go watch it now in the one private bathroom at your office.
10. Boardwalk Empire
Best character: Richard Harrow
If, like me, you enjoy learning semi-fictionalized historical things while watching people shoot at each other, do sex, and attend Irish-based drinking events, this is your show. It also contains one of my favorite tough-guy lines in any show, courtesy of Al Capone: “We’ve been on the road for 18 hours. I need a bath, some chow, and then you and me sit down and talk about who dies.”
9. The Larry Sanders Show
Best character: Hank Kingsley
This show was so far ahead of its time, it might’ve been filmed inside a DeLorean. Garry Shandling played a fictional late-night talk-show host, and while that in and of itself is not very exciting, it offered so many layers. Here was a celebrity being interviewed like normal, and now -- during the alleged commercial break -- cussing out Sanders. You’d see the talent bookers, and the assistants, and Sanders’ wives, and you felt like you were peering behind the curtain, and that was wonderful and different and like nothing going on at the time.
Best/worst character: Jonah Ryan
Never has a collection of insults tossed at each other been so fresh. It’s like real life, if real life just consisted of the most creative and mean people in the world each trying to top each others’ put-downs. To wit: “Jonah, you're not even a man, you're like an early draft of a man where they just sketched out a giant, mangled skeleton but they didn't have time to add details like pigment or self-respect.”
This last season was fantastic and seemed to bring a new level of sophistication to the narrative arcs, especially when you saw seeds planted early in the show bloom into new clusterfucks for Selina and her staff to deal with. I have no idea how they'll attempt to top it in Season 6, but I'm excited to check it out.
7. Silicon Valley
Best character: Erlich Bachman
Probably the most underrated show on the network right now, Silicon captures and skewers the tech scene better than anything that has ever come along, and I’m including the movie Sneakers AND the Sandra Bullock vehicle The Net. But yeah: look up the masturbation equation scene. Just maybe not at work.
6. Six Feet Under
Best character: Nathaniel Fisher, Sr.
The original Alan Ball classic about mortality has arguably the most satisfying ending of any television show ever. Oh, and the rest of the show is pretty damn great, too.
Best character: Bob Rebadow
If you factor in that this was HBO’s first “dramatic television series,” and that it originally launched in 1997, when nothing this risky or inventive was happening on TV, then you can understand why the 56-episode land of Simon Adebisi is ranked as high as it is.
4. The Sopranos
Best character: Darkness. Eternal darkness. Or Pauly.
WHAT REALLY HAPPENS TO TONY SOPRANO WHEN IT ALL FADES TO BLACK?!!?
Either way, we don’t need to spend much time on the show that possibly did more than any other show to usher in an era of golden television, but I will say that it would be closer to the top if it didn’t hit some middle season lulls involving a certain Christopher horror movie project.
3. The Wire
Best character: Omar Little.
"Come at the king, you best not miss."
I’ve seen this show all the way through more times than any other HBO show, including Sex and the City, and that is basically the only thing ever playing on E!. In fact, because of this piece, I started over again, and every time I do, I find something else fascinating that I never saw before. Simon stacks layer after layer, like some complicated and beautiful brickwork, and when you’re finished and you step back, all you can do is shake your head and marvel at what he’s accomplished, how he’s managed to paint a portrait of a city more accurately than even a book or film. The reason such passionate, creative work isn’t in the top spot is because of the fifth season -- the journalism arc, closest to his heart, seemed to play out with an agenda and didn’t bother fully developing the new characters caught within it. But that’s a minor squabble in what is otherwise the seminal profile of a small, struggling city and its inhabitants.
Best character: Al Swearengen
“Pain or damage don’t end the world. Or despair, or fucking beatings. The world ends when you’re dead. Until then, you’ve got more punishment in store. Stand it like a man, and give some back.”
There are arguments to be made regarding the greatness of David Milch’s Gothic Western drama about a camp turning into a town, from the profanity-laced poetry of the language to the hyper-focused refusal to fit into any Western stereotypes to the camera's tight angles, which create that claustrophobia-inducing feeling that the viewer, like the average Deadwood resident, is in a place that can be ugly and beautiful, often simultaneously. We can make the case that it should’ve gone for five or six seasons, and that would’ve been more fair, but by capping it at three, we got to say goodbye while Deadwood was still cresting upward, just like Al Swearengen’s middle finger. And surely Milch can find some twisted poetry in that.
1. Game of Thrones
Best character: Grey Worm. Hahahaha. Just kidding. Of course it’s Tyrion.
A show so complicated, its plotlines need maps, and those maps need maps, GoT is the most ambitious, fantastic, unpredictable, and alarming series currently on the network. There is a reason people have viewing parties: every episode seems like a small movie, as if you’re getting 10 Lord of the Rings in three months.
For many iterations of this ranking, I'd put Game of Thrones in the top five, and then top three, but it was always trending upward. And now, after that last fantastic season, I can't ignore the fact that I believe GoT is the greatest HBO show of all time. I dare you to find another show willing to do what Thrones did in Episode 9's "Battle of the Bastards" -- you actually felt like you were suffocating in the throes of a battle during the Middle Ages. Most shows tend to lose their mettle after five seasons -- showrunners leave, actors get disenchanted, the entire world feels stale. And yet the fact that GoT's best season occurred in its sixth year shows you just what a unique star we're dealing with.
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