The 51 Best HBO Original Shows of All Time
A ranking of the network's best hits. Spoiler alert: 'The Sopranos' isn't No. 1.
Home Box Office, better known as HBO, has been around since 1972, and racked up plenty of cred during its first 20 years through iconic stand-up specials like Eddie Murphy: Delirious, miniseries like Robert Altman's Tanner '88, sketch-comedy series like Kids in the Hall, and genre anthology fare such as Tales From the Crypt. It wasn't until the 1990s that HBO evolved into the prestige-series juggernaut and Emmy factory we know today.
Over the years, we've spent more hours watching the premium channel's addictive, comforting and occasionally enraging fare than we'd care to total up, because we're good at watching, not math. But all that research has helped us fulfill our destiny: arguing out, with particular emphasis on creativity, influence, and sheer entertainment value, the following indisputable, completely definitive ranking of the best HBO original series ever.
51. True Blood (2008–2014)
In this Southern-gothic romance series, recently invented imitation blood allows vampires to come out of the coffin, and it only gets weirder from there. Built around a steamy love triangle between telepathic rural Louisiana waitress Sookie Stackhouse and not one but two alluring vampires, the show, adapted from Charlaine Harris' novels by Six Feet Under creator Alan Ball, was a ratings smash and HBO's first prestige-era genre success, lighting the path for Game of Thrones a few years later. The series frequently veered into schlock and silliness, and went off the rails after Ball bailed following Season 5, but True Blood's strong ensemble cast consistently sold all the jibber-jabber about shapeshifters, werewolves, and faeries, and introduced America to bohunks Alexander Skarsgård and Joe Manganiello, to boot.
50. Westworld (2016–present)
This sci-fi series, set in a theme park that attracts people who get off on Wild West cosplay and doing appalling things to extremely lifelike robots, explores artificial intelligence, human empathy, and the ethical ramifications of merging technology with consciousness. Produced by J.J. Abrams and created by Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, it is also a mind-bending puzzle show that has launched a billion Reddit posts that attempt to sleuth all the timeline fuckery. It's inherently not for everyone, but to paraphrase the show for the haters, this game isn't meant for you. For the rest: welcome to Westworld, where you will revel in this violent brain-teaser of a program, which is based on the 1973 movie written and directed by Michael Crichton. Witness its impressive cast, led by Evan Rachel Wood, Jeffrey Wright, Thandie Newton, Ed Harris, Tessa Thompson, and Sir Anthony Hopkins, all gathered to perform for your considerable amusement. Delight in its theme song and soundtrack of cover songs.
49. Looking (2014–2016)
Looking is one of those shows that had too much pressure on it from the outset. Billed as the gay men's answer to Girls or Sex and the City—given that it was simply about a group of friends in a major metropolitan area—some viewers felt it needed to answer for an entire community. Look beyond those early headlines, though, and you'll find one of the most compelling and downright romantic love triangles anywhere on television. The show really hit its stride when it began to tease out the conflicted heart of Jonathan Groff's Patrick -- torn between his sexy boss, played by Russell Tovey, and Raúl Castillo's handsome barber Richie. Looking always had a dreamy quality, thanks to executive producer Andrew Haigh's direction, but the characters never felt like caricatures, even when they were frustrating.
48. Vice Principals (2016–2017)
For their follow-up to Eastbound & Down, the creative braintrust of Danny McBride, Jody Hill, and David Gordon Green went back to school. (Again!) From his low-budget star-making vehicle The Foot Fist Way, McBride has displayed a gift for interacting with kids, particularly when he's in a position of authority he probably doesn't deserve, and Vice Principals milks his gruff rapport with our nation's youth for big laughs. But the best part of the show is McBride's toxic relationship with Walton Goggins' Lee Russell, a bowtie-wearing maniac with a cruel streak that would make Kenny Powers take a step back and reassess some shit. By letting Goggins be the crazy one and forcing McBride to actually grow up a little, Vice Principals manages to be more than an Eastbound retread. Over two seasons, it became its own wild, uncaged animal.
47. Bored to Death (2009–2011)
In 2020, the jig is up for shows about sad, quirky white boy artists in New York, and so Bored to Death certainly looks its age. Women are either needy nuisances or conquerable objects, the homophobic jokes don’t exactly hold up, and the mopey beta-mensch schtick of Jason Schwartzman's Jonathan Ames (actual author, show creator) can get pedantic. Jonathan, a struggling novelist and sometimes journalist, decides to list an ad for his unlicensed private investigator services on Craigslist after getting drunk and reading a Raymond Carver novel, and turns it into an non-lucrative side gig full of hijinks, to the dismay of his best friend, cartoonist Ray Hueston (Zach Galifianakis, six months out from The Hangover-level fame). They otherwise spend their time fighting off early 30s malaise with booze and weed, and some of the series' funniest and shockingly progressive conversations come from dissecting the relationship between addiction and mental health. It’s a frustrating satire for modern times, to be sure, but like a theme party from 2009, we can say that it was fun back then, and remember it fondly for its high points: Ted Danson as a neurotic magazine editor, early career cameos for likes of Jenny Slate, Kristen Wiig, and Zoe Kazan, bad detective stories, and tons of white wine.
46. Big Little Lies (2017–2019)
Big Little Lies could serve as the prototypical peak TV product. The adaptation of Liane Moriarty's novel was shepherded by Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon, who produce and star in this tale of the nasty secrets hiding among the moms of Monterey society. In Season 1, they brought along their other big screen pals: Director Jean-Marc Vallée and actors Laura Dern, Zoe Kravitz, and Shailene Woodley. The ante was upped when Meryl Streep signed on for Season 2. Better than just high-wattage star power? Big Little Lies actually turned out some of the tastiest TV in years. Season 2 took a step back, despite American Honey auteur Andrea Arnold's best efforts, but it still managed to be both pulpy—Dern and Streep's performances are made for memes—and devastating. The show cuts through its gossipy exterior to weave a sensitive portrait of domestic abuse, and Kidman in particular does career best work.
45. The Young Pope/The New Pope (2016–2020)
These two shows, starring Jude Law and John Malkovich, respectively, are in actuality a single series with different names for each of its seasons, both created and directed by Italian filmmaker Paolo Sorrentino (The Great Beauty). The first run of 10 episodes concerned the rise of Law's new, "young" Pope Pius XIII, nee the sunglasses-wearing Lenny Belardo, aka the original Hot Priest, as he navigated Vatican politics, crises of faith, a heart condition and a bodacious pet kangaroo. Season 2, starting nine months after the first season finale that found populist icon Lenny falling into a coma, focuses on papal succession, with Malkovich's John Brannox eventually becoming the new new Pope John Paul III. It's all filtered through Sorrentino's arthouse lens with surreal and seemingly trolling flourishes, making this an unusal, off-putting and thoroughly addictive series.
44. Los Espookys (2019–present)
If telenovelas, horror movies, and sketch comedies had a love child, the result would be the under-the-radar HBO comedy Los Espookys. Set in a nameless Latin American country, the mostly Spanish-language show follows a group of friends and scary movie lovers who come up with a business to execute elaborate horror shows for hire -- including but not limited to sea monster sightings and alien dissections. Written by cast members Ana Fabrega, Julio Torres, and Fred Armisen, the series is joyfully campy and kitschy as it takes you to a world that's not exactly magical, but certainly doesn't lack a kind of DIY magic.
43. The Righteous Gemstones (2019–present)
Danny McBride will always be rightly associated with Kenny "F*cking" Powers, but his other two HBO series, Vice Principals and The Righteous Gemstones, have also been highly entertaining for fans of his brand of ironically offensive humor. His latest, The Righteous Gemstones, is more of a true ensemble piece than his previous HBO endeavors, with a first season that depicts what happens when a highly successful yet dysfunctional family of holy hucksters (played by John Goodman, Adam DeVine, Edi Patterson and McBride) get blackmailed while simultaneously welcoming a black sheep in-law (played by Walton Goggins) back into the fold.
42. Euphoria (2019–present)
Oh, Euphoria—the series that made headlines before it even premiered for featuring a scene with 30 dicks and has caused the world to collectively wonder if Gen Z is at all okay. Although the teen drama created by Sam Levinson, which is based on an Israeli series of the same name and inspired by his own adolescent experience, is a lot, you can't deny its pop-cultural influence. An unflinching look at the anxieties, addictions, and sexual exploits of the teenagers at the fictional East Highland High School, the series boasts a compelling, heart-wrenching ensemble cast led by Zendaya. As the show doesn't necessarily pretend to be grounded in this reality—instead taking an approach in its splashy cinematography and meta storylines to create a world that mirrors its characters' feelings—it's all the more emotionally effective. Don't deny the show's power to inspire you to do your eye makeup all glittery, only to cry it off.
41. Tenacious D (1997–1999)
In just six episodes, a pre-megafame Jack Black and his songwriting partner Kyle Gass give us the crystal-clear worldview of Kyle and Jack, aka KG and Jables, a Burrito Supreme-loving, Sega Genesis-playing folk-rock duo with self-aggrandized song-writing skills and bombastic on-stage theatrics. While the vignettes that power the episode plots and take us on their quests to write the perfect song, find Sasquatch, and ditch their only fan hold up two decades on—and that's not too surprising, given that Bob Odenkirk and David Cross produced the series. But it's the songs, along with star-making gonzo performance by Jack Black, that will hold up for eternity, much like their beloved "A Stairway to Heaven."
40. Chernobyl (2019)
Any form of entertainment dramatizing a real-world disaster of this magnitude would be a tough watch, but Chernobyl made it a mesmerizing one, following each day and each failed containment attempt of the 1986 nuclear meltdown outside of the doomed city of Pripyat. The show married a sick sense of dread with a scathing portrayal of how quickly simple misinformation campaigns become deadly. Jared Harris, as the struggling mastermind behind the various cleanup efforts, continues his streak of playing guys having the worst day of their lives, and Stellan Skarsgård is fantastic as his antagonist, a deputy from the government tasked with covering up the disaster.
39. Big Love (2006–2011)
Never before has a show that seemingly normalizes polygamy been so compelling. Chalk that up to the rich character development, ripped-from-the-headlines Mormon scandal dramatization and killer cast of "that guy/gal" actors (Harry Dean Stanton! Željko Ivanek! Grace Zabriskie! Mary Kay Place!) joining the main unit of Bill Paxton, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Gail Goodwin, and Chloe Sevigny.
38. Betty (2020–2021)
This series, created by Crystal Moselle based on her 2018 movie, pulsates with the unmatchable energy of New York City as it follows a diverse group of women and queer skateboarders played by members of the real-life all-girl crew known as Skate Kitchen. Instead of featuring melodramatic arcs typical of teen dramas, Betty tosses you a deck so you can simply ride alongside the ensemble while they navigate their individual identities and a space dominated by boys. It's as freeing and delightful as it is authentic.
37. Mare of Easttown (2021)
Prestige crime series have become increasingly clichéd, but Mare of Easttown uses the specificity of its setting—a gray Philadelphia suburb where, according to a standout SNL sketch, “water” is pronounced like “wooder''—and a brilliant cast to rise above the genre’s more familiar trappings. Instead of a trite depiction of white working-class America, Easttown sketches a nuanced portrait of an addled community held together by shared history. Kate Winslet is revelatory as the titular detective, her bitter glares and hardened voice blanketing a deep well of anguish. Surrounded by a gifted supporting cast that includes Julianne Nicholson, Jean Smart, Evan Peters, Angourie Rice, and Guy Pearce, Winslet takes us on a journey through one dedicated woman’s circumstances as she investigates a murder that exposes hard truths about those she loves.
36. Flight of the Conchords (2007–2009)
Flight of the Conchords heralded the coming of a brand of comedy that's exploded more recently. Now, New Zealand humor has found its way into major blockbusters like Thor: Ragnarok, but when Conchords premiered in 2007 we hadn't seen much like Bret and Jemaine. While the premise was highly reminiscent of Tenacious D (see #24), the Conchords tweaked the idea of depicting struggling troubadours with precisely one overzealous fan (Lee vs. Mel) and their attempt to navigate an uncaring music scene by focusing on the fish-out-of-water struggles of two Kiwis in America saddled with a manager (played by scene-stealer Rhys Darby) who's every bit as inept as the agent played by Stephen Merchant in Extras. And as with Tenacious D, the reason to watch and rewatch Conchords all these years later is its catchy, hilarious songs, brilliantly deployed via low-budget numbers that tie in with each episode's plot. They're still going on tours, and we're happy to hear them play the hits.
35. Getting On (2013–2015)
Think of Getting On as Veep set in the geriatric ward of a spotty California hospital. The always-impeccable Laurie Metcalf plays the show’s Selina Meyer type, a self-centered and unpredictable doctor who spends far too much time on the fecal-matter research that is effectively her vanity project (cue a bevy of poop jokes). Her mismanagement leaves three dutiful nurses played by Alex Borstein, Mel Rodriguez, and a career-best Niecy Nash to pick up the pieces while tending to their elderly patients. Adapted from a British series of the same name, Getting On is an uproarious workplace comedy that doubles as a gentle exploration of life’s curtain call.
34. The Deuce (2017–2019)
HBO has long given David Simon the space to explore urban decay and revitalization. The former reporter and Homicide: Life on the Street writer has walked down every sketchy alley and ordered drinks at every dive bar in Baltimore (The Wire), New Orleans (Treme), and Yonkers (Show Me a Hero). The Deuce is Simon's take on New York City -- specifically, 1970s Times Square, arguably the seediest time and place in the city's seedy history. The show also uncharacteristically features what could be considered two gimmicks, but which in Simon's hands never appear gimmicky: James Franco plays twins who are embroiled in the Mafia-connected nightlife and gambling scene, and gratuitous sex scenes as the result of a sex industry backdrop. While both offer a measure of comic relief -- whether in the form of Franco's Fonzie-esque portrayal of Frankie Martino, or uses for potato soup you never thought possible -- The Deuce succeeds by taking interest in the humanity of pimps, sex workers, bartenders, and mafiosos in equal measure. It also boasts the not-so-secret weapon of Maggie Gyllenhaal's Candy, a sex worker without a pimp who's making the transition into porn films, and who is the show's most fully realized character in an era bubbling with second-wave feminism, yet still dominated by men. With the show's third and final season in the books, The Deuce leaves you with a feeling every New York City resident experiences regularly: Damn, I missed all the good stuff.
33. Rome (2005–2007)
What would life as a Roman centurion have been like in Julius Caesar's day? Probably bad, as this fun, bloody, and short-lived sword-and-sandals series depicted. Sean Bean may always die, but Ray Stevenson always kills, and does so here with a mix of savagery and humanity. His more by-the-books Roman officer pal is played charismatically by Kevin McKidd (post-Trainspotting, pre-Grey's Anatomy). This is a series that includes what's probably the most stunning murder in TV history. The show adeptly portrays the street-level speculation of what influenced the uppermost echelons of politics in ancient Rome.
32. Band of Brothers (2001)
Following Saving Private Ryan, Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg dug even deeper into the trenches of World War II's most pivotal battles in Band of Brothers, which remains one of the most expensive TV shows ever produced. But HBO's investment paid off: It's an Emmy- and Golden Globe-winning top-tier war drama that caters to both fans of the genre with its tense battle scenes and attention to historical detail and people who just like good TV with its character depth and interpersonal relationships between the wildly talented ensemble—including Damien Lewis, David Schwimmer, and Colin Hanks, to name a scant few. Based on Stephen E. Ambrose's book of the same name, the miniseries imparts a sense of humanity through the infantrymen serving on the front lines that history books gloss over, the costs of war turning eminently visceral.
31. High Maintenance (2016–2020)
What started in 2012 as a web series about a weed delivery guy became a slightly glossier TV series about a weed delivery guy. (Quite literally: The central character’s "name" is The Guy, played by co-creator Ben Sinclair.) In its transition to HBO in 2016, High Maintenance retained its low-budget, hyperrealist allure, relying on the large talent pool of New York City residents to star in its vignettes of people who order weed from The Guy. Some stories focus on peculiar interactions with clients in their apartments, others on longer arcs of people in various levels of existential conflict that lead them to cross paths with The Guy. Some have more to say than others, but, since each portrait never really surpasses 12 minutes, none quite overstay their welcome. High Maintenance doesn’t have the propulsive high stakes or cliffhangers of other shows on this list, but creators Sinclair and Katja Blichfeld plucked an odd thing that only really happens in NYC and made it a broadly relatable abstraction of the zeitgeist.
30. Sharp Objects (2018)
Amy Adams and her devout fans have been wronged by awards bodies many times, but it rarely cut into their skin as much as when the Emmys snubbed her for Sharp Objects. An adaptation of Gillian Flynn's 2006 novel of the same name and directed in its entirety by the late, talented Jean-Marc Vallée, the miniseries follows reporter Camille Preaker (Adams), who suffers from alcoholism, depression, and self-harm, as she is sent on assignment to investigate a string of murders involving young girls in her small, southern hometown. There, she's haunted by ghosts of her past, her cruel, as well as her socialite mother (a terrifying Patricia Clarkson) and her teenage sister (Eliza Scanlen in a breakout role), who's seemingly charmed the whole town. Adams gives a career-best performance, and its exploration of the violence women commit upon themselves and one another unfolds in an eerie way that lingers like Missouri humidity in the summer. Several shots from the show will stay with you, right up to its sickening final moments.
29. Olive Kitteridge (2014)
While many of HBO's highly lauded miniseries take on massive historical events and complex figures from the past, Olive Kitteridge, an adaptation of a Pulitzer Prize-winning collection of linked short stories by the author Elizabeth Strout, is a careful study of intimate moments. With her typical blend of dark humor and striking empathy, Frances McDormand plays the title character, a retired Maine school teacher with a prickly disposition, an amiable husband (Richard Jenkins), and a troubled son (John Gallagher Jr.). The four episodes, directed with a droll yet warm touch by The Kids Are All Right filmmaker Lisa Cholodenko, stretch across time, skillfully evoking the joy and despair within the family as life takes its toll. It's certainly not the biggest or the most bombastic HBO miniseries, but it might be the most tender and surprising.
28. Boardwalk Empire (2010–2014)
When Boardwalk Empire premiered, it was seen as an attempt at a Sopranos-type hit, but with a vintage flair. Created by Terence Winter—who wrote for Tony and the gang—Boardwalk looked at the lives of gangsters in Prohibition-era Atlantic City. The Martin Scorsese-directed pilot set the tone for the show, which centered on Steve Buscemi's Nucky Thompson. That initial season might have been too gratuitous, too bloody, too slow, and too male for some, but Boardwalk rewarded those who stuck with it. Sure, it stayed violent and sex-filled, but it also dove deeper into characters like Michael K. Williams' Chalky White, Jack Huston's Richard Harrow, and Gretchen Mol's Gillian Darmody. It was a prurient history lesson with a healthy amount of pathos and a top-notch cast of character actors, including Dabney Coleman, Michael Stuhlbarg, Michael Shannon, and many more.
27. Mildred Pierce (2011)
Before Kate Winslet was an HBO sensation with Mare of Easttown, she won her first Emmy for the miniseries version of Mildred Pierce, taking on the role made famous by Joan Crawford. Director Todd Haynes leaned into the melodrama of this adaptation of the novel by James M. Cain, casting Winslet as the downtrodden mother who must go head-to-head with her willful, vicious daughter, played here with sneer and vigor by Evan Rachel Wood. It's a vital reworking of a classic.
26. The White Lotus (2021–present)
A sublime comedy of manners with a melancholic bite, The White Lotus is so good that you should watch it twice. In just six episodes, the brilliant Mike White (Enlightened) crafts an accomplished upstairs-downstairs satire set at a posh Hawaiian resort where rich people demand picture-perfect vacations. What starts as a portrait of juicy travel tensions becomes a sensitive exploration about class dynamics, cultural appropriation, and accidental murder. Jennifer Coolidge gives one of the year’s best performances in any medium as a batty loner there to scatter her dead mother’s ashes, but Murray Bartlett, Natasha Rothwell, Jake Lacy, Connie Britton, Alexandra Daddario, and relative newcomer Fred Hechinger are every bit as compelling.
25. Extras (2005–2007)
The arc of Ricky Gervais' career makes it easy to forget that after he hit the jackpot with The Office, he followed up with a genuinely funny show about the perils of seeking, and eventually finding, fame. Extras is similar to The Office in that Gervais plays a small-timer with outsized ambitions, but the conceit -- he and his friends take roles as extras while they're trying to make it big -- allows for some legendary cameos. The most memorable are Ian McKellan explaining that the key to acting is pretending to be somebody else, Patrick Stewart's screenplay in which he has the ability to make people's clothes fall off, and David Bowie's impromptu song mocking Gervais.That, and the perfect fake catchphrase he's forced to utter constantly in Season 2 ("Are you having a laugh?) may be enough to make you forgive him for Derek.
24. Girls (2012–2017)
Oh, Girls. Girls—if discussions in Thrillist's office are an indication—is probably the most divisive HBO show on this list. And sure enough, Lena Dunham's creation was a lightning rod for hot takes throughout its six-season run. Some of the complaints were justified: Girls presented a far too white look at hipster Brooklyn, and never truly improved when it came to diversity. Some were not: Dunham's mere existence seemed to enrage people, especially considering she had absolutely no qualms doing nude scenes. The show was often hit or miss, but when it was good it was wonderfully awkward, as Dunham and co-showrunner Jenni Konner created indelibly cringeworthy moments (Marnie singing Kanye, anyone?), and genuinely laugh-out-loud scenarios like basically anything involving Andrew Rannells as Elijah. Girls will never be for everyone, but it was often brutally honest when it came to the prickly and inconsistent nature of young friends.
23. True Detective (2014–2019)
The conventional wisdom says that Season 1 of Nic Pizzolatto's cop anthology is very good, Season 2 is very bad, and Season 3 is pretty good. But! (Hot take alert!) Season 2 is also pretty good, though it certainly lacks the charming rapport between Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey, not to mention the moody, supernatural bayou aesthetic cultivated by director Cary Fukunaga in the show's first season. The sneaky truth of True Detective is that, for all the cop show tropes it riffs on, it's much more about developing mood, tone, and a sense of human inscrutability and isolation. Do you remember the specific crimes Rust Cohle and Marty Hart investigated in Season 1? Or do you remember McConaughey uttering dorm-room zen koans like, "Time is a flat circle," and flatly telling a child-killer, "You should kill yourself." You almost certainly recall the crazy raid scene, but do you remember why they raided that house? Season 2's labyrinthine murder mystery, which is actually about a complex infrastructure corruption plot (can't understand why people were turned off!), is not the point. You're here for the suburban malaise of Los Angeles sprawl, the least entertaining bar singer ever, Colin Farrell calling Friends a show that's like 20 years old, Rachel McAdams vaping, and Vince Vaughn struggling through monologues that ask way too much of him. Season 3 represented a return to the themes that made the first installment such a hit: memory, unfinished business, trauma, and regrets. With Mahershala Ali and Stephen Dorff forming the kind of grudgingly likable duo that McConaughey and Harrelson pulled off so effortlessly in Season 1, True Detective Season 3 proved to the Season 2 haters that the show hadn't lost its touch.
22. The Comeback (2005–2014)
No offense to Friends, but The Comeback contains Lisa Kudrow's best character: a fading sitcom actress named Valerie Cherish who will do anything for a shot at a career revival, including turning her life into a reality show despite barely understanding the constructs of reality TV in the first place. Created by Kudrow and Sex and the City's Michael Patrick King, The Comeback's first season was a critical favorite that few people watched. But in the years since it first aired, the show has seemed more and more prescient, finding a fervent cult following that resulted in, well, a comeback. The second season went even deeper, with a revelatory finale that shattered the series' parameters and confirmed Valerie to be one of television's all-time great protagonists.
21. Six Feet Under (2001–2005)
Most of the praise Six Feet Under receives focuses on its finale, and rightfully so: It's the rare end to a series that stays true to the characters, offers a sense of resolution, and avoids saccharine sentimentality. But that kind of finale was only possible thanks to the sensitivity with which creator Alan Ball treated the people involved with Fisher & Sons Funeral Home, a place where death and grief were the norm, not the exception. They're daring topics for American television in particular, entertainment in a nation that doesn't exactly relish confronting death and grief. An outstanding cast that includes Lauren Ambrose, Michael C. Hall, Peter Krause, and Frances Conroy, plus Richard Jenkins as the dead family patriarch, buoys with nuance the raw human emotions that dictate the action. These are people whose lives center on death, but that doesn't give them any philosophical advantage over the rest of us when it comes to dealing with the minor tragedies that afflict the living.
20. Watchmen (2019)
Watchmen changes the game when it comes to comic-book adaptations. Not content to just slap the pages of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' fabulous superhero series onto a TV screen, creator Damon Lindelof has expanded on the alternate universe of the Watchmen we know, creating an envelope-pushing version of our reality if it was dominated by the existence of costumed heroes. Every episode introduces some new, wonderful, horrifying concept into the show while staying true to its roots, updating the material we know and love while also playing around with characters and plots and ideas about the very meaning of superheroes that are entirely new.
19. Barry (2018–present)
Like the other still active shows on this list, Barry is early in its run and could jump to a higher spot if it manages to deliver more seasons of the same caliber as its excellent first two seasons, or lower if subsequent seasons suck. SNL standout Bill Hader plays the titular Barry, an ex-Marine-turned-hitman who arrives in Los Angeles to kill a mark for the Chechen mob and ends up sticking around in his new city to study acting. The premise of the show is a little tired—Grosse Pointe Blank and countless crime novels have robbed the hitman of real cultural potency—but the tonal tightrope Hader (who directs multiple episodes) and his co-creator Alec Berg (Silicon Valley) walk is thrilling. Most of all, it's surprising! Of all the half-hour shows on TV currently blending drama and comedy, Barry is the only one that explores Breaking Bad-like moral conundrums while delivering actual laughs. (As good as Emmy-winner Henry Winkler is as acting teacher Gene Cousineau, Anthony Carrigan's kind-hearted gangster NoHo Hank might be the funniest supporting character on TV.) If the show can keep hitting its targets with the same level of efficiency, it could be a classic.
18. Silicon Valley (2014–2019)
Mike Judge's biting satire about tech-world douchebaggery ended with a bit of a whimper—and it's a testament to how well-defined the characters are that that sounded like a set-up for a Gilfoyle joke. Initially focusing on five dudes working at a start-up for a data-compression app that its thin-skinned genius developer, Richard Hendricks, decided to call, to much derision, Pied Piper, Silicon Valley successfully created a universe of would-be power-players and confirmed back-stabbers, and excelled when things went horribly wrong for the gang and their complete failure was masked by someone else fucking up even more.
17. Mr. Show (1995–1998)
After winning Emmys as members of the writing staff on The Ben Stiller Show, the delightfully off-kilter and inevitably short-lived FOX sketch comedy series, comedians David Cross and Bob Odenkirk brought their absurd sensibility to Friday nights on HBO and changed the course of comedy in the process. It's hard to overstate the influence of Mr. Show.Tim and Eric, Comedy Bang Bang, and I Think You Should Leave all exist in its wake. Rejecting the topical humor and impression-heavy gags of SNL, where Odenkirk served as a writer, the distinctly barbed show instead carved out its own Monty Python-esque path of hilarity. In sketches like "Audition," "Pre-Taped Call-In Show," and "The Story of Everest," the writers basically blew up the "comedy sketch" on a formal level, but the secret of the show's still-funny-decades-later appeal is that it was always as proudly goofy as it was conceptually smart.
16. Oz (1997–2003)
When you think of HBO's early glory days, it's easy to only think about The Sopranos or Sex and the City, but 1997's Oz was the first hour drama that the cable network greenlit. Set at Oswald State Correctional Facility, also nicknamed as Oz, the show followed the men behind bars specifically at Emerald City—an experimental rehabilitation unit for its inmates. What ensues is constant tension of the varying groups of men in the unit, and also commentary on the prison industrial complex. It's harrowing and nerve wracking and introduced many to some of our best actors working like Harold Perrineau and future Oscar winner J.K. Simmons. It's worth a watch now especially as we reconsider everything about the American prison system.
15. Eastbound & Down (2009–2013)
With the deranged saga of washed-up, narcissistic relief pitcher Kenny Powers, co-creator and star Danny McBride gave us one of the funniest and most profane TV shows of the 21st century. Kenny is a singular anti-hero, whose self-destructive tendencies are capable of ruining any upward momentum he's caught, whether he's coping with fame or bottoming out with drugs and alcohol, spending money he comes into on things like jet skis and pet wolves, or treating those closest to him with total contempt. His utter dickishness leads to some dark places, but it's just how far Kenny Powers can fall after we think he's done the worst possible thing he could do that compelled us to watch him teach grade-school gym, move to Mexico, fake his own death, open a baked-potato restaurant with sidekick Stevie Janowski (Steve Little), host a sports show, etc. The supporting cast—April (Katy Mixon), brother Dustin (John Hawkes), and his wife Cassie (Jennifer Irwin)—tries to save Kenny from himself, with little success; he's a maelstrom of self-loathing and obnoxiousness in a curly mullet and athletic sunglasses. Eastbound & Down was hardly a comfortable watch, but there isn't a single episode that won't elicit some physical reaction, whether it's a guffaw or a groan.
14. Enlightened (2011–2013)
Buried under higher-profile and much-lauded work like Big Little Lies, for which Laura Dern won an Emmy, is perhaps Dern's best HBO performance: Enlightened, about a corporate executive who gets demoted to basement-dwelling work after self-destructing in spectacular fashion, and which earned microscopic ratings during its two-season run before getting the axe. The series, created and written by Mike White (School of Rock), gives Dern total freedom to teeter on the edge of a breakdown while manically insisting she's learned how to control her demons, and the result is a humorously melancholy sendup of both wellness subculture and corporate doublespeak. Dern's Amy Jellicoe so desperately needs to feel in control of her life—which has blown up thanks to booze, an affair with her boss, and a miscarriage, among other things—that she constantly threatens to make her situation worse, despite the New Age-y techniques she learned in rehab. Jellicoe's troubled relationship with her mother (played by Diane Ladd, Dern's real-life mom) is especially layered with the emotional depth that runs through the entire series. As we look back for the cultural artifacts that best represent the Obama years, there may be no better candidate than Enlightened: Full of hope, constantly brought down by a brutal, unfeeling reality.
13. Game of Thrones (2011–2019)
Were this ranking based on how inspired you are to write fake lyrics about your cat to sing during the theme song, then Game of Thrones would be number one with a bullet. By far the most popular and successful program in HBO's long history, the epic series based on the novels of George R. R. Martin, track the rise and fall and stumble and rise again of the Stark family, as they do battle with ancestral rivals, murderous skin-flayers, back-stabbers and front-stabbers, and mystical creatures known as White Walkers. If only it could continue forever! Alas, Game of Thrones is over, and, while it most certainly did not stick the landing, it has more than earned its slot among the top HBO shows ever.
12. Insecure (2016–2021)
One question that's among the most divisive of the late 2010s: Lawrence or Daniel? Though Insecure is so much more than its on-and-off-again relationships, Issa Rae's hunky love interests, played respectively by Jay Ellis and Y'lan Noel, yank out existential questions of our own malleability: What kind of person do we want our partners to help us be? Insecure's thoughtfulness about How to Act in Your Late 20s is part of what makes the show so brilliant, a theme that's carried on from its days as a web series called The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl and has only become more cogent over its three seasons. Its frank discussions about race are also integral; Issa and her best friend Molly (Yvonne Orji) have frequently been the lone black women in predominantly white offices and have had to deal with some real bullshit in their very different careers. Beyond office politics, there are run-ins with the historically racist LAPD and conversations about interracial dating—a mere few examples in a series about the black experience in America. Insecure is also damn funny: Issa's raps and pep talks to herself (primarily) in the mirror serve up reliable and relatable laughs, the awkward sex scenes are all too real, and Issa and Molly's friendship—really, the show's backbone—delivers endless gold.
11. Sex and the City (1998–2004)
Of all the shows that premiered during HBO's fabled run in the 1990s, Darren Star's Sex and the City arguably had the greatest impact on the cultural lexicon. Twenty years later, large swaths of the population are still categorizing themselves as Carries, Mirandas, Samanthas, and Charlottes. Breaking up with someone via Post-It is still heresy. "I couldn't help but wonder" is still one of the most evocative preambles in the English language. Not all of Sex and the City has aged well. (See, for instance, any time our foursome deals with people who are not white and cis.) But what some have written off as guilty-pleasure fluff—understandable, given that second theatrical movie—should instead be appreciated for how ahead of its time it really was. Amid all the bon mots and incessant discussion about crappy boyfriends, Sex and the City saw the value in telling stories about women who weren't ashamed of getting laid and living life on their terms. Now it's returned in the form of HBO Max's buzzy And Just Like That.
10. I May Destroy You (2020)
Michaela Coel's astounding series defies all expectations. What seems like it might at first be centered around the mystery of who attacked her character Arabella during a drunken night out, transforms the more you watch into an intimate, expressionistic, often devastating character study of a woman trying to reconcile her trauma with the hard-partying person she was prior to the incident. Based on an experience that happened to Coel herself, I May Destroy You follows no reliable structure, constantly playing with the concepts of time and memory as it unravels its narratives, all culminating in a striking finale that leaves you questioning the very nature of what a satisfactory conclusion to a story as layered as this one could even be.
9. Succession (2018–present)
Roystar Wayco is a Fox-analogous titan of the entertainment industry in Succession, and the moneyed family behind the media conglomerate is a mess. Unlike the main players in Showtime's Billions, a roster stacked with Machiavellian geniuses, the Roys are mostly so, so bad at being in charge. After the aging patriarch Logan (Brian Cox) suffers from a briefly incapacitating stroke, the siblings—Kendall (Jeremy Strong), Shiv (Sarah Snook), Roman (Kieran Culkin), and Connor (Alan Ruck)—conspire against each other, waging buffoonish internal allyship campaigns for control over the company. Among the constant infighting and callous mega-wealthy antics in the show is an innate comedic timing that makes, say, covering up grave corporate negligence one big goof. When our luminary of integrity is Cousin Greg (Nicholas Braun), the perpetually stoned cousin who pukes through a mascot's eyehole, it's safe to assume the moral compass is definitely off-kilter here. (Love you tho, Greg.) Did the world really need another TV show about shitty rich white people? Probably not, but Succession executive producer and pilot episode director Adam McKay (The Big Short) and creator/showrunner Jesse Armstrong (Peep Show) gamely make the case that there's room for one more.
8. Veep (2012–2019)
"That's like trying to use a croissant as a fucking dildo." "Epileptic Picasso painting." "Jonad." Long before Trump took office, Armando Iannucci created a series that managed to capture Washington, DC at its dirtiest and most profane. Not only has Veep been one of TV's most consistently funny comedies for the entirety of its seven-season run, it's the one that somehow gets closest to the core of our current nightmare. Selina Meyer's exact politics have never really mattered; it's her unending quest for power that drives the show and its worldview. Over the years—and even as she's advanced beyond the titular position—Selina has lied, debased herself, and lost her mind not for the good of the country but for her personal gain. Meanwhile, she's dragged her lackeys along with her: The ambitious Dan, the earlobe of a press secretary Mike, the tightly wound Amy, and jolly green jizz face Jonah. While the final season abandoned some of the nuance that made earlier installments so cuttingly smart, the series finale turned out to be a nearly perfect way to end the show and deliver the verdict on Selina Meyer's legacy. It's the truest series about America there ever was.
7. The Leftovers (2014–2017)
More than any other HBO show, The Leftovers leaves you feeling gutted. Based on a Tom Perrotta novel, the series follows the aftermath of the "Sudden Departure," a cataclysmic event where 2% of the population vanishes into thin air with no explanation. A small-town sheriff (Justin Theroux), a reverend (Christopher Eccleston), and a grieving mother (Carrie Coon) are left to sort out the emotional and psychological wreckage. Some might say that showrunner Damon Lindelof (Lost) was adjusting the levels and figuring out the story he wanted to tell early on, but we love the show from the start straight through the (perfect) series finale. It can be draining, but this isn't a highbrow version of This Is Us. The Leftovers doesn't withhold information to deliver tear-jerking catharsis. It's chasing more cosmic truths.
6. Angels in America (2003)
Adapting Tony Kushner’s two-part magnum opus for the screen was always going to be a challenge; people had been trying to do it since the Pulitzer-winning play first bowed in 1991. If anyone could pull off, it was Mike Nichols. What resulted is one of the most beautiful pieces ever committed to film, a six-hour, genre-defying saga about AIDS and the failings of American culture during Ronald Reagan’s increasingly conservative ‘80s. Graced with pitch-perfect performances from Al Pacino, Meryl Streep, Jeffrey Wright, Mary-Louise Parker, Justin Kirk, and others, Angels in America is a monumental accomplishment, at once literary, theatrical, and breathtakingly cinematic.
5. Curb Your Enthusiasm (2000–present)
Two years after Seinfeld went off the air, its co-creator, Larry David, turned up on HBO as the star of a show about nothing. Who cares that it doesn't reinvent the wheel? Curb is so laugh-until-you-cry funny that it can continue building storylines out of thin air, taking Chekhov's gun writing to absurd extremes as socially bumbling and very wealthy Larry David rails about inconsequential matters, perceived slights, and etiquette, now in its tenth season. It mines all of Larry's idiosyncrasies, which bounce off an equally hilarious cast anchored by Cheryl Hines, Jeff Garlin, Susie Essman, JB Smoove, Ted Danson, and countless guest appearances to hammer home a central thesis: Larry David can ruin your day in myriad ways. In so many awkward situations, Larry David says and does what good manners prevent the rest of us from saying and doing, and he remains undeterred no matter how often he finds himself at the mercy of a scenario that went south in a hurry—a feeling captured in a classicmeme.
4. Deadwood (2004–2006)
Compared to the two other major early HBO dramas created by guys named "David," Deadwood can be a harder sell to the casual prestige television viewer looking to brush up on the 21st-century canon. Like David Chase's mafia drama The Sopranos and David Simon's cop saga The Wire, Deadwood is a twist on a familiar Hollywood genre—it's a Western filled with boots, spurs, and cowboy hats—but creator David Milch's profanity-packed, quasi-Shakespearean dialogue takes some getting used to. Still, Deadwood isn't some dusty homework assignment on the premium cable syllabus: There's vulgar wit, white-knuckle tension, and truly impeccably maintained facial hair in each carefully plotted episode. Sporting a black mustache and a villainous sneer, Ian McShane's bar owner Al Swearengen remains one HBO's most fully realized, vividly drawn characters. He's a violent man attempting to maintain order in a land with competing moral codes and dueling financial interests, and the brutality he unleashes isn't a stylistic flourish or a troll-y poke in the eye; it's part of a larger thematic examination of who thrives and who perishes as a society gets built.
3. The Larry Sanders Show (1992–1998)
More than 25 years after the debut of this iconic workplace series set at a late-night talk show, certain elements do seem a bit dated. All the clothing, for one thing. But also some of the celebrities. Anyone watching for the first time now would be hard-pressed to know the then-zeitgesty details about the steady stream of guests who turn up to tape their appearances. But half the fun of rewatching is asking, Why is this person appearing on the show again? The writing is next level—to be expected from a writers room that, over the years, boasted Judd Apatow, Bob Odenkirk (who, in Saul Goodman mode, also plays Larry's agent) and more. The characters—chief among them super-narcissist Sanders (Gary Shandling), second banana Hank "Hey Now!" Kingsley (Jeffrey Tambor), gruff producer Artie (Rip Torn), and Janeane Garofalo's frequently exasperated talent booker—are as well-defined as any in sitcom history. No flipping.
2. The Sopranos (1999–2007)
From the quacking ducks to the the wandering Russian gangster in the woods, The Sopranos is often discussed as a show of highly ambiguous symbols. And, yes, the dream sequences and therapy sessions between the show's protagonist Tony (James Gandolfini) and his psychiatrist Dr. Melfi (Lorraine Bracco) make it a rich psychological text, but David Chase's mafia drama, which ran for 86 episodes from 1999 to the end of the Bush administration, is also filled with surface-level pleasures: the sound of Little Carmine coining a new malapropism, the sight of Paulie Gualtieri debuting a new tracksuit, or the joy of young A.J. Soprano waking up after a night of drinking and realizing his eyebrows have been shaved off. These are people you may not know, but you recognize their humanity and their humor. While the series orbits around the gravitational force generated by Gandolfini's brilliant lead performance, the side characters, encompassing the deeply tragic Adriana La Cerva and the truly vile Ralph Cifaretto, make this violent corner of New Jersey an oddly comforting place to revisit. Even when you know the darkness ahead, you want to climb behind the wheel with Tony and make that long drive home again.
1. The Wire (2002–2008)
You've heard this one before: The Wire is the best show HBO's ever made. During its five-season run, David Simon's Baltimore-set drama earned heaps of critical praise and cultural cache, but suffered, weirdly, from poor ratings and awards-season malaise. (It won zero Primetime Emmys.) It's easy to see why it's regarded as being so innovative and intricate. After the first season introduced viewers to the Avon Barksdale crew and the detectives tasked with investigating them, The Wire twists the anthology format to spotlight other corruption around the city, from the docks to City Hall, and tackle controversial ideas, like Season 3's drug-legalization plotline. Everything in The Wire is connected, and everyone is a little bit tainted, with politics, police, drugs, race, and crime intersecting through iconic characters like Avon, Stringer Bell, McNulty, Greggs, Bunny, Bunk, and, of course, Omar. The show's fourth season, largely concerning Baltimore's education system, masterfully demonstrates the futility of human intervention in the face of systemic failures. Even factoring in The Wire's subpar fifth season, the show always managed to challenge the viewer in a medium that rewards superficial entertainment. In the end, we have to say it (sorry): The king stay the king.
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