Last Updated: April 28th
It would take entirely too long to list out all of the incredible TV series HBO has given us over the years, and really, you’re not here for that anyway. No, what you want is a carefully curated lineup of the best the network has to offer across all genres. Well fine, you’ve twisted our arm. If you’re trying to figure out what to watch next on HBO, here’s a great place to start with a look at 40 of the best shows on HBO of all time, ranked.
1. The Wire
5 seasons, 60 episodes | IMDb: 9.3/10
The Wire, created by David Simon, examines the Baltimore drug scene from the perspective of both the police and the drug dealers, providing flawed but deeply human, sympathetic faces to both sides of the drug war. It confronts the inner-city drug problem from every perspective, from the politicians elected to stamp out drugs to the distribution channels that bring in the drugs to a flawed education system that produces drug dealers to the gang warfare that ensues and the journalists assigned to cover the drug trade from all angles. It’s an incredibly detailed series that defies expectations at every turn as it provides viewers with riveting, addictive, glimpse into a world that most of us have never understood beyond newspaper headlines. Spanning five seasons, The Wire is like a series of intricate, interconnected crime novels, a one-of-a-kind series that is not only entertaining, thoughtful, and insightful, but also necessary viewing.
2. The Sopranos
6 seasons, 86 episodes | IMDb: 9.2/10
The godfather of prestige dramas, The Sopranos is about New Jersey mobster Tony Soprano. He’s running a crime syndicate; putting hits out on his enemies, and he’s got rivals — and the FBI — closing in on him. But he’s also got a suburban family he has to protect, kids he has to raise, and a marriage he has to nurture. With all that pressure, Tony begins to seek therapy to help with the panic attacks, to cope with the anxiety that balancing his family life and a career in crime produces. Creator David Chase takes a villain who knows he’s a villain and finds ways to make us relate to and sympathize with him. The series, which kicked off the Golden Age of Television, may be the best-written and most well-acted series of all time, and it’s certainly one of the most awarded, earning 21 Emmy Awards with 111 nominations (three of those wins and eight of those nominations went to James Gandolfini). Notable for being one of television’s most groundbreaking series, The Sopranos is a stunning, surprisingly affecting, often funny family drama punctured with moments of devastating violence, and it also boasts one of television’s most polarizing, heavily debated series finales ever.
3. Game of Thrones
8 seasons, 73 episodes | IMDb: 9.4/10
The series, based on George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire book series, is an intricately woven fantasy drama that’s about more than just political gamesmanship, dragons, and war. (Although it’s about that, too.) The series sees dozens of characters representing the seven kingdoms of Westeros vying for the Iron Throne, but there’s also a supernatural outside force — an army of the dead — threatening to topple them all. Game of Thrones works for both those who love fantasy and those who don’t because the universe is so impeccably built, the characters so vividly drawn, the relationship drama is so complex, and the plot twists so shocking. The sex and violence can be gratuitous at times, the storylines can occasionally drag, and the motivations of the characters can veer into the perverse, but that’s all part of Game of Thrones package. It’s more than just a show; it’s a provocative, immersive, unpredictable weekly television event. Although we have to warn you, if you truly care about the story by the end of this thing, you should probably skip the final three episodes. There’s nothing but dead queens and sad dragons waiting for you there.
1 season, 5 episodes | IMDb: 9.4/10
This limited series based on a true story racked up all the Emmys in 2019 and after watching it, it’s easy to see why. Not only does the show give us a compelling look at a historical event we probably read about in a high school history class (and then promptly forgot), it also features some star-turning performances by its capable cast. The story follows the 1986 explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, one of the world’s worst man-made disasters, and the political cover-up that cost hundreds of thousands their lives. Jared Harris and Stellan Skarsgard lead this thing but don’t sleep on Jessie Buckley and Emily Watson’s performances either.
5. The Larry Sanders Show
6 seasons, 90 episodes | IMDb: 8.3/10
The kings of comedy over the last decade — Tina Fey, Jon Stewart, Judd Apatow, Ricky Gervais — and many of the best comedies of the last 20 years (Arrested Development, 30 Rock, The Office Curb Your Enthusiasm) — owe a huge debt to The Larry Sanders Show, which established the kind of single-camera, character-based comedies that are the norm today. The Larry Sanders Show is dark comedy perfection, a sitcom about a neurotic late-night talk show host (in the heat of the late-night wars between Letterman and Leno, who are frequently mentioned). Long talked about as a possible late night star, Gary Shandling plays the host and Jeffrey Tambor co-stars as his sidekick, the boob, the sad sack, the butt of the joke in what’s still the role of Tambor’s career (no small feat considering his part in Arrested Development, Transparent, and even Three’s Company). Those who want to know the root of cringe comedy need look no further than Tambor’s Hank Kingsley. Celebrities play both the public and private versions of themselves, putting on their celebrity personas during the talk-show segments of Larry Sanders, but playing parodies of themselves backstage or during commercial breaks. (David Duchovny, who develops an uncomfortably strong man crush on Larry Sanders, is a particular stand-out.) The Larry Sanders Show is not just groundbreaking, however; it’s in the running for best comedy of all time, a show — like Arrested Development — that actually gets better the more times it is watched.
1 season, 8 episodes | IMDb: 8/10
Damon Lindelof’s Watchmen adaptation has stunned comic fans and critics alike with its bold storytelling choices and subversive style. Regina King shines as vigilante Sister Knight, who has strange and deepening ties to the same history that’s fueling the current crisis in her hometown. Superheroes and the impending apocalypse and clone parties all ramp up the action, but it’s Lindelof’s script — how it eschews expected tropes and forces fans to confront bias and racial stereotypes — and the grander message of history repeating itself that really takes this series to the next level.
2 seasons, 20 episodes | IMDb: 8.6/10
Succession is a show steeped in commentary about corporate greed, the dark side of capitalism, and the elite. It’s a show about men (and women) behaving badly, siblings squabbling over questions of inheritance, aging kings refusing to give up their withering empires. It’s a show about four siblings who wrestle for control of their family’s media conglomerate when their father’s health begins to fail which may not sound too interesting — we don’t need another series about rich, white-people-problems — but its the performances that make this series stand out. And those performances only get better the second time around as murder, political power plays, company takeovers and twisted family dynamics all compete for screen time.
8. The Leftovers
3 seasons, 28 episodes | IMDb: 8.3/10
Damon Lindelof’s series — based on the Tom Perrotta novel of the same name — is a dark drama, a mystery, a meditation on grief, and often a religious experience in and of itself. Set in a universe where two percent of the entire world’s population mysteriously vanishes, The Leftovers plays with questions of faith, death, the supernatural, rebirth and the afterlife, all the while featuring some of the decade’s best performances from Carrie Coon, Regina King, Christopher Eccleston, and Justin Theroux. The first season is bleaker than it needs to be and can occasionally be a slog, but the second and third seasons are as close to perfect as television gets — excellently written, emotionally powerful, masterfully crafted spiritual journeys with layers of mystery, literary and pop-culture allusions, humor, and heart. It is confounding, and heartbreaking, and magical. With the pitch-perfect, beautifully executed finale, Damon Lindelof also atones for whatever sins he committed in the Lost finale.
9. Six Feet Under
5 seasons, 63 episodes | IMDb: 8.7/10
Six Feet Under, Alan Ball (screenwriter, American Beauty) set out to make a family drama that focused equally on the Fisher family and their grief after the family patriarch succumbs to the business end of a city bus, and stories about the bodies they bury each week as funeral parlor owners and the loved ones to whom they sell coffins. Each episode begins with a death (starting with Nathaniel Fisher, Sr. in the pilot), and the rest of the episode explores its repercussions, how it affects the survivors, and how, thematically, the expiration of that life plays into the lives of the Fisher family. It also explores death as an industry, the cold business of dying — the financial exploitation, the detached corporate franchising, and the cookie-cutter, assembly-line processing of corpses. Ultimately, Six Feet Under is the best examination of death ever put on the small screen, but it’s also a hopeful series for the way it uses the loss of life to prove a point about living. It also features one of television’s all-time greatest series finale, a ten-minute montage that will leave viewers sobbing.
7 seasons, 66 episodes | IMDb: 8.2/10
Creator Armando Iannucci’s political satire boasts the best ensemble comedy on television (it has a whopping 67 Emmy nominations and 14 wins), arguably the best comedy writers, and easily the most withering insults on the small screen. The series follows Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) as she navigates the office of Vice President, the most pointless, powerless position in the executive branch. This is not West Wing — there are no political heroics in Veep — nor is it even Parks and Recreation. There’s not an ounce of heart in the series. These are cynical soulless characters engaging in cynical soulless activities with no other end in mind aside from political victories, of which there are few, all of which Meyer and her staff stumble into backwards. It contains more jokes per minute than any other show on television, and the putdowns are a form of bloodsport. It’s as vicious as it is funny, but it wouldn’t work as well as it does unless it didn’t have a ring of truth to it. And honestly, it’s best that the show stopped after seven seasons because there’s no way they could compete with the real-life circus happening in the White House right now.
1 season, 10 episodes | IMDb: 8.4/10
A glitter-soaked teenage nightmare, Sam Levinson’s Euphoria is a heartbreaking, complicated look at the anxieties of a generation and the pitfalls of addiction. Zendaya won an Emmy for her role as Rue, a young addict who returns home after an accidental overdose and tries to do better. Life eventually gets in the way, but she meets a new girl named Jules (a terrific Hunter Schafer) who ends up changing hers for better and worse. The show really forces us to confront our necessity for likable characters, but whether you love em or hate em, you’ll be invested in their journeys from the beginning.
12. Curb Your Enthusiasm
10 seasons, 101 episodes | IMDb: 8.7/10
Curb Your Enthusiasm is basically what would happen if the George Costanza character was teased out of Seinfeld, relocated to Los Angeles, and the cringe humor dialed up to 11. The fantastically funny show from Larry David (who inspired Costanza) is improvised, and like Seinfeld, it’s often about nothing. But David takes it to darker, more awkward places, and he’s never afraid to depict himself as an entitled, self-indulgent, morally bankrupt, and decidedly unlovable man. It’s a must-watch series for anyone that can stomach David’s twisted comedy of discomfort, one that feels oddly comforting right now.
3 seasons, 36 episodes | IMDb: 8.6/10
In television’s greatest all-time Western series, David Milch creates a brilliantly distinctive universe peopled with characters who speak their own language, a pungent mix of Shakespeare, profanity, and gunslinger lingo all rolled into one. Set in 1870s South Dakota, Deadwood charts the growth of Deadwood from a small camp into a town, basing many of the characters on real-life historical figures like Al Swearengen, Wild Bill Hickok, Calamity Jane, Wyatt Earp, and George Hearst. It also stars an incredible collection of talent — Timothy Olyphant, Anna Gunn, Ian McShane, Molly Parker, John Hawkins, Kim Dickens, and John Hawkes, among many others — who bring the town alive with all its danger, corruption, and family struggles. Fans of profanity should also take note: There are 1.58 f-bombs per minute in the series, which unfortunately was cancelled after three seasons, leaving several storylines unresolved but now that we’ve got that long-awaited follow-up film, you’re safe to watch this all the way through.
14. Big Little Lies
2 seasons, 14 episodes | IMDb: 8.6/10
On paper, HBO’s Big Little Lies, an adaptation of Liane Moriarty about a group of housewives hiding a dark secret, seems like your standard melodramatic fare. There’s cheating spouses, family squabbles, catfights, and murder with a classic whodunnit twist, but the show benefits from some truly brilliant performances and the kind of subtle, stylish direction only Jean-Marc Vallee — who’s responsible for another series on this list — can deliver. Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern, and Shailene Woodley star in this sordid tale about secrets and betrayal in a quiet, affluent seaside town, but it’s Nicole Kidman who swallows up the screen, playing an abused wife and mother grappling with the consequences of her husband’s nefarious deeds. Season two completely dives off the deep end, bringing on Meryl Streep to make its murder cover-up even more complicated but hey, that’s what you come to a show like this for anyway, right?
15. The Young Pope
1 season, 10 episodes | IMDb: 8.4/10
The Young Pope is the kind of batsh*t crazy show that only HBO could pull off. The series is a masterclass in excess — each frame is filled with decadent costumes, outrageous characters, bizarre action, and memeable dialogue. It’s a gif-giving treasure trove of melodrama, and its star is Jude Law, who plays the titular guy. This is a pope who smokes, schemes, and sashays his way through the Vatican, decked out in immaculate robes and dripping in dramatic flair. Conflict arises as he tries to enact a decidedly conservative regime, resulting in scandal, violence, and chaos amongst his cardinals. If you need any more incentive to watch, you may consult our own Brian Grubb’s flawless Popedown coverage — a breakdown of all of the insane action that happens on this show.
16. I May Destroy You
1 season, 12 episodes | IMDb: 8.1/10
Michaela Coel writes and stars in this scathing, unfiltered look at what sexual consent means in our current age. Coel plays Arabella, a young novelist struggling in her career who suffers a traumatic sexual assault and tries to piece together what happened to her over the course of the season. That puzzle includes her friends, Terry (Weruche Opia) and Kwame (Paapa Essiedu), her publishers, her coworkers, and her checkered past. It’s brutal at times, frustrating at others, but it’s an addictive watch with something to say … and it says it well.
2 seasons, 22 episodes | IMDb: 8.7/10
Before Game of Thrones and Westworld, there was Rome. This sprawling historical drama made all kinds of noise (and won its fair share of awards) when it first premiered and rightfully so. With a large and talented cast, the series took on some of history’s most notable characters — think Julius Caesar, Mark Antony, Brutus, and the like — while also managing to craft a narrative around the struggles of two low-level Roman soldiers. The real draw of this series though, aside from some superb acting and an intriguing narrative, is its sheer scope. If you thought GoT battle scenes were ambitiously planned, wait until you watch this show.
18. Sharp Objects
1 season, 8 episodes | IMDb: 8.2/10
The second Jean-Marc Vallee entry on this list marks yet another series about complicated, flawed women. Amy Adams plays Camille Preaker, a reporter running from her past who’s forced to return to her Southern roots for a story. Her homecoming is fraught with family tension, courtesy of an abusive mother (played by a devilishly sinister Patricia Clarkson) and a rebellious younger sister (newcomer Eliza Scanlen). Camille is an alcoholic with suicidal tendencies, suffering from PTSD after another sibling’s death and her mother’s involvement in it, and Adams plays her to perfection, giving us a look at a woman intent on self-destruction, one who’s searching for a shred of humanity in her sleepy, Southern town.
19. Silicon Valley
6 seasons, 54 episodes | IMDb: 8.5/10
Created by Mike Judge (Idiocracy, Beavis and Butthead), Silicon Valley is essentially Office Space for the tech worker of the 2010s. Instead of a traditional office, it’s set in a modern workplace — the inside of a house — and instead of bosses, there are investors. Judge and co-creators John Altschuler and Dave Krinsky, however, approach the tech industry with the same biting, satirical edge that Judge took to Office Space. Nominated for 22 Emmys (winning two), the HBO series follows the ups and (mostly) downs of a group of six friends trying to get a start-up off the ground. It works as both a scathing takedown of the tech industry as well as a traditional comedy. Through six seasons, it’s also remained one of the most consistently funny comedies on television to both the code monkeys who understand the intricacies of Silicon Valley and laypeople who appreciate smart writing and indelible characters who are fun to hang out with — think better, smarter Entourage with ambitious tech geeks and incredibly sophisticated dick jokes.
20. Lovecraft Country
1 season, 8 episodes | IMDb: 7.2/10
There are inventive dramas that delight in genre-bending storytelling and wild plot twists and then there’s this series from creator Misha Green. A reimagining of a classic novel, the show trades in H.P. Lovecraft lore, blending sci-fi seamlessly with historical events to shed an unforgiving light on our terrifying past. Jonathan Majors plays Tic, a bright young man with a terrible destiny, and he’s supported by an impressive cast that includes Michael Kenneth Williams, Courtney B. Vance, and Jurnee Smollett who turns in a career-defining performance as the strong-willed Leti Lewis. Do yourself a favor and watch this show.
3 seasons, 28 episodes | IMDb: 8.8/10
With an intriguing storyline, an A-list cast, and roots in the beloved sci-fi genre, it was clear early on that HBO was banking on Westworld to fill the hole that would be left when Game of Thrones eventually ended. It looks like the powers that be made the right bet. Not only does this show offer a plot full of twists, turns, strange mythologies, and moral dilemmas, it’s got a talented cast of colorful characters and it’s premise — a robot uprising at an amusement park where adults can indulge in their basest desires free of consequence — is the kind of stuff great TV series are made of. Follow-up seasons don’t do the first installment justice, but there’s still enough mind-bending intrigue and character twists to keep you engaged. Plus, there’s Evan Rachel Wood and Thandie Newton. Do not underestimate the watchability of those two.
22. Boardwalk Empire
5 seasons, 56 episodes | IMDb: 8.6/10
Nominated for 57 Emmys (winning 20), Boardwalk Empire takes a simmering novelistic approach to its storytelling. Brilliantly acted and meticulously plotted, Boardwalk Empire can be a slow burn while the audience waits for the pieces to come together, but they always do with near-perfect execution. With a sprawling cast spread out geographically and numerous plotlines flowing away from the series’ main character, Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi), the Terence Winter-created series is historical fiction at its best. Loosely based on the life of Nucky Johnson, Boardwalk Empire examines the bootlegging industry in Atlantic City during Prohibition, and it brings in a host of familiar names including Al Capone, Lucky Luciano, and Arnold Rothstein. However, it’s often the series-created characters played by Michael Pitt, Jack Huston, Charlie Cox, Michael Shannon, Michael K. Williams, and Kelly Macdonald that prove most riveting. It’s a fascinating series from a historical standpoint (it tracks the rise of the modern mafia), absorbing as a work of storytelling, and a remarkable acting showcase. There are no weak seasons here; it’s an incredible series from start to finish and, if anything, it’s only gotten better as it’s aged.
23. Band of Brothers / The Pacific
The adaptation of Stephen E. Ambrose’s 1992 non-fiction book of the same name, brought to HBO by Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg, follows the “Easy” Company from training through its participation in several major battles in World War II up until the Japanese surrendered and the war ended. Meticulously researched (with consultants who were actually in Easy Company), Band of Brothers is the best fictional account of World War II ever recorded. It’s an extraordinary series that captures the violence of war, as well as the heroism — and flaws — of its characters. Nothing else comes close, really, to capturing the true sense of sacrifice of these men, nor documenting the slog and banality of war — long stretches of boredom punctuated by extreme violence. It’s a harrowing series, and it’s hard not to come away with a better appreciation of the men who served in that war. The Pacific, meanwhile, is a similar mini-series, offering an account of the United States Marine Corps’ actions in the Pacific Theater of Operations. It’s worth noting, too, that Band of Brothers and Pacific feature more than a dozen actors who would become famous after their roles in the miniseries.
24. My Brilliant Friend
1 season, 8 episodes | IMDb: 8.6/10
HBO is taking a big step in its global programming plan with the premiere of its first non-English series. Adapted from Elena Ferrante’s best-selling book series, My Brilliant Friend follows the story of two young women, growing up in 1950s, post-war Italy. The series begins with the girls as children, one outspoken and rebellious, the other mourning her childhood before it’s even over. Over the course of this first season, the series explores the bonds of female friendship amidst a male chauvinistic backdrop. It’s beautifully wrought, benefiting from an eager and inexperienced cast and a script filled with nuance, heartbreak, and hope.
2 seasons, 16 episodes | IMDb: 8.3/10
Bill Hader brings more of his signature brand of humor to this dark comedy series about a Midwestern hitman who travels to Los Angeles for work and ends up immersing himself in the local arts scene. Watching Hader do anything is guaranteed fun but he somehow manages to make this down on his luck gun for hire a sympathetic anti-hero of sorts. Of course, the real gem of this show is Henry Winkler, who plays a tough-as-nails acting coach determined to make a thespian out of Hader’s hitman.
26. His Dark Materials
2 seasons, 16 episodes | IMDb: 7.9/10
Philip Pullman’s best-selling fantasy series was always going to be a difficult thing to adapt to the screen. Movie versions have failed to get the scope and imaginative elements of Pullman’s writing right, but this series does a much better job. The story’s the same — a young girl named Lyra (Dafne Keen) who lives in an alternate universe where magic exists and souls live outside bodies in the form of animal-like daemons is destined to liberate her world from a tyrannical form of government known as the Magisterium. But the cast is top-notch — think James McAvoy, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and Ruth Wilson — the CGI is well-done, and the storytelling feels thought-out and better-paced that its predecessors.
27. Sex and the City
6 seasons, 94 episodes | IMDb: 7.1/10
Based on Candace Bushnell’s 1997 book of the same name, Sex and the City put HBO original comedy on the map in the same way that The Sopranos did for HBO dramas. Following the lives of four New York City women, the series reveled in decadent fashion, relationship drama, and of course, sex. It was a fashion magazine come to life. Lasting six seasons (and 94 episodes), the series peaked in season 4, but would still go on to spawn a bad Sex and the City movie and an even worse sequel. In the years since Sex and the City debuted, it’s had a number of imitators — some better, some worse — which may have the effect of making the original seem dated. (The ’90s pop-cultural references don’t help.) Still, the groundbreaking series is essential viewing because of the way it changed the conversation about women and sex, even if some of those themes are ultimately neutralized by the materialism and the self-absorption of its lead character, played Sarah Jessica Parker.
28. Big Love
5 seasons, 53 episodes | IMDb: 7.5/10
Running for 5 seasons, Big Love tells the story of a Utah businessman (and later Congressman) Bill Henrickson (Bill Paxton), a practicing polygamist with three wives (Jeanne Tripplehorn, Chloe Sevigny, Ginnifer Goodwin) and a set of children with each. Inspired by the real-life Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, it sees Bill navigate the complications involved in providing for three families, keeping those three wives happy in their own marriages as well as their relationships with each other. The premise is risky, as it asks the viewer to sympathize with a polygamist, but it works thanks to the marvelous performances of its ensemble, the original situations, the complex relationship drama and a bizarrely loving family dynamic. It wavers some in the middle seasons, but Big Love successfully rebounds in its final season.
6 seasons, 62 episodes | IMDb: 7.3/10
A daring, smart and polarizing comedy, Lena Dunham’s Girls is an observant and well-acted show about privileged, self-absorbed and often unlikable characters dealing with their relationships and their fledgling careers in New York City. It’s funny, it’s awkward, it’s frequently provocative, and it’s aggravating as hell. However, it’s also undeniably honest, unflinching, and original, and there’s an undercurrent of sweetness beneath the often inscrutable actions of the characters, who behave as flailing 20-somethings do while trying to figure out their lives. Viewers may alternate between empathizing with the real struggles of the characters, and loathing their choices, but it’s impossible not to feel something for these lovable and impossibly annoying people. In six seasons and 62 episodes, Girls never loses a step — it’s as compelling, funny, and obnoxious in the first season as it is in the last.
30. True Detective
3 seasons, 24 episodes | IMDb: 9/10
The first season of the Nic Pizzolatto-written series is a truly exceptional season of television that combines ambitious writing with the bold, atmospheric direction of Cary Fukanaga and two of the best television performances of the decade in Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson’s depiction of Detectives Rust Cohle and Marty Hart. Set in 2012, the first season sees Cohle and Hart questioned about a 1995 murder investigation they were involved in after new evidence surfaces and ultimately reunites the estranged partners. It’s a riveting immersive season of noir, an enthralling and masterfully crafted murder mystery layered with literary allusions and unexpected twists. Unfortunately, the second season of the anthology series, which takes up a new case and features all new characters, is every bit as disappointing as the first season is great. Season one is must-see television, the second season should be avoided. The third season is a bit of a mixed bag but is definitely worth watching for the obviously great Mahershala Ali and the surprisingly great Stephen Dorff.
31. True Blood
7 seasons, 80 episodes | IMDb: 7.9/10
Part gothic romance and part vampire story, True Blood — based on the Sookie Stackhouse novels by Charlaine Harris — is set in a Louisiana town where vampires live among humans thanks to the invention of a synthetic blood. It’s generally well acted (although the accents can be occasionally bothersome); features a great ensemble (notably led by Anna Paquin, Bill Moyers, and Alexander Skarsgård); and contains a lot of wry, dishy humor that it blends with social commentary. At its core, however, True Blood is a biting, erotically-charged soap opera, and the more it leans into that, the better the series is. Warning: There is a precipitous drop off in quality in the final two seasons after showrunner and creator Alan Ball leaves.
4 seasons, 36 episodes | IMDb: 8.2/10
David Simon’s follow-up to The Wire, Treme shares much in common with jazz, one of the major subjects of the series: It’s dense, meandering, and occasionally discordant, but it’s frequently moving (when it’s not overly self-indulgent). Set in New Orleans three months after Hurricane Katrina, Treme sees its residents attempt to rebuild their lives in the wake of the devastation. Over the course of four seasons and 36 episodes, Treme tracks the successes, the setbacks, and the heartbreaks of musicians, chefs, lawyers, and developers, among others, and while it’s often glacially paced and can get bogged down in extended musical interludes, it’s as honest a depiction of the aftermath of Katrina as we’re likely to see, warts and all. Treme is not for everyone; it’s filled with big beautiful moments and great music, but it offers no easy answers or satisfying conclusions. After four seasons, Treme doesn’t end so much as it trails off, leaving the characters facing the same uncertainty that the residents of New Orleans faced in the years after Katrina.
6 seasons, 56 episodes | IMDb: 8.7/10
Groundbreaking because it was the first original drama created by HBO (ultimately paving the way for The Sopranos and the golden age of television), Oz can still stand on its own as a brutal, unflinching Shakespearean prison drama. It’s set in Emerald City, an experimental unit within a prison with a carefully managed population designed to encourage rehabilitation and conflict resolution. Yet the inmates nevertheless continue to struggle to survive as each faction fights for power. It’s a harsh, sadistic series, grim and often unpleasant to watch because it is so often gruesome in its depiction of violence. It does, however, rely too often on stereotypes, and the writing can be both overcooked and pretentious (especially Harold Perreneau’s monologues). However, Oz is remarkable not just for pushing the boundaries of premium cable at the time, but for helping to launch the careers of so many talented character actors (J.K. Simmons, Lance Reddick, Dean Winter, Christopher Meloni, and Bobby Cannavale, among them).
2 seasons, 24 episodes | IMDb: 8.4/10
Set in the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, Carnivàle pits an 18-year-old carny with magical healing powers against an evangelical preacher who has his own supernatural abilities to bend people to his will. Each episode takes place in a distinctive carnival setting where an ongoing battle between good and evil is raging. The series was originally envisioned as a trilogy of stories, each part told in two seasons. Unfortunately, due to the expense of the series, only the first part of the trilogy was completed, which left a few storylines unresolved. Over a decade later, however, Carnivàle remains rich and singularly original series, a compelling if often frustrating combination of Twin Peaks, John Steinbeck, and Lost.
35. The Night Of
1 season, 8 episodes | IMDb: 8.5/10
An eight-part miniseries based on the British series The Criminal, The Night Of follows a legal case from the night of a murder through the arrest and trial of the lead suspect (Riz Ahmed). From novelist Richard Price (Clockers and Steven Zaillian (Moneyball), who wrote and directed the series), The Night Of works on a number of levels: It’s a compelling murder mystery, it’s a tour de force of acting (thanks to Ahmed and John Turturro) and it’s a scathing indictment of the American criminal justice system. The series illustrates, best of all, that a conviction isn’t even necessary to ruin a mans’ life, especially if he’s a person of color. Suspicion is all it takes.
4 seasons, 30 episodes | IMDb: 7.8/10
Grown out of Issa Rae’s web series Awkward Black Girl, Insecure takes us through the romantic and career travails of an insecure twenty-something black woman in a way that makes it clear that many of the experiences of the characters are rooted in reality. There’s nothing particularly original about its premise — it’s a relationship comedy — but its approach is uniquely bold, honest, and witty. It’s very funny, but it also hits a lot of dramatic notes well and features one of the most remarkably authentic friendships on television.
37. Flight of the Conchords
2 seasons, 22 episodes | IMDb: 8.5/10
Created by James Bobin, Jemaine Clement, and Bret McKenzie, Flight of the Conchords follows the day-to-day lives of two clueless shepherds-turned-musicians, Jemaine Clemaine and Bret McClegnie (playing fictionalized versions of themselves) who have moved from New Zealand to New York City in an attempt to make a career out of being folk musicians. In each episode, the characters also break into song, delivering irresistible, infectious pop-song parodies. It’s hard to describe exactly what kind of show Flight of the Conchords is, but its humor is dry and sardonic. It’s a lightweight comedy — it often feels like sketch comedy — but it’s hilarious and infinitely clever.
38. Eastbound and Down
4 seasons, 29 episodes | IMDb: 8.2/10
Danny McBride plays Kenny Powers, a brash, profane washed-up major league relief pitcher who returns his North Carolina hometown and ends up living with his brother and teaching P.E. at the local middle school. The show, like Kenny Powers, is loud, obnoxious, and grating, and yet still capable of delivering some of the funniest lines on television. It’s completely absurd, but it works because of how far Danny McBride is willing to take it. The show only seems to have one joke, but Eastbound and Down manages to find new ways to poke and prod that joke into life. In fact, the series gets better as it progresses through its fourth season, especially after it figures out how to combine emotional heft with the crude, bombastic humor.
2 seasons, 18 episodes | IMDb: 7.5/10
Laura Dern has starred in two fantastic series for HBO but her best work remains as Amy Jellicoe, a middle-aged woman going through a nervous breakthrough on Enlightened. The dramedy follows Amy as she recovers from a mental break that happened after being fired by the shady company she’d been working for — to be fair, her heavy drinking and the affair she was having with her married boss didn’t scream longevity. After a two-month rehab stint and a bipolar diagnosis, Amy tries to get her life back on track and ends up uncovering a damning secret about the people she works for. Dern in anything is worthy of a watch but when the actress plays messy, “unlikeable” female characters intent on self-destruction, she’s truly at her best.
5 seasons, 45 episodes | IMDb: 7.6/10
There’s a reason Senator Elizabeth Warren stans this sports dramedy series starring Dwayne Johnson. Not only is the action star at his comedic best playing Spencer Strasmore, a former NFL player who embarks on a new career as a financial manager to pro athletes in the show’s premiere, but the whole vibe of this show is Entourage on steroids. In other words, get ready to laugh your a** off at some raunchy, physical humor and witty one-liners while ogling expensive suits, fast cars, million-dollar mansions, and a yacht or two.