The 40 Best HBO Series, Ranked

It's not TV, it's HBO

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The 40 Best HBO Series, Ranked

“It’s not TV. It’s HBO.” The premium cable network’s famed slogan, from an era predating “Peak TV,” projected an air of authority, of class, that defied the medium’s reputation as a lowbrow form. Many of the top shows in our list of the best HBO series of all time echo much the same sentiment: It’s no coincidence that their most common points of comparison, at least among critics, have been cinema and literature rather than the “prestige” programming of an earlier age. But dig deeper into the 40 titles here, and it’s the range of artistic expression that becomes apparent. From Enlightened’s search for bliss to Veep’s devilish satire, HBO’s best series (along with some key miniseries) are not all dark, complex dramas. But some of the dark, complex dramas are also some of the best TV shows of all-time (or at the very least, of the last decade). But with so much new programming coming to HBO (not to mention us catching up with older series), expect the list to keep expanding in the coming months.

For now, whether you’re in the mood for a re-watch or still need to see The Sopranos for the first time, you’re sure to find something to stir your interest on Paste’s list of the 40 best HBO series of all time. (And be sure to check out our lists of the best TV shows on Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime while you’re at it.)

40. Gentleman Jack

Creator: Sally Wainwright
Stars: Suranne Jones, Sophie Rundle

Gentleman Jack is drawn from the extensive (some four million pages) journals of Anne Lister, a landed class Yorkshire woman widely considered to be the first “modern lesbian” known to history. Those diaries exhaustively detail her rather audacious life as a world traveler, coal magnate, landlord, mountaineer, and “Parisian,” which seems to be a common shorthand in 19th-century Halifax for “avid seducer of other women.” The series focuses on a timeframe in the 1830s dominated by Lister (Suranne Jones) returning to her family home in Yorkshire and setting her sights on nervous heiress Ann Walker (Sophie Rundle) as a companion.

Watch it for an interesting depiction of 19th-century Yorkshire society with sleek, colorful production and a lot of beautiful high-contrast scenery; rolling green fields and hedgerows starting to sprout factory smokestacks, or Lister’s frock coat and men’s hat and frank stare amid all those blonde ringlets and pastel silk gowns and sunlit yellow drawing room walls. Watch it for Jones’ forceful, vivacious, smart-as-hell portrayal of a defiant iconoclast who chose to value her own integrity over whatever it was society needed her to value. Though all the performances are relatively strong, Jones instantly becomes the center of gravity in every frame she’s in. Perhaps most of all, though, watch it for what it suggests about why it nearly always makes sense to be yourself. Even if it sometimes hurts, because of course it will, whoever you are. —Amy Glynn

39. Insecure

Creator:Issa Rae and Larry Wilmore
Stars: Issa Rae, Yvonne Orji, Jay Ellis, Lisa Joyce

While there’s still a long way to go before TV truly reflects our multi-cultural present, the arrival of series like this marvelous half-hour comedy are hopefully harbingers of the medium’s more diverse future. Built from the skeleton of co-creator Issa Rae’s YouTube series, The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, HBO’s comedy tackles an array of issues, from old chestnuts like boredom and woe in a long-term relationship to much broader concerns, like reckoning with institutional racism and individual biases in the modern workplace. (There’s also room left over for some cutting satire of the commodification and absorption of African-American culture by white people.) While her onscreen proxy is barely holding it together, Rae bears the burden of running Insecure with ease, finding a fresh perspective and flawlessly expanding upon the world of her Internet series with wit and refinement to spare. —Robert Ham

38. Flight of the Conchords

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Creators: James Bobin, Jemaine Clement, Bret McKenzie
Stars: Jemaine Clement, Bret McKenzie, Rhys Darby, Kristen Schaal, Arj Barker

When I hear the words “musical comedy,” I tend to think of old Broadway standards like My Fair Lady or Singin’ in the Rain. No offense to those shows, but I’m very glad that Flight of the Conchords was a musical comedy of a very different kind. Starring Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie, the show is the story of an awful two-man band from New Zealand who have an incompetent manager (the wonderful Rhys Darby as Murray Hewitt) and literally one fan (the hilarious, obsessive Kristen Schaal) as they try to make it big in New York. Despite their repeated failures, there’s something both sincere and casual about their approach, which stands in stark contrast to the tense, cynical neuroses you might expect. Each episode is punctuated by two or three songs which range from “very good” to “classic.” If You’re Into it and Hiphopopotamus vs. Rhymoceros are two terrific examples of the latter. This is a show that you sink into, and that sweeps you along in its own relaxed rhythms, dispensing the sort of calm, surprising laughs that feels almost therapeutic. —Shane Ryan

37. Eastbound & Down

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Creators: Ben Best, Jody Hill, Danny McBride 
Stars: Danny McBride, Steve Little, Katy Mixon, John Hawkes, Jennifer Irwin

I can pinpoint the exact moment I turned into a massive Danny McBride fan, having previously been confused and annoyed by his presence in Pineapple Express. (I was in the wrong, I know). Early in the first season, Kenny Powers downs a beer in his car while listening to his own audiobook. As he puts in a new cassette of his boastful, foul-mouthed ramblings, a calm male audiobook voice intones “You’re listening to You’re Fucking Out, I’m Fucking In, by Kenny Powers.” All was forgiven. Initially conceived as a movie that became too good at four hours to cut down to two, Eastbound & Down turned the story of a washed up ex-major league pitcher obsessively striving for relevancy into a comeback story of epic proportions. Kenny would undergo an absurd odyssey on his path back to fame, but series creators McBride, Jody Hill, and Ben Best would never sacrifice their honest portrait of a man eaten alive by his own ego for the sake of a joke (except, of course in that insane episode with Will Ferrell, a Civil War plantation, and a cannon). The same team reunited for the tonally similar Vice Principals and now The Righteous Gemstones, again capitalizing on McBride’s magnetic, spontaneous onscreen presence, and adding in a killer repartee with Walton Goggins. —Graham Techler

36. Mr. Show with Bob and David

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Creators:   Bob Odenkirk, David Cross
Stars: Bob Odenkirk, David Cross, John Ennis, Tom Kenny, Jill Talley, Jay Johnston

Before alternative comedy was a recognized thing, there was Mr. Show with Bob and David, a genius sketch comedy show that had a criminally short run on HBO from 1995 to 1998. Each episode was loosely based around a central theme and laboriously structured, with sketches leading directly into each other, and sometimes even wrapping around each other like Russian nesting dolls of comedy. Although celebrated for its absurd point of view, Mr. Show didn’t shy away from the real world, often tearing into the inequalities of society and the increasing domination of corporate America. Not every bit landed, but the show still had a shockingly high batting average over its four seasons, and very little of it feels dated today. —Garrett Martin

35. Silicon Valley

Creator: Mike Judge
Stars: Thomas Middleditch, T.J. Miller, Josh Brener, Kumail Nanjiani, Martin Starr

While the rest of Mike Judge’s television shows have had a certain fondness for the subjects they lampoon, it’s the sheer anger of Silicon Valley towards the tech industry and its investors that infuses the show with life. This places Silicon Valley more in the style of Judge’s movies, which tend towards a caustic loathing of the entirety of broken systems. That isn’t to say that the show isn’t funny, but that its humor, even the wacky slapstick bits, is more cutting than any traditional sitcom. Silicon Valley isn’t cringe comedy, but it has the same level of antipathy towards much of its cast, which makes the show feel real in a way that sets it apart from other sitcoms. Above all, though, Silicon Valley simply finds its world absurd and hilarious, a counterfeit utopia so out of control that there’s always something entertaining going on. This isn’t just good satire, it’s good comedy, and the show’s success at both of these levels is what makes it one of the best sitcoms on TV. —Sean Gandert

34. Oz

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Creator: Tom Fontana
Stars: Kirk Acevedo, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Ernie Hudson, Terry Kinney, Christopher Meloni, George Morfogen, Rita Moreno, Harold Perrineau, J. K. Simmons, Lee Tergesen, Eamonn Walker, Dean Winters

Certainly a “water cooler show” if there ever was one, Oz made waves with its violence and sexual content early on and its equally deep and disturbing storytelling once people got over the fact that it was set in a maximum security prison. It’s probably safe to say that there’s an entire subset of former viewers out there who think of every prison and prison caricature in terms of what they saw on Oz, from the racial gangs to the unpredictable violence and stress of daily living. A truly ensemble cast was one of the selling points for the large and ambitious HBO series, which showed that an adult-content drama could still turn great ratings. The fact that it was on a premium network was essential, allowing a much deeper (and more realistic) depiction of the horrors of incarceration in the United States. —Jim Vorel

33. Sharp Objects

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Creator: Marti Noxon
Stars: Amy Adams, Patricia Clarkson, Chris Messina, Eliza Scanlen

Few shows acknowledge sweat the way that Sharp Objects does, but it serves to truly drive home the oppressive atmosphere of a small Missouri town where two girls have recently been murdered. Characters pant and swelter and wipe sweat beads from their foreheads as cicadas hum in the background and everyone judges everyone else. Mainly, it’s crime reporter Camille Preaker who is being judged by her socialite mother, who maintains Camille’s childhood home like a dollhouse whose every aspect she has complete control over. Sharp Objects is ostensibly a murder mystery, but more than that it’s a house of horrors for our troubled, alcoholic protagonist with a history of self-harm. Though the entire miniseries is a creepshow, the final reveal of the killer and the methods by which it all happened (which play out in flashback through the closing credits) will continue to haunt you long afterwards. —Allison Keene

32. Girls

Creator:   Lena Dunham  
Stars: Lena Dunham, Allison Williams, Jemima Kirke, Zosia Mamet, Adam Driver, Alex Karpovsky

I believe Lena Dunham is one of the foremost badasses of our artistic culture, and as far as that goes, I’m already very much on the record. The one thing I really love about Girls is that it refuses to conform to identity politics. There are times when Dunham can be a wonderful spokesperson for female power, and there are times when she pisses off the feminists. There are times when she seems like the best liberal around, and others when liberals want to burn her at the stake and aren’t afraid to write endless think pieces on the topic. This is not because Dunham is trying to aggravate anybody, but because she tells her story so honestly, and so relentlessly, that anyone who wants her to conform to a prevailing ideology will inevitably be disappointed—she’s too fluid to be molded into an emblem. Girls is absolutely refreshing and absolutely bold, and Dunham has become so powerful and popular that she doesn’t need to pull any punches. The stories of Hannah, Shoshanna, Marnie, and Jessa exist to reflect something real, and something instinctual, and it originates with a brilliant artist who stayed unrepentant until the end. —Shane Ryan

31. Years and Years

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Creator: Russell T Davies
Stars: Emma Thompson, Rory Kinnear, Russell Tovey, T’Nia Miller, Jessica Hynes

Russell T. Davies’ UK series came to HBO with very little fanfare, which is unfortunate because it deserves your attention. It’s a compelling, if imperfect, look at what life might be like in the next 15 years, as the show cruises through a number of proposed (and likely) world events through the lens of one British family. An outstanding cast helps sell the show’s dystopian vision, giving it an exceptional amount of heart. But Davies also keeps all of the tech and politics and media of the future feeling grounded in the possible. Years and Years is arresting television, with an outlandishly oversized score that pulls you in fully to a story with shocking events and the familiar mundanity that follows them. Despite the erosion of freedoms for these formerly comfortable middle-class westerners, it still feels strangely hopefully, and most of all, embraces the idea of resilience even in the face of extraordinary change.  —Allison Keene

30. The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst

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Creators: Andrew Jarecki, Marc Smerling, Zac Stuart-Pontier

The Jinx is not just a fascinating profile of a man who is most definitely (*or allegedly, I add, with my lawyer’s hat on) a killer, but it actually worked to bring him to justice for at least one of his crimes. The Jinx provides exceptional access into the world of a very strange, troubled, and famous New York figure, Robert Durst, whose hot-mic confession (seemingly) in the final episode is one of the greatest TV moments ever. But even before that, we get a glimpse into how wealth and privilege serve to protect a man who is very clearly dangerous. And then, of course, there is the uncontrollable burping when discussing certain topics. It’s a wild ride, one that has had real-life consequences for Durst that are still unfolding. —Allison Keene

29. Westworld

Creators: Lisa Joy, Jonathan Nolan
Stars: Evan Rachel Wood, Jeffrey Wright, Ed Harris Thandie Newton, James Marsden

Westworld debuted with some big shoes to fill. The would-be successor to HBO’s Game of Thrones got weird fast and didn’t care who was along for the ride. There’s something commendable about that, as that first season set up a puzzlebox that riveted fans. Its sophomore season then further shook off the shackles of expectation and embraced the characters who (against all odds) dot its endless mysteries with pockets of genuine depth. Rather than having to answer a trick question, viewers have been allowed to experience the android-driven theme park/bacchanalia in the context of the people (and robo-people) living in and around it. Some of the best female performances on TV are lodged inside a show which started so male-gazey, eventually giving viewers a rollicking, if uneven, exploration of these twisted layers within layers the series delights in creating. And just when you think you have a sense of what’s happening, a new season is poised to change the game again to keep us guessing. —Jacob Oller and Allison Keene

28. Treme

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Creators:   David Simon  and Eric Overmyer
Stars: Khandi Alexander, Clarke Peters, Wendell Pierce, Kim Dickens, Rob Brown, Melissa Leo

When it debuted in 2010, David Simon’s portrait of post-Katrina New Orleans disappointed expectations: It was not, as it turned out, The Wire: Crescent City. It was, rather, a subtle, searching appreciation for The City That Care Forgot, mournful and merry in equal measure; its characters were professors (John Goodman), chefs (Kim Dickens), musicians (Wendell Pierce), not politicians or police officers, and as such its drama hewed to the more quotidian rhythms of “recovery.” In this, though, it managed to capture the place, and its peculiar position in the American imagination, with unmatched precision and unconditional love, attuned to the grief and joy of an epochal moment in the city’s history. If I ever leave, I will watch Treme to remind me what it was like to live here at a time of profound transformation, and to feel anew the series’ clarion call: “Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans?” I’m not sure there’s higher praise for a work of art than that. —Matt Brennan

27. Looking

Creators: Andrew Haigh, Sarah Condon and Michael Lannan
Stars: Jonathan Groff, Frankie Alvarez, Murray Barlett, Russell Tovey, Lauren Weedman

Michael Lannon and Andrew Haigh’s meditative chronicle of gay men in modern-day San Francisco ran too cool for some tastes, but few TV series of recent vintage have married form and function with such unshakable confidence. On rooftops and in basements, in Golden Gate Park and the East Bay, Looking found a finely crafted realism perfect for its subdued storytelling, underlining its characters’ halting adventures in adulthood with intricate compositions and fluent camerawork. As Patrick (Jonathan Groff), Agustín (Frankie J. Alvarez), Dom (Murray Bartlett) and Doris (Lauren Weedman, the series’ unsung MVP) forged a makeshift family, separated from parents and siblings by geographical and cultural gulfs, Looking emerged as a moving, gorgeous coming-of-age tale, alive to the notion that we never really stop “growing up.” —Matt Brennan

26. The Comeback

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Creators: Michael Patrick King and Lisa Kudrow
Stars: Lisa Kudrow, Lance Barber, Robert Michael Morris, Damian Young, Malin Akerman

The Comeback was way ahead of its time. Who could have predicted back in 2005 how utterly inane reality TV would become? Valerie Cherish (Lisa Kudrow), that’s who. As the once-popular TV actress desperately trying to make a (you guessed it) comeback, Kudrow is utter perfection. Cast as the (unfortunately named) Aunt Sassy in the comedy Room and Bored, Valerie allows the cameras to follow her every move as she re-launches her career. It doesn’t go well. Valerie is ridiculous and cringe-inducing, but she’s never a flat out caricature. We feel a great deal of empathy for her as she deals with a dismissive and cruel show runner and a world that has left her behind. The show is a scathing look at how Hollywood operates, how TV shows get made, and how actresses not in their twenties are treated by the youth-obsessed entertainment industry. The best thing is that in 2014, The Comeback made a (yeah, you guessed it again) comeback and we got eight more episodes to delight in all things Valerie Cherish. You do need to see that. —Amy Amatangelo

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