The 20 Best HBO Series of All Time

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The 20 Best HBO Series of All Time

HBO may gotten its start in movies and sports broadcasts, but the cable giant has now aired more than 100 series and 20 miniseries in its 42-year history. And looking at that lineup of shows, it’s not an overstatement to say the channel helped usher in the current golden age of television. The Sopranos and The Wire raised the bar for drama, while The Larry Sanders Show and Curb Your Enthusiasm helped shape today’s comedy landscape. Now untethered from cable with HBO Go and HBO Now, the current creative strategy seems to involve bringing big-screen filmmakers to TV land with new and upcoming projects created or directed by the Duplass brothers (Togetherness), Paul Haggis (Show Me a Hero), Jonathan Nolan (Westworld), David Fincher (Utopia) and Steve McQueen (Codes of Conduct). We took a look at four decades of HBO shows (not miniseries) and picked our favorite 20.

20. Boardwalk Empire
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Creator: Terence Winter
Stars: Steve Buscemi, Michael Pitt, Kelly Macdonald, Michael Shannon
Easily dismissed as just a Sopranos clone set in the 1920s, Boardwalk Empire wisely took many of the best elements of its predecessor and expanded its scope. It’s this wide-ranging spotlight, drifting from the highest levels of political office down to lowly bootleggers and prostitutes, that makes the show something special, offering up morality plays that hold the lives of millions at stake, while putting an actual face on those being affected. The show’s political commentary is apt without seeming preachy, while characters have maintained the balance between being archetypal ciphers and real people. Boardwalk Empire isn’t as energetic as other dramas but its meticulous slow-burn has a depth and beauty to it that’s rarely been matched on the little screen. And it only improved over time as it became less concerned with the minutiae of New Jersey politics in favor of featuring a much more compelling national landscape. As a result, both its characters and its stories became grander, more operatic and expressionistic. By its third season, Boardwalk Empire found its voice, finally living up to the promise of its Scorsese-directed premiere.—Sean Gandert

19. 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

18. Sex and the City
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Creator: Darren Star
Stars: Sarah Jessica Parker, Kim Cattrall, Kristin Davis, Cynthia Nixon
Okay, bad news first: Darren Star’s Sex and the City was not a perfect show. Most of us who watched could not relate to the very specific demographic of women who were showcased. And, for a series whose beating heart was NYC, the show did not do well in its presentation of gay characters or characterS of color (whenever they showed up). Hell, even the main character was problematic and difficult to root for at times—Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker), the not-so-eloquent writer who was better at choosing a pair of Manolo Blahniks than making decisions in her love life (Team Aiden)? This was an infuriating show to experience sometimes, and that’s partly why we loved it. It remains a phenomenon, and as cliché as it may sound, it opened the door for more complex narratives about women and sex, and it did so unapologetically thanks in large part to Kim Cattrall’s role as Samantha Jones. And if Samantha was too much for you, Charlotte York (Kristin Davis) and Miranda Hobbes (Cynthia Nixon) offered up their own unique perspectives, giving the foursome an original, entertaining, and important balance of personalities and feminist (or anti-feminist) outlooks. So when we talk about the impact of HBO, Sex and the City has to be a big part of the discussion. This is especially true in a time when excellent shows like True Detective are being accused of putting their women characters in lazy, typical plot positions, without agency. Whatever class issues, or race issues, or gender and sexuality issues Sex and the City might have swept under the rug (or addressed in a problematic way), it still functioned as a loud, oft-obscene call for agency among the marginalized. And it did all of this with some of the funniest dialogue and sex talk we’d ever heard. “My man has funky tasting spunk!” will go down in history as one of the most horrifying, incredible TV moments of all time, and that’s just the tip (ahem) of the legendary SaTC iceberg.—Shannon M. Houston

17. 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. The show isn’t available on any of the major streaming sites, including HBO Go, but the DVDs are still cheap on Amazon, and much of the show can be found on YouTube. If you’re wondering why the recent news of a reunion is such a big deal, check out the original Mr. Show and you’ll find the answer.—Garrett Martin

16. Eastbound & Down
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Creators: Ben T. Best, Jody Hill, Danny McBride
Stars: Danny McBride, Katy Mixon, John Hawkes, Andrew Daly, Ben Best
I feel like a lot of people dismiss Eastbound & Down as vulgar shock comedy, a TV version of the fratty comedies that proliferated over a decade ago after the success of the Farrelly brothers and American Pie. Jody Hill and Danny McBride’s vision is far deeper and pointed than that, though, parodying not just sports or Southern culture but the type of unhealthy masculinity that underpins so much of American culture. It has more in common with the best work of Adam McKay and Will Ferrell, but it’s darker and edgier than Stepbrothers or Talladega Nights, more violent and more truthful. It’s one of the few comedies I can think of where I was often afraid of what was about to happen, like I was watching a horror film or thriller. The first season in particular was a modern masterpiece, but the show remained on point throughout its four seasons.—Garrett Martin

15. The Leftovers
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Creator:   Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta
Stars: Justin Theroux, Amy Brenneman, Christopher Eccleston
Network: HBO
No, this is not a show for everyone. And it’s true that the first few episodes so consistently furrowed one’s brow, that, for many, it didn’t even seem worth it to finish the initial season. Watching those early episodes felt a bit like trudging your way through all of the “So-and-so begat so-and-so”s in the Bible, just to get to those beautiful Psalms, or the book of Isaiah, or perhaps—more accurately—the book of Ecclesiastes, or Revelations. But few shows have ever achieved such intoxicating sensations of pure hopefulness and near-simultaneous hopelessness in its plots and themes. Leftovers played like an epic poem of rapture (or non-rapture), and, indeed, there was a hero… we think. The hero shifted with each scene in a way that we rarely see in TV, or even film. Justin Theroux’s Kevin Garvey was the good guy, turned bad, turned pitiable, turned very bad, turned good—oftentimes, all in one episode. And Liv Tyler’s Meg Abbot—along with Carrie Coon’s incredible performance as Nora Durst—made the series a terrifying, twisted, beautiful experience. Don’t even get me started on Ann Dowd’s Patti. Patti! These characters are so flawed and human, in a story that both challenges and embraces themes in organized religion, all while being exciting, violent, sexy, smart, and difficult. To borrow from another excellent show (The Good Wife), “This is Kafka in action,” (or even Derrida in action). So perhaps, this is a show for everyone.—Shannon M. Houston

14. Girls
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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 and Shoshana and Marnie and Jessa exist to reflect something real, and something instinctual, and it originates with a brilliant artist who, we can only hope, will stay unrepentant until the angry mob finally runs her off with their sharpened pitchforks.—Shane Ryan

13. 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”—the hits 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

12. The Larry Sanders Show
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Creators: Garry Shandling, Dennis Klein
Stars: Garry Shandling, Jeffrey Tambor, Rib Torn
Before HBO established itself as a dramatic powerhouse with The Sopranos and Oz, Larry Sanders was their flagship scripted program. It was literally a decade before its time, prefiguring shows like The Office and Arrested Development with its lack of a laugh track, a single camera setup and a roster of unlikable characters. It blurred the line between reality and TV show, with real-life actors playing themselves on the talk show within the show, and often sending up their public personas. It also featured three unforgettable performances from Garry Shandling, Jeffrey Tambor and Rip Torn, who were all as good at revealing the desperation and futility of their characters as they were the comedic moments. Despite its inside showbiz setup and caustic humor, its characters were fully-formed, believable people. It was a very smart and human show. Unfortunately it’s not currently available on HBO Go or Netflix, but select episodes can be watched through Crackle or Hulu;Garrett Martin

11. Silicon Valley
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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

10. Bored To Death
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Creator: Jonathan Ames
Stars: Jason Schwartzman, Zach Galifianakis, Ted Danson, Heather Burns
There are the quintessential HBO shows that everyone knows and loves, hailed by critics, audiences and Twitter alike. There are the ones that maybe you haven’t seen yet, but you’re totally going to catch up on one day, because everyone’s always talking about them. And then there’s a gem like Bored to Death. Those of us who watched Season One and immediately fell in love with the ridiculous, weed-laden, NYC misadventures of Brooklyn writer/part-time faux detective Jonathan Ames (Jason Schwartzman) and his pals Ray (Zach Galifianakis) and George Christopher (Ted Danson) felt like we were apart of something special—something off the grid, but better than practically anything on TV. This was especially true for writers, because we really love movies and shows about writers. So when Jonathan stared at the words on his computer screen—the beginning of his second novel—and announced to Ray “I’m at a good stopping place,” we knew what that meant, and we were delighted to be in on the secret. Creator Jonathan Ames, no doubt, drew from his own personal experiences as a novelist and comic memoir writer (those Super Ray drawings are that much more meaningful now) to create a world where a struggling artist has to get a little (or a lot) creative if he’s going to make things happen in his life. With some brilliant performances from Danson, Galifianakis and Heather Burns (and some great appearances from Patton Oswalt, Jenny Slate, Oliver Platt and countless others) Bored to Death gave us an unforgettable, though brief, TV adventure that’ll make for an excellent movie (soon, please, we hope).—Shannon M. Houston

9. Veep
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Creator: Armando Iannucci
Stars: Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Anna Chlumsky, Tony Hale, Reid Scott, Matt Walsh, Timothy Simons, Sufe Bradshaw
Veep satirizes the political world by distilling it down to what the public likes to watch most: the screw-ups. From foot-in-mouth moments to mis-sent documents to squeaky shoes, everything Selina Meyer (Julia Louis Dreyfus) does is scrutinized, turned into an offense, and spit back at her through the distorted prism of Twitter and never-ending public opinion polling. They never specify Meyer’s political party, and it’s no surprise that its fans span the political spectrum. Because the main thing Veep stays true to is shining a light on the people more desperate to be near power than to make any real social impact. Dreyfus may be the funniest person on TV right now. She’ll truly commit to a bit, and she has a habit of taking them beyond surface level cute into the truly disastrous and unflattering. Selina Meyer doesn’t walk into glass doors, she shatters them and stands in a pile of glass with bleeding cuts all over her face. She takes bad advice, wears terrible hats, gets a Dustin Hoffman haircut, and can’t go abroad without committing terrible international faux pas. And Selina is at her best as a character when she’s at her most terrible—full of ego, more concerned with being liked than passing legislation, and blaming her staff for her mistakes. Selina’s “bag man” Gary (Tony Hale) is a glorious sad sack, and Dan Egan (Reid Scott) is so coldly ambitious his every misstep feels like a victory. But for every unknowingly selfish thing each person says, Veep’s ace-in-the-hole is Anna Chlumsky’s Amy, whose Olympic-level reaction faces land everyone else’s jokes. And the smaller recurring roles offer cameos from some of America’s best improvisers. Through and through, it’s a comedy nerd’s dream team.—Erica Lies

8. Last Week Tonight with John Oliver
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Creator:   John Oliver
Stars: John Oliver, David Kaye
John Oliver has lapped all the other news satire shows by focusing on global issues and devoting up to half of each episode on a single main story. He effortlessly explains complicated issues in hilarious fashion, helping his American viewers learn crucial information from around the world while still entertaining them. Unlike The Daily Show, where it’s been obvious for years that the circular cynicism of US politics has just crushed Jon Stewart’s will to perform, Oliver still approaches every episode with vigor. Perhaps he too will burn out in time, but hopefully the once-a-week schedule and periodic season breaks keep him fresh. John Oliver is the most important comedian currently working in the worlds of public affairs and current events, and it’s hard to imagine him having the same freedom anywhere else that he has on HBO.—Garrett Martin

7. Deadwood
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Creator: David Milch
Stars: Timothy Olyphant, Ian McShane, Molly Parker, John Hawkes, Jim Beaver, Brad Dourif, Paula Malcomson, William Sanderson, Kim Dickens, Keith Carradine
Sure, Deadwood does a fine job within the revisionist Western sub-genre’s traditional trappings, but ultimately it’s less concerned with its setting and historical accuracy (though it has plenty to spare) than it is about accurately portraying humans. Why do societies and allegiances form, why are close friends betrayed, and why does humanity’s best seem to always just barely edge out its worst? These are the real concerns that make Deadwood a masterpiece. David Milch created a sprawling, fastidiously detailed world in which to stage his gritty morality plays and with it has come as close as anyone to creating a novel on-screen. With assistance from some truly memorable acting by Ian McShane, Brad Dourif and Paula Malcomson, Deadwood ‘s sometimes over-the-top representations never veer far enough from reality for its inhabitants to become “just characters.”—Sean Gandert

6. Curb Your Enthusiasm
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Creator:   Larry David
Stars: Larry David, Cheryl Hines, Jeff Garlin, Susie Essman
Larry David pulled off the rare successful second act in television comedy—Curb Your Enthusiasm was almost as hilarious as Seinfeld, and thanks to HBO’s more laidback production schedules, it actually lasted longer than his first sitcom, running off and on from 2000 to 2011. (It’s still not officially cancelled, although David apparently is doubtful that it’ll return.) Curb was Seinfeldian in its rhythms, with David basically playing the George Costanza version of himself as an eternally perturbed and self-defeating schlemiel who just happens to be fantastically wealthy after creating a show called Seinfeld. A lot of cringe comedy forgets to actually be funny, but that was never a problem for Curb, which remained as funny (and cringeworthy) as ever over its eight seasons. And it’s not just the increasingly uncomfortable situations or David’s masterful escalation from annoyance to rage to embarrassment that made the show work so well—David surrounded himself with a fantastic cast, from regulars like Cheryl Hines, Jeff Garlin, JB Smoove and Susie Essman, to such recurring guest stars as Wanda Sykes, Richard Lewis, Ted Danson, Mary Steenburgen and Bob “’Super Dave’ Osborne” Einstein. Oh, and also there’s an entire season about a Seinfeld reunion, guest starring the original cast. Curb can be hard to watch at times, but it was always hilarious, and was HBO’s trademark comedy throughout the last decade.—Garrett Martin

5. Six Feet Under
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Creator: Alan Ball
Stars: Peter Krause, Michael C. Hall, Frances Conroy, Lauren Ambrose
Six Feet Under is a television show that attempts to find reason and order in death, but then every episode totally fails. Through the eyes of the Fisher family—proprietors and operators of a funeral home in Los Angeles—death is an inevitability stripped of all romance, and yet the series, as it follows the lives of eldest brother Nate Fisher and his loved ones, can never escape the fear at the core of even the most jaded people’s relationship with mortality. Opaquely funny, tender, heartrending and sometimes deeply uncomfortable, Six Feet Under balks, down to the marrow of its bones, at the idea that there is reason in death—and in turn, every episode begins with a functionally freak fatality, so much so that it’s nearly impossible to binge watch the series without concluding that death will find us when we least expect it, no matter what we do, or no matter how we hide. And yet, somehow Six Feet Under is never morbid, instead concerned with celebrating the lives of its ensemble however they happen to play out, sensitive to the fact that though they run a funeral home, they have as little insight into the meaning of life as anyone else navigating modernity at the turn of the century. Pretty much the polar opposite of Ball’s True Blood, Six Feet Under is—I’m not sure how else to put it—a TV show about life, all of it, and if you aren’t drenched with tears by the time it all ends, you should probably have someone check your pulse.—Dom Sinacola

4. Game of Thrones
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Creator: David Benioff, D. B. Weiss
Stars: Emilia Clarke, Peter Dinklage, Kit Harington, Maisie Williams, Lena Headey, Sophie Turner, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Aidan Gillen
The geopolitical drama that unfolds in George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series is so epic in scope that it can make Lord of the Rings feel like Cliff’s Notes. Even after its been pared down for television, nearly every hour-long episode can only cover stories from a portion of the key characters. Highlighting its fantasy elements only sparingly, each of these are very human tales, as inhabitants of Westeros and Essos try to survive in a very cruel world and often—very often—fail. Heroes meet their end as often as villains; children as often as warriors. The show has garnered its fair share of criticism for its gratuitous nudity and its depiction of a couple of brutal rape scenes, but it also has featured some of the strongest female characters on TV. And its the characters—the quick wit of Tyrion and Varys, the master conniving of Little Finger, the defiant spunk of Arya, the quick nobility of Jon Snow, the heartless villainy of Tywin Lannister, the complicated redemption of Jaime—that make the show great.—Josh Jackson

3. True Detective
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Creator: Nic Pizzolatto
Stars: Matthew McConaughey, Woody Harrelson, Michelle Monaghan
It’s much easier to look back now at what True Detective actually is, as opposed to what its hype would lead you to believe it is. True Detective was never about its central mystery, the mcguffin of the Yellow King’s identity, rather it was a meditation on masculinity, obsession, and—perhaps above all else—craft. Because of this, the show’s content was a perfect match for some of the finest acting, production, cinematography, and editing on display, not just on television screens but in fact anywhere. True Detective excels both as a tone poem, creating an almost primordial world out of southern Louisiana, and as a character piece, casting a dark mirror against the buddy cop genre that Hollywood hasn’t let go of since the late 1980s. While it was all but impossible to ignore the fact that many of True Detective’s ideas were cribbed from elsewhere, that does nothing to detract from the show’s strong voice and overall originality. This Southern Gothic noir set primarily in the past, nonetheless felt more universal and timely than almost anything else on television.—Sean Gandert

2. The Sopranos
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Creator: David Chase
Stars: James Gandolfini, Lorraine Bracco, Edie Falco, Michael Imperioli, Dominic Chianese, Steven Van Zandt, Tony Sirico, Robert Iler
For eight years, James Gandolfini crawled deep inside the complexities of Tony Soprano—loving father, son and husband, goodhearted friend, master of sardonic one-liners (“How do you vandalize a pool?”), troubled psych patient, serial adulterer, mob boss and brutal, remorseless killer—inspiring as much dumbfounded loathing and shuddering sympathy as any character in TV history. Murderers aren’t one-dimensional; they have feelings, aspirations, justifications, families. The Sopranos brilliantly and believably explored this dynamic, turning the crime-drama on its head and taking dysfunction to the extreme in the process. As unfathomable as their world was, the characters of this tragic, beautifully arcing modern epic were so real that they became like family to us, too.—Steve LaBate

1. The Wire
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Creator:   David Simon
Stars: Dominic West, Lance Reddick, Sonja Sohn, Idris Elba, Domenick Lombardozzi, Ellis Carver, Andre Royo, Wendell Pierce, Rhonda Pearlman
Series mastermind David Simon conceived The Wire as a modern Greek tragedy, a morality play set in a drug-infested urban war zone where conventional good guys and bad guys barely exist. Everyone is conflicted and compromised. We didn’t need The Wire to remind us that “the system”—the criminal justice system, the political system, the education system—is broken. But no other cultural enterprise (and certainly no television show) has shown us precisely how the infrastructure has collapsed, forcing us to consider the impossible decisions required for repair. Amidst the rubble of a failed city, Simon created an engrossing human drama about the eternal struggle between aspiration and desperation, ambition and resignation—in other words, the fight for the American Dream.—Nick Marino

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