The 36 Best TV Shows on HBO Max (That Aren't HBO)

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The 36 Best TV Shows on HBO Max (That Aren't HBO)

Like HBO Max itself, our picks for the best shows are a hodgepodge. From sweeping romances to brutal anime to hilarious 2000s-set comedies, Max’s combination of various Turner cable properties, DC TV shows, and Warner Bros-produced series has provided an unexpected but very worthwhile group of scripted and unscripted viewing.

Our list would be twice as long, though, if we included all of HBO’s great series, which are also a part of Max. Most of them are, objectively, better than many of the series on this list. So if you’d like to check them out, you can peruse our ranked list of HBO series here . But while HBO series have all been in one place for a long time, the content on Max has not. So below are some of our best bets for what to watch on this new, unnecessarily confusing streaming service, split into six non-HBO categories to help you choose based on your mood: Classics, Crime and Mystery, Drama and Thrillers, Comedy, Animated, and Unscripted.

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Classics


Learn from your elders, and the TV paths they forged.

The West Wing

Watch on HBO Max

Television’s quintessential political drama began in the Clinton era, soldiered on through Bush and 9/11, and ended in the earliest days of the Age of Obama. Weirdly, the show’s political climate was more stable than reality itself. And maybe that was its appeal. The West Wing showed us government not as it was, but as it could be—a White House run by quippy, tireless, big-hearted public servants who believed in governing with decency. President Josiah Bartlett would give any of his real-life counterparts a run for their money. —Nick Marino


The Office (U.K.)

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Watch on HBO Max

Ricky Gervais’ immortal Britcom deserves full marks for establishing this comedy franchise that killed the laugh track and introduced us to a hilarious bunch of paper-pushing mopes. Defying expectations that it would pale in comparison, NBC’s The Office became an institution unto itself.  Before there was Steve Carell’s Michael Scott and endless “that’s what she said” jokes, there was Ricky Gervais’ equally clueless David Brent and his fantastical dancing. Before there were John Krasinski and Jenna Fischer’s adorable Jim Halpert and Pam Beesly, there were Martin Freeman and Lucy Davis’ star-crossed Tim Canterbury and Dawn Tinsley. And, of course, before there was Rainn Wilson’s assistant [to the] regional manager, Dwight Schrute, there was Gareth Keenan—Mackenzie Crook’s retired Territorial Army member, who is both obsessed with his slightly senior workplace status and his one-sided friendship with his boss. The series synonymous with the use of the mockumentary format on TV (see also: Modern Family, Reno 911!) is the tightly compacted, original version of the long-running, Emmy-winning American spinoff (This is the U.K., after all, so there’s only two six-episode seasons, a Christmas special and a reunion episode). But its short run was truly pitch-perfect. —Nick Marino and Whitney Friedlander


Doctor Who

Watch on HBO Max

Originally launched in 1963, The Doctor returned to the TV screen in 2005, traveling through time and space in the TARDIS, an antiquated and surprisingly spacious blue police box. The special effects may have gotten marginally better, but the camp has stayed the same. With Russell T. Davies at the helm and David Tennant playing the 10th doctor, the show was never better. Now there’s a new Doctor—Jodie Whittaker, the first woman to play the role—to continue, and evolve, the tradition.

In his second season as showrunner, Chris Chibnall hasn’t been shy about messing with the 75 years of Doctor Who canon that preceded his reign, but Whitaker’s charmingly manic portrayal of the Doctor has given him some cover with fans. And most importantly, he’s kept it interesting, surprising us with a historic new incarnation of the Doctor, and a massive revelation about the Doctor’s own origin story in the Series 12 finale, “The Timeless Children”—featuring not just one, but two of the Doctor’s most iconic nemeses. Ultimately, the new team has kept the long-running sci-fi series feeling as fresh and vital as ever. —Josh Jackson


Looney Tunes

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The cunning but cosmically stupid Wile E. Coyote tries to kill and eat his ultimate prey, the nonchalant rocket bird Road Runner, by throwing dynamite at him. Of course his scheme backfires and he ends up stuck to the lit explosive. He jumps into a lake, and an inch before he hits the water, he blows up. My six-year-old daughter laughs so hard and long that it reverberates through the walls, filling our home with joy. As an unhealthily obsessive Looney Tunes fan who grew up with Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and Marvin The Martian as my babysitters, I can’t describe how happy it makes me to share these legendary cartoons with the next generation. And, it has high definition and digitally remaster clarity that blows my childhood’s fuzzy VHS-quality TV signals out of the water. The Looney Tunes Collection, now available on HBO Max, gives me that vital opportunity of pop-culture generational bond. The new streaming service offers a big and impressive chunk of Looney Tunes’ best, from the black-and-white 1930s Merrie Melodies days, all the way to the last theatrical shorts from the 1990s. So grab your little one, turn on HBO Max, and laugh your ass off. —Oktay Ege Kozak


Friends

Watch on HBO Max

Nevermind new content; the HBO Max brass believe that reruns of this Gen X mega hit that Millennials and Gen Zers love (and love to hate) will be a deciding factor for many subscribers. And they’re right. More than a quarter century since its premiere, people still debate whether Ross (David Schwimmer) cheated on Rachel (Jennifer Aniston) or if they “were on a break.” Fans also still care about Chandler (Matthew Perry) and Monica’s (Courteney Cox) wedding, have memorized all of Phoebe’s (Lisa Kudrow) songs beyond just “Smelly Cat,” and want to know what happened when Joey (Matt LeBlanc) was hiking in the foothills of Mount Tibidabo. —Whitney Friedlander


The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air

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Watch on HBO Max

There are few ‘90s sitcoms as iconic as The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, which took a lanky rapper exploding with charisma, wrapped him up in a fish-out-of-water comedy about a poor kid from Philly moving in with his rich cousins, and grew him into the platinum Hollywood star we know Will Smith as today. As much an examination of Black class differences in the early ‘90s as it was a comedic vehicle for Smith’s slapstick swagger—not to mention the deeply catchy theme song—The Fresh Prince has proved itself to have considerable cultural staying power; old episodes having been in near-constant over-the-air rotation on nearly a dozen networks since the series entered syndication in 1994. In joining the HBO Max ranks, the series is more accessible than ever, but while purists will be happy to have all six seasons available at the touch of a button, longtime fans are likely to find even greater pleasure in getting to skip right over the tonally unsettled first season to get straight to the later seasons where things really gelled. Life is short! You don’t have to suffer through watching an elastically dancing Will Smith teach Tatyana Ali how to rap (poorly), or play drums (more poorly still), unless that is truly your heart’s desire! With HBO Max, the Fresh Prince power is finally yours. —Alexis Gunderson

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Crime and Mystery


From iconic detectives to thrilling international conspiracies, these titles are binge-ready.

The Flight Attendant

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The Flight Attendant, based on Chris Bohjalian’s 2018 novel of the same name, is a taut, crisp whodunit, darkly comedic and wildly suspenseful. The eight-episode series is also a true star turn for Kaley Cuoco (The Big Bang Theory), who shows off a much broader range than she ever had the opportunity to on her long-running CBS comedy. A bubbling, popcorn thriller, the cliff-hanger ending to each episode entices you to keep going; it’s HBO Max’s best reason yet for subscribing to the streaming platform.

Cuoco stars as Cassie Bowden, who jet sets from international destination to international destination. When she’s not in the sky for Imperial Airlines, she’s flying high as a party girl who drinks to the point of blacking out, is fond of one-night stands, has a gold lamé dress at the ready in her carry-on luggage, and sustains herself on a breakfast of Diet Coke and pickles. She’s a train wreck, but a train wreck who gets to work on time, is kind to children and animals, and loved by her friends. And after a whirlwind encounter with the dashing Alex Sokolov (Michiel Huisman) on a trip to Bangkok, might be on the hook for murder.

The entire story truly rests in Cuoco’s capable hands. Her knack for comic relief is securely intact, but she also easily dives into the depths of Cassie’s terror and uncertainty. Her journey is our journey. Her terror is our terror. She may be an unreliable narrator, but she’s a highly entertaining one. —Amy Amatangelo


Luther

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Idris Elba as a sad, violent and genius detective, tracking down the weird serial killers of London? It’s a formula that should work, and does. “You care about the dead more than the living,” John Luther’s estranged wife accuses him. She’s right. The detective chief inspector is consumed by his cases, and a months-long suspension seems to have done little good for his mental health. Luther is nothing short of mesmerizing, slicing through suspects with the angry efficiency of a man on the brink. His already tenuous grasp on civility and basic sanity is tested further by the mind games of a woman (The Affair’s Ruth Wilson, seductive and threatening) he knows to have killed her own parents. Psychological sparring aside, this is Elba’s show, so white-hot is Luther in his rage and determination to overcome it. “Do you not worry you’re on the devil’s side without even knowing it?” wonders the tormented cop. Luther’s dread is palpable and contagious. Shane Ryan and Amanda Schurr


Search Party

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Search Party initially captivated us when TBS aired the entire first season in five days. It’s the story of a New Yorker named Dory (Alia Shawkat) who becomes obsessed with a missing college classmate because she herself is feeling so lost and floundering in her own life. Her support system—a kind of a wet rag boyfriend and two very self-centered friends—isn’t terribly interested in indulging Dory’s quest to find the missing Chantal, but they get unwittingly sucked in (along with the audience). It’s a weird combination of comedy, drama and mystery, but it is definitely worth a watch.

Search Party carries its charm into Season 2 through a scintillating evolution from mystery to horror. From a neon sign that reads “slay” and an eerie synth jingle to a painting of a dead man and a play about Charles Manson, it’s littered with half-frightful, half-funny details; the episode titles (“Murder!” “Suspicion” “Obsession,” etc.) might’ve been culled from the poster for one of Hitchcock’s classics. Indeed, if the first season’s search for Chantal Witherbottom (Clare McNulty) once reminded me of Vertigo, the second completes the connection: Dory (Alia Shawkat) and Co. are the series’ Scottie Fergusons, unraveled not by the chase, but the capture. Though I want to put on my Stefon voice and say, this show has everything—the relentlessly funny John Early, as the fast-unraveling Elliott Goss; a Marge Gunderson figure on the characters’ trail; a guest arc for J. Smith-Cameron; scatological humor, awful pseudonyms, primal screams—the fact is, that everything is working in felicitous harmony to underscore Search Party’s most elemental fear: Seeking, and ultimately locating, the thing we thought would make us happy, only to discover that it’s not what we’d hoped. —Matt Brennan


Wallander

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Kenneth Branagh is marvelous in this moody procedural based on the novels of Henning Mankell, and the original Swedish film adaptations. A police officer on southern Sweden’s picturesque coast, Branagh’s Kurt Wallander must solve a run of freakish crimes. He’s also up to his grizzled scruff in the throes of an existential tailspin, which makes, say, the image of a 15-year-old girl seeing him, panicking, and setting herself on fire an even tougher trauma to process. Branagh gives an aptly measured, introspective performance, a man who observes everything, but can’t make sense of anything anymore, the very least of which is himself. Wallander is a study in visual contrasts: saturated color schemes, dramatic plays of shadows and light, extreme changes in focus. It’s an artful complement to the detective’s largely internal struggle, which also includes issues with his adult daughter and Alzheimer’s-afflicted dad (David Warner, exceptional as ever). —Amanda Schurr


The Alienist

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The Alienist is not a crime show for the faint of heart. The ambitious TNT series, absolutely the most lavish that the network has ever produced, is also brutal. Based on Caleb Carr’s novel of the same name, the story focuses on an unlikely trio in 1890s New York—“alienist” (a proto-criminal psychologist) Dr. Laszlo Kreizler (Daniel Brühl), society illustrator John Moore (Luke Evans), and an ambitious police secretary, Sara Howard (Dakota Fanning)—who find themselves collaborating in pursuit of a serial killer, attempting to understand the mind of someone disturbed enough to commit these heinous acts. The series’ atmosphere is a cut above, both in the way it details the gilded finery of a clueless upperclass alongside the depressing grime of forgotten street dwellers who are preyed upon by a killer. It is spooky, haunting, and engrossing, though it does take it a few episodes to really get going. But for crime show fans, it’s a worthwhile watch for both its binge-worthy central crime as well as the personal reveals of its troubled characters (plus, Teddy Roosevelt makes an appearance!) —Allison Keene

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Drama and Thrillers


Teens, sci-fi, romance, capers, and more!

Snowpiercer

Watch on HBO Max

The most unsettling thing about watching a show about a post-apocalyptic future during a pandemic is that even the most random details hit a little too close to home. At one point during TNT’s new series, Snowpiercer, head of hospitality Melanie (a perfectly cast Jennifer Connelly) asks one of the train’s conductors, “Do you remember fresh air? Do you remember going for walks?” to which he responds, after a thoughtful pause, “Rain. I miss the sound of rain.”

The premise for the series is that in the not-too-distant future, climate change has taken a turn for the worse, and scientists attempting to counteract the damage humanity has enacted upon our planet accidentally freeze the world instead. A supposedly forward-thinking “visionary” named Mr. Wilford predicts the coming disaster, and builds a train 1,001 cars long that will house all of Earth’s last remaining citizens, circling the globe without an end in sight. As is the case with society itself, the train is divided into various classes—first, second, third, and the tail—each defined by varying degrees of privilege and poverty. The story is based on the French graphic novel Le Transperceneige, originally published in 1982; Oscar winner Bong Joon-Ho adapted it into a star-studded, big-screen action flick in 2013 (see: Chris Evans, Octavia Spencer, Tilda Swinton, and Song Kang-Ho).

In place of Bong’s Hollywood action hero Evans, the TV series enlists Hamilton star Daveed Diggs as Andre Layton, the reigning leader of the mistreated “tailies” section of the train. Instead of a more straightforward rebellion pushing Evans’ Curtis from the tail to the front of the train, the series takes advantage of its multi-chapter format to present a complex web of lies, false identities, and complicity.

It’s important to note here that when Bong’s film was released in 2013, the world was a much different place. Snowpiercer, the movie, felt prophetic, like a warning of what could happen if humans continued to allow capitalistic impulses guide our decisions. But the TV series isn’t prophetic. It’s a mirror. What happens when there is less to learn from the allegory than from reality itself? When simile becomes metaphor? It’s not that the society we live in is like the fictional world of Snowpiercer; it’s that the society we live in is Snowpiercer. —Joyce Chen


Raised by Wolves

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There are no wolves in Raised by Wolves, but the ambitious HBO Max series from writer/creator Aaron Guzikowski (Prisoners) raises a handful of kids, plenty of hell, and the bar for meaty sci-fi TV. Starting simply enough—with two factions of survivors, whose religious war has demolished Earth, landing on the only other inhabitable planet the species knows about—Raised by Wolves builds out an in-depth sci-fi world through the language of a survival story and the inherently human question of the soul. Even if Ridley Scott (Alien, Blade Runner) only directed the first two episodes, his maverick touch is felt throughout the confident show.

There might not be a bloody battle or alien confrontation in each episode, but the drama is compelling and built of character-driven moments. That makes the action, when it does happen, intensely exciting and anxiety-ridden. With such finite scope, each moment of possible loss is heavily weighted and gorgeous to look at. While rustic and detailed in its production design, the variety of visuals go from Tatooine’s desert starkness to hyper-glitchy simulation interfaces to war-torn Earth cities in flashbacks. Each new development, nicely metered-out in doses of mystery, plotting, and payoff, is a natural occurrence cropping up as we run our hands through the series’ dense texture. Don’t worry, that’s all part of the Scott/Guzikowski vibe: honestly-performed, slow-burn devotion to themes nestled into a pulpy shell.

Smart and crunchy rather than sleek and slick, Raised by Wolves won’t be for everyone. It’s tragic, thought-provoking sci-fi that works through its problems rather than relying on big flashy twists. But for those itching for something unabashedly weird and devoted to its own rules, the show won’t disappoint. Deceptively intimate, the story of repopulation—and the war for humanity’s future—is a family drama living inside a honed genre universe. It’s a world built to last and a show built for fans of Scott’s particular brand of imperfect, muscly fence-swings. —Jacob Oller


The Honourable Woman

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Led by Golden Globe winner Maggie Gyllenhaal’s sharp-edged, vulnerable, thrilling performance as Nessa Stein, a businesswoman and philanthropist suddenly embroiled in a mess of family secrets and Middle Eastern intrigue, The Honourable Woman is the perfect (if bleak) binge. Its eight episodes set the lure early and reel one in by increments, until the truth bursts forth with stunning force. Strong turns from Stephen Rea and Janet McTeer don’t hurt, either. Matt Brennan


Pretty Little Liars

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Pretty Little Liars, which premiered in 2010 on what was then called ABC Family, a Christian-slanted, conservative basic cable channel that has since embraced an older, more progressive audience under the name Freeform. The show was created by I. Marlene King, who’d go on to be showrunner for all seven seasons, but was known at that time mostly for writing the coming-of-age Now and Then, the Lindsay Lohan vehicle Just My Luck and National Lampoon’s Senior Trip. Based on the series of YA novels by Sara Shepard—from which the show’s plot would eventually drastically depart, in a Song of Ice and Fire vs. Game of Thrones kind of situation—PLL follows four teens living in the affluent Philadelphia suburb of Rosewood as they navigate both the rigors of pubescence and an all-seeing, malevolent force known as “A,” who has something to do with their murdered best friend and erstwhile leader, Alison DiLaurentis (Sasha Pieterse).

Despite lasting long past the point at which it could’ve cleanly bowed out, Pretty Little Liars stayed compelling (and very lucrative) throughout the better part of a decade, able to balance its teen soap opera tendencies with smart character development and a genuine affection for the world it’d created. That tight-rope walk extended to the many genres it tipped between, helmed by such serialized television veterans like Norman Buckley, folks who’ve stuck around seemingly forever because they’ve got an inherent agility to the way they put together an episode. It helped that Pretty Little Liars was so adaptable to an array of fans, each watching for very different reasons. This was partly due to the series’ overarching mystery, which eventually became an eternally forking mess of mysteries: Who is “A”—but also why is “A,” and what really happened to Alison, and what kind of juicy corruption lies beneath the shiny veneer of the Liars’ suburban hometown? —Dom Sinacola


The O.C.

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Welcome to The O.C., bitch. This Fox teen soap simultaneously celebrated and mocked the genre it brought back to life in the mid-2000s. Full of inside jokes, yet featuring a compulsively watchable story of two boys who become unlikely best friends and the girls who love them, the series quickly became can’t-miss television. The show also helped popularize several acts—like Death Cab for Cutie, Modest Mouse and The Killers—among a whole generation of high-schoolers, thanks to creator Josh Schwartz and music supervisor Alexandra Patsavas. —Shaina Pearlman and Amy Amatangelo


Love Life

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Watch on HBO Max

Look I’m not proud. I can’t tell you Love Life is a great show and probably can’t even defend my decision to binge all 10 episodes of HBO Max’s first original series. What I can tell you is that the show is compulsively watchable, much like every romantic comedy that you love even though deep down you know it’s not a great movie (here’s looking at you 27 Dresses).

Anna Kendrick stars as Darby, a would-be museum curator who we meet as a young twentysomething (the wigs at this stage of Darby’s life are bad). Each episode—blessedly only 30 minutes each which is absolutely part of the show’s appeal—follows Darby in a certain year of her life and in a different romantic relationship. The conceit of the show is that we are all in a few relationships before we find the one and that true happiness cannot be found in another person, you have to figure that out for yourself. (Special shout out to Zoe Chao, who is fantastic as Darby’s best friend Sarah.) The series deftly chronicles those rocky years in your 20s when your career, your friendships, and your relationships are all in flux, and it has some interesting things to say about parenthood and figuring out your relationship with your parents as an adult.

Love Life has been picked up for a second season where viewers will follow a whole new protagonist, this time someone who thinks they’ve found their soulmate, only to discover they were wrong.  If you can figure out how to get HBO Max (no easy task, believe me), you might just end up loving Love Life.—Amy Amatangelo


Pride and Prejudice

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Watch on HBO Max

Sigh. I’m 1000% sure there’s more to Pride and Prejudice than Colin Firth taking a dip in the lake and walking away in a clinging, wet shirt. Really I am. This BBC adaptation of Jane Austen’s classic novel with Firth as the brooding Mr. Darcy and Jennifer Ehle as the strong-willed Elizabeth Bennet is the definitive version. The six-episode series originally aired on BBC in 1995 and then in 1996 on A&E. It turned Austen’s 1813 novel into unmissable television and made a star out of Firth, who later went on to play a different-but-similar Mr. Darcy in the Bridget Jones movies. Now this beloved 25-year-old classic, with all its swoon-worthy romance and gorgeous vistas,  is available in all its glory on HBO Max so you too can try to convince yourself that there’s more to it than a jump in the lake.—Amy Amatangelo

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Comedy


Smart and funny, the way we like it.

Miracle Workers

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It feels like a miracle that Miracle Workers got a second season on TBS, but the fact that it’s as funny and strange as creator Simon Rich’s first oddball take on the afterlife should have comedy fans praising the heavens. Its follow-up, Miracle Workers: Dark Ages sets its hilarious cast in another setting well-worn by comedies with a British pedigree: The Middle Ages. Breakout Geraldine Viswanathan is a Shitshoveler—literally, it’s her last name—whose dad (Steve Buscemi) and local layabout prince (Daniel Radcliffe) are always getting her into something … when she’s not breaking the mold by trying to, say, read. Monty Python and the Holy Grail is a good touchstone here, with everything from old-timey doctors to executions getting a light satirical jab. The humor is quick, witty, and understated, made even more unique by the brilliantly offbeat deliveries of its stars. If ever there was a show that felt like an Eddie Izzard stand-up routine turned into a series, it would be Miracle Workers, which continues to be both one of the smartest, sweetest, and delightfully dumbest shows on TV. —Jacob Oller


The Thick of It

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If you’re a fan of Veep, and find yourself jonesing for more TV from Armando Iannucci, then The Thick of It is definitely in your wheelhouse. A hilarious take on the British political system, it could be argued that it’s an even more biting take on politics than Veep. The show may have run from 2005 until 2012, but it was a sporadic run, as there are only 24 episodes. However, those 24 episodes are excellent. If you don’t know British politics, you might not fully understand every bit, but chances are you can still understand awful, stupid people saying awful, stupid things. Malcolm Tucker, as played by Peter Capaldi, remains Iannucci’s greatest creation. And if you’ve ever wanted to see a Doctor Who lead saying the c-word a whole bunch, then this is the show for you. —Chris Morgan


Doom Patrol

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The third-tier answer to Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy, Doom Patrol has learned plenty from its scrappy counterpart, taking as much away from that franchise’s ragtag group of space pirates/superheroes as it does the DC series with a senses of humor. The CW’s Legends of Tomorrow and Cartoon Network’s hyper, strange, and hyper-strange Teen Titans Go! have been dark horse TV success stories, with the latter earning its own (very fun!) movie and the former improving consistently over the course of its four seasons. Doom Patrol carves its own tonal niche, balancing the self-referentiality of Go!, the tragedy of Titans, and the ridiculousness of Legends

Bolstered by Fraser’s easy charm and some knockout acting by Dalton, Doom Patrol stakes its claim as DC’s best live-action streaming option—simply because it understands and subverts expectations with its unique mix: It’s not just funny, it’s not just sweet, and it isn’t afraid to push the boundaries on either.

Elasti-Woman has gross-out slapstick thanks to her malleable physiology and at the expense of her vanity. Negative Man can stop functioning any time the mysterious force within him decides, leading to plenty of limp, full-body flops. Robotman can’t even move his mouth as profane reactions stream from his stoic face. Robotman and Negative Man’s physical actors—Riley Shanahan and Matthew Zuk, respectively—do plenty of fun pantomime to help out the famous voices behind the tragic bodies. And it’s all funny—even funny at the expense of its characters’ tragedies, which are handled so well that the show may even squeeze out a few unexpected tears. —Jacob Oller


Adam Ruins Everything

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Adam Conover’s explainer series isn’t a traditional sketch show, but Conover’s deep experience with sketch comedy informs so much of what his show does in every episode. Like Drunk History, Adam Ruins Everything uses sketch comedy as one aspect of a larger comedic concept, one that doesn’t quite follow in the anarchic, pure sketch mold of Monty Python, Mr. Show or Kids in the Hall. That doesn’t diminish how funny these sketches can be, of course.

But the show is also educational. It’s one thing to make your brand Adam Ruins Everything. It’s a whole other thing to be confident enough in that brand to run an episode ruining guns in America just before (at the time it aired) Thanksgiving. “The conversation we always have with the network is, ‘What is going to grab the most attention?’ What is going to announce, ‘Hey, Adam Ruins Everything is back and it’s better than ever?’” EP Jon Wolf told Paste in our oral history of how the team builds each ruin. “Guns” was an episode, series star and creator Adam Conover explained, that they never thought they’d be able to do, as inherently divisive as it is in this country. “We’ve been writing this show for four years, we really have the ability to make an argument that everybody in America can watch, but that still dispels common misconceptions and still does some good in the discussion.” And readers: They pulled it off, not just hitting the biggest bugaboos for the right and the left, but devoting an entire, carefully constructed act to the disproportionate care white people’s feelings have been given historically, from both sides of the divide, and the deadly disadvantage that has put Black Americans at for centuries. What other comedy show could ever? —Alexis Gunderson and Garrett Martin

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Animation


From Adult Swim classics to essential anime and beyond.

Batman: The Animated Series

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Batman: The Animated Series is a triumph of artistic design, source material appropriation and impeccable casting. The mixture of brooding gothic and grandiose art deco architecture has forever come to dominate the visual conception that fans have of Gotham City, just as surely as Kevin Conroy is the voice you think of in your head when someone says "Batman," even if you don’t know the actor’s name. I needn’t even get into Mark Hamill’s legendary role as The Joker—appreciation for his vast voice acting talents has only grown in recent years as fans revisit Batman: The Animated Series and the Arkham Asylum series of games. On some level, you can even thank this show for the Suicide Squad film, given that it introduced audiences to Harley Quinn for the first time, before she made the jump to the pages of the comic. In terms of specific episodes, it’s hard to go wrong. There’s a surprising amount of evolution over the course of the two shows—Dick Grayson in particular grows into a young adult, sheds the cape and cowl of Robin and leaves the role after coming into conflict with Batman, reemerging as the hero Nightwing. It’s a very satisfying transformation, in a show that pretty easily surpasses all other animated superhero tales. —Jim Vorel


Adventure Time

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There is a world where the Adventure Time creative team is content with rehashing its brand of surreal, candy-infused tomfoolery ad nauseam. Luckily, this is not the world we live in. Indeed, Pendleton Ward and Co. have spent the latter half of this magnificent and groundbreaking series’ run not only stretching the bounds of the show’s weirdass sandbox, but actively working to push the characters forward. More than anything, Adventure Time realizes that to avoid change is to become tired and stagnant. Thus, rather than adhering to the typical “floating timeline” structure of most animated programs, the show has allowed its characters (be it a human child, a stretchy dog, a peppermint butler, or a bubblegum princess) to grow and develop, often in ways that are more heartbreaking and dramatically potent than anything a prestige cable drama could throw out. Never was this sensibility more apparent than in Stakes, the eight-part miniseries that went a long way towards exploring the backstory of vampire Marceline, one of Adventure Time’s most beloved, mysterious, and tragic characters. Throughout its run, Adventure Time remains the strange, yet endlessly innovative little gem that fans know and love. —Mark Rozeman and Allison Keene


Samurai Jack

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The original run (2001-2004) of Genndy Tartakovsky’s animated series about a ronin stuck in the dystopian future was a masterpiece—stylistically, the closest thing the 21st century has seen to Kurosawa. Unbelievably, Tartakovsky later outdid himself with a ten-episode conclusion to Jack’s saga. The hallmarks of the series remain; every frame is perfect, the action sequences rock, and there’s a fair amount of cartoonish light-heartedness. But the move from Cartoon Network to Adult Swim created the opportunity to get darker, and Jack took full advantage. We find Jack trapped in a Sisyphean situation, immortal and seemingly doomed to fight Aku’s oppression forever. And unlike Camus’ imagination of that tragic Greek king, Jack is decidedly not happy. What has followed is an elegant exploration of finding hope in perseverance, purpose in apparent futility, and strength in legacy. Oh, and more blood than Cartoon Network ever would’ve allowed. Zach Blumenfeld


Primal

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It’s so easy to think of the anachronistic caveman-dinosaur relationship as one between a boy and his dog. Chuck Jones’ first Daffy Duck cartoon introduced Casper and Fido, while Alley Oop has been riding his dinosaur since the ‘30s. Even Winsor McCay’s landmark animated character Gertie the Dinosaur was domesticated.

This collected cultural idea, from McCay’s pioneering personality work to the ubiquitous partnership between man and beast, is what Genndy Tartakovsky channels in his life-or-death Adult Swim show Primal. Lovely animation and heightened action only serve to illuminate the show’s grounded central premise: life is hard and it’s better together. Even if it takes stretching history millions of years, Primal finds an innate truth buried deep in the fossil record.

The beloved animator behind Samurai Jack and Clone Wars returned to TV after some scattered pilots and a Hotel Transylvania trilogy. What he brought with him is everything fans have come to expect from a creator whose legacy is filled with spartan storytelling and aesthetic elegance. Despite Primal’s Slipknot-but-if-cavemen font, its most pressing use of its title isn’t raw, base, animal violence, but instinctual facets of life. Things like survival, purpose, and companionship. How best to get at that than silent animation, where slapstick and gore hold equal weight? —Jacob Oller


Home Movies

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Home Movies, Brendon Small and Loren Bouchard’s UPN/Adult Swim cult masterpiece, is a foundational work (alongside Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist) for modern animated comedy. The chatty, surreal-yet-conversational mundanity of the world’s kid filmmaker and his surroundings warped Beavis and Butt-head-era alt-animation while lowering the divide between high and lowbrow. Coordinating its meandering monotone jokes with its equally static-yet-kinetic Squigglevision/Flash visual style, Home Movies’ clever improvisations laid the raw groundwork for the deadpan quasi-stoner cleverness that Bob’s Burgers pushed into the mainstream. It even has H. Jon Benjamin crushing every muttery word that traverses his crackly pipes. Sad, smart, savvy, and filled with classic bits you’ll be repeating to your friends until your entire social circle can recite a Franz Kafka rock opera, Home Movies is a classic depiction of childhood’s bittersweet strangeness.—Jacob Oller


Rurouni Kenshin

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There was a moment, in 2003, when seemingly one in every three middle schoolers in America whose home boasted a cable television wanted to learn kendo—a martial art descended from kenjustu, the traditional Japanese art of swordplay. That would be thanks to Rurouni Kenshin, a shonen set during Japan’s Meiji Restoration whose protagonist, a scarred former assassin turned wanderer, pledges himself to protecting the innocent without ever killing again by wielding his reverse-bladed sword against all comers. The depiction of protagonist Himura Kenshin’s penance and a struggle to maintain control in the face of a reflexive return to past wrongs is perhaps the best redemption tale in any anime. The show’s second season, the “Legend of Kyoto” arc, is rightly revered in particular as an example of a near-perfect adaptation from manga to anime, with its original storylines fitting neatly beside those from the manga. A caveat: The property is deeply tainted by the actions of its author, Nobuhiro Watsuki, who was charged with possession of child pornography last fall. His involvement with the anime, however, was limited—and Kenshin’s own values, so centered on selflessly safeguarding those who need protection most at any cost to himself, serve as a resounding condemnation of his creator’s moral failures. —John Maher


Aqua Teen Hunger Force

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For a certain type of TV watcher who was college-aged in the mid-aughts (me), Aqua Teen Hunger Force was a mainstay for humor and references among friend groups. The bizarre Adult Swim cartoon heralded a new kind of television comedy, one that leaned heavily into surrealism and pure silliness. Starring a trio of anthropomorphic beings—Frylock, Master Shake, and Meatwad—who are also roommates, the show has some vague allusions to crime-fighting superheroics and galactic unrest, but mainly it thrives on augmenting mundane daily routines into the ridiculously hilarious. (Let’s also never forget their neighbor Carl, a rare human on the show, whose one-liners remain the actual best.) The extremely long-running series reached its apex early on, and though its legacy is that of a time capsule for the jokes and comedy aesthetic of a network leaning into a new frontier of weirdness, it still holds up as one of the strangest, funniest series Adult Swim ever made. “Drivin’ in my car, livin’ like a star / Ice on my fingers and my toes and I’m a Taurus.” —Allison Keene


Berserk: The Golden Age

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The first adaptation of Kentaro Miura’s brutally visceral and viscera-laden manga Berserk, a TV series from 1997, is considered a classic. And while the first two films in this triptych from 15 years later receive a rather scornful treatment from most anime experts, its final offering is as riveting a watch as the form has to offer—and as violent, too. This grimdark fantasy, set in a feudal world clearly modeled on medieval Europe, follows a sellsword named Guts, who is forced to join the mercenary group called the Band of the Hawk once its leader defeats him in single combat twice in a row. From there on out, it’s all blood and Guts as an absolutely vicious cycle of battles, assassinations, sieges, duels, and the like pulls humans, bears, and demons alike into its vortex, with all parties vying to rip each other to shreds in the names of sex, power, and greed. And by Descent, the third entry, it’s as riveting and depressing as Game of Thrones at its best. —John Maher


Teen Titans

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DC Comic’s Teen Titans property has seen a lot of small screen iterations (plus one surprisingly dark big screen one a couple years ago), and for good reason: Stories about teenagers are endlessly malleable in the best of times, but make one of those teens a goth sorceress, one a cyborg, one a boy who can shapeshift into the form of any animal at will, one a gentle alien who shoots lasers from her hands and flies, and one a Boy Wonder divorces from the Batman’s weird emotional baggage, and you’ve got the recipe for both teenage melodrama and superhero hijinks of the highest (or at least, goofiest) order. 

For all DC Universe’s live-action Titans keeps hoping it will find a swing big enough to make a grimdark mark, though, and for all Cartoon Network’s chibi-esque Teen Titans Go! reboot/comedic spinoff has found enough Gen Z (and younger) fans to last six seasons, Glen Murakami and Sam Register’s OG animated Teen Titans series, which ran on Cartoon Network for five seasons between 2003 and 2005, remains—at least for the demographic shelling out $14.99 per month for HBO Max—the iteration to beat. Emotionally sharp and genuinely funny while still remaining efficient and action-packed, Teen Titans nails the dynamics between its core characters in minute one of the pilot, giving itself more runway than most shows could dream of having to get the whole shebang—nemesis Slade and all—up and running. Getting a sixth season (as teased by the credits of Teen Titans Go to the Movies!) would be the best Titans-related news could bring, but barring that, I’m just glad to finally have it one streaming click away.  —Alexis Gunderson


Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood

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For many, Brotherhood is the essential anime experience, and it’s easy to see why. A more faithful adaptation to Hiromu Arakawa’s mega-popular manga series, Brotherhood contends with loss, grief, war, racism and ethics in mature and unique ways, ahead of its time in nearly every aspect. What’s more, the show is paced perfectly, with neatly wrapped arcs that lead into each other and bolster a greater global narrative on selected themes. Brotherhood is just the right length, never overstaying its welcome and proving how versatile and malleable the conventions of shounen anime can be.

Brotherhood has a sizeable cast of characters all of different nationalities and ideologies, with motivations that often oppose one another—the show manages to use these moving forces to form factions, alliances and foils that flow in multiple directions, paralleling the often messy, always chaotic nature of human relationships during wartime. The show’s emotional core revolves around the plight of the Elric brothers, Ed and Alphonse, two alchemists sponsored by the authoritarian Amestris military. It’s not your classic military drama, though, as Ed and Alphonse quickly learn how far Amestris’ authoritarianism stretches.

Where Brotherhood excels lies in the sensitivity it expresses for every one of the characters’ fighting for their desires and contending with their mistakes, with particular highlights on the plights of minorities and women. Ed and Alphonse struggle with the fallout after attempting forbidden alchemy to revive their recently deceased mother. Later, their childhood friend Winry is portrayed heroically for acting as an emergency midwife. Scar, initially introduced as a brutal serial killer, is one of the last remaining indigenous Ishvalans, an ethnic group purged during a colonial war at the hands of Amestris—his odyssey continues to ring more and more resonant as we stray further into a post-terror world. It’s why the series continues to wow today: it eschews cliche to make cogent points on human consciousness. —Austin Jones

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Unscripted


Don’t sleep on these.

Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown

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It’s no secret that I am in love with Anthony Bourdain. But even I was a latecomer to Parts Unknown. As a devoted consumer of its two predecessors, A Cook’s Tour and No Reservations, I basically thought there was no more territory for Tony to cover. Where hadn’t he been? How many more times could I possibly be captivated by Istanbul’s telegenic spice market or street-food vendors in Mexico or Vietnam? It didn’t take long before I was eating crow, though. As if in response (perhaps specifically in response) to his scads of imitators, Tony took Parts Unknown to Metaville. This show isn’t just revealing and contemplative and educational: It makes wonderful use of its most abundant ingredient, its host’s carbon-steel-edged self-awareness. While every bit as “for real” as any of his other programs, this one builds on its predecessors like a pastry chef making a tiered cake, with nods to his own past programs, a more expansive array of co-hosts, next-level elbow-ribbing between himself and his crew, and absolutely laugh-out-loud use of mild-mannered wingman-saint Eric Ripert, among others.

The posthumous release of the final, 12th season ensured it would also be saturated in a strange valedictory glow, but even had we not lost its acerbic-yet-sensitive creator, it would still radiate curiosity, authenticity and often, hilarity. If you want to understand the difference between a tourist and a traveler, between someone who observes the world and someone who immerses himself in it, between hunger and appetite, between self-consciousness and self-awareness, between existing and living? There’s no better tour guide on television, and it’s entirely possible there never will be. —Amy Glynn


Bachelor in Paradise

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Ok, hear me out: Even if you aren’t a fan of the Bachelor franchise normally, and even if you totally understand the problematic nature of the whole concept, consider opening your heart to Bachelor in Paradise. The yearly(-ish) “All-Stars” getaway to a Mexican resort is not the same kind of sappy, precious vibe of the original series—it’s all about the hookup. The boozy stars lounge around in swimsuits and go on low-effort dates, attempting to secure a partner (even just for a week) before each elimination ceremony (alternating between the last man or woman standing). It’s like summer camp for adults, and the producers understand that finding a soulmate is not really the point. Extended sequences of crabs appearing the listen in on inane monologuing, or a drunk participant chatting with a lizard are not uncommon. Plus, there’s that super-catchy throwback theme song. Even if you don’t know the players, you can enjoy the game. — Allison Keene


Full Frontal with Samantha Bee

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Launched in winter 2016, The Daily Show alum Sam Bee’s weekly news show quickly became the voice of so many progressive and angry people (particularly women) who were sick of being sidelined by mainstream media’s fixation on a certain man who was so lazy and entitled that he took an escalator to the podium to announce his presidential run. Normally clad in fitted blazers and pants and seeming like she’s about to burst a blood vessel over the week’s headlines, Bee’s excellent programs have included titles like “Coronavirus is Not an Excuse to Be Racist,” “The NRA is a Cult” and “The Actual Forgotten Working Class.” —Whitney Friedlander


Supernanny

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If you are a parent, there has probably been that moment when you wished Mary Poppins was real and that she would come to your home and fix your kids. Supernanny is the real life nanny who does not really fix kids, but she fixes parents by letting them know, “This behavior is unacceptable.”

The show premiered in the UK in 2004, the same year I became a mom for the first time, and by the time the show came to the States in 2005, I was able to implement her methods in real time.

If I could sum up why this show is so practical, it is that Jo Frost sets clear reasonable boundaries with unmistakable kindness. The best part is that she is really just teaching families how to have proper respect for each other. In the show, kids are not allowed to throw tantrums and hit people without a consequence. Parents then have to teach that respect by enforcing the consequence. It’s basic. It seems obvious. Yet, when you are in the throes of parenting, it can feel anything but. This show feels like having a free parenting tutorial at home, but honestly her methods work in relationships in general. It is totally worth watching this show before returning to the office and setting boundaries at work—you just might not be able to put your co-worker in time-out. —Keri Lumm



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