The 50 Best HBO Series, Ranked

It's not TV, it's HBO

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The 50 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 50 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 now that it is turning into HBO Max (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 50 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.)

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50. His Dark Materials

Created by: Jack Thorne
Stars: Dafne Keen, Ruth Wilson, James McAvoy

Watch on HBO

His Dark Materials arrived on the fantasy television scene in 2019 with big expectations. A lavish, expensive HBO production that dealt with high-concept questions like faith, sin, and redemption, it was based on a popular series of novels by Phillip Pullman that had everything from armored battle bears to talking animal companions meant to be representative of human souls. Everyone basically thought it would be a big hit in the same vein as Game of Thrones, which had only recently wrapped up its run on the same network and also happened to be based on a set of hit fantasy books.

Unfortunately, that is … not what happened. Instead of a complex fantasy epic, we got a plodding drama with little heart and dull characters, set in a world that was overly difficult to understand, let alone care about. Yes, the first season of His Dark Materials was well-made and gorgeous to look at, but often felt emotionally flat, as though it were simply ticking off the plot points from Pullman’s novels on a Notes app list and waiting to get to a more interesting part of the story. Save one, its characters were often dour and tedious, with little in the way of interiority or understandable motivation.

Thankfully, Season 2 has course-corrected in the best way possible, keeping everything that worked from its first outing (Ruth Wilson’s incredibly complex Marisa Coulter and her icy, ferocious rage) and adding heart, humor and a sense of fun in spades. Finally, this show feels like the must-see adventure series it was originally meant to land as, and one can only hope that audiences will tune in for this far superior outing that is also a much better representation of the sweeping appeal of Pullman’s story.

In short, His Dark Materials finally feels as though it has found its groove in its second season. The series feels more lush, propulsive, and epic than it ever has before, with a tightly paced plot and characters we can actually care about. Are there weak spots? Sure; but despite its flaws, His Dark Materials has finally become a series that that feels worthy of the trilogy it’s based on, and that is no small thing. —Lacy Baugher


49. Euphoria

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Created by: Sam Levinson
Stars: Zendaya, Maude Apatow, Angus Cloud, Eric Dane, Alexa Demie, Jacob Elordi

Watch on HBO

HBO’s Euphoria is bleak and deliberately provocative, saturated with drugs and sex and maladaptive decadence and rendered in beautifully lurid colors. Our tour guide through this dystopian high school landscape is Rue (Zendaya), a 17-year-old addict with… a nihilist streak? Her diffident attitude toward, like, being alive is understandable in context: she literally doesn’t know anyone who isn’t a drug-snorting, porn-swilling, lying, violent, self-harming glassy-eyed zombie. That’d get to anyone after a while, even if they didn’t have an anxiety disorder.

Euphoria is a confusing show in some ways. It seems like a total provocation, an endless barrage of existential misery and trauma softcore and shock for shock’s sake. It’s massively voyeuristic, a seeming peek into the veiled world of teen misdeed that’s not really intended for a teen audience; this show is for adults, and it’s designed to freak them the hell out, presenting a relentless universe of violation and self-destruction. It’s got a stochastic, vignette-oriented feel with relatively little in the way of plot deployment, which neatly—and I will add artfully— underscores the feeling of suffocating dread it offers with its misty, neon-light-in-fog tones and mumbling, voyeuristically screen-gazing characters. It’s not the first or the only TV show to have a very dark take on what teenagers are really up to and the layer of gauzy, bleary unreality it conveys is at once compelling and a little gross. It’s admirably unflinching in its exploration of our darker impulses. It’s got a dreary, miserable beauty to it.—Amy Glynn


48. Gentleman Jack

Created by: Sally Wainwright
Stars: Suranne Jones, Sophie Rundle

Watch on HBO

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


47. The Deuce

Created by: David Simon, George Pelecanos
Stars: James Franco, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Gbenga Akinnagbe, Chris Bauer, Gary Carr, Chris Coy, Dominique Fishback, Margarita Levieva

Watch on HBO

Since creating The Greatest Series of All Time, David Simon has maintained a fruitful relationship with HBO. Like The Wire, his fifth project for the premium cable channel lives at the margins of society, those scraping by to survive or taking advantage of the only opportunities they see. The Deuce is set in and around the Times Square of the 1970s, where pimps, prostitutes, beat cops, pornographers and reporters make sense of a world in which New York has just decided it doesn’t have any decency standards. The cast includes A-listers James Franco and Maggie Gyllenhaal, as well as The Wire’s Lawrence Gilliard Jr. (this time on the other side of the law from D’Angelo Barksdale), Chris Bauer and Gbenga Akinnagbe. But the show relies as heavily on its large ensemble cast, including Dominique Fishback (Darlene), Chris Coy (Paul) and Gary Carr (C.C.), as well as musicians-turned-actors Black Thought and Method Man. A show about sex workers on HBO could easily feel exploitative, but Simon and co-creator George Pelecanos seem more interested in the stories of their characters than titillating their audience. In The Deuce, the grimy heart of New York is nonetheless full of humanity. —Josh Jackson


46. Flight of the Conchords

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

Watch on HBO

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


45. Eastbound & Down

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

Watch on HBO

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 creator 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


44.The Outsider

Created by: Richard Price
Stars: Ben Mendelsohn, Julianne Nicholson, Mare Winningham, Paddy Considine, Jason Bateman, Marc Menchaca, Cynthia Erivo

Watch on HBO

Doppelgängers lock eyes with their mirrored protagonists as representations of suppression, whether that be of unbridled id or an unstable identity. Doubles, in Dostoyevsky stories and Jordan Peele projects, confront us with the uncanny proof that we are not unique and infuse us with doubt. If we’re not the only us, then what exactly are we supposed to believe? The Outsider—which sees writer Richard Price adapting Stephen King’s exciting novel (one of his recent best, in my eyes)—becomes another variation on this theme for HBO, presenting a procedural where alibis, accusations, and evidence enter the realm of unreality.

The series concerns a boy in a small southern town who is viciously murdered, his corpse mutilated and defiled. Only a monster could do such a thing. And a damning amount of evidence—witnesses, surveillance footage, physical residue—points to little league coach, teacher, and all-around nice guy Terry Maitland (Jason Bateman). It’s like he wanted to get caught. But it’s impossible. He literally couldn’t have committed the crime, which Detective Ralph Anderson (Ben Mendelsohn) finds out only after making the arrest in the flashiest, most statement-making way possible. As the fallout from the case rains down upon the townspeople, drowning the family of the murdered boy and Terry’s wife Glory (Julianne Nicholson) under a torrent of sorrow and social stigma, Anderson’s new case is figuring out how one person could be in two places at once. —Jacob Oller


43. Mr. Show with Bob and David

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

Watch on HBO

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


42. Silicon Valley

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

Watch on HBO

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


41. Oz

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Created by: 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

Watch on HBO

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


40. Sharp Objects

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

Watch on HBO

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


39. Girls

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

Watch on HBO

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


38. Years and Years

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

Watch on HBO

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


37. Vice Principals

Created by: Danny R. McBride, Jody Hill
Stars: Danny McBride, Walton Goggins, Kimberly Hébert Gregory, Dale Dickey, Georgia King, Sheaun McKinney, Busy Philipps, Shea Whigham

Watch on HBO

One of HBO’s darkest, and funniest, shows, who knew Vice Principals would ultimately be a (sort of) tender, (somewhat) touching treatise on love and friendship? Yes it bordered on mean-spirited at times, but Danny McBride and Walton Goggins bring so much charisma to their roles as aspiring vice principals aiming to oust their new boss that it doesn’t really matter. Just when you think you know where it’s going, Vice Principals will take a left turn into both the hilarious and bizarre. It’s the story of two fairly terrible people trying to find the redeemable in the largely irredeemable. If not for this cast, it’s hard to imagine it actually working. But somehow, it does. You’ll laugh, you’ll cringe, and you’ll laugh a little more. And yeah, if you’re a Kenny Powers fan who’s been sitting on the fence with this one, Vice Principals was a worthy follow-up to Eastbound & Down. —Garrett Martin and Trent Moore


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

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Created by: Andrew Jarecki, Marc Smerling, Zac Stuart-Pontier

Watch on HBO

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


35. Lovecraft Country

Created by: Misha Green
Stars: Jurnee Smollett, Jonathan Majors, Aunjanue Ellis, Courtney B. Vance, Wunmi Mosaku, Abbey Lee, Jamie Chung, Jada Harris, Michael K. Williams

Watch on HBO

Lovecraft Country, an adaptation of Matt Ruff’s book of the same name, belongs more in a series of Weird Tales issues than in the current understanding of H.P. Lovecraft’s tentacle-ridden boogiemen, non-Euclidean geometry, and otherwise unknowable Old Ones. It’s a true pulp story, collected by showrunner Misha Green straight from the mill and bound with an exciting cast and setting to enrich its adventure. Savvy and sensational, you’ve never seen Lovecraft like this.

Ranging from Chicago’s South Side to the eerie East Coast where Lovecraft’s tales haunted their hapless sailors and professors, Lovecraft Country tracks the cruel magicks of legacy while pointing out at every turn that its genre’s legacy is steeped in racism. Just because Lovecraft was a racist dickhead on a cosmic scale doesn’t mean Atticus Freeman (Jonathan Majors) doesn’t love his brand of fiction. Tic and his Uncle George (Courtney B. Vance) kick off the series on a Jim Crow-defying quest to find Atticus’ missing father (Michael K. Williams)—who’s off in search of their family’s secretive and spooky “birthright”—accompanied by Tic’s childhood friend Letitia (Jurnee Smollet).

While Lovecraft Country’s plot moves fast, fast, fast—with head-spinningly quick consequences seemingly abandoned, only to manifest as high concept plots themselves—there’s so much good to hold onto that its pages turn themselves. Thanks to its perspective, the exploration of wild dreams and strange justifications of an unjust society, as well as the magical bounties residing in its oppressed corners, shines. Turns out lots of genre tropes become more interesting when the lead looks like someone other than Logan Lerman. Lovecraft Country does the work, whether through its in-universe interrogation of patriarchal systems inside of inherently racist structures, confrontation of closeted shame and the drag scene, or through utterly bomb needledrops. Each episode’s conceit is fascinating enough to deserve its own thinkpiece; each episode’s twist a shocking and gruesome delight. —Jacob Oller


34. Westworld

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

Watch on HBO

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


33. Treme

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

Watch on HBO

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


32. Looking

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

Watch on HBO

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


31. The Comeback

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

Watch on HBO

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


30. Luck

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Created by: David Milch
Stars: Dustin Hoffman, Dennis Farina, John Ortiz, Kerry Condon, Nick Nolte

Watch on HBO

Unfortunately for David Milch’s unique and layered series, Luck is mostly known for being cancelled after several horses died on the set. The series’ story largely takes place at the Santa Anita racetrack, which in real life has also continued to see an enormous number of horses die over the course of the last year. But, er, if you’re able to give the series any kind of chance beyond that, you’ll find a deeply personal character study of not just the owners, trainers, and jockeys of the tracks, but of the gamblers, drunks, and hangers-on. Watching Luck transports you into a world deeply known by Milch, one that is gritty and tough but also resilient and beautiful. —Allison Keene


29. Insecure

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

Watch on HBO

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


28. Boardwalk Empire

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Created by: Terence Winter
Stars: Steve Buscemi, Michael Pitt, Kelly Macdonald, Michael Shannon

Watch on HBO

Easily dismissed as just a Sopranos clone set in the 1920s (although gorgeously so), 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 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. —Sean Gandert


27. Bored To Death

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Created by: Jonathan Ames
Stars: Jason Schwartzman, Zach Galifianakis, Ted Danson, Heather Burns

Watch on HBO

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 1 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). We felt like we were a part 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 and 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 (the real one) 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), forming 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 makes for an excellent binge. —Shannon M. Houston


26. Tracey Takes On

Created by: Tracey Ullman
Stars: Tracey Ullman, Julie Kavner, Mo Gaffney, Michael McKean, Danny Woodburn

Watch on HBO

Bombastic, brilliant and unafraid of pushing the bounds of good taste, Tracey Ullman remains one of modern comedy’s most talented performers. HBO’s Tracey Takes On marks America’s second major attempt at giving Ullman a platform for her unique brand of humor. The first, Fox’s The Tracey Ullman Show is perhaps best known today for introducing the world to an early incarnation of The Simpsons. On Tracey Takes On, now free of broadcast standards and the restrictions of performing for a live studio audience, she is able to truly let her freak flag fly. Each episode finds the comedian honing in on a different theme (nostalgia, romance, Vegas, etc.) and exploring it via a string of recurring characters, all of different ages, accents, and ethnicities (emphasis on ethnicities). It’s the television equivalent of a one-woman show. All while not all the sketches work (indeed some will be coma-inducing for any overly PC viewers), it’s a series worth checking out merely to see one of England’s greatest satirists completely unfiltered. —Mark Rozeman


25. The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency

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Created by: Richard Curtis, Anthony Minghella
Stars: Jill Scott, Anika Noni Rose, Lucian Msamati

Watch on HBO

This lovely and vivacious series feels like maybe it arrived before its time, but either way it has been too long overlooked. Based on a book series of the same name, The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency follows a kind of young, Miss Marple-esque figure (Mma Ramotswe, played by Jill Scott), who opens Botswana’s first female sleuthing firm. The short, gorgeously-shot series (which was filmed on location in Botswana) is full of charm and laughter, as well as a sweet romantic subplot between Ramotswe and a good-hearted local mechanic. Despite positive reviews and decent viewership, HBO did not continue with the series after its first season. But for those that know and love it, The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency is a hidden gem. —Allison Keene


24. I May Destroy You

Created by: Michaela Coel
Stars: Michaela Coel, Weruche Opia, Paapa Essiedu

Watch on HBO

There may be few series as difficult but as important right now as Michaela Coel’s new 12-episode HBO show I May Destroy You. The Ghanaian-British creator and star explores the pain, confusion, and eventual road to healing regarding the rape experienced by her London-based lead, Arabella. Playing out as a series of vignettes, the season is tied together by a close-knit group of friends who must confront everything from their own biases to sexual crimes perpetrated against them.

Coel is taking on a lot here, and while the journey of these friends trying to make it can feel familiar, it’s coming to audiences from a new perspective—instead of young white adults in New York, we have young black adults in London. That distinction is important in a number of ways, and Coel also leans in to the Millennial nature of it all by showing Arabella’s obsession with her social media influence and ways she seeks to monetize without being exploited (which feels impossible). There’s also an early scene where a white casting director asks Terry if she’s wearing a wig, if she can wash it, and to please take it off to show them her “real” hair. The way Terry responds (hesitant, uncomfortable, and ultimately rebuffing) mirrors in some ways the moments of assault shown in the series. It upsets her but she tries to brush it off, much like everyone else responding to controlling or aggressive behavior.

All of this adds up to a weighty, ambitious attempt to wade through incredibly difficult subject matter, but one that also seeks to balance with earnest optimism and a desire for healing. There are many, many scenes of the friends just having fun, of getting annoyed with one another, of professing their undying love. That movement back and forth, to the past and present (to an imagined future), between feelings and experiences and traumas and desires, covers some of the series’ other uncertainties in ways that are both compelling and true. But more than anything, it’s a thought-provoking work that should make us consider our own relationship to trauma, experienced by ourselves or others, as well as hopefully this new cultural awakening to the many, many different kinds of sexual assault. —Allison Keene


23. Big Love

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Created by: Mark V. Olsen, Will Scheffer
Stars: Bill Paxton, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Chloë Sevigny, Ginnifer Goodwin, Shawn Doyle

Watch on HBO

The thing about Big Love is that the actual plot never really mattered as much as the relationships among its characters. One man with three wives living in a modern Utah suburb is certainly an interesting premise, but from the start, the show made it about more than just salacious intrigued at polygamy. It’s about family, and about women supporting each other through difficult times. Bill Hendrickson’s fraught relationship with the fundamentalist compound where he was raised (with its powerful and dangerous prophet) was always a fascinating dynamic, even when those plotlines became increasingly insane as the series wore on. (Bill Paxton was also at his most charming in this series, and he is missed.) But throughout it all, especially those very final scenes, Big Love’s extraordinary cast and casual storytelling style made it essential to watch anything and everything this family did. It introduced a strange and often difficult world, but managed to make it feel like home. —Allison Keene


22. The Larry Sanders Show

Created by: Garry Shandling, Dennis Klein
Stars: Garry Shandling, Jeffrey Tambor, Rip Torn

Watch on HBO

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 in 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. —Garrett Martin


21. True Detective

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Created by: Nic Pizzolatto
Stars: Matthew McConaughey, Woody Harrelson, Colin Farrell, Rachel McAdams, Taylor Kitsch, Mahershala Ali, Carmen Ejogo, Stephen Dorff

Watch on HBO

There’s always a caveat when recommending True Detective, and that is in recognition of its anthology setup. Its first season is hypnotic, deep, disturbing, and obsession-worthy, while its second is boring, scattered, and forgettable. Season 3 turns things around, not quite to Season 1 levels, but it’s elevated by some outstanding performances that makes it a worthwhile watch. For crime show fans, Season 1 and its search for the Yellow King is a must; the collaboration between writer Nic Pizzolatto and director Cary Fukunaga is exceptional, as are its lead performances. For all of its faults (even in that season with some of the writing regarding its female characters, of which there are not many), True Detective still remains a stalwart HBO series. —Allison Keene


20. The Righteous Gemstones

Created by: Danny McBride
Stars: Danny McBride, Adam DeVine, Edi Patterson, Walton Goggins, John Goodman, Jennifer Nettles

Watch on HBO

In HBO’s comedy The Righteous Gemstones, Danny McBride plays Jesse, the oldest son of the Gemstone clan of showbiz preachers, the flamboyant heir apparent to his legendary father Eli, who’s played with equal parts solemnity and menace by John Goodman. Eli turned the gospel into a chain store, opening up churches throughout the Southeast, and bringing his whole family into the business. In addition to the permed Jesse, there’s Adam DeVine’s Kelvin, who has the fauxhawk and designer jeans of a Christian pop star, and daughter Judy, who chafes at her family’s unwillingness to treat her as an equal, and who’s played by Vice Principals’ breakout star Edi Patterson. Jennifer Nettles of the band Sugarland cameos in flashbacks as the family’s now-dead (and very Tammy Faye-esque) matriarch, whose passing weighs especially heavy on Eli.

It’s not saying much to call a TV family dysfunctional, but the Gemstone children are immediately introduced as being uniquely fractious. They present a united front on TV or in front of their parishioners, who they openly treat as marks behind the scenes, but don’t try to hide their contempt for and disappointment with one another when the cameras are off. Much of what makes the show so enjoyable is the way these three gifted comic actors play off one another as their entire world threatens to unravel. As with McBride’s previous HBO shows, Gemstones delicately balances the ridiculous and extreme with surprisingly subtle character moments that keeps the show from drifting too far away from legitimate emotion and humanity. Even McBride’s Jesse, who is largely a hateful blowhard who deserves every bad thing that happens to him, has moments of levity and regret that humanize him; his relationship with his children might be terrible, but he earnestly seems to want their love and respect, even as he blows everything up again. It’s a worthy addition to McBride’s HBO oeuvre—another messy, honest, exaggerated and realistic look at Southern charlatans desperate for fame, power, and success in a modern South that can too easily fall prey to their schemes. Praise the Lord and pass the loot, indeed. —Garrett Martin


19. The Leftovers

Created by: Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta
Stars: Justin Theroux, Amy Brenneman, Christopher Eccleston

Watch on 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 Revelation. 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—often 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


18. Watchmen

Created by: Damon Lindelof
Stars: Regina King, Don Johnson, Tim Blake Nelson, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Louis Gossett Jr., Jeremy Irons, Jean Smart

Watch on HBO

Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ graphic novel Watchmen, like Fight Club and Starship Troopers, has a knack for getting itself misunderstood. Frankly, that’s mostly because white guys in the demographic that usually watches this kind of thing are used to a certain kind of messaging and a certain status quo interpretation. Action heroes kill stuff. It’s awesome. Rah, rah, violence. Move along, see the sequel in a year. Past behavior is hard to escape; it’s also hard to criticize without accidentally dipping back into old habits. Watchmen’s HBO sequel series from Damon Lindelof isn’t perfect in this regard, but it’s easy to watch, tough to pin down, and well worth working through.

The show becomes more and more about the traumas suffered by our progenitors, how they’ve lived on through us, and how we respond to their effects. It susses out the ways the government would attempt reparations for black Americans robbed of historical wealth—including the racist backlash against and cringe-inducing videos used to inform those receiving them. This applies to oppression and inequality, sure, but an entire episode digs into the 9/11-like aftershocks resonating into the American psyche from Ozymandius’ space squid drop on NYC. The past comes for everyone in the show.

Unlike some other prestige TV with muddled messaging, Watchmen doesn’t leave you feeling empty. The thematic throughline of the past’s haunting echoes and tangible consequences can get hammy at times, but it’s still a fascinating concept for a sequel series that nobody asked for. Clever, mean, blood-in-the-mouth humor meshes with politics warped and wild in this alt-present where Robert Redford is president and peace was forced upon the world by a murderous genius. Coping with this reality, moving on from the sins of the past, and figuring out how to find a just future—that’s a journey riddled with pitfalls, but one Watchmen makes irresistible.—Jacob Oller


17. Rome

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Created by: John Milius, William J. MacDonald, Bruno Heller
Stars: Kevin McKidd, Ray Stevenson, Ciarán Hinds, Kenneth Cranham, Lindsay Duncan, Tobias Menzies, Polly Walker

Watch on HBO

Soon after starting Rome, it will have you shouting: “The 13th!!!!” in solidarity with its lead centurions Lucius Vorenus and Titus Pullo. The duo have a kind of Odd Couple dynamic that is bonded in blood and brotherhood, as the series tracks the fall of the Roman Republic and the rise of the Roman Empire. An ambitious and enthralling series, Rome was also expensive, and an ill-advised sprint through the timeline in Season 2 botched things enough for that to be that. But going from the story of these simple but compelling soldiers through the betrayal of Caesar and the increasing excess of the Roman elites leading up to Antony and Cleopatra is all incredibly entertaining. A kind of proto-Game of Thrones in many ways, Rome boasts an outstanding cast, bloody battles, and plenty of political machinations to keep you pressing “Play Next” until its epic tale comes to an end. —Allison Keene


16. Carnivàle

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Created by: Daniel Knauf
Stars: Michael J. Anderson, Clancy Brown, Tim DeKay, Clea DuVall, Toby Huss, Nick Stahl

Watch on HBO

One of the strangest, deepest, and most beautiful series ever on television, Carnivàle takes place in the Dust Bowl during the Great Depression of the 1930s and follows a young gifted man who seems to be able to manipulate the forces of life and death. A superhero story this is not, although there is a lot of spiritually-tinged lore that becomes more prominent in the show’s second (and final) season. This outstanding series explores life in a sideshow caravan full of societal outcasts who have created their own makeshift family, but there are so many interesting, heartbreaking, and even spooky stories that are also broached along the way. Carnivàle is a puzzle box show that is about so much more than that, as its mysteries and connections run deep. The attention to production design and care taken in telling the stories of these forgotten people is truly something special, if you dare to take a peek behind the curtain. —Allison Keene


15. Sex and the City

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Created by: Darren Star
Stars: Sarah Jessica Parker, Kim Cattrall, Kristin Davis, Cynthia Nixon

Watch on HBO

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) was 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 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


14. Deadwood

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Created by: David Milch
Stars: Timothy Olyphant, Ian McShane, Molly Parker, John Hawkes, Jim Beaver, Brad Dourif, Paula Malcomson, William Sanderson, Kim Dickens, Keith Carradine

Watch on HBO

Few shows sound as profanely inspired as Deadwood, which has also been referred to as “Shakespeare in the mud.” It deserves every kudos. The extraordinarily compelling Western is 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. (A recent movie on HBO also helps sew things up in a satisfying way after the original series’ sudden ending). —Sean Gandert and Allison Keene


13. Veep

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Created by: Armando Iannucci
Stars: Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Anna Chlumsky, Tony Hale, Reid Scott, Timothy Simons, Matt Walsh, Kevin Dunn, Gary Cole

Watch on HBO

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 and 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 remains one of TV’s funniest actors; 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 a 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. Smaller recurring roles also offer cameos from some of America’s best improvisers. Through and through, it’s a comedy nerd’s dream team. —Erica Lies


12. Curb Your Enthusiasm

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Created by: Larry David
Stars: Larry David, Cheryl Hines, Jeff Garlin, Susie Essman

Watch on HBO

Set aside the recent revival for a a moment: Larry David pulled off the rare successful second act in television comedy. Curb Your Enthusiasm was Seinfeld-ian 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 the eight seasons of its original run. 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. 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


11. John Adams

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Created by: Kirk Ellis
Stars: Paul Giamatti, Laura Linney, Stephen Dillane, David Morse, Tom Wilkinson, Danny Huston, Rufus Sewell

Watch on HBO

Long before Hamilton captured the cultural consciousness, this eight-part miniseries tackled the same subject matter of the founding of the U.S., but through the eyes of future President John Adams (Paul Giamati). Based on a best-selling biography by David McCullough, the show went deep into this fractious period of our history, covering a lot of ground starting with the Boston Massacre in 1770, and ending with the deaths of Adams and Thomas Jefferson 56 years later. The breadth of the story is astounding enough, bringing to richly detailed life the key moments that built this messy democracy that we find ourselves in today. But it’s the powerhouse acting by the entire, huge ensemble that drives this sprawling narrative home, and might make you proud to be an American.—Robert Ham


10. Succession

Created by: Jesse Armstrong
Stars: Brian Cox, Kieran Culkin, Jeremy Strong, Matthew Macfadyen, Alan Ruck, Sarah Snook

Watch on HBO

HBO’s Succession, from creator Jesse Armstrong (Peep Show, The Thick of It) is dressed up as a prestige drama, but it’s actually one of TV’s most acid comedies. Once you embrace that, Succession unlocks as a never-ending battle of power and prestige with medieval royal overtones that is also wonderfully aware of how absurd that kind of story is. The show’s grown children jockey for power and favor with their bully of a father (a kind of Rupert Murdoch baron-type) in a constant cycle of cringe-worthy acts and abject humiliation. As one observer of the Roy family comments, “watching you people melt down is the most deeply satisfying activity on planet Earth.” Succession is not made to be binge watched. It’s engrossing, as a world that’s easy to immerse oneself in, but there is a kind of shadowy, icky feeling that follows you when you’ve consumed too much. That’s not the show’s fault; it’s easy to laugh at Tom (Matthew Macfayden) getting upset that he’s “not in the right panic room!” when he discovers Shiv (Sarah Snook) is in a more posh stronghold, but seeing Waystar encourage a dotcom to not unionize before gutting them, or how even a supposedly ethical organization might well sell out to partisan interests when there’s enough money is just depressingly real. Succession is a combination of Tom’s exclamation “what a weird family!” and Logan’s “Money wins. Here’s to us.” And it has us fully in its thrall.—Allison Keene


9. Last Week Tonight with John Oliver

Created by: John Oliver
Stars: John Oliver, David Kaye

Watch on HBO

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 the circular cynicism of US politics 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


8. Enlightened

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Created by:Laura Dern and Mike White
Stars: Laura Dern, Diane Ladd, Sarah Burns, Luke Wilson

Watch on HBO

Amy Jellicoe (an unforgettable Laura Dern), once enraged by circumstance, sets out in Mike White’s Enlightened to remake herself, rebuild her relationships, and reinvent the world. Buffeted by moments of bitterness, suffused with the conviction that change (personal, corporate, social) is possible, the result is a series that resembles a collection of short stories—18 episodes that contain life’s full complement of disappointment and failure, satisfaction and hope. By the time Enlightened reaches Todd Haynes’ unspeakably beautiful Season 2 entry, “All I’ve Ever Wanted,” Amy’s journey comes to reflect her repeated statement of purpose, “You can be wise, and almost whole.” It was gone too soon perhaps, but in its smallness, its grace, Enlightened approached perfection, at once spiky and sunny, incisive and richly emotional. It is, in short, one of TV’s finest series, an “agent of change” in a medium often lashed to tradition. —Matt Brennan


7. Game of Thrones

Created by: David Benioff, D. B. Weiss
Stars: Emilia Clarke, Peter Dinklage, Kit Harington, Maisie Williams, Lena Headey, Sophie Turner, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Aidan Gillen

Watch on HBO

The geopolitical drama that unfolds in George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire book series is so epic in scope that it made the Lord of the Rings feel like Cliff’s Notes. Even after it’s been pared down for television, the hourlong episodes can only cover a portion of the stories from 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 it’s the characters, the quick wit of Tyrion and Varys, the master conniving of Littlefinger, the defiant spunk of Arya, the quick nobility of Jon Snow, the heartless villainy of Tywin Lannister, the complicated redemption of Jaime, that made this show an epic cultural juggernaut (even in its arguably faltering final seasons).—Josh Jackson


6. Chernobyl

Created by: Craig Mazin
Stars: Jared Harris, Stellan Skarsgard, Jessie Buckley, Emily Watson

Watch on HBO

Maybe this is a good time for a drama about Chernobyl. I mean, as it becomes increasingly tempting to give in to apocalyptic ideation, I guess it’s useful to remember that the apocalypse already happened, and not even that long ago (I was a teenager and remember it vividly), and we apparently survived it.

In April 1986, the reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, in present-day Ukraine, exploded, leaving a large number of first-responder widows and a legacy of environmental annihilation. The incident and its aftermath are the subject of a new, five-part drama on HBO. Let me start by saying people with mood disorders should weigh the pros and cons carefully before tuning in: It’s possibly the worst thing I have ever seen on TV. And I don’t mean poorly done. (It’s unfortunately brilliant). I mean Chernobyl is devastatingly realistic and really, really painful, so be prepared for graphic depictions of what it’s like to die of radiation poisoning. Or what it’s like to be recruited to the task force that has to destroy radioactive housecats, milk cows and puppies. I literally couldn’t sit through the first episode. I had to watch it 10 minutes at a time.

The outstanding cast is led by Stellan Skarsgård as Boris Scherbina, a Kremlin apparatchik, and Jared Harris as Valery Legasov, the nuclear physicist who makes the government understand they cannot lie and obfuscate their way out of a nuclear disaster. Emily Watson rounds it out as Ulana Komyuk, a Byelorussian scientist determined to find out what really happened in order to keep it from ever happening again. The production is HBO-grade excellent. The soundtrack is a testament to the terrifying sound of a chattering Geiger counter. Writer and producer Craig Mazin is relentless in his depiction of human corruption and environmental breakdown, and director Johan Renck gives Lars von Trier a run for his melancholic money. It is an anatomy of fear and incompetence and hopelessness and baseness and self-destructiveness. It is desolate and desperate and excruciating and horrible. Horrible. Horrible. And it should be. —Amy Glynn


5. Six Feet Under

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Created by: Alan Ball
Stars: Peter Krause, Michael C. Hall, Frances Conroy, Lauren Ambrose

Watch on HBO

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’s 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. Somehow, though, 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. Barry

Created by: Bill Hader, Alec Berg
Stars Bill Hader, Stephen Root, Sarah Goldberg, Anthony Carrigan, Henry Winkler

Watch on HBO

One of the strangest and most fascinating comedy/drama hybrids to date, creator and star Bill Hader’s excellent series plays with questions of identity and self-expression that explore the dual lives our troubled protagonist Barry leads. Amateur dramatist by day, assassin by night, Barry works to shed his darker self and become the man he wants to be, but he can’t escape the choices that led him down that dark path to begin with. Denying that being a killer is part of who he really is only leads to a repressed rage that comes out in exceptionally tense and violent scenes, ones that Hader expertly juxtaposes with Barry’s sweet and earnest side through unexpected comedy (and occasionally, wistful daydreams). He’s a man who wants to do good, but can’t reconcile the two parts of himself, something the series also explores throughout the series. Who we are versus how we want others to see us is at the core of Barry’s character exploration, and Hader manages to somehow make the series both hilarious and deeply affecting, taking us on a rollercoaster of emotions that ends—at least with its recent second season—in an extraordinary difficult place of truth and self-understanding.—Allison Keene


3. Band of Brothers

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Created by: Tom Hanks, Steven Spielberg
Stars: Damian Lewis, Ron Livingston, Scott Grimes, Donnie Wahlberg, Kirk Acevedo, Eion Bailey, Michael Cudlitz

Watch on HBO

Many years ago there was a blog called “Pop Culture Torture,” and one of the challenges was for a writer to watch all of Band of Brothers in one day and document it. By the fourth hour he was an emotional wreck, and by the fifth he was starting to sob just at the opening theme. Such is the immense power of this World War II epic, which fictionalizes the experiences of “Easy” Company from the 1992 book of the same name. The series also features some of the real heroes talking about their experiences before and after episodes, and when you learn which characters are based off of them it just brings everything together in overwhelming ways. The careful attention to detail and weaving in of historical moments will ultimately make this series your definitive understanding of the war and everything surrounding it. So don’t binge it, but do watch—it is one if the all-time greats. (One that happens to star a massive cast of recognizable young male actors in small roles who almost all became A-list movie stars). Follow-up series on HBO include The Pacific, which deals with that theater of the war, and also David Simon’s Generation Kill, another outstanding miniseries that focuses on a Marine recon division during the first 40 days of the Iraq War. —Allison Keene


2. The Sopranos

Created by: David Chase
Stars: James Gandolfini, Lorraine Bracco, Edie Falco, Michael Imperioli, Dominic Chianese, Steven Van Zandt, Tony Sirico, Robert Iler

Watch on HBO

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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Created by: David Simon
Stars: Dominic West, Lance Reddick, Sonja Sohn, Idris Elba, Domenick Lombardozzi, Ellis Carver, Andre Royo, Wendell Pierce, Rhonda Pearlman

Watch on HBO

Series mastermind David Simon conceived of 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 with unforgettable characters 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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