The 16 Best HBO Series of All Time
Some of the best television in the past few decades has come from the Home Box Office, otherwise known as HBO. The network is well-known for its thematic, violent, and (sometimes too) mature content, but it’s always been part of what makes HBO so great.
In a world where streaming giants like Netflix rule, HBO had to adapt and start-up HBO Max, which has pretty much HBO’s entire catalog of original content (with more on the way). From historical docu-dramas to edgy fantasy and the violent wild-west, HBO has a little something for everyone.
These series below, limited or otherwise, are HBO’s “best of the best,” so check them out and see what you’d like to add to your watchlist.
1. The Sopranos
Often considered not only the best-written series of all time but also the best television series proper, The Sopranos follows Tony Soprano (played to perfection by the late James Gandolfini), a New Jersey-based mobster who works to balance his family life with his role as the leader of a criminal organization. This series is one of the best crime dramas out there, specifically in the gangster genre.
What makes The Sopranos compelling, and not just another gangster story, is Tony’s clinical depression (he has a panic attack and faints in the very first episode) mixed with the constant conflict between his personal and professional lives. This was Breaking Bad before Breaking Bad was even dreamed up. Tony’s relationship with psychologist Dr. Jennifer Melfi (Lorraine Bracco) also serves as an interesting parallel to that of his rocky marriage with Carmela (Edie Falco). And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
The Sopranos is one of the greatest television spectacles of all time. The legacy of this show continues later this year with a prequel film, The Many Saints of Newark, focusing on Tony’s life as a young man (portrayed by James Gandolfini’s son Michael).
2. Band of Brothers
Inspired by their work on Saving Private Ryan, Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks created what has become the greatest war television mini-series out there. Band of Brothers follows the real-life stories of Easy Company, the 2nd Battalion, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division as they travel through Europe during the Second World War.
The series transpires mostly through the eyes of Major Richard “Dick” Winters (Damien Lewis’ greatest role) as the men storm the beaches of Normandy, take part in the Battle of Bloody Gulch, experience shell-shock, discover the horrors of German concentration camps, and so much more as they fight the Nazi’s to end the war in Europe.
The series even has a companion piece, The Pacific, that follows three different Marines from the 1st Marine Division as they fight through the Pacific theater of the war. Band of Brothers is also unique in that each episode begins with excerpts from interviews with actual survivors, with the final episode identifying them by name.
3. The Wire
One of the most interesting series to ever grace our TV screens, The Wire is a crime drama/tragedy series set in the city of Baltimore in which each season covers a different institution or component of the city while still retaining continuity in characters and story. The illegal drug trade, port system, city government and bureaucracy, education and schools, and the print news are all explored faithfully across five seasons and sixty episodes.
Series creator David Simon said that The Wire is “really about the American city, and about how we live together. It’s about how institutions have an effect on individuals. Whether one is a cop, a longshoreman, a drug dealer, a politician, a judge, or a lawyer, all are ultimately compromised and must contend with whatever institution to which they are committed.”
The Wire may not have received much recognition during its original televised run, but in more recent years has been praised as not only being one of the most socially relevant series of all time, but also one of the best.
4. Game of Thrones
Here’s the one you’ve all been waiting for… Based on George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novels, Game of Thrones is a high-fantasy epic that features an eclectic cast of characters spanning the Seven Kingdoms all hoping to take their rightful place on the Iron Throne. Between insane swordplay and battle sequences, dragons, ice giants (“White Walkers”), and a man literally getting engulfed by molten gold, there’s a lot to keep the audience actively engaged.
The television adaptation has made characters such as Jon Snow (Kit Harrington), Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke), Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage), Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey), Khal Drogo (Jason Mamoa), “the Hound” (Rory McCann), and Ned Stark (Sean Bean) all house-hold names in the same vein as Harry Potter or Frodo. In fact, showrunner David Benioff has joked that the series is just “The Sopranos in Middle-Earth.”
Game of Thrones may have one of the most controversial endings out there, but there’s no denying the quality of this fantasy epic that has become a cultural phenomenon.
5. Curb Your Enthusiasm
While Larry David may have been the co-creator of Seinfeld, he may be best known for his role as a fictionalized version of himself on Curb Your Enthusiasm. After an hour-long 1999 special, David started the Los Angeles (and one-time New York City) based series in 2000 and it’s still going strong today (the most recent season was released in 2020).
While the series mainly plays off David’s own cultural or social misunderstandings (situational comedy is David’s strong suit after all), the series also has various supporting characters whose social lives often (negatively) impact David’s, especially when his manager Jeff (Jeff Garlin) is involved. That said, the best dynamic on the series is between David and his on-screen wife Cheryl (Cheryl Hines), the “highlight of the party.”
Curb Your Enthusiasm is one of those comedies that you just can’t miss. Larry David is an improv-master who does what he’s best at – being himself. Oh, and yes, there is a Seinfeld reunion episode that will have you in stitches.
See more about - The 15 Best Robert De Niro Movies Of All Time
6. True Detective
The famed anthology crime drama originally took the television world by storm when it hit the small screen in 2014. With each season following a different set of detectives on a different case in a different location, these character-driven stories are incredibly attractive to both stars and directors alike, the latter of which have included the likes of Cary Joji Fukunaga (No Time To Die), Justin Lin (Fast & Furious 6), Jeremy Saulnier (Green Room), and series creator Nic Pizzolatto.
The first season takes place in rural Louisiana and stars Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson as dectectives trying to solve a 17-year old murder case with occult ties. While this first season is one of the greatest seasons of television ever, the L.A.-based second season (starring Colin Ferrill, Rachel McAdams, and Vince Vaughn) and the Ozark-based third season (led by Mahershala Ali) still hold strong.
True Detective is an intimate case study in human psychology, both that of the criminals and those who hunt them, that consistently asks us the tough questions, and we love it.
7. The Newsroom
From the master of dialogue himself, Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom is what sold longtime comedy actor Jeff Daniels as a “serious actor.” From the very first scene in the pilot where Daniels’ character Will McAvoy dismantles the very notion that “America isn’t the greatest country in the world anymore,” we fully understand what sort of series The Newsroom is going to be, and that’s what makes it work.
The series follows not only McAvoy but a series of crew members from Atlantis Cable News, a fictional news organization that is meant to represent the corporate news media we know today, though maybe with a little more integrity than what we see on our TV screens. And that’s what set The Newsroom apart. It did the work and became almost a spiritual successor to Sorkin’s other series The West Wing.
The Newsroom takes something as boring as the news and makes it a dynamic conglomerate with real heart and soul. It did exactly what we would aspire to see in our favorite news channels today.
8. Eastbound & Down
Created by Ben Best, Jody Hill, and Danny McBride, Eastbound & Down follows Kenny Powers (played by McBride), a former baseball pitcher who is forced to return to his North Carolina hometown to become a substitute P.E. teacher. If that sounds like a balls-to-the-wall idea, then you’ll love this just-shy-of-thirty episode series to death.
According to series co-creator and star Danny McBride, the series intended to “make fun of a South where you could learn an ancient martial art like Tae Kwon Do in a shopping center next to a tanning salon.” Turns out, it does all that and more thanks to a combination of eccentric characters and wild storylines. Plus, the series has a crazy number of hilarious guest stars including Adam Scott, Will Ferrell, Craig Robinson, Matthew McConaughey, and Jason Sudeikis.
Eastbound & Down may not be the most politically correct show, or even the most refined, but there are certainly some gems that may be worth mining for if you’re so inclined.
Speaking of mining, Deadwood is an American Western series set in the 1870s Dakota Territory in good-old Deadwood, South Dakota. Timothy Olyphant and Ian McShane star as real-life Deadwood residents Seth Bullock (a Sheriff and frontiersman) and Al Swearengen (a pimp and the owner of The Gem Saloon) in this excitingly brutal western tale that features a large ensemble cast who all consistently pull their own weight.
Constant use of expletives aside, series creator and head writer David Milch (who more recently did some work on True Detective) did his homework to make Deadwood as historically accurate as possible, including guest appearances from Wild West heroes and outlaws such as Wyatt Earp (Gale Harold), Calamity Jane (Robin Weigert), Jack McCall (Garret Dillahunt), and George Crook (Peter Coyote).
Deadwood is one of HBO’s most beloved series (often cited as having ended too soon) and recently got its own film continuation, Deadwood: The Movie, taking place 10 years after the series finale.
One of the greatest miniseries of recent times, Chernobyl is created and written by Craig Mazin and directed by Johan Renck. The historical drama follows Valery Leasov (Jared Harris), the deputy director of the Kurchatov Institute, Boris Shcherbina (Stellan Skarsgård), Anatoly Dyatlov (Paul Ritter), and Ulana Khomyuk (Emily Watson), a composite character based on the many scientists who investigated the incident.
This Soviet drama really gets to the heart of the matter behind Chernobyl and does its homework when showing not just the government agents sent to handle the situation, but the lives of the workers and the innocent civilians as well. It’s a well-painted picture of the lives of some of the lesser-known stories relating to this unnatural disaster, including the stories of the firemen – who were the first responders to the scene – the volunteers, and a team of miners.
Chernobyl is an excellent adaptation of this historical tragedy that pays as close attention to detail as possible. HBO even released a companion podcast in which Mazin provides some historical context and the reason for some of the narrative changes.
See more about - The 10 Best Serial Killer Movies Of All Time
“It’s no place like home.” Oz, created and primarily written by Tom Fontana, is a prison drama set in the fictional Oswald State Correctional Facility’s “Emerald City,” a wing named after the fictional setting of L. Frank Baum’s beloved books. This show is not for the faint of heart and features a ton of violence (including sexual violence) that keeps this writer from even attempting a viewing.
The series follows Warden Leo Glynn (former Ghostbuster Ernie Hudson), idealist Tim McManus (Terry Kinney), prisoner/series narrator Augustus Hill (Harold Perrineau), Kareem Saïd (Eamonn Walker), Tobias Beecher (Lee Tergesen), and a host of others (including actors like J.K. Simmons and Dean Winters in main roles) as they navigate prison, gang life, rehabilitation, racism, violence, and so much more.
Oz might not be the prettiest series, but it accurately portrays the horrors of the prison system that are often overlooked by politicians, religious orders, and the common person alike.
12. True Blood
Based on The Southern Vampire Mysteries novel series by Charlaine Harris, and the immediate premise that vampires exist and are able to come out of the darkness due to “Tru Blood,” a synthetic blood product, True Blood follows Sookie Stackhouse (Anna Paquin), a telepath who falls in love with a 173-year old vampire named Bill Compton (Stephen Moyer).
The series deals heavily with vampire’s struggle for equal rights, facing off against anti-vampire organizations and protesters, as well as Sookie’s personal struggles with her own demons relating to intimacy in her relationships, especially with Bill. This fantasy horror drama is a lot more than you might think as it’s a little more graphic and a whole lot darker than Twilight ever was.
True Blood is more than just your average vampire show – it’s full of real characters with real drama and real stakes… including the wooden kind.
Here’s one that might’ve slipped under your radar. Succession is a satirical black comedy-drama that follows the Roy family, who own the Waystar RoyCo media conglomerate. After their patriarch experiences a rapid decline in health, each member of the Roy family struggles for control and prepares to experience life without the influence of their father.
The series stars an ensemble cast that features Jeremy Strong, Kieran Culkin, Alan Ruck, Sarah Snook, and many others, including Brain Cox as the Roy family patriarch, Logan. The series takes a comedic approach to the family-business dynamic that keeps you engaged, and maybe a little bit enraged. Will Ferrell and Adam McKay serving as producers certainly help.
Succession is still ongoing, creator Jesse Armstrong has made sure of that, and promises more laughs and family squabbles to keep fans entertained.
14. Six Feet Under
Speaking of family dramas, one of the more quirky shows on this list (but certainly not the most quirky, just wait for the next one) is Six Feet Under. The show depicts a family who is dealing with the passing of their patriarch, the owner of a funeral home called Fischer & Son. The deceased father has bequeathed the family business to his two sons, played by Sports Night’s Peter Krause and Dexter’s Michael C. Hall, who must deal with their emotional turmoil while working together to keep the business alive
As the brothers take on the task, they deal with lots of classical family drama (featuring just about everything from dysfunction to religion) to constant topics surrounding death, including the philosophical, personal, and religious implications of the great equalizer. Plus, consistent conversations with the dead makes for some good content.
Six Feet Under is a surreal, darkly humorous show that tends to be a lot of fun but also doesn’t shy away from the heavier topics.
15. Flight of the Conchords
We promised you a quirky show, and Flight of the Conchords is just that. Starring the real-life music duo (also called Flight of the Conchords) of Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie, the two play fictitious versions of themselves trying to make it in the music industry. While the show only lasted two seasons, the 22 episode run is glorious in its own right.
The series follows the shepherds-turned-folk-musicians as they uproot themselves from their homeland in New Zealand to try and make it big in New York City. Rhys Darby also stars as their band manager who keeps them away from their stalker (played by Kristen Schaal). A staple of the series is the duo’s constant breaking into song, sometimes as they sing to other characters, and other times to serve as their inner monologue.
Flight of the Conchords is an incredibly unique series that was canceled far too soon, but still remains one of the finest musical comedies out there.
16. Boardwalk Empire
Former Sopranos writer-producer Terence Winter proved he wasn’t yet finished with the crime drama when he came up with Prohibition-era series Boardwalk Empire. Taking place primarily in Atlantic City, New Jersey during the 1920s, the show follows Enoch “Nucky” Thompson (Steve Buscemi), the county’s most powerful political figure and crime lord.
The series became an instant classic (the pilot was even directed by Hollywood superstar Martin Scorsese) and features an incredibly talented cast (including Michael Shannon, Kelly Macdonald, Shea Whigam, Stephen Graham, and Michael Kenneth Williams) to bounce off Buscemi’s ruthless gangster. While the series doesn’t strictly follow historical events, it is based on the life of Enoch Lewis Johnson, a real-life criminal kingpin from that era.
Boardwalk Empire had enough flair and gusto to last five full seasons, but it goes by quicker than you’d think.
See more about - The 40 Best Movies Of The 1990s