With its tagline “It’s not TV. It’s HBO,” HBO reimagined the medium and ushered in the Golden Age of television we live in today. The premium network pioneered the idea of airing episodes without commercial interruptions and pushed aside the restrictions on sex, language, and violence that network shows had to obey.
Now that model is ubiquitous and HBO has effectively become one of many streaming service options with the launch of HBO Max. While it faces strong competition from the likes of Netflix and Hulu, HBO’s focus on high quality, big budget original shows gives it an exceptional library of programs that are perfect for binging.
This is the network that established the foundations of prestige drama with The Sopranos and The Wire. Its ludicrously expensive adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire fantasy series captured the pop culture zeitgeist in a way that hadn’t been done since Dallas and is unlikely to happen again any time soon. While some skeptics predicted HBO might collapse in a flurry of cancelled subscriptions when the epic series ended, the network has continued to deliver with Watchmen, a sophisticated superhero show that dominated this year’s Emmy nominations.
If you’re considering subscribing or have already joined and are looking for some viewing inspiration, we’ve put together a list to the best HBO shows. The wide range of genres ensures there’s something you’ll love regardless of your mood or preferences.
The Wire (2002-2008)
Widely regarded as one of the best television shows of all time, The Wire is a powerful examination of the ways people are both locked into and failed by systems. Set in Baltimore, the show started as a particularly nuanced crime drama dividing time between police detectives trying to bust a powerful gang and the complicated lives of the drug dealers themselves. Later seasons explored other institutions such as city government, schools, and local journalism, bringing up issues of partisan politics, socioeconomic inequality, and corruption that remain extremely relevant today.
Creator David Simon expected viewers to watch closely and keep up, so don’t expect flashbacks or characters delivering plot synopsis. If you do give the show your full attention, you’ll be rewarded with an emotional rollercoaster including tragic violence, sharp jokes, and a phenomenal cast of characters with satisfying arcs.
The Wire helped launch a lot of careers so expect to see plenty of familiar faces including Idris Elba, Lance Reddick, and a very young Michael B. Jordan.
Game of Thrones (2011-2019)
It’s hard to overstate how influential HBO’s adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire fantasy series was. Game of Thrones got the world excited about dragons and sword fights and set off a race for the next big fantasy epic that led to Netflix’s The Witcher and Amazon’s pending The Wheel of Time and The Lord of The Rings shows.
The show started with fans of the books quietly waiting for those who hadn’t read then to experience the horrible fates Martin often wrote for his most noble characters. But the showrunners eventually faced the same frustration as readers when they ran out of material and Martin’s promises of more books never materialized. The result is that the later seasons fell off in quality, ending with an abrupt and unsatisfying finale.
Yet for all those flaws, Game of Thrones delivered some of the most impressive battles since Lord of the Rings and invented the art of sexposition to keep viewers interested in the detailed histories of scheming houses. You’ll be served well by taking a page from Tyrion or Cersei Lannister and having a large glass of wine as you enjoy the ride.
While Zack Snyder’s Watchmen film largely fell flat by trying to slavishly adapt Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ seminal 1986 graphic novel, creator Damon Lindelof showed a powerful understanding of the source material as he moved the characters and story forward into the modern day. Set in a world where the first superhero comics led to a wave of real life costumed vigilantes and the Cold War ended due to a fake alien invasion, the show follows characters from the original comic and their successors.
The show taught many viewers about the Tulsa race massacre for the first time and the issues it raises about America’s history of white supremacy have only become more relevant since it was released. Lindelof said he’s not interested in continuing the show, which is probably for the best as he crafted a phenomenal self-contained story that ends beautifully.
The high-budget historical costume drama Rome in some ways set the stage for Game of Thrones. It combines soap opera intrigue, heaping portions of violence and nudity, and world-shaping military and political struggles to tell the story of the rise and fall of Julius Caesar and his heir Octavian.
While seeing figures made famous by Shakespeare and Dante brought to life is the show’s primary attraction, it also offers a glimpse at how the common people of Rome lived by telling the stories of two soldiers who seem to always find themselves where history is happening. Serving as comic relief and audience stand-ins, these characters are truly the heart and soul of the show.
Last Week Tonight (2014-present)
The Daily Show alumni John Oliver hosts this weekly news show anchored by deep dives into topics you didn’t know you needed to care about. His top-notch research team is great at condensing complex subjects like bail and net neutrality into entertaining monologues that empower viewers by suggesting ways to push for change. Those calls to action have actually led to reform, though they’ve also caused Oliver to be sued and mocked by his critics.
That’s not something that seems to bother the perpetually self-deprecating British comedian. He delights in lampooning the powerful and spending HBO’s money to pull off ridiculous stunts like buying Russell Crowe’s jockstrap or building an enormous train set for a local TV station. At a time when the news seems darker than ever, he helps try to make sense of things while providing some laughs.
Band of Brothers (2001)
Effectively a fantastic 10-hour long war movie, the Band of Brothers miniseries tells the story of an elite paratrooper unit in World War II through a mix of phenomenal dramatization and interviews with the actual veterans the characters are based on. The identities of the real men aren’t revealed until the last episode, keeping viewers in suspense as to who lives and who dies.
This was Billions and Homeland star Damian Lewis’ first big role and he’s incredibly compelling as the brave and dedicated Major Richard Winters. But the show also moves around to follow different characters, sharing exciting and tragic stories of battle with visuals that rival Saving Private Ryan.
Barry (2018 - present)
Saturday Night Live alumni Bill Hader created and stars in this dark comedy about a military veteran turned hitman who wants to leave his violent life behind and become an actor. More Grosse Pointe Blank than John Wick, the show portrays the world of contract killing in a far from glamorous light as Barry is constantly undermined by his employers.
Whether dealing with gang wars, police investigations, or young actors trying to make it big, everything in Barry is tinged with absurdity. It’s fight scenes are brutal and impressive, but even more memorable is the dialogue between the fantastic cast including Stephen Root and Harry Winkler.
While the laughs keep coming, the show also isn’t afraid to delve into deeper dramatic territory. The series delivers some fantastic commentary about how people convince themselves of their own goodness, and how much truth we really want to accept.
The U.S.’s botched response to the COVID-19 pandemic makes this already fantastic historical miniseries newly relevant for its examination of the way politics can interfere with crisis response and cost lives. A dramatization of the events surrounding the 1986 accident at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in the Soviet Union, the series alternates between by the minute portrayals of the meltdown in progress to the months-long process of mitigating the damage and trying to prevent a future tragedy on that scale.
Jared Harris stars as a scientist navigating Soviet propaganda, lying plant supervisors, and paranoid military and government officials while trying to prevent a horrific disaster from becoming even worse. It’s a fascinating and tragic story of an event that left a wide swath of land uninhabitable to this day and ushered in the beginning of the end of the Cold War.
The Sopranos (1999-2007)
Every anti-hero led drama from Mad Men to Breaking Bad owes a debt to The Sopranos. The late great James Gandolfini played Tony Soprano, a New Jersey Italian mob boss who goes to a psychologist looking for help dealing with the stress of being the head of a criminal organization and a family.
While the show could be very dark and violent, it also delivered plenty of humor. Fans of Scorsese films won’t want to miss it. Just expect to get the theme song stuck in your head for weeks.
While most political shows like The West Wing and House of Cards imagine elected officials as highly competent, driven leaders, the satire Veep shows the sillier side of the U.S. government. Seinfeld star Julia Louis-Dreyfus plays the title role as she works to gain and hold onto power while dealing with family drama, gaffs, and political crises.
This is another show that just seems more relevant now than it did when it premiered given how weird and dysfunctional the political climate has gotten. It also features plenty of fun cameos including one by former vice president Joe Biden.
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