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. Game of Thrones, 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 the likes Watchmen, Succession, White Lotus and more.
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, including HBO Max originals. The wide range of genres ensures there’s something you’ll love regardless of your mood or preferences.
Angels in America (2001)
HBO has become known almost as much as for their limited event series as their traditional drama/comedy programs. One example (of many) for HBO was Angels in America. With Tony Kushner adapting his Broadway epic and Mike Nichols directing, Angels in America chronicles the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s, centering around a group of disparate but connected individuals.
With Kushner and Nichols handling things behind the camera, in front of it was a fantastic cast that included Al Pacino, Meryl Streep, Emma Thompson, Mary-Louise Parker, Jeffrey Wright, Patrick Wilson, James Cromwell, Ben Shenkman and more to tell this epic and powerful tale.
Angels in America is a prime example of HBO dominating the Emmys in the 2000s, winning 11 trophies, including all four Miniseries or Movie acting awards (Pacino, Streep, Wright, Parker) and wins for Nichols’ direction and Kushner’s writing.
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.
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 Henry 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.
Big Little Lies (2017-2019)
Most people think that HBO should have quit while it was ahead and not done a second season of Big Little Lies, but that’s definitely hindsight coming into play, because the first season of the mystery drama series based on Liane Moriarty’s book of the same name about a group of mothers living in a California beach town was such a big hit and left many fans begging for more.
The first season of Big Little Lies is grade-A from top to bottom. Nicole Kidman and Laura Dern were standouts in a cast that also included Reese Witherspoon, Shailene Woodley, Zoë Kravitz, Adam Scott and Alexander Skarsgård. It’s a testament to how good something is that when you add Meryl Streep to it the quality doesn’t actually get better, but that’s what happened with Big Little Lies.
Boardwalk Empire (2010-2014)
HBO has another New Jersey-set gangster show that we’ll be talking about in a little bit, but Boardwalk Empire is another classic foray by HBO into the genre, and with one of the all-time masters of it, Martin Scorsese, with his name on it to boot (he directed the pilot episode and served as an executive producer on the Terence Winter-created show).
Set as the era of prohibition begins in the U.S., Boardwalk Empire follows Atlantic City power figure Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi) as he tries to straddle both sides of the law, continually clashing with those who look to take hold of his burgeoning bootlegging operations. This was a rare leading role for Buscemi, who absolutely nailed it, but the cast also included great performances from Kelly Macdonald, Michael Shannon, Shea Whigham, Stephen Graham, Paul Sparks, Gretchen Mol, Michael Stuhlbarg, Jack Huston, Michael Pitt and the late Michael K. Williams.
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.
Curb Your Enthusiasm (2000-present)
When Curb Your Enthusiasm started, Larry David was barely a household name. He was known for having created Seinfeld (and appearing in small roles on the ‘90s sitcom), but he was not typically known as an actor. Eleven seasons later David has become one of the most recognizable comedians on TV.
He did this by playing an exaggerated version of himself who goes through everyday life situations complaining and getting himself into outrageous and hilarious faux pas. The show has also featured so many great guest appearances, with many actors playing themselves, including Jon Hamm, Wanda Sykes, David Schwimmer, Ben Stiller, Michael J. Fox, Elizabeth Banks, Jonah Hill and even the cast of Seinfeld.
The Flight Attendant (2020-present)
The Flight Attendant was the first big hit for HBO Max, as Kaley Cuoco mixed humor and thrills in this mystery story that practically demanded to be binged.
Cuoco stars as Cassie, a flight attendant with an alcohol problem who meets a tall, dark and handsome stranger on an international flight, spends the night with him and wakes up to his dead body the next morning with no memory of what happened. As Cassie tries to put the pieces together, she keeps finding herself in ever increasingly dangerous situations.
The Flight Attendant was one of the Emmy darlings for HBO Max, receiving nods for Outstanding Comedy Series, Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy (Cuoco) and Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy (Rosie Perez).
The Flight Attendant season 2 is expected sometime in mid 2022.
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 them 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.
HBO hit viewers with a Jean Smart double whammy in 2021. After a great supporting turn in Mare of Easttown, Smart got top billing in the HBO Max Original series Hacks playing a legendary Las Vegas comedian, which she absolutely knocked out of the park.
The series follows Smart’s Deborah Vance and her young new comedy writer Ava (Hannah Einbinder). Despite their initial disconnect (and slight resentment), the two begin to work together to give Deborah’s career a fresh start.
The first season of Hacks earned 14 Emmy nominations in total, with Smart and Einbinder both getting acting nods (along with Carl Clemons-Hopkins) and the show netting one for Outstanding Comedy Series overall.
It didn’t take long before HBO Max renewed Hacks for a second season.
John Adams (2008)
Any fans of U.S. history that have not seen John Adams yet need to do so immediately. Even though it is directed by a Brit (Oscar-winner Tom Hooper) the miniseries is an epic telling of founding father John Adams and his role in shaping America during the Revolutionary War and the early days of the United States of America.
Paul Giamatti is fantastic as Adams, while equally as good is Laura Linney as Abigail Adams, Adams’ wife and confidant. Stephen Dillane (Thomas Jefferson) and Tom Wilkinson (Ben Franklin) also give standout performances.
If you think history is boring, I’d challenge you to watch John Adams and not be riveted in the telling of many crucial events in America’s founding.
The Larry Sanders Show (1992-1998)
It has been almost 30 years since The Larry Sanders Show premiered on HBO, so you’d be forgiven if you are not immediately familiar with it. However, you have seen it’s impact on some of the most popular comedies of the last 15 or so years, including The Office, 30 Rock, Modern Family and more.
Starring Garry Shandling, Rip Torn and Jeffrey Tambor, The Larry Sanders Show is a look at the behind-the-scenes world of a fictional late night talk show. It immediately looked different than every other TV comedy of its era as it ditched the multi-cam production (save for when it was shooting the talk show scenes) for a single camera style. The irreverence and outlandishness of its characters also influenced many TV staples to come.
HBO may not have truly become HBO until The Sopranos premiered in 1999, but The Larry Sanders Show laid the groundwork for the high-quality programming that the cable network has become synonymous with.
Last Week Tonight (2014-present)
The Daily Show alum 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.
Mare of Easttown (2021)
TV viewers couldn’t get enough of Kate Winslet talking about hoagies and Rolling Rocks in her Delco accent in the summer of 2021 — oh, and they were also pretty invested in who killed Erin McMenamin, the central mystery at the heart of Mare of Easttown.
With its unusual, rural local, Mare of Easttown often focused on the unglamourous aspects of life, which ranged from the choice to have Winslet’s Mare layered up and often without makeup to diving deep into the long-lasting impacts of grief, addiction and sexual abuse. Who killed Erin McMenamin was a satisfying mystery to keep viewers coming back each week, but the richness of Mare of Easttown comes from everything else.
The Pacific (2010)
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, Lucius Vorenus and Titus Pullo, 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.
Sex and the City (1998-2004)
Sex and the City is a cultural touchstone, as the comedy following four New York women in their 30s as they discuss their sex lives and careers made stars out of Sarah Jessica Parker, Kim Cattrall, Kristin Davis and Cynthia Nixon. The quarter would reprise their roles in two blockbuster movies and three of them (all but Cattrall) will return for a sequel series, And Just Like That … on HBO Max.
Sex and the City was so influential that HBO essentially tried to create a guy version of it with Entourage, which while popular has not nearly had the same impact.
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.
Kind of a Notting Hill for the 21st century, Starstruck was created by and stars comedian Rose Matafeo, whose main character discovers that the guy that she hooked up with at the bar the night before is actually a major film star. Both feeling a connection, they have to try and navigate the different atmospheres they occupy.
Nikesh Patel, Emma Sidi and Joe Barnes lead Starstruck’s supporting cast. The show was a co-production between HBO Max and BBC Three.
HBO Max welcomed Starstruck to the streaming service (it had already premiered in England) with a renewal for season 2.
Why is it so much fun to watch rich, powerful and in most cases awful people battle for control over a media conglomerate? That would likely take a longer piece than this to explain, but whatever it is Succession has nailed it.
Now in season 3, Succession follows the Roy family, who lie, swear and betray each other as the children of a powerful media mogul approaching retirement all try and position themselves to be the one to take over; though of course the patriarch won’t go anywhere without a fight.
Brian Cox, Jeremy Strong, Sarah Snook, Kieran Culkin, Alan Ruck, Matthew Macfayden and Nicholas Braun portray Succession’s main power players, in what is one of the best written dramedies of the last few years.
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 President Joe Biden.
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.
Watchmen 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 White Lotus (2021)
While I’m willing to bet that no one would want to actually have the vacation that the characters in The White Lotus did, viewers couldn’t help but enjoy the chaos that descended on this picturesque Hawaiian resort. The dark comedy from Mike White follows both the guests and the employees of the titular hotel, with some of our favorites being Jennifer Coolidge’s grieving Tanya and Murray Bartlett’s put-upon hotel manager who is also struggling with addiction issues.
HBO has already booked another stay at The White Lotus (as has Coolidge), and I for one can’t wait for our next trip together.
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, a very young Michael B. Jordan and the late Michael K. Williams.
Michael Balderston is a DC-based entertainment and assistant managing editor for What to Watch, who has previously written about the TV and movies with TV Technology, Awards Circuit and regional publications. Spending most of his time watching new movies at the theater or classics on TCM, some of Michael's favorite movies include Casablanca, Moulin Rouge!, Silence of the Lambs, Children of Men, One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest and Star Wars. On the TV side he enjoys Peaky Blinders, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Saturday Night Live, Only Murders in the Building and is always up for a Seinfeld rerun.
Get the latest updates, reviews and unmissable series to watch and more!
Thank you for signing up to Whattowatch. You will receive a verification email shortly.
There was a problem. Please refresh the page and try again.