There are plenty of great shows on Netflix and Amazon Prime Video, but HBO still reigns king in the world of TV streaming. Since 1972, the ‘Home Box Office’, better known as HBO has produced dozens upon dozens of top-tier TV shows. We’re going to rank the best shows on HBO, from ‘72 to 2020 so that you can find a new series or a forgotten classic that is 100% worth viewing.
The Best Shows on HBO Right Now
How To with John Wilson (2020--)
Created and Directed by John Wilson
Starring John Wilson
American filmmaker John Wilson sticks his camera into the unseen in this enlightening miniseries. How To with John Wilson is unlike anything I’ve ever seen; is it satire? Performance art? Narrative storytelling? Who knows! Maybe that’s why it works.Nathan Fielder of Nathan for You executive produced How To with John Wilson – and there are more than a few similarities between the two programs.
Neon-Infused Drama Series
The Deuce (2017-2019)
Created by David Simon and George Pelecanos
Starring James Franco, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Gbenga Akinnagbe, and Chris Bauer
The most recent series from David Simon, a near ubiquitous name with HBO, follows the founding days of the porn industry. James Franco stars in a double role as two brothers, similar to Ewan McGregor in Fargo and Tom Hardy in Legend.
The Deuce may start slow but once it picks up steam, there’s almost no stopping it.
Dragons and Disappointment
Game of Thrones (2011-2019)
Created by David Benioff and D. B. Weiss, Based on A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin
Starring Emilia Clarke, Kit Harrington, Peter Dinklage, Lena Headey, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Sophie Turner, and Maisie Williams
Oh Game of Thrones how I loved thee. Through seven seasons, Game of Thrones achieved some cloud-peaking highs and some deep-sea lows as it explored a chess game of shifting loyalties, brutal backstabs, and lots and lots of love. But through it all, I found myself glued to the TV screen on Sunday nights desperate to see how it would all come together.
Then season eight happened. Needless to say, fans and critics were left underwhelmed. Game of Thrones breathed new life into the fantasy genre, but sadly, by the end its lungs were extinguished by ice amidst the fire.
The Best Shows on HBO Right Now
The Undoing (2020)
Created by David E. Kelly, Based on You Should Have Known by Jean Hanff Korelitz, Directed by Susan Bier
Starring Hugh Grant, Nicole Kidman, Edgar Ramirez, Noah Jupe, and Donald Sutherland
Hugh Grant and Nicole Kidman star in this HBO mini-series about a couple who are thrown for a loop when one of them is accused of murder. The Undoing broke HBO viewership records – becoming the first HBO series to gain viewers every week.
Director Susan Brier received a lot of acclaim for her work on the series; as did David E. Kelley, one of the premiere television legal writers working today.
The American President
Created by Armando Iannucci
Starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Anna Chlumsky, Tony Hale, Reid Scott, Timothy Simons, and Matt Walsh
It’s no secret that Julia Louis-Dreyfus became one of the winningest actors of all-time for her performance as Selina Meyer – the fictional Vice President of the United States – in Veep. Louis-Dreyfus is no stranger to acclaim from critics going all the way back to her days on SNL, but Veep is truly her finest work.
The similarly lauded Armando Ianucci (In the Loop, The Death of Stalin) created the series and wrote or directed many of the episodes. Ianucci is one of the premiere political satirists in the world today and Veep is one of his greatest works.
Neon-Infused Drama Series
Sex and the City (1998-2004)
Created by Darren Starr, Based on Sex and the City by Candace Bushnell
Starring Sarah Jessica Parker, Kim Catrall, Kristin Davis, and Cynthia Nixon
Sex and the City made HBO more popular than many at the time thought possible. Through its six-season run, Sex and the City was nominated for 54 Emmy Awards, and won seven.
The influence of Sex and the City on sitcoms and popular culture can’t be quantified. Sarah Jessica Parker does a great job of carrying the series in the role of Carrie Bradshaw – an imperfect protagonist looking for love in the big city.
Criminal Justice Series
The Night Of (2016)
Created by Richard Price and Steven Zaillian, Based on Criminal Justice by Peter Moffat
Starring Riz Ahmed, John Turturro, Bill Camp, and Michael K. Williams
There are plenty of great mini-series on HBO, but The Night Of may very well be the best of them all. The Night Of follows the story of a young man named Naz who’s arrested on suspicion of murder. Did he do it? We don’t know, at least at first we don’t. By framing the story in this way, writers Steven Zallian and Richard Price really enrapture us into the film-world.
The Night Of never dumbs itself down for the viewer which results in an engrossing portrait of the criminal justice system in America.
The Leftovers (2014-2017)
Created by Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta, Based on The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta
Starring Justin Theroux, Carrie Coon, Amy Brenneman, and Christopher Eccleston
The Leftovers asks the question: what if 2% of the world’s population disappeared? The first season of The Leftovers was okay. It wasn’t bad but it wasn’t great either. Oftentimes, when a show struggles to find its footing, it just kind of meanders along the same path until it eventually fades into obscurity. That’s not what happened with The Leftovers.
After season one, Damon Lindelof and the writers went back to the drawing board and reinvented The Leftovers. And thank God that they did, because the next two seasons of the show are some of the greatest television ever made. The Leftovers raises many of the same themes that Lindelof explored with his previous show Lost, but does so in an even more nuanced and profound way.
Justin Theroux gives a career performance in the role of Kevin Garvey, a Christ-like figure caught in the storm of a cosmological rapture.
The Larry Sanders Show (1992-1998)
Created by Garry Shandling and Dennis Klein
Starring Garry Shandling, Rip Torn, Jeffrey Tambor, and Penny Johnson
The Larry Sanders Show deftly satirizes the late-night talk show tropes that were all too common in 90’s TV. The show stars Garry Shandling in the title role as a comedian/late-night host who juggles his personal and professional lives in front of the camera.
The influence of The Larry Sanders Show on sitcoms and late-night shows has been enormous. For anybody considering a foray into either genre, The Larry Sanders Show is a must-watch.
Gangsters on the Dock
Boardwalk Empire (2009-2014)
Created by Terence Winter, Based on Boardwalk Empire: The Birth, High Times, and Corruption of Atlantic City by Nelson Johnson
Starring Steve Buscemi, Michael Pitt, Kelly Macdonald, Michael Shannon, and Shea Whigham
Atlantic City was a hot-bed for bootlegging, speakeasies, and other prohibition related crimes. Boardwalk Empire transports us into that world with sweeping visuals and tremendous production design.
How can you not love Steve Buscemi in the role of a prohibition era gangster? Boardwalk Empire not only features Buscemi, but other great actors like Michael Shannon and Stephen Graham as well.
The Wire (2002-2008)
Created by David Simon
Starring Dominic West, John Doman, Idris Elba, Frankie Faison, and Larry Gilliard Jr.
The setting of The Wire may be relatively small but the scope of its story is near-endless. David Simon created The Wire after years of being a police reporter. Perhaps that’s one reason why the show seems so much more grounded and believable than its contemporaries do.
The Wire is widely hailed as one of the great epic drama series of the 21st century for the ways in which it depicts police and gang life.
Created by Paolo Sorrentino
Starring Jude Law, John Malkovich, Diane Keaton, and Silvio Orlando
It’s all semantics but this much I can tell you: The [insert adjective here] Pope is great. All of the episodes are directed by renowned Italian filmmaker Paolo Sorrentino and he adds his signature visual flair throughout. Few shows in recent history are better looking than Sorrentino’s visual treatise on the Catholic Church.
Award Season Sweeper
Big Little Lies (2017-present)
Created by David E. Kelly, Based on Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty
Starring Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Shailene Woodley, Zoë Kravitz, and Laura Dern
Big Little Lies is a nuanced drama/thriller about a group of women who are intricately linked in a murder investigation. The first season of Big Little Lies dominated at the Emmys by winning eight awards.
Big Little Lies made waves upon release for all the big names in its ensemble cast and the twists and turns of its story. Series creator David E. Kelly followed up season one by adding the great Meryl Streep to the cast.
New Jersey Mafia
The Sopranos (1999-2007)
Created by David Chase
Starring James Gandolfini, Lorraine Braco, Edie Falco, and Michael Imperioli
The late, great James Gandolfini stars as the titular Tony Soprano – a violent mob-boss who also has a sensitive side. Few shows on television are celebrated more than The Sopranos, evident by the show’s 21 Emmy Award wins.
Without The Sopranos, HBO would’ve never become the juggernaut service it is today. Perhaps no show on HBO is more iconic than David Chase’s mafia masterpiece The Sopranos.
The Best Shows on HBO Right Now
Lovecraft Country (2020--)
Developed by Misha Green, Based on Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff
Starring Jurnee Smollett, Jonathan Majors, Aunjanue Ellis, Courtney B. Vance, and Michael K. Williams
Lovecraft Country takes the enigmatic stories of H.P. Lovecraft and flips them on their head. The show follows a black man as he travels across a “Jim Crow” United States whilst searching for his missing father. On his journey, the man encounters monsters both natural and supernatural.
Perhaps the greatest strength of Lovecraft Country is its audacious visuals; at times scenic, at times horrific. This is also a show of reclamation and the history we gloss over – monsters, mayhem, misery and all.
Sitcom Like None Other
Created by Larry David
Starring Larry David, Jeff Garlin, Cheryl Hines, Susie Essman, and J. B. Smoove
Okay, who can hate Larry David? Well besides all the characters in Curb Your Enthusiasm that is. Larry David, AKA TV’s most opinionated personality, decided to jump in front of the camera with Curb rather than stick to the pen and paper he used to co-create Seinfeld.
And what a good thing he did. For the past 20 years, Curb Your Enthusiasm has been one of the best comedy shows on television. A tenth season aired in 2020 and showed that there’s no signs of David slowing down.
True Story Drama
Show Me a Hero (2015)
Based on Show Me a Hero by Lisa Belkin
Starring Oscar Isaac, Carla Quevedo, Jim Belushi, Peter Riegert, and Alfred Molina
“Show me a hero and I’ll write you a tragedy.” That’s the line that begins HBO’s miniseries Show Me a Hero. It’s also largely credited to author F. Scott Fitzgerald and is associated with the follies of the American dream.
In the 2010’s, Oscar Isaac emerged as one of the great actors in the world. He starred in big-budget blockbusters like Star Wars and acclaimed dramas like A Most Violent Year, but perhaps his best performance was in Show Me a Hero as former Yonkers mayor Nick Wasiscko, who was at the time of his election the youngest “city mayor” in America. The true story of Show Me a Hero is a crushing reminder of the social injustices and financial inequalities that plague America.
Tennessee Williams Meets Conglomerates
Created by Jesse Armstrong
Starring Brian Cox, Kieran Culkin, Sarah Snook, and Jeremy Strong
To say that the writing in Succession is sharp would be an understatement. Dialogue in Succession cuts like a diamond thanks to some excellent work from creator Jesse Armstrong and the show’s writing team.
Succession also benefits from a tremendous ensemble cast, including Jeremy Strong, Sarah Snook, Kieran Culkin, and of course, Brian Cox. Casting director Francine Maisler knocked it out of the park finding such perfectly fitted actors.
Raining Cats and Squids
Created by Damon Lindelof, Based on Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons
Starring Regina King, Tim Blake Nelson, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Jeremy Irons, and Don Johnson
The original Watchmen graphic novel from Alan Moore is one of the most revered graphic novels in the world. In 2009, Watchmen was adapted as a film by Zack Snyder and it received strong reviews from critics. However, many fans of the original comics weren’t as quick to praise the movie.
Enter 2019’s Watchmen HBO series – a bold reimagining of the universe from Damon Lindelof (Lost, The Leftovers). Perhaps the best thing about the show is that nobody really knew what it was going to be about, nor when it was going to take place in the film-world. HBO’s Watchmen was certainly a surprise, but in all the best ways.
Directed by Andrew Jarecki
Featuring Andrew Jarecki and Robert Durst
Has there ever been anything more crazy than The Jinx? Okay, I know it’s a hyperbole to ask that, but seriously The Jinx is about as insane as filmmaking gets. Andrew Jarecki directs the series as he seeks to unravel the mystery of Robert Durst, a wealthy socialite who’s been linked to several high-profile murder cases.
What follows is a descent into the depths of Durst’s mind. It’s chilling, disturbing, yet engrossing to watch. Oh, and it just so happened to conclude with one of the most unforgettable endings in television history.
Any and every documentary ethics class should study Andrew Jarecki’s masterpiece The Jinx.
Existential Detective Thriller
True Detective (2014-present)
Created by Nic Pizzolato
Featuring Matthew McConaughey, Woody Harrelson, Colin Farrell, Rachel McAdams, Vince Vaughn, and Mahershala Ali
The first season of True Detective was brought together within a perfect storm. It was written entirely by a largely unknown writer (Nic Pizzolato), directed by a major up-and-coming talent (Cary Joji Fukunaga), and featured two resurgent dramatic actors (Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey). So for many, myself included, True Detective season one felt like watching a masterpiece fly out of left field.
Then there was season two. Spoilers, it’s bad, bad in a way only incomprehensible dialogue and extensive vape use can be. But then season three brought the series back to a recognizable level of prestige. Although it wasn’t as good as the first, it was still mostly riveting.
It’s hard to judge any anthology series, let alone one with as many ups and downs as True Detective. But season one of the show remains some of the best television of the past 10 years.
Tales From the West
Deadwood (2004-2006, 2019)
Created by David Milch
Starring Timothy Olyphant, Ian McShane, and Molly Parker
Deadwood is about a series of fictionalized events that took place in the old west settlement of the same name. Despite being one of HBO’s most acclaimed dramas, the story of Deadwood was never concluded – that is until the release of Deadwood: The Movie in 2019.
Deadwood ran for three seasons in its initial run on HBO and won eight Emmy Awards. Several of the show’s Emmy awards were given for production design in costuming, hairstyling, and non-prosthetic makeup.
NoHo Hitman Comedy
Created by Alec Berg and Bill Hader
Starring Bill Hader, Stephen Root, Sarah Goldberg, Glenn Fleshler, Anthony Carrigan, and Henry Winkler
Barry follows traumatized war-vet ‘Barry Block’ as he transitions from a lethal hitman to an actor. At times Barry is downright tragic, at other times it’s joyous and playful. But if one thing is certain, it’s that Barry is one of the best shows on HBO right now.
During his years on Saturday Night Live, Bill Hader established himself as one of the premiere talents working in comedy. Hader parlayed his name-cache into several feature film roles from 2013-2018.
Relationship Drama in LA
Created by Issa Rae and Larry Wilmore
Starring Issa Rae, Jay Ellis, and Yvonne Orji
Co-creator, writer, and star Issa Rae absolutely knocked it out of the park with Insecure – a show that takes a deep dive into the contemporary setting of Los Angeles.
Insecure strikes a great balance between comedy and drama while showing us the life of its two main characters, Issa and Molly. Insecure is further aided by some excellent cinematography and production design.
Insecure has garnered tons of critical acclaim through its four season run, including an AFI award for Best TV Program of the Year (2018).
Follow the Blood-Stained Brick Road
Created by Tom Fontana
Starring Lee Tergensen, Ernie Hudson, Terry Kinney, Harold Perrineau, and J. K. Simmons
Oz is the show that started it all for HBO dramas. This uber-graphic series brings us into “Emerald City,” a carefully constructed new section of a fictional prison system.
Oz is a graphic show that isn’t afraid to delve into some deep discussions on religion, crime, martyrdom, redemption, and sexuality. The complex commentary that Oz makes on the prison system is just as pertinent now as it was in 1997.
John Adams (2008)
Based on John Adams by David McCullough
Starring Paul Giamatti, Laura Linney, Stephen Dillane, David Morse, and Tom Wilkinson
Widely regarded as one of the most historically accurate shows ever made, HBO’s John Adams is a great lesson in reconstructing period detail. Everything from wardrobing to set dressing to hair and makeup is masterclass.
Paul Giamatti stars in the title role as the man who would become the second President of the United States. The miniseries follows over 50 years in the life of Adams from the Boston Massacre in 1770 to his death in 1826.
Death is the Family Business
Six Feet Under (2001-2005)
Created by Alan Ball
Starring Peter Krause, Michael C. Hall, Frances Conroy, Lauren Ambrose, and Freddy Rodriguez
What is family? What does it mean to walk in the footsteps of those who came before us? How do we begin to make sense of death? These are the questions at the heart of Six Feet Under – a familial drama of life and death in Los Angeles.
Six Feet Under has developed a major cult following in the fifteen years since it ended in large part due to some great performances from Peter Krause, Michael C. Hall, Frances Conroy, and Lauren Ambrose.
Horrific Disaster Series
Created by Craig Mazin
Starring Jared Harris, Stellan Skarsgård, Paul Ritter, and Jessie Buckley
The HBO mini-series Chernobyl recreates the nuclear disaster better than any film or show has ever done before.
The Chernobyl nuclear explosion was a disaster of epic proportions. People died in the midst of the explosion, dozens more died in the months that followed, and countless more died in the 30+ years since. The air of death quite literally still radiates on those grounds.
War Never Changes
Band of Brothers (2001)
Created by Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg, Based on Stephen A. Ambrose’s Band of Brothers
Starring Damian Lewis, Ron Livingston, Scott Grimes, and Donnie Whalberg
The HBO epic Band of Brothers is a harrowing recreation of the Easy Company’s journey across battles in World War II; a visceral insight into the horrors of war and the bonds of fraternity that are built because of them.
With a massive ensemble cast, Band of Brothers truly displays the giant scope of war. Several WWII vets were brought in to consult on Band of Brothers which has largely been credited as a major reason for the show’s historical accuracy.
The Best Shows on HBO Right Now
The Flight Attendant (2020--)
Developed by Steve Yockey, Based on The Flight Attendant by Chris Bohjalian
Starring Kaley Cuoco, Michiel Huisman, Zosia Mamet, and T.R. Knight
The Flight Attendant is a fast-paced, globe-trotting thriller that shifts tones on a whim. Kaley Cuoco stars in the series as a reckless flight attendant whose life is turned upside down when she becomes implicated in a murder.Critics mostly loved the first season of The Flight Attendant – which has resulted in HBO ordering a second season. Fans of mystery stories should surely check this one out.
Best Shows on Netflix
HBO may be the king of TV streaming but Netflix isn’t too far behind. With dozens of original series being produced every year, Netflix has been building a catalogue of some excellent TV. In this next article, we rank the best shows on Netflix right now so you can find that next great series to watch.