HBO has long provided network subscribers with some of the absolute best original programming found anywhere on TV. From gritty crime dramas like True Detective and the Sopranos to comedies such as Curb Your Enthusiasm and Silicon Valley, it’s no wonder Home Box Office remains the longest-running premium television service in the United States. Now, with HBO’s on-demand services, fans of the network have unfettered access to the company’s impressive (and robust) stable of programming. Below are our picks for the best HBO shows, so you can spend more time binge-watching and less time binge-searching.
The New York of the 1970s certainly had character, but the era stood out as much for its sleaze and crime as for its vibrant art scene, and David Simon’s The Deuce explores the city’s unsavory underbelly and its central role in the rise of the porn industry. Like Simon’s other great and gritty social drama The Wire, The Deuce follows a web of characters whose paths occasionally cross as they labor in a system that dehumanizes them. The major players are Vincent Martino (James Franco), a bartender working for the mob, and Candy (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a sex worker hoping to improve her lot by getting in on the ground floor of the pornography business. Despite the lurid subject matter, The Deuce never feels exploitative, keeping the focus on why people turn to drugs and sex work, rather than the acts themselves.
‘The Young Pope’
Before it premiered on HBO, The Young Pope — which originally aired on Italy’s Sky Atlantic — was a subject of puzzlement or outright mockery in the media; many thought the name implied an edgy show, one aimed at capturing the attention of young viewers. That’s a shame, as The Young Pope turned out to be one of the most bizarre, stylish dramas on television. The show follows Pope Pius XIII (Jude Law), born Lenny Belardo, an orphan from America. Pius reaches the throne thanks to puppet masters in the Vatican who hope that he will be a malleable figurehead and a young face for a modern world. Instead, he shocks the world as a zealous conservative, delivering furious invective against modernity and pushing the church back to an earlier, more arcane way of being. The show is the creation of Oscar-winning director Paolo Sorrentino, and as such, his bombastic vision — and quirky sense of humor — is on display throughout.
‘Big Little Lies’
Based on the novel of the same name by Liane Moriarty, Big Little Lies is set in a small, affluent town where Madeline Martha Mackenzie (Reese Witherspoon) and her friend Celeste Wright (Nicole Kidman) live in seeming bliss with their families. When Jane Chapman (Shailene Woodley) moves to town with her son, Ziggy, Madeline and Celeste take her under their wings, but an accusation against Ziggy — and a murder — threaten to upend their lives. Despite the the mystery that opens the show, what really drives Big Little Lies is its portrayal of the lives — domestic and social — of women, the friendships they form, and the aggression they endure. The central characters are complex, driven as much by competitiveness and arrogance as by friendship and family; Witherspoon is particularly great as the domineering Madeline.
HBO’s reimagining of Michael Crichton’s sci-fi thriller has taken center stage for the network, and for good reason. The show is centered on a futuristic theme park with some dirty secrets and a Western motif, where the wealthy can pay to experience adventure that real life could never provide. Guests — who can’t be killed inside the park — interact with robotic “hosts,” who are nearly indisctinguishable from human beings. The show, produced in part by J.J. Abrams, shoots for the stars with a broad scope and a series of events that can only lead to catastrophe.
‘Game of Thrones’
George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice series attracted its fair share of fans when it hit bookstore shelves in the early ’90s, however, it was D.B. Weiss and David Benioff’s TV adaptation on HBO that really got the fantasy juices flowing when it debuted in 2011. Often heralded as not only one of the best shows on HBO, but also one of the best series of all time, Game of Thrones is an epic tale of royal feuds, dynastic conflict, and the struggle for ultimate control in the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros. Throughout the show’s seven seasons (season 8 will be the last for the series), the creators have rarely shied away from egregious violence, sex, and massive bloodshed, making it one of the most controversial, yet wildly popular shows HBO has to offer.
‘The Night Of’
Writer Steven Zaillian (Gangs of New York, Schindler’s List) delivers some of his most poignant material in this 2016 miniseries starring British actor and rapper Riz Ahmed, who portrays a Pakistani-American student who quickly finds himself in prison after a blurry one-night stand turns into a mysterious and brutal murder. The show chronicles his descent from innocent youth to hardened inmate, with the help of Michael K. Williams (The Wire). The latter plays prison kingpin Freddy, who’s more than willing to provide his young protégé with some protection from his violent neighbors — for a price. John Turturro also delivers an excellent performance as embattled defense lawyer John Stone. Turturro’s presence provides a small sense of levity to help balance the all-too-serious subject matter of the show.
David Simon is no stranger to the HBO network, having worked on The Wire, Generation Kill, The Corner, Show Me a Hero, and this New Orleans-themed drama, Treme. Set just three months after the events of Hurricane Katrina, Treme follows the eclectic mix of people living in New Orleans who attempt to repair and rebuild their lives after the catastrophic storm. Featuring some familiar faces from some of Simon’s other works on the network, the show received most of its critical praise for accurately portraying the storm-torn Louisiana city and for capturing the region’s unique culture. Like The Wire, excellent narrative pulls the viewer in and makes it incredibly hard to look away.
When Damon Lindelof announced he intended to adapt Tom Perrotta’s novel The Leftovers into an exclusive HBO series, fans of the 2011 science fiction novel rightfully went into a frenzy. Not only did the story potentially lend itself to a compelling retelling on television, but Lindelof’s impressive career up to that point assured Leftovers enthusiasts the franchise was in good hands. While the show received mostly positive critical praise, it wasn’t without its fair share of speed bumps. Once Lindelof and his crew perfected the way in which to tell this harrowing story, however, the show really took off and ranks among the very best the network has to offer.
Few people outside of diehard HBOers knew what Olive Kitteridge was before it swept the the 67th Primetime Emmy’s with eight awards. Taking place over the course of four hourlong episodes, this miniseries concerns the life of retired schoolteacher Olive Kitteridge (Frances McDormand) and her husband, Henry Kittredge (Richard Jenkins). As each episode of the show focuses on a different period of the Kitteridge’s life, viewers get an up-close and personal look at the depression, jealousy, and family tension that comes to shape Olive and those around her. Fantastic acting from everyone billed, along with an incredibly tight narrative, make this one of the best four hours of TV available on all of HBO.
Chances are incredibly high you’ve heard of the David Simon-produced crime drama The Wire, and need little to sway you to watch an episode of what many call the greatest television show of all time. However, if you’ve yet to introduce yourself to the likes of Jimmy McNulty and Avon Barksdale, now is the perfect time. Set in Baltimore, The Wire is a fictionalized and highly realistic take on the relationship between the city’s drug culture, the law enforcement details tasked with cleaning it up, and every body and bullet caught in the middle. Few shows feature such tight dialogue and storytelling as Simon’s opus, making The Wire must-watch television for anyone.
HBO’s crime anthology, True Detective, burst on the television scene in 2014, taking viewers on an especially dark and twisted ride with Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson as the leads. Over the course of eight hourlong episodes, writer Nic Pizzolatto and director Cary Fukunaga tell a harrowing tale of murder, deception, and the polarity of religion and logic. This certainly isn’t the first show to play with these thematic elements, but few programs consistently hit on all cylinders like True Detective did during its first season. After resounding success from critics, the series returned in 2015 to mixed reviews.
Few television series have garnered as much critical buzz as David Chase’s The Sopranos, which aired on HBO from 1999 to 2007. During its impressive six-season run, the show consistently saw stage time during award shows, bagging 21 Primetime Emmy Awards, five Golden Globes, and two Peabody Awards. Needless to say, Chase and his crew knew a thing or two about producing high-quality television. The late James Gandolfini stars as Tony Soprano, an underboss for a notorious New Jersey-based crime family who consistently battles managing his home life and his workload. Edie Falco, Michael Imperioli, and Lorraine Bracco co-star in this gritty series that somehow managed to humanize the mafia.
Created and produced by Terence Winter (The Sopranos, The Wolf of Wall Street), Boardwalk Empire tells the story of Prohibition-era Atlantic City, New Jersey, and the crooks who came to power during this time. Starring Steve Buscemi as Nucky Thompson (based on real-life politician Enoch L. Johnson), the show depicts Thompson’s rise and his dealings with the city’s mobsters and criminal underbelly, as well as government agents and townsfolk. The show, based on the Nelson Johnson book of the same name, features several real-life historical figures during each of its five seasons (Al Capone, Lucky Luciano, Arnold Rothstein, etc.), and paints a near-accurate portrait of what New Jersey was like in the 1920s and ’30s.
Sharp Objects, a brand-new miniseries based on Gillian Flynn’s best-selling novel of the same name, is the best kind of slow burn. The eight-episode drama stars Amy Adams (Arrival, Enchanted) as one Camille Parker, a distraught reporter who has recently been discharged from a psychiatric hospital and sent to her hometown of Wind Gap, Missouri, to cover the murder of two young girls. She is welcomed back with less-than-open arms by her mother, Adora (Patricia Clarkson), who forces her to confront some of her personal demons. As Camilie searches for answers to these brutal murders, she uncovers things from her past that she had tried to forget, resulting in a narrative that’s as grim as it is mesmerizing.
‘Random Acts of Flyness’
Created by the daring Terence Nance, Random Acts of Flyness is a show that tackles issues of sexuality, white supremacy, and the patriarchy through short, thought-provoking sketches. Recent trailers have provided a taste of what the late-night series will offer, with short bursts of eye-opening clips. “We definitely try and not to have creative no-go zones,” said Nance. “What I’m most excited about in the show is how much we engage with the irresolute.” The series looks to be a visual and audio experience unlike anything before, which, given Nance’s avant-garde approach to Sundance hit An Oversimplification of Her Beauty, isn’t particularly surprising.
Although it ran but a brief two seasons (there was also a subsequent movie), Looking burned brightly, garnering praise from critics and love from a small but enthusiastic audience. Looking is a slice-of-life series about three gay men living in San Francisco: Game designer Patrick (Jonathan Groff), artist’s assistant Agustín (Frankie J. Alvarez), and waiter Dom (Murray Bartlett). Each of the protagonists — all of them in their late 20s or 30s — struggles with the fact that their lives haven’t turned out quite how they’ve expected. They’re disappointed with their sputtering careers, with their love lives (or lack thereof), and that sense of millennial ennui runs through the show. That doesn’t mean Looking is dreary, however. As in real life, drama and laughter go hand in hand, and the characters have plenty of heartwarming moments to balance out the melancholy.
Succession is the story of the Roy family, a clan of wealthy, emotionally damaged scoundrels vying for power. Family patriarch Logan (Brian Cox) built one of the biggest media companies in the world, but now that he’s old and his health is failing, his children — Kendall (Jeremy Strong), Roman (Kieran Culkin), and Shiv (Sarah Snook) — all plot how best to advance their careers, and maybe even secure the throne of their father’s empire. Succession bears a passing resemblance to King Lear, and like Shakespeare’s play, the show is rife with drama and backstabbing. Although the characters may seem loathsome at first glance (and maybe for a few glances after that), they are a complicated lot, which makes their squabbling all the more compelling.