HBO has long provided subscribers with some of the absolute best original programming found anywhere on TV. From gritty crime dramas like True Detective and The Sopranos to intelligent comedies 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.
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What could be more daunting than adapting Alan Moore’s iconic comic series Watchmen for TV? How about making a sequel? That’s what Damon Lindelof (Lost, The Leftovers) has done with Watchmen, which picks up decades after Moore’s story ended, following a new group of characters whose lives intertwine with the old cast. Set in Tulsa, Oklahoma, 34 years after the comic, Watchmen follows Angela Abar (Regina King), a cop who moonlights as a costumed vigilante called Sister Night. The Tulsa police have been decimated by a white supremacist group called the Seventh Kavalry, forcing the remainder to adopt superhero personae for safety. After the police chief is murdered, Angela searches for the killer, uncovering a sinister conspiracy. In its willingness to challenge expectations for a Watchmen sequel, Lindelof’s Watchmen proves a worthy successor to the original.
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 The Wire, Simon’s other great and gritty social drama, 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 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 first season of 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 indistinguishable from human beings. Over the following seasons — season 3 is airing now — the world broadens to include other theme parks and the real world. 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, the 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 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. Throughout 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 as True Detective did during its first season. Although subsequent seasons haven’t quite lived up to the first, Mahershala Ali (Moonlight) remains a tour de force in the third season.
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 Camille 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.
Based on Stephen King’s bestselling novel of the same name, this slow-burn series starts with a seemingly straightforward, cut-and-dried murder investigation. However, that investigation spirals out of control as investigators encounter an insidious supernatural force that makes everything look different than it seemed before. Soon, the investigators begin to question everything they thought they knew. Featuring a first-rate cast of Jason Bateman, Ben Mendelsohn, and Cynthia Erivo, The Outsider is a truly gripping, supernatural crime drama that measures up to King’s novel.
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 for only 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.
The Righteous Gemstones
Danny McBride is about as much of a staple at HBO as anyone can be, and it’s because of shows like The Righteous Gemstones. The creator and star of Eastbound and Down and Vice Principals returns to the premium network as Jesse Gemstone, the heir-apparent to Eli Gemstone’s (John Goodman) empire of megachurches. Jesse, however, is not quite so righteous as his father (who is not quite so righteous as his children believe), and when he becomes the victim of blackmail, the entitled Jesse goes off the rails to set things right, bringing his equally disappointing siblings (Adam Levine, Edi Patterson) into the mud with him. This deeply satirical, hilarious show takes aim at the hypocrisy of Southern megachurches while still finding the heart to humanize the flawed, self-destructive Gemstone family.
Workplace feuds can be extremely petty, and as Vice Principals demonstrates, extremely funny, too. This short-lived comedy (season 2 will be its last) follows a pair of vice principals, Neal Gamby (Danny McBride) and Lee Russell (Walton Goggins), as they fight for the top spot at their high school after the incumbent principal retires. Despite their differences, the two must work together when the district hires an outsider, the much more competent Dr. Belinda Brown (Kimberly Hebert Gregory), for the position. McBride’s comedy credentials are renowned by this point, but he finds an unlikely and hilarious foil in Goggins, normally known from dramatic works like The Shield and Justified, who is brilliant as the effete, serpentine Russell.
Daily Show veteran Larry Wilmore and Issa Rae — creator of the popular YouTube series Awkward Black Girl — partnered to create Insecure, a semi-autobiographical comedy that deftly explores the black experience in contemporary Los Angeles. Rae plays a version of herself, who is trying to balance her professional and personal life while working at a nonprofit organization that benefits children of color. Yvonne Orji and Jay Ellis provide convincing, relatable performances as Issa’s best friend and boyfriend, respectively, and the show is clever and sincere enough that anyone — regardless of color or gender — can enjoy it.
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From the brilliant mind of Mike Judge — of Beavis and Butthead and King of the Hill fame — comes Silicon Valley, a comedic take on the startup culture taking place in the show’s namesake region. According to Judge, the series is pseudo-inspired by events that occurred in his own life during the late ’80s while he was an engineer in Silicon Valley. The show itself follows a motley crew of programmers and entrepreneurs struggling (albeit comically) to make it in the competitive world of tech startups. Perhaps most hilarious is just how unfit for success many of the main characters seem, which gives the show a rather humanizing angle not often achieved with modern sitcoms. Silicon Valley’s writing is sharp and the acting is witty and well-timed, making this not just one of HBO’s best comedies, but one of the best shows the network has to offer.
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Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement’s comedy troupe first began when the duo roomed together in 1998 at the Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand, but it didn’t officially burst onto the scene until the mid-2000s. After developing a bit of a following in their native country in the early aughts, Bret and Jemaine caught the attention of HBO, which signed them up to bring their comedy band schtick to premium cable. After creating Flight of the Conchords — Bret and Jemaine’s fictional folk band — the duo moves to New York City intent on finding fame and fortune. Much to their chagrin, fame and fortune always seem just outside their reach despite their incessant attempts at stardom. The Conchords play original “folk” songs throughout each episode, which, in turn, incite some of the show’s best laughs. After watching these bumbling New Zealanders try to make it big, you can’t help but hum their tunes in your head.
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Girls, a dramedy created by and starring Lena Dunham, delves into the daily experiences of a group of twentysomething young women living in New York City. Culled from actual experiences in Dunham’s own life, the show often deals with humiliating and disastrous events centering on becoming an adult, relationships, and sexuality. In addition to Dunham, Girls features outstanding performances from Adam Driver, Allison Williams, Jemima Kirk, and Zosia Mamet, each of whom battle being young (and dumb) while trying to figure out just what the hell being an adult means. You’d be hard-pressed to find many other shows that provide as real — and funny — a portrayal of human interaction and emerging adulthood as Girls.
This free-form web series was so successful and hilarious that HBO picked it up in 2016 and ordered six episodes, while also adding the first six seasons to its streaming platforms. Co-creators (and married couple) Katja Blichfeld and Ben Sinclair provide pre-episode commentary, often alongside guest actors who appeared in the episode. Sinclair stars as “The Guy,” a New York City-based bicycle messenger who delivers marijuana all over the boroughs. The real star of the show, though, is the rotating cast of customers who call The Guy looking for some pot.
High Maintenance doesn’t always conform to the typical 30-minute episode format either, though each story is crafted with a beginning, middle, and end — whether it takes six minutes or 20. The well-crafted sets include tons of little details that you might miss on the first watch, but you’ll notice more and more with each viewing. The show also takes an objective stance toward the drug that drives its storylines, avoiding stereotypes while simultaneously creating memorable characters that you can’t help but love (and hate).
Seinfeld alum Julia Louis-Dreyfus stars in this political satire about a female vice president and her attempts to make a lasting impression on the United States without getting swept up by politics in D.C. Joining Louis-Dreyfus on screen is the hilarious Tony Hale, who plays the Veep’s ultra-obedient personal assistant. With sharp, witty writing, brilliant acting, and handfuls of laugh-out-loud moments during each episode, Veep is one of the best comedies HBO has to offer. We recommend hopping on board with this show sooner rather than later, as this is political comedy at its finest.
Curb Your Enthusiasm
From the comedic brilliance of Larry David (who also stars in the show) comes Curb Your Enthusiasm, a somewhat fictionalized take on David’s actual life as a retired television writer and producer. What makes the show particularly funny is how nearly every scene is almost entirely improvised by the actors on screen. According to David, he writes a general outline of each episode, though the actual dialogue and conversation comes right off the top of the head of the actors in each scene. If you liked the humor native to David’s Seinfeld, you’ll probably enjoy watching all nine seasons of Curb Your Enthusiasm.
Iraq War veteran Barry Berkman (Bill Hader) is like many people in the 21st century — his work/life balance is out of whack. He travels for work, returns home, and kills time with video games before passing out. Barry is the portrait of Information Age ennui, with the one wrinkle being that his line of work is murder. As a hitman, Barry takes missions assigned to him by a man named Fuches (Stephen Root). It’s a career that makes use of Barry’s skills but doesn’t leave him satisfied. When he pursues his latest target to an acting class, however, Barry stumbles into a new world, one that ignites his passions. Pursuing the life of an actor, he encounters some problems in his day job and tension with his boss. Barry is a superb, dark comedy, and Hader’s performance is full of subtle gestures that speak to his character’s inner turmoil.
Documentaries, news, and historical fiction
The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst
For more than 30 years, real estate icon Robert Durst systematically dodged a series of murder allegations and pointed fingers for the disappearances of his wife, his best friend, and one of his neighbors. After seeing a Ryan Gosling-starring movie loosely based on his life reach the silver screen (aka All Good Things), the defiant Durst decided to reach out to the film’s director (Andrew Jarecki) and offer an exclusive interview. Over several sit-down interviews and multiple years of cooperation with Jarecki and HBO’s production crew, a six-episode miniseries was commissioned to tell Durst’s side of the story. For fans of the podcast Serial, and murder mysteries in general, The Jinx is a terrific piece of storytelling and filmmaking that is sure to leave your jaw on the ground once the credits roll on its final episode.
For a decade, somebody had secretly rigged the McDonald’s Monopoly game promotion, siphoning off millions of dollars and building a vast network of co-conspirators across the United States. For the longest time, nobody noticed, until something strange stumbled across the desk of an FBI officer in the sleepy office of Jacksonville, Forida. This docuseries dives into the investigation into one of the greatest corporate heists in history and illustrates how a regular, unassuming person was able to create an enormous criminal conspiracy.
Last Week Tonight with John Oliver
Though classified as a satirical news show, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver airs some of the most honest and hard-hitting journalism of any network television program. Each week, comedian and former The Daily Show correspondent John Oliver tackles the prior week’s most newsworthy or political happenings and deconstructs them with his signature wit (and British accent). Chock full of hilarious analogies, spot-on critique, and tight, fluid writing, Oliver’s weekly program consistently feels fresh and is, oftentimes, incredibly informative. Whether it’s the bribery scandal that rocked FIFA or the troubled system of standardized tests, there’s no topic Oliver won’t cover and subsequently shred to pieces.
By consistently investigating political and cultural issues most programs wouldn’t dare go anywhere near, Vice is an example of documentary storytelling at its absolute finest. Co-produced by Bill Maher and Vice magazine’s Shane Smith, this series follows journalists and reporters as they travel to all corners of the globe to interview and document a wide range of provocative subjects, such as China’s one-child policy, child suicide bombers, political assassinations, and the culture of North Korea. With anywhere from 10 to 14 episodes airing during each of VICE’s three seasons, there is plenty on HBO Go to satisfy even the hungriest of news junkies. Trust us, you won’t find investigative journalism like this anywhere else.
Show Me a Hero
David Simon and HBO team up yet again — stop me if you’ve heard that before — for this pseudo-documentary miniseries about Yonkers, N.Y., Mayor Nick Wasicsko and his efforts to desegregate public housing in the late 1980s and early ’90s. Starring Ex Machina‘s Oscar Isaac as the young mayor, Show Me a Hero is an exceptional retelling of one of the most tense and racially charged eras in United States history. With each part of the miniseries directed by Oscar-winning director Paul Haggis (Crash), Simon was able to perfectly tap into the acting prowess of the ensemble cast and achieve a faithful retelling of Lisa Belkin’s 1999 best-selling novel of the same name. Like anything Simon does with HBO, this is must-watch television.
Band of Brothers
This riveting miniseries, based upon the experiences of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment — aka “Easy Company” — in World War II, won an Emmy and a Golden Globe award for its brutal, realistic depiction of battle in the European Theatre. Damien Lewis and Ron Livingston lead an ensemble cast that features several big-name actors in early-career roles. Tom Hanks, less than three years removed from appearing in Saving Private Ryan, led the writing and producing teams, creating a unique series that focuses on a different character each episode.
Balancing a sense of individual heroism with the overwhelming scale of mid-century warfare, Band of Brothers hits all the right notes. The show also features live, pre-episode commentary from some of the soldiers depicted on screen, though the identities of the actual soldiers aren’t revealed until the end of the series.
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