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The 40 Best HBO Series, Ranked

It's not TV, it's HBO

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“It’s not TV. It’s HBO.” The premium cable network’s famed slogan, from an era predating “Peak TV,” projected an air of authority, of class, that defied the medium’s reputation as a lowbrow form. Many of the top shows in our list of the best HBO series of all time echo much the same sentiment: It’s no coincidence that their most common points of comparison, at least among critics, have been cinema and literature rather than the “prestige” programming of an earlier age. But dig deeper into the 40 titles here, and it’s the range of artistic expression that becomes apparent. From Enlightened’s search for bliss to Veep’s devilish satire, HBO’s best series (along with some key miniseries) are not all dark, complex dramas. But some of the dark, complex dramas are also some of the best TV shows of all-time (or at the very least, of the last decade). But with so much new programming coming to HBO (not to mention us catching up with older series), expect the list to keep expanding in the coming months.

For now, whether you’re in the mood for a re-watch or still need to see The Sopranos for the first time, you’re sure to find something to stir your interest on Paste’s list of the 40 best HBO series of all time. (And be sure to check out our lists of the best TV shows on Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime while you’re at it.)

40. Gentleman Jack

Creator: Sally Wainwright
Stars: Suranne Jones, Sophie Rundle

Gentleman Jack is drawn from the extensive (some four million pages) journals of Anne Lister, a landed class Yorkshire woman widely considered to be the first “modern lesbian” known to history. Those diaries exhaustively detail her rather audacious life as a world traveler, coal magnate, landlord, mountaineer, and “Parisian,” which seems to be a common shorthand in 19th-century Halifax for “avid seducer of other women.” The series focuses on a timeframe in the 1830s dominated by Lister (Suranne Jones) returning to her family home in Yorkshire and setting her sights on nervous heiress Ann Walker (Sophie Rundle) as a companion.

Watch it for an interesting depiction of 19th-century Yorkshire society with sleek, colorful production and a lot of beautiful high-contrast scenery; rolling green fields and hedgerows starting to sprout factory smokestacks, or Lister’s frock coat and men’s hat and frank stare amid all those blonde ringlets and pastel silk gowns and sunlit yellow drawing room walls. Watch it for Jones’ forceful, vivacious, smart-as-hell portrayal of a defiant iconoclast who chose to value her own integrity over whatever it was society needed her to value. Though all the performances are relatively strong, Jones instantly becomes the center of gravity in every frame she’s in. Perhaps most of all, though, watch it for what it suggests about why it nearly always makes sense to be yourself. Even if it sometimes hurts, because of course it will, whoever you are. —Amy Glynn

39. Insecure

Creator:Issa Rae and Larry Wilmore
Stars: Issa Rae, Yvonne Orji, Jay Ellis, Lisa Joyce

While there’s still a long way to go before TV truly reflects our multi-cultural present, the arrival of series like this marvelous half-hour comedy are hopefully harbingers of the medium’s more diverse future. Built from the skeleton of co-creator Issa Rae’s YouTube series, The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, HBO’s comedy tackles an array of issues, from old chestnuts like boredom and woe in a long-term relationship to much broader concerns, like reckoning with institutional racism and individual biases in the modern workplace. (There’s also room left over for some cutting satire of the commodification and absorption of African-American culture by white people.) While her onscreen proxy is barely holding it together, Rae bears the burden of running Insecure with ease, finding a fresh perspective and flawlessly expanding upon the world of her Internet series with wit and refinement to spare. —Robert Ham

38. Flight of the Conchords

Creators: James Bobin, Jemaine Clement, Bret McKenzie
Stars: Jemaine Clement, Bret McKenzie, Rhys Darby, Kristen Schaal, Arj Barker

When I hear the words “musical comedy,” I tend to think of old Broadway standards like My Fair Lady or Singin’ in the Rain. No offense to those shows, but I’m very glad that Flight of the Conchords was a musical comedy of a very different kind. Starring Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie, the show is the story of an awful two-man band from New Zealand who have an incompetent manager (the wonderful Rhys Darby as Murray Hewitt) and literally one fan (the hilarious, obsessive Kristen Schaal) as they try to make it big in New York. Despite their repeated failures, there’s something both sincere and casual about their approach, which stands in stark contrast to the tense, cynical neuroses you might expect. Each episode is punctuated by two or three songs which range from “very good” to “classic.” If You’re Into it and Hiphopopotamus vs. Rhymoceros are two terrific examples of the latter. This is a show that you sink into, and that sweeps you along in its own relaxed rhythms, dispensing the sort of calm, surprising laughs that feels almost therapeutic. —Shane Ryan

37. Eastbound & Down

Creators: Ben Best, Jody Hill, Danny McBride 
Stars: Danny McBride, Steve Little, Katy Mixon, John Hawkes, Jennifer Irwin

I can pinpoint the exact moment I turned into a massive Danny McBride fan, having previously been confused and annoyed by his presence in Pineapple Express. (I was in the wrong, I know). Early in the first season, Kenny Powers downs a beer in his car while listening to his own audiobook. As he puts in a new cassette of his boastful, foul-mouthed ramblings, a calm male audiobook voice intones “You’re listening to You’re Fucking Out, I’m Fucking In, by Kenny Powers.” All was forgiven. Initially conceived as a movie that became too good at four hours to cut down to two, Eastbound & Down turned the story of a washed up ex-major league pitcher obsessively striving for relevancy into a comeback story of epic proportions. Kenny would undergo an absurd odyssey on his path back to fame, but series creators McBride, Jody Hill, and Ben Best would never sacrifice their honest portrait of a man eaten alive by his own ego for the sake of a joke (except, of course in that insane episode with Will Ferrell, a Civil War plantation, and a cannon). The same team reunited for the tonally similar Vice Principals and now The Righteous Gemstones, again capitalizing on McBride’s magnetic, spontaneous onscreen presence, and adding in a killer repartee with Walton Goggins. —Graham Techler

36. Mr. Show with Bob and David

Creators:   Bob Odenkirk, David Cross
Stars: Bob Odenkirk, David Cross, John Ennis, Tom Kenny, Jill Talley, Jay Johnston

Before alternative comedy was a recognized thing, there was Mr. Show with Bob and David, a genius sketch comedy show that had a criminally short run on HBO from 1995 to 1998. Each episode was loosely based around a central theme and laboriously structured, with sketches leading directly into each other, and sometimes even wrapping around each other like Russian nesting dolls of comedy. Although celebrated for its absurd point of view, Mr. Show didn’t shy away from the real world, often tearing into the inequalities of society and the increasing domination of corporate America. Not every bit landed, but the show still had a shockingly high batting average over its four seasons, and very little of it feels dated today. —Garrett Martin

35. Silicon Valley

Creator: Mike Judge
Stars: Thomas Middleditch, T.J. Miller, Josh Brener, Kumail Nanjiani, Martin Starr

While the rest of Mike Judge’s television shows have had a certain fondness for the subjects they lampoon, it’s the sheer anger of Silicon Valley towards the tech industry and its investors that infuses the show with life. This places Silicon Valley more in the style of Judge’s movies, which tend towards a caustic loathing of the entirety of broken systems. That isn’t to say that the show isn’t funny, but that its humor, even the wacky slapstick bits, is more cutting than any traditional sitcom. Silicon Valley isn’t cringe comedy, but it has the same level of antipathy towards much of its cast, which makes the show feel real in a way that sets it apart from other sitcoms. Above all, though, Silicon Valley simply finds its world absurd and hilarious, a counterfeit utopia so out of control that there’s always something entertaining going on. This isn’t just good satire, it’s good comedy, and the show’s success at both of these levels is what makes it one of the best sitcoms on TV. —Sean Gandert

34. Oz

Creator: Tom Fontana
Stars: Kirk Acevedo, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Ernie Hudson, Terry Kinney, Christopher Meloni, George Morfogen, Rita Moreno, Harold Perrineau, J. K. Simmons, Lee Tergesen, Eamonn Walker, Dean Winters

Certainly a “water cooler show” if there ever was one, Oz made waves with its violence and sexual content early on and its equally deep and disturbing storytelling once people got over the fact that it was set in a maximum security prison. It’s probably safe to say that there’s an entire subset of former viewers out there who think of every prison and prison caricature in terms of what they saw on Oz, from the racial gangs to the unpredictable violence and stress of daily living. A truly ensemble cast was one of the selling points for the large and ambitious HBO series, which showed that an adult-content drama could still turn great ratings. The fact that it was on a premium network was essential, allowing a much deeper (and more realistic) depiction of the horrors of incarceration in the United States. —Jim Vorel

33. Sharp Objects

Creator: Marti Noxon
Stars: Amy Adams, Patricia Clarkson, Chris Messina, Eliza Scanlen

Few shows acknowledge sweat the way that Sharp Objects does, but it serves to truly drive home the oppressive atmosphere of a small Missouri town where two girls have recently been murdered. Characters pant and swelter and wipe sweat beads from their foreheads as cicadas hum in the background and everyone judges everyone else. Mainly, it’s crime reporter Camille Preaker who is being judged by her socialite mother, who maintains Camille’s childhood home like a dollhouse whose every aspect she has complete control over. Sharp Objects is ostensibly a murder mystery, but more than that it’s a house of horrors for our troubled, alcoholic protagonist with a history of self-harm. Though the entire miniseries is a creepshow, the final reveal of the killer and the methods by which it all happened (which play out in flashback through the closing credits) will continue to haunt you long afterwards. —Allison Keene

32. Girls

Creator:   Lena Dunham  
Stars: Lena Dunham, Allison Williams, Jemima Kirke, Zosia Mamet, Adam Driver, Alex Karpovsky

I believe Lena Dunham is one of the foremost badasses of our artistic culture, and as far as that goes, I’m already very much on the record. The one thing I really love about Girls is that it refuses to conform to identity politics. There are times when Dunham can be a wonderful spokesperson for female power, and there are times when she pisses off the feminists. There are times when she seems like the best liberal around, and others when liberals want to burn her at the stake and aren’t afraid to write endless think pieces on the topic. This is not because Dunham is trying to aggravate anybody, but because she tells her story so honestly, and so relentlessly, that anyone who wants her to conform to a prevailing ideology will inevitably be disappointed—she’s too fluid to be molded into an emblem. Girls is absolutely refreshing and absolutely bold, and Dunham has become so powerful and popular that she doesn’t need to pull any punches. The stories of Hannah, Shoshanna, Marnie, and Jessa exist to reflect something real, and something instinctual, and it originates with a brilliant artist who stayed unrepentant until the end. —Shane Ryan

31. Years and Years

Creator: Russell T Davies
Stars: Emma Thompson, Rory Kinnear, Russell Tovey, T’Nia Miller, Jessica Hynes

Russell T. Davies’ UK series came to HBO with very little fanfare, which is unfortunate because it deserves your attention. It’s a compelling, if imperfect, look at what life might be like in the next 15 years, as the show cruises through a number of proposed (and likely) world events through the lens of one British family. An outstanding cast helps sell the show’s dystopian vision, giving it an exceptional amount of heart. But Davies also keeps all of the tech and politics and media of the future feeling grounded in the possible. Years and Years is arresting television, with an outlandishly oversized score that pulls you in fully to a story with shocking events and the familiar mundanity that follows them. Despite the erosion of freedoms for these formerly comfortable middle-class westerners, it still feels strangely hopefully, and most of all, embraces the idea of resilience even in the face of extraordinary change.  —Allison Keene

30. The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst

Creators: Andrew Jarecki, Marc Smerling, Zac Stuart-Pontier

The Jinx is not just a fascinating profile of a man who is most definitely (*or allegedly, I add, with my lawyer’s hat on) a killer, but it actually worked to bring him to justice for at least one of his crimes. The Jinx provides exceptional access into the world of a very strange, troubled, and famous New York figure, Robert Durst, whose hot-mic confession (seemingly) in the final episode is one of the greatest TV moments ever. But even before that, we get a glimpse into how wealth and privilege serve to protect a man who is very clearly dangerous. And then, of course, there is the uncontrollable burping when discussing certain topics. It’s a wild ride, one that has had real-life consequences for Durst that are still unfolding. —Allison Keene

29. Westworld

Creators: Lisa Joy, Jonathan Nolan
Stars: Evan Rachel Wood, Jeffrey Wright, Ed Harris Thandie Newton, James Marsden

Westworld debuted with some big shoes to fill. The would-be successor to HBO’s Game of Thrones got weird fast and didn’t care who was along for the ride. There’s something commendable about that, as that first season set up a puzzlebox that riveted fans. Its sophomore season then further shook off the shackles of expectation and embraced the characters who (against all odds) dot its endless mysteries with pockets of genuine depth. Rather than having to answer a trick question, viewers have been allowed to experience the android-driven theme park/bacchanalia in the context of the people (and robo-people) living in and around it. Some of the best female performances on TV are lodged inside a show which started so male-gazey, eventually giving viewers a rollicking, if uneven, exploration of these twisted layers within layers the series delights in creating. And just when you think you have a sense of what’s happening, a new season is poised to change the game again to keep us guessing. —Jacob Oller and Allison Keene

28. Treme

Creators:   David Simon  and Eric Overmyer
Stars: Khandi Alexander, Clarke Peters, Wendell Pierce, Kim Dickens, Rob Brown, Melissa Leo

When it debuted in 2010, David Simon’s portrait of post-Katrina New Orleans disappointed expectations: It was not, as it turned out, The Wire: Crescent City. It was, rather, a subtle, searching appreciation for The City That Care Forgot, mournful and merry in equal measure; its characters were professors (John Goodman), chefs (Kim Dickens), musicians (Wendell Pierce), not politicians or police officers, and as such its drama hewed to the more quotidian rhythms of “recovery.” In this, though, it managed to capture the place, and its peculiar position in the American imagination, with unmatched precision and unconditional love, attuned to the grief and joy of an epochal moment in the city’s history. If I ever leave, I will watch Treme to remind me what it was like to live here at a time of profound transformation, and to feel anew the series’ clarion call: “Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans?” I’m not sure there’s higher praise for a work of art than that. —Matt Brennan

27. Looking

Creators: Andrew Haigh, Sarah Condon and Michael Lannan
Stars: Jonathan Groff, Frankie Alvarez, Murray Barlett, Russell Tovey, Lauren Weedman

Michael Lannon and Andrew Haigh’s meditative chronicle of gay men in modern-day San Francisco ran too cool for some tastes, but few TV series of recent vintage have married form and function with such unshakable confidence. On rooftops and in basements, in Golden Gate Park and the East Bay, Looking found a finely crafted realism perfect for its subdued storytelling, underlining its characters’ halting adventures in adulthood with intricate compositions and fluent camerawork. As Patrick (Jonathan Groff), Agustín (Frankie J. Alvarez), Dom (Murray Bartlett) and Doris (Lauren Weedman, the series’ unsung MVP) forged a makeshift family, separated from parents and siblings by geographical and cultural gulfs, Looking emerged as a moving, gorgeous coming-of-age tale, alive to the notion that we never really stop “growing up.” —Matt Brennan

26. The Comeback

Creators: Michael Patrick King and Lisa Kudrow
Stars: Lisa Kudrow, Lance Barber, Robert Michael Morris, Damian Young, Malin Akerman

The Comeback was way ahead of its time. Who could have predicted back in 2005 how utterly inane reality TV would become? Valerie Cherish (Lisa Kudrow), that’s who. As the once-popular TV actress desperately trying to make a (you guessed it) comeback, Kudrow is utter perfection. Cast as the (unfortunately named) Aunt Sassy in the comedy Room and Bored, Valerie allows the cameras to follow her every move as she re-launches her career. It doesn’t go well. Valerie is ridiculous and cringe-inducing, but she’s never a flat out caricature. We feel a great deal of empathy for her as she deals with a dismissive and cruel show runner and a world that has left her behind. The show is a scathing look at how Hollywood operates, how TV shows get made, and how actresses not in their twenties are treated by the youth-obsessed entertainment industry. The best thing is that in 2014, The Comeback made a (yeah, you guessed it again) comeback and we got eight more episodes to delight in all things Valerie Cherish. You do need to see that. —Amy Amatangelo

25. Luck

Creator: David Milch
Stars: Dustin Hoffman, Dennis Farina, John Ortiz, Kerry Condon, Nick Nolte

Unfortunately for David Milch’s unique and layered series, Luck is mostly known for being cancelled after several horses died on the set. The series’ story largely takes place at the Santa Anita racetrack, which in real life has also continued to see an enormous number of horses die over the course of the last year. But, er, if you’re able to give the series any kind of chance beyond that, you’ll find a deeply personal character study of not just the owners, trainers, and jockeys of the tracks, but of the gamblers, drunks, and hangers-on. Watching Luck transports you into a world deeply known by Milch, one that is gritty and tough but also resilient and beautiful. —Allison Keene

24. Boardwalk Empire

Creator: Terence Winter
Stars: Steve Buscemi, Michael Pitt, Kelly Macdonald, Michael Shannon 

Easily dismissed as just a Sopranos clone set in the 1920s (although gorgeously so), Boardwalk Empire wisely took many of the best elements of its predecessor and expanded its scope. It’s this wide-ranging spotlight, drifting from the highest levels of political office down to lowly bootleggers and prostitutes, that makes the show something special, offering up morality plays that hold the lives of millions at stake while putting an actual face on those being affected. The show’s political commentary is apt without seeming preachy, while characters maintained the balance between being archetypal ciphers and real people. Boardwalk Empire isn’t as energetic as other dramas but its meticulous slow-burn has a depth and beauty to it that’s rarely been matched on the little screen. And it only improved over time as it became less concerned with the minutiae of New Jersey politics in favor of featuring a much more compelling national landscape. As a result, both its characters and its stories became grander, more operatic, and expressionistic. —Sean Gandert

23. Bored To Death

Creator: Jonathan Ames
Stars: Jason Schwartzman, Zach Galifianakis, Ted Danson, Heather Burns

There are the quintessential HBO shows that everyone knows and loves, hailed by critics, audiences, and Twitter alike. There are the ones that maybe you haven’t seen yet, but you’re totally going to catch up on one day, because everyone’s always talking about them. And then there’s a gem like Bored to Death. Those of us who watched Season 1 and immediately fell in love with the ridiculous, weed-laden, NYC misadventures of Brooklyn writer/part-time faux detective Jonathan Ames (Jason Schwartzman) and his pals Ray (Zach Galifianakis) and George Christopher (Ted Danson). We felt like we were a part of something special; something off the grid, but better than practically anything on TV. This was especially true for writers, because we really love movies and shows about writers. So when Jonathan stared at the words on his computer screen and the beginning of his second novel and announced to Ray, “I’m at a good stopping place,” we knew what that meant, and we were delighted to be in on the secret. Creator Jonathan Ames (the real one) no doubt drew from his own personal experiences as a novelist and comic memoir writer (those Super Ray drawings are that much more meaningful now), forming a world where a struggling artist has to get a little (or a lot) creative if he’s going to make things happen in his life. With some brilliant performances from Danson, Galifianakis and Heather Burns (and some great appearances from Patton Oswalt, Jenny Slate, Oliver Platt and countless others) Bored to Death gave us an unforgettable, though brief, TV adventure that makes for an excellent binge. —Shannon M. Houston

22. Tracey Takes On

Creator: Tracey Ullman
Stars: Tracey Ullman, Julie Kavner, Mo Gaffney, Michael McKean, Danny Woodburn

Bombastic, brilliant and unafraid of pushing the bounds of good taste, Tracey Ullman remains one of modern comedy’s most talented performers. HBO’s Tracey Takes On marks America’s second major attempt at giving Ullman a platform for her unique brand of humor. The first, Fox’s The Tracey Ullman Show is perhaps best known today for introducing the world to an early incarnation of The Simpsons. On Tracey Takes On, now free of broadcast standards and the restrictions of performing for a live studio audience, she is able to truly let her freak flag fly. Each episode finds the comedian honing in on a different theme (nostalgia, romance, Vegas, etc.) and exploring it via a string of recurring characters, all of different ages, accents, and ethnicities (emphasis on ethnicities). It’s the television equivalent of a one-woman show. All while not all the sketches work (indeed some will be coma-inducing for any overly PC viewers), it’s a series worth checking out merely to see one of England’s greatest satirists completely unfiltered. —Mark Rozeman

21. The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency

Creators: Richard Curtis, Anthony Minghella
Stars: Jill Scott, Anika Noni Rose, Lucian Msamati

This lovely and vivacious series feels like maybe it arrived before its time, but either way it has been too long overlooked. Based on a book series of the same name, The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency follows a kind of young, Miss Marple-esque figure (Mma Ramotswe, played by Jill Scott), who opens Botswana’s first female sleuthing firm. The short, gorgeously-shot series (which was filmed on location in Botswana) is full of charm and laughter, as well as a sweet romantic subplot between Ramotswe and a good-hearted local mechanic. Despite positive reviews and decent viewership, HBO did not continue with the series after its first season. But for those that know and love it, The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency is a hidden gem. —Allison Keene

20. Big Love

Creators: Mark V. Olsen, Will Scheffer
Stars: Bill Paxton, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Chloë Sevigny, Ginnifer Goodwin, Shawn Doyle

The thing about Big Love is that the actual plot never really mattered as much as the relationships among its characters. One man with three wives living in a modern Utah suburb is certainly an interesting premise, but from the start, the show made it about more than just salacious intrigued at polygamy. It’s about family, and about women supporting each other through difficult times. Bill Hendrickson’s fraught relationship with the fundamentalist compound where he was raised (with its powerful and dangerous prophet) was always a fascinating dynamic, even when those plotlines became increasingly insane as the series wore on. (Bill Paxton was also at his most charming in this series, and he is missed.) But throughout it all, especially those very final scenes, Big Love’s extraordinary cast and casual storytelling style made it essential to watch anything and everything this family did. It introduced a strange and often difficult world, but managed to make it feel like home. —Allison Keene

19. The Larry Sanders Show

Creators: Garry Shandling, Dennis Klein
Stars: Garry Shandling, Jeffrey Tambor, Rip Torn

Before HBO established itself as a dramatic powerhouse with The Sopranos and Oz, Larry Sanders was their flagship scripted program. It was literally a decade before its time, prefiguring shows like The Office and Arrested Development with its lack of a laugh track, a single camera setup, and a roster of unlikable characters. It blurred the line between reality and TV show, with real-life actors playing themselves on the talk show within the show, and often sending up their public personas. It also featured three unforgettable performances from Garry Shandling, Jeffrey Tambor and Rip Torn, who were all as good at revealing the desperation and futility of their characters as they were in the comedic moments. Despite its inside showbiz setup and caustic humor, its characters were fully-formed, believable people. It was a very smart and human show. —Garrett Martin

18. True Detective

Creator: Nic Pizzolatto
Stars: Matthew McConaughey, Woody Harrelson, Colin Farrell, Rachel McAdams, Taylor Kitsch, Mahershala Ali, Carmen Ejogo, Stephen Dorff

There’s always a caveat when recommending True Detective, and that is in recognition of its anthology setup. Its first season is hypnotic, deep, disturbing, and obsession-worthy, while its second is boring, scattered, and forgettable. Season 3 turns things around, not quite to Season 1 levels, but it’s elevated by some outstanding performances that makes it a worthwhile watch. For crime show fans, Season 1 and its search for the Yellow King is a must; the collaboration between writer Nic Pizzolatto and director Cary Fukunaga is exceptional, as are its lead performances. For all of its faults (even in that season with some of the writing regarding its female characters, of which there are not many), True Detective still remains a stalwart HBO series. —Allison Keene

17. The Leftovers

Creators:   Damon Lindelof  and Tom Perrotta
Stars: Justin Theroux, Amy Brenneman, Christopher Eccleston

No, this is not a show for everyone. And it’s true that the first few episodes so consistently furrowed one’s brow, that, for many, it didn’t even seem worth it to finish the initial season. Watching those early episodes felt a bit like trudging your way through all of the “So-and-so begat so-and-so”s in the Bible, just to get to those beautiful Psalms, or the book of Isaiah, or perhaps, more accurately, the book of Ecclesiastes, or Revelation. But few shows have ever achieved such intoxicating sensations of pure hopefulness and near-simultaneous hopelessness in its plots and themes. Leftovers played like an epic poem of rapture (or non-rapture), and, indeed, there was a hero… we think. The hero shifted with each scene in a way that we rarely see in TV, or even film. Justin Theroux’s Kevin Garvey was the good guy, turned bad, turned pitiable, turned very bad, turned good—often all in one episode. And Liv Tyler’s Meg Abbot along with Carrie Coon’s incredible performance as Nora Durst made the series a terrifying, twisted, beautiful experience. Don’t even get me started on Ann Dowd’s Patti. Patti! These characters are so flawed and human, in a story that both challenges and embraces themes in organized religion, all while being exciting, violent, sexy, smart, and difficult. To borrow from another excellent show (The Good Wife), “This is Kafka in action,” (or even Derrida in action). So perhaps, this is a show for everyone. —Shannon M. Houston

16. Carnivàle

Creator: Daniel Knauf
Stars: Michael J. Anderson, Clancy Brown, Tim DeKay, Clea DuVall, Toby Huss, Nick Stahl

One of the strangest, deepest, and most beautiful series ever on television, Carnivàle takes place in the Dust Bowl during the Great Depression of the 1930s and follows a young gifted man who seems to be able to manipulate the forces of life and death. A superhero story this is not, although there is a lot of spiritually-tinged lore that becomes more prominent in the show’s second (and final) season. This outstanding series explores life in a sideshow caravan full of societal outcasts who have created their own makeshift family, but there are so many interesting, heartbreaking, and even spooky stories that are also broached along the way. Carnivàle is a puzzle box show that is about so much more than that, as its mysteries and connections run deep. The attention to production design and care taken in telling the stories of these forgotten people is truly something special, if you dare to take a peek behind the curtain. —Allison Keene

15. Rome

Creators: John Milius, William J. MacDonald, Bruno Heller
Stars: Kevin McKidd, Ray Stevenson, Ciarán Hinds, Kenneth Cranham, Lindsay Duncan, Tobias Menzies, Polly Walker

Soon after starting Rome, it will have you shouting: “The 13th!!!!” in solidarity with its lead centurions Lucius Vorenus and Titus Pullo. The duo have a kind of Odd Couple dynamic that is bonded in blood and brotherhood, as the series tracks the fall of the Roman Republic and the rise of the Roman Empire. An ambitious and enthralling series, Rome was also expensive, and an ill-advised sprint through the timeline in Season 2 botched things enough for that to be that. But going from the story of these simple but compelling soldiers through the betrayal of Caesar and the increasing excess of the Roman elites leading up to Antony and Cleopatra is all incredibly entertaining. A kind of proto-Game of Thrones in many ways, Rome boasts an outstanding cast, bloody battles, and plenty of political machinations to keep you pressing “Play Next” until its epic tale comes to an end. —Allison Keene

14. Sex and the City

Creator: Darren Star
Stars: Sarah Jessica Parker, Kim Cattrall, Kristin Davis, Cynthia Nixon

Okay, bad news first: Darren Star’s Sex and the City was not a perfect show. Most of us who watched could not relate to the very specific demographic of women who were showcased. And, for a series whose beating heart was NYC, the show did not do well in its presentation of gay characters or characters of color (whenever they showed up). Hell, even the main character was problematic and difficult to root for at times. Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker) was the not-so-eloquent writer who was better at choosing a pair of Manolo Blahniks than making decisions in her love life (Team Aiden?). This was an infuriating show to experience sometimes, and that’s partly why we loved it. It remains a phenomenon, and as cliché as it may sound, it opened the door for more complex narratives about women and sex, and it did so unapologetically thanks in large part to Kim Cattrall’s role as Samantha Jones. And if Samantha was too much for you, Charlotte York (Kristin Davis) and Miranda Hobbes (Cynthia Nixon) offered up their own unique perspectives, giving the foursome an original, entertaining, and important balance of personalities and feminist (or anti-feminist) outlooks. So when we talk about the impact of HBO, Sex and the City has to be a big part of the discussion. This is especially true in a time when shows like True Detective are being accused of putting their women characters in lazy, typical plot positions, without agency. Whatever class issues, or race issues, or gender and sexuality issues Sex and the City might have swept under the rug (or addressed in a problematic way), it still functioned as a loud, oft-obscene call for agency among the marginalized. And it did all of this with some of the funniest dialogue and sex talk we’d ever heard. “My man has funky tasting spunk!” will go down in history as one of the most horrifying, incredible TV moments of all time, and that’s just the tip (ahem) of the legendary SATC iceberg. —Shannon M. Houston

13. Deadwood

Creator: David Milch
Stars: Timothy Olyphant, Ian McShane, Molly Parker, John Hawkes, Jim Beaver, Brad Dourif, Paula Malcomson, William Sanderson, Kim Dickens, Keith Carradine

Few shows sound as profanely inspired as Deadwood, which has also been referred to as “Shakespeare in the mud.” It deserves every kudos. The extraordinarily compelling Western is ultimately it’s less concerned with its setting and historical accuracy (though it has plenty to spare) than it is about accurately portraying humans. Why do societies and allegiances form, why are close friends betrayed, and why does humanity’s best seem to always just barely edge out its worst? These are the real concerns that make Deadwood a masterpiece. David Milch created a sprawling, fastidiously detailed world in which to stage his gritty morality plays and with it has come as close as anyone to creating a novel on-screen. With assistance from some truly memorable acting by Ian McShane, Brad Dourif and Paula Malcomson, Deadwood’s sometimes over-the-top representations never veer far enough from reality for its inhabitants to become just characters. (A recent movie on HBO also helps sew things up in a satisfying way after the original series’ sudden ending). —Sean Gandert and Allison Keene

12. Veep

Creator: Armando Iannucci
Stars: Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Anna Chlumsky, Tony Hale, Reid Scott, Timothy Simons, Matt Walsh, Kevin Dunn, Gary Cole

2019 was the right time for HBO’s long-running political satire to have come to a close. The art of the series imitated life, but of concern was that life sometimes imitated the art. It was difficult to keep the hilarious, foul-mouthed Veep from careening too far off into the cartoonish when American politics are so fully entrenched there now. But the series wrapped things up with a worthy, if uneven, final stretch of episodes. The pièce-de-résistance, though, was its finale—titled “Veep”—where Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) finally gets her heart’s desire in her final bid for President, one that came at an enormous cost both personally and for the country as a whole. The final moments also transported us to a post-Selina future though that felt particularly hopeful for a series that typically trades in darkly acerbic witticisms and the bleakest of humor. Ultimately, showrunner David Mandel finished out the series by letting us know things might be alright. Not right now … but one day. Maybe. We live in hope. —Allison Keene

11. Curb Your Enthusiasm

Creator:   Larry David  
Stars:   Larry David, Cheryl Hines, Jeff Garlin, Susie Essman

Set aside the recent revival for a a moment: Larry David pulled off the rare successful second act in television comedy. Curb Your Enthusiasm was Seinfeld-ian in its rhythms, with David basically playing the George Costanza version of himself as an eternally perturbed and self-defeating schlemiel who just happens to be fantastically wealthy after creating a show called Seinfeld. A lot of cringe comedy forgets to actually be funny, but that was never a problem for Curb, which remained as funny (and cringeworthy) as ever over the eight seasons of its original run. And it’s not just the increasingly uncomfortable situations or David’s masterful escalation from annoyance to rage to embarrassment that made the show work so well. David surrounded himself with a fantastic cast, from regulars like Cheryl Hines, Jeff Garlin, JB Smoove and Susie Essman, to such recurring guest stars as Wanda Sykes, Richard Lewis, Ted Danson, Mary Steenburgen and Bob “Super Dave” Osborne. Oh, and also there’s an entire season about a Seinfeld reunion, guest starring the original cast. Curb can be hard to watch at times, but it was always hilarious, and was HBO’s trademark comedy throughout the last decade. —Garrett Martin

10. Succession

Creator: Jesse Armstrong
Stars: Brian Cox, Kieran Culkin, Jeremy Strong, Matthew Macfadyen, Alan Ruck, Sarah Snook

HBO’s Succession, from creator Jesse Armstrong (Peep Show, The Thick of It) is dressed up as a prestige drama, but it’s actually one of TV’s most acid comedies. Once you embrace that, Succession unlocks as a never-ending battle of power and prestige with medieval royal overtones that is also wonderfully aware of how absurd that kind of story is. The show’s grown children jockey for power and favor with their bully of a father (a kind of Rupert Murdoch baron-type) in a constant cycle of cringe-worthy acts and abject humiliation. As one observer of the Roy family comments, “watching you people melt down is the most deeply satisfying activity on planet Earth.” Succession is not made to be binge watched. It’s engrossing, as a world that’s easy to immerse oneself in, but there is a kind of shadowy, icky feeling that follows you when you’ve consumed too much. That’s not the show’s fault; it’s easy to laugh at Tom (Matthew Macfayden) getting upset that he’s “not in the right panic room!” when he discovers Shiv (Sarah Snook) is in a more posh stronghold, but seeing Waystar encourage a dotcom to not unionize before gutting them, or how even a supposedly ethical organization might well sell out to partisan interests when there’s enough money is just depressingly real. Succession is a combination of Tom’s exclamation “what a weird family!” and Logan’s “Money wins. Here’s to us.” And it has us fully in its thrall.—Allison Keene

9. Last Week Tonight with John Oliver

Creator:   John Oliver  
Stars:   John Oliver, David Kaye

John Oliver  has lapped all the other news satire shows by focusing on global issues and devoting up to half of each episode on a single main story. He effortlessly explains complicated issues in hilarious fashion, helping his American viewers learn crucial information from around the world while still entertaining them. Unlike The Daily Show, where the circular cynicism of US politics crushed Jon Stewart’s will to perform, Oliver still approaches every episode with vigor. Perhaps he too will burn out in time, but hopefully the once-a-week schedule and periodic season breaks keep him fresh. John Oliver is the most important comedian currently working in the worlds of public affairs and current events, and it’s hard to imagine him having the same freedom anywhere else that he has on HBO. —Garrett Martin

8. Enlightened

Creators:Laura Dern and Mike White
Stars: Laura Dern, Diane Ladd, Sarah Burns, Luke Wilson

Amy Jellicoe (an unforgettable Laura Dern), once enraged by circumstance, sets out in Mike White’s Enlightened to remake herself, rebuild her relationships, and reinvent the world. Buffeted by moments of bitterness, suffused with the conviction that change (personal, corporate, social) is possible, the result is a series that resembles a collection of short stories—18 episodes that contain life’s full complement of disappointment and failure, satisfaction and hope. By the time Enlightened reaches Todd Haynes’ unspeakably beautiful Season 2 entry, “All I’ve Ever Wanted,” Amy’s journey comes to reflect her repeated statement of purpose, “You can be wise, and almost whole.” It was gone too soon perhaps, but in its smallness, its grace, Enlightened approached perfection, at once spiky and sunny, incisive and richly emotional. It is, in short, one of TV’s finest series, an “agent of change” in a medium often lashed to tradition. —Matt Brennan

7. Game of Thrones

Creators: David Benioff, D. B. Weiss
Stars: Emilia Clarke, Peter Dinklage, Kit Harington, Maisie Williams, Lena Headey, Sophie Turner, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Aidan Gillen

The geopolitical drama that unfolds in George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire book series is so epic in scope that it made the Lord of the Rings feel like Cliff’s Notes. Even after it’s been pared down for television, the hourlong episodes can only cover a portion of the stories from key characters. Highlighting its fantasy elements only sparingly, each of these are very human tales, as inhabitants of Westeros and Essos try to survive in a very cruel world and often, very often, fail. Heroes meet their end as often as villains; children as often as warriors. The show has garnered its fair share of criticism for its gratuitous nudity and its depiction of a couple of brutal rape scenes, but it also has featured some of the strongest female characters on TV. And it’s the characters, the quick wit of Tyrion and Varys, the master conniving of Littlefinger, the defiant spunk of Arya, the quick nobility of Jon Snow, the heartless villainy of Tywin Lannister, the complicated redemption of Jaime, that made this show an epic cultural juggernaut (even in its arguably faltering final seasons).—Josh Jackson

6. Chernobyl

Creator: Craig Mazin
Stars: Jared Harris, Stellan Skarsgard, Jessie Buckley, Emily Watson

Maybe this is a good time for a drama about Chernobyl. I mean, as it becomes increasingly tempting to give in to apocalyptic ideation, I guess it’s useful to remember that the apocalypse already happened, and not even that long ago (I was a teenager and remember it vividly), and we apparently survived it.

In April 1986, the reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, in present-day Ukraine, exploded, leaving a large number of first-responder widows and a legacy of environmental annihilation. The incident and its aftermath are the subject of a new, five-part drama on HBO. Let me start by saying people with mood disorders should weigh the pros and cons carefully before tuning in: It’s possibly the worst thing I have ever seen on TV. And I don’t mean poorly done. (It’s unfortunately brilliant). I mean Chernobyl is devastatingly realistic and really, really painful, so be prepared for graphic depictions of what it’s like to die of radiation poisoning. Or what it’s like to be recruited to the task force that has to destroy radioactive housecats, milk cows and puppies. I literally couldn’t sit through the first episode. I had to watch it 10 minutes at a time.

The outstanding cast is led by Stellan Skarsgård as Boris Scherbina, a Kremlin apparatchik, and Jared Harris as Valery Legasov, the nuclear physicist who makes the government understand they cannot lie and obfuscate their way out of a nuclear disaster. Emily Watson rounds it out as Ulana Komyuk, a Byelorussian scientist determined to find out what really happened in order to keep it from ever happening again. The production is HBO-grade excellent. The soundtrack is a testament to the terrifying sound of a chattering Geiger counter. Writer and producer Craig Mazin is relentless in his depiction of human corruption and environmental breakdown, and director Johan Renck gives Lars von Trier a run for his melancholic money. It is an anatomy of fear and incompetence and hopelessness and baseness and self-destructiveness. It is desolate and desperate and excruciating and horrible. Horrible. Horrible. And it should be. —Amy Glynn

5. Six Feet Under

Creator: Alan Ball
Stars: Peter Krause, Michael C. Hall, Frances Conroy, Lauren Ambrose

Six Feet Under is a television show that attempts to find reason and order in death, but then every episode totally fails. Through the eyes of the Fisher family’s proprietors and operators of a funeral home in Los Angeles, death is an inevitability stripped of all romance, and yet the series—as it follows the lives of eldest brother Nate Fisher and his loved ones—can never escape the fear at the core of even the most jaded people’s relationship with mortality. Opaquely funny, tender, heartrending and sometimes deeply uncomfortable, Six Feet Under balks, down to the marrow of its bones, at the idea that there is reason in death. And in turn, every episode begins with a functionally freak fatality, so much so that it’s nearly impossible to binge watch the series without concluding that death will find us when we least expect it, no matter what we do or no matter how we hide. Somehow, though, Six Feet Under is never morbid, instead concerned with celebrating the lives of its ensemble however they happen to play out, sensitive to the fact that though they run a funeral home, they have as little insight into the meaning of life as anyone else navigating modernity at the turn of the century. Pretty much the polar opposite of Ball’s True Blood, Six Feet Under is, I’m not sure how else to put it, a TV show about life, all of it, and if you aren’t drenched with tears by the time it all ends, you should probably have someone check your pulse. —Dom Sinacola

4. Barry

Creators:   Bill Hader, Alec Berg
Stars Bill Hader, Stephen Root, Sarah Goldberg, Anthony Carrigan, Henry Winkler

One of the strangest and most fascinating comedy/drama hybrids to date, creator and star Bill Hader’s excellent series plays with questions of identity and self-expression that explore the dual lives our troubled protagonist Barry leads. Amateur dramatist by day, assassin by night, Barry works to shed his darker self and become the man he wants to be, but he can’t escape the choices that led him down that dark path to begin with. Denying that being a killer is part of who he really is only leads to a repressed rage that comes out in exceptionally tense and violent scenes, ones that Hader expertly juxtaposes with Barry’s sweet and earnest side through unexpected comedy (and occasionally, wistful daydreams). He’s a man who wants to do good, but can’t reconcile the two parts of himself, something the series also explores throughout the series. Who we are versus how we want others to see us is at the core of Barry’s character exploration, and Hader manages to somehow make the series both hilarious and deeply affecting, taking us on a rollercoaster of emotions that ends—at least with its recent second season—in an extraordinary difficult place of truth and self-understanding.—Allison Keene

3. Band of Brothers

Creators: Tom Hanks, Steven Spielberg 
Stars: Damian Lewis, Ron Livingston, Scott Grimes, Donnie Wahlberg, Kirk Acevedo, Eion Bailey, Michael Cudlitz

Many years ago there was a blog called “Pop Culture Torture,” and one of the challenges was for a writer to watch all of Band of Brothers in one day and document it. By the fourth hour he was an emotional wreck, and by the fifth he was starting to sob just at the opening theme. Such is the immense power of this World War II epic, which fictionalizes the experiences of “Easy” Company from the 1992 book of the same name. The series also features some of the real heroes talking about their experiences before and after episodes, and when you learn which characters are based off of them it just brings everything together in overwhelming ways. The careful attention to detail and weaving in of historical moments will ultimately make this series your definitive understanding of the war and everything surrounding it. So don’t binge it, but do watch—it is one if the all-time greats. (One that happens to star a massive cast of recognizable young male actors in small roles who almost all became A-list movie stars). Follow-up series on HBO include The Pacific, which deals with that theater of the war, and also David Simon’s Generation Kill, another outstanding miniseries that focuses on a Marine recon division during the first 40 days of the Iraq War. —Allison Keene

2. The Sopranos

Creator: David Chase
Stars: James Gandolfini, Lorraine Bracco, Edie Falco, Michael Imperioli, Dominic Chianese, Steven Van Zandt, Tony Sirico, Robert Iler

For eight years, James Gandolfini crawled deep inside the complexities of Tony Soprano—loving father, son and husband, goodhearted friend, master of sardonic one-liners (“How do you vandalize a pool?”), troubled psych patient, serial adulterer, mob boss and brutal, remorseless killer—inspiring as much dumbfounded loathing and shuddering sympathy as any character in TV history. Murderers aren’t one-dimensional; they have feelings, aspirations, justifications, families. The Sopranos brilliantly and believably explored this dynamic, turning the crime-drama on its head and taking dysfunction to the extreme in the process. As unfathomable as their world was, the characters of this tragic, beautifully arcing modern epic were so real that they became like family to us, too. —Steve LaBate

1. The Wire

Creator:   David Simon  
Stars: Dominic West, Lance Reddick, Sonja Sohn, Idris Elba, Domenick Lombardozzi, Ellis Carver, Andre Royo, Wendell Pierce, Rhonda Pearlman

Series mastermind David Simon conceived of The Wire as a modern Greek tragedy, a morality play set in a drug-infested urban war zone where conventional good guys and bad guys barely exist. Everyone is conflicted and compromised. We didn’t need The Wire to remind us that the system—the criminal justice system, the political system, the education system—is broken. But no other cultural enterprise (and certainly no television show) has shown us precisely how the infrastructure has collapsed, forcing us to consider the impossible decisions required for repair. Amidst the rubble of a failed city, Simon created an engrossing human drama with unforgettable characters about the eternal struggle between aspiration and desperation, ambition and resignation. In other words, the fight for the American Dream. —Nick Marino



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