The 20 greatest HBO shows of all time (2023)

As the first television service to be directly transmitted and distributed to individual cable television systems, HBO is the oldest subscription service in America. Through its slogan, “It’s not TV, it’s HBO”, the network holds a distinct and profound presence in media, responsible for bringing some of the most groundbreaking shows to the small screen.

HBO has a diverse and acclaimed list of shows for viewers to enjoy, ranging from improvised comedy to brutal historical depictions. The network has turned numerous talented actors into stars, now recipients of consecutive awards for their work. Furthermore, writers and directors succeed under the HBO umbrella, strengthening the network through their style and themes.

Many HBO shows earn status as a cultural phenomenon, building strong and dedicated fanbases and facilitating the evolution of the TV medium. They offer recognisable characters to cement the shows in audiences’ memories, in addition to monumental plots.

With a long list of iconic series, here is our list of the 20 greatest HBO series that demonstrate the service’s quality and talent.

20. Girls (2012 – 2017)

Released at the perfect time, during the infancy of the 2010s when the indie aesthetic and hipster culture was flourishing, Lena Dunham’s comedy-drama about a group of girls in their early 20s growing up in Brooklyn was a fearless piece of HBO delight. Influential in its material, as well as the stars it introduced to the fold, Dunham’s series still holds a considerable amount of passionate fans across the globe.

The millennial female comedy elevated the likes of Allison Williams, Adam Driver, Jemima Kirke and Dunham herself, as each one became significant industry stars.

19. Euphoria(2019 – present)

Powerful and insightful, the vital and heavily influential series starred such names as Michael K. Williams, Dominic West, Idris Elba, Michael B. Jordan and Felicia Pearson.

Sam Levinson’s teen drama focuses on a gang of high schoolers navigating teenhood. The teens experience romantic relationships, identity issues, addiction and growth.

Euphoriais a potential cultural phenomenon, and every episode is the internet’s hottest topic after airing. It is the second-most-watched series in HBO history, behindGame of Thrones.The show is also recognised and praised for its beautiful visuals that contrast with its hard-hitting plot events. It also boasts an impressive costume department and historical merit, as Zendaya is the youngest Emmy winner thanks to her performance.

18. Band of Brothers (2001)

HBO struck gold with their one-season wonder Band of Brothers in 2001, enlisting the help of the Saving Private Ryan director Steven Spielberg, as well as his leading man Tom Hanks. The ten-part fictional piece about the Easy Company paratrooper division followed the team from basic training to the final days of the war, with Spielberg giving as much effort to the project as he did with his Oscar-winning movie.

Starring the likes of Damian Lewis, Tom Hardy, Michael Fassbender, Ron Livingston and David Schwimmer, the show proved revolutionary for the TV industry.

17. Veep (2012 – 2019)

You can’t talk about the best HBO shows of all time without mentioning the British writer Armando Iannucci, one of the most revolutionary comedy minds of the 21st century. His 2012 series Veep was an American re-imagining of the celebrated Westminster sitcom The Thick of It, with the US version of the satire hitting all the right dramatic and comedic notes to become a contemporary classic.

Politics has become almost as absurd as the show’s events in recent years, though Veep, starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Anna Chlumsky and Tony Hale, remains mandatory viewing.

16. The Larry Sanders Show (1992 – 1998)

The iconic Larry Sanders Show may never have really pierced into the British consciousness, but its influence can be seen everywhere, no less in the early 21st-century work of Ricky Gervais. Experimental, meta and surreal, the show, headed up by the titular comedian, took a humorous look behind the scenes of a late-night talk show, documenting the incompetence and drama that went on behind the scenes.

Incredibly influential, The Larry Sanders Show undoubtedly inspired the shape of comedy in the early half of the new millennium whilst being a hilarious show in its own right.

15. Deadwood (2004 – 2019)

Deadwood is the place to achieve wealth and power, attracting endless amounts of people, no matter how chaotic. The stories harmonise historical realities and fictional events, showing the town’s lawless nature.

Creator David Milch is held responsible for producing one of the greatest TV shows of all time. Deadwood‘s themes of civilisation and all the societal issues that come with it absorbed audiences effortlessly, portraying grit in a rich, stylised manner.

14. Angels in America (2003)

A landmark piece of drama that won 11 Primetime Emmys at the time of its release, including the award for Outstanding Miniseries, Angels in America, is a forgotten gem of HBO drama. Following a number of distant yet connected individuals who are each going through various stages of the AIDS crisis in the mid-1980s, the adaptation of Tony Kushner’s stage play, directed by Mike Nichols, was astounding.

If the stellar writing and direction weren’t enough, the show is also helped by several staggering performances from the likes of Meryl Streep, Al Pacino, Jeffrey Wright and Emma Thompson.

13. Six Feet Under (2001 – 2005)

This life-affirming comedy-drama may not be discussed all that much in contemporary circles, but back in the early 2000s, it was considered one of the best shows around, earning nine Primetime Emmys in its four-year run. A little like Arrested Development and similar family-orientated comedy shows, Six Feet Under tells the story of a dysfunctional family and their funeral home in Los Angeles.

Surprisingly profound, as well as undoubtedly groundbreaking, featuring a number of sensitively-written gay characters, Six Feet Under just doesn’t get the love it so clearly deserves.

12. The Leftovers (2014 – 2017)

In this supernatural drama, a mysterious global event has caused 2% of the world’s population to vanish. Police chief Kevin Garvey and his family struggle to move on after the ‘Sudden Departure’.

The Leftovers had a decently received first season, although its second and third met mass acclaim. Audiences can see its writing develop over time to achieve insightful thematic depth, elevated through ambiguous storytelling and emotional performances.

11. Game of Thrones (2011 – 2019)

Based on a series of fantasy novels by George R. R. Martin,Game of Thronesdocuments the fictional continents of Westeros and Essos. In this magical universe, noble families engage in political conflicts and fight for thrones.

Game of Thronesis one of the biggest cultural phenomenons of the 21st century. It received consistent praise from critics and fans,excluding the rushed final season. The show has a dedicated fanbase that includes celebrities and political figures, showing the power of its vivid storytelling.

10. The Rehearsal (2022)

American comedian and writer Nathan Fielder is quickly becoming one of the most celebrated figures working in contemporary television, with his latest series, The Rehearsal, being something of a mini marvel. Released at a time when fake news is rife and the line between reality and fantasy is becoming evermore blurred due to the dreamworld of online life, Fielder’s series, which follows a man who helps people rehearse for everyday life, is a complex masterpiece.

As hilarious as it is genuinely heartfelt, Fielder’s series captures something truly profound in just six episodes, with each one providing a nugget of knowledge that helps viewers understand the wild noise of modern life.

9. Barry (2018 – present)

Alec Berg and Bill Hader’s blend of dark comedy and crime follows an assassin who arrives in Los Angeles to find a target. However, he ends up in an acting class that leaves him questioning his life’s purpose.

Barry is the recipient of 44 Primetime Emmy Award nominations, including Hader winning Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series twice. It steers its antihero elements perfectly against a melting pot of comedy and thrills, ensuring an entertaining watch for each episode.

8. Boardwalk Empire (2010 – 2014)

On the surface, Boardwalk Empire may look like a series that you’ve seen a million times before, telling the story of an Atlantic City politician who toys with both sides of the law by conspiring with gangsters during the Prohibition era in the 1920s. An epic series initially directed by Martin Scorsese, who helmed the $18m pilot episode, Boardwalk Empire elevated itself beyond being ‘just another crime series’ by telling a complicated tale with a number of fascinating characters.

Made great by its ensemble cast of the late Michael Kenneth Williams, Steve Buscemi, Stephen Graham, Kelly Macdonald and Michael Shannon, Boardwalk Empire is a classic for lovers of The Sopranos or Peaky Blinders.

7. I May Destroy You (2020)

This British black comedy invites us to observe a young writer, played by creator Michaela Coel, as she attempts to rebuild her life following a vicious assault.

I May Destroy You was one of the most acclaimed shows of 2020, winning several awards, including Best Drama at the British Academy Television Awards. Its story and performances moved audiences to tears through its portrayal of bravery, pain and trauma.

6. Mare of Easttown (2021)

Kate Winslet stars as a detective from Pennsylvania who struggles to keep her life from falling apart while investigating a mysterious murder.

Critics hailed Mare of Easttown as a masterclass in storytelling, character performance and representation of women. It offers a grounded sense of setting and characters, balancing its style against a suspenseful atmosphere. The series earned four Emmy awards at the 73rd Primetime Emmy Awards, including Outstanding Lead Actress for Winslet.

5. Chernobyl (2019)

Craig Marzin’s depiction of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster stars Jared Harris, Stellan Skarsgård and Emily Watson. It documents the clean-up that followed the nuclear accident in a semi-fictionalised manner.

Chernobyl is one of the best-written shows of its time. The dialogue is nothing short of powerful, representing the tragedy and outrage of the disaster. The realities of all those affected make for a harrowing watch, showcasing how Chernobyl was unbelievably brutal and painful. It’s a long and difficult watch, but it’s more than worth it.

4. Curb Your Enthusiasm (2000-present)

Larry David created this sitcom, appearing as a semi-fictionalised version of himself. David is a famous television writer and producer who meetsmany celebrity colleaguesin Los Angeles.

Curb Your Enthusiasmreceived critical acclaim through its brilliant improvisational comedy. The show also maintains realism through an unapologetic Jewish identity and representation of Jewish themes. ‘Curb Your…’ has also become a widespread online meme, appearing in written and video content, showing the sitcom’s cultural influence.

3. The Wire (2002 – 2008)

If you want our two pennies’ worth, the top three best HBO series of all time are interchangeable, with each entry of the following trio being undisputed classics. We’ve stuck David Simon’s iconic series The Wire at number three, though, with the TV series which follows the war on drugs and the police corruption, government failures and social issues caused by the ongoing fight.

Powerful and insightful, the vital and heavily influential series starred such names as Michael K. Williams, Dominic West, Idris Elba, Michael B. Jordan and Felicia Pearson.

2. Succession (2018 – present)

In the contemporary world, and indeed throughout modern history, capitalism has been the most fierce societal game, with media goliaths controlling how people think and spend their money. Jesse Armstrong’s satirical comedy-drama, which follows a Murdoch-like family of warring siblings, each vying for power, is a riveting piece of enjoyably savage television. No one is a likeable character, yet the series’ ability to make us care for each one is its greatest strength.

Featuring a killer soundtrack, snappy documentary-like visuals and a stellar band of cast members, including Brian Cox, Jeremy Strong, Kieran Culkin and Sarah Snook, no matter if you watch Succession for the comedy or the accurate business drama, it’s a wild ride.

1. The Sopranos(1999 – 2007)

James Gandolfini stars as Tony Soprano, an Italian-American mobster balancing his domestic and professional life. He explores this conflict with his therapist, focusing on his family, colleagues and rivals.

The Sopranosis a masterpiece. It’s one of the greatest and most influential shows, as critics cite it as shaping a lot of brilliant American television that followed. The show is as complex as it is vibrant, presenting powerful performances and magnetic writing. The Sopranos also offers brilliant technical merit and controversial subjects executed with style.

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