The 30 Best HBO Series of All Time, Ranked
By Justin Kirkland, 2/1/21
With Watchmen and The Outsider debuting in the last year, was anything strong enough to claim HBO’s top spot?
The thing about any list ranking is that it’s going to shift over time. That’s because it takes a lot of finesse to have a lasting impact. If we were to throw any random show with a good season on a list, then you could put just about anything on here. HBO is great at cultivating short term successes, but for it to stick, there’s got to be consistency, to some extent.
That brings us to the king of prestige: HBO’s best of the best. Sometimes, you can’t help but recognize a show that redefined television with a little story about a coveted Iron Throne. How can you not tip a hat to the great Larry Sanders Show? And then there are newbies, like Euphoria, that has turned the often-melodramatic teen drama category into cutting edge storytelling about drug use and social pressures. (And before you balk at Euphoria’s inclusion, we’ll reconsider when the series takes a swing and misses for the first time.)
So here’s the rundown, best as we can imagine it: the top 30 HBO shows, from Tony Soprano to Carrie Bradshaw. We know there are always some capital-o Opinions when it comes to the offerings from this beloved premium network, so sound off in the comments. And don’t even come at us with those Westworld takes because you know that show is off its rocker.
30. The Outsider
We hate this saying, but if you hang in for about two episodes of HBO’s adaptation of Stephen King’s The Outsider, it really starts taking off. The miniseries, starring Jason Bateman, Ben Mendelsohn, and Cynthia Erivo is a welcomed addition to the spooky-horror-adjacent television lineup and features masterclass performances from its major leads. The investigation of a young boy’s murder turns into something bigger than anyone expected, and it shakes one Georgia town to its core.
No one wants Westworld to be on this list more than Westworld. At times, the show is so obtuse in how badly it wants to be the smartest show on television that it’s a turn off. But when Westworld turns out a solid episode, it’s one of the best on television. Also kudos to developing a cast led by such strong actresses.
28. Silicon Valley
Silicon Valley nearly missed its window. The tech-brother of Entourage, Silicon manages to tell its story with considerably fewer jerks than its bro-y counterpart. The comedy continues to draw critical acclaim, even after its untimely end.
27. I May Destroy You
Michaela Coel’s HBO series is widely seen as one of the best series of 2020. Unrelenting and impossibly brave in its discussion of sexual assault, Coel’s character, Arabella, faces the truths of her assault and how it affects her job, her relationships with those closest to her, and most importantly, herself.
Nothing like a massive nuclear accident to get the family around the television, right? The 2019 miniseries was a stalwart during awards season and holds a 96 percent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. But no review can sum up the performances in this dramatization of one of Russia’s biggest national disasters.
25. True Blood
Dark horror set in Louisiana, based around sharp-talking vampires with sharper teeth? Sign us up. The sexy premium cable drama features some of the best television work out there, and Anna Paquin shines in it.
24.. Big Little Lies
In the crusade that is Reese Witherspoon’s takeover of media, Big Little Lies might be her most successful TV venture to date. Based on a novel of the same name, the series followed along with the book’s plot pretty closely before getting renewed for a Season Two. That’s when it went downhill. Hard. Had that second season not happened, Big Little Lies would be squarely sitting in Top Ten territory.
23. Years and Years
This 2019 series is probably a bit too relevant for our times. The British series follows one family through the ups and downs of a 15 year span, often jumping in time from episode to episode, but it exists in our current timeline: desire for Trump is up, just like opposition to immigration. The series is a haunting collection of what-ifs, making for an uncomfortable watch that is as affecting as it is well-performed.
Insecure is phenomenal. The Issa Rae-creation deserves more love than it gets, and it provides a lens that we haven’t seen much in the television landscape: a comedic look inside the life of two black women trying to find success after college through the complications of being in their 20s.
21. Boardwalk Empire
What happens when you combine Steve Buscemi, New Jersey, and prohibition? You end up with a really great HBO show. Boardwalk Empireonly falls so low because the rest of the list is so incredibly strong.
20. Sharp Objects
Amy Adams’ psychological thriller, Sharp Objects, based on a book of the same name, seemingly dominated summer a couple years ago. Playing an alcoholic reporter, Adams returns to her hometown to investigate a murder and finds herself back under the thumb of her Missouri-dwelling mother (Patricia Clarkson). By the end, the whole story turns into something more complex than a brief summary could explain.
Looking is one of the first of its kind. While Queer as Folk and Queer Eyemay have cleared the path, Lookinglooked (no pun intended) to revolutionize the way that stories are told about gay men. The series was always a bit of a little engine that could, but its reverberations are still being felt after its ultimate demise.
Succession might have been a slow burn when it comes to building an audience, but after two successful seasons, the sardonic drama about an elite media family is a dark look into wealth and dominance. With Brian Cox’s Logan Roy at the helm of the Roy family, he navigates the power hungry intentions of his children.
17. The Comeback
Well. I got it! The four words are a hallmark of the Lisa Kudrow staple. It’s also one of the inaugural shows to be cancelled and then years later get the revival treatment. Lisa Kudrow never quite got her due for the show or the strange brand of comedy she brought to it.
Listen. Euphoria is a lot to take in. (See: dozens o’ dicks.) It also will make you extra grateful to not be coming of age in the year of our Lord, 2021. The high school series is led by a flawless performance from Zendaya, with powerful performances from the supporting cast as well. The peephole into addiction and drug access is some of the most visually stimulating and thought provoking television right now.
15. Big Love
RIP Bill Paxton and the show that managed to corral Chloë Sevigny, Ginnifer Goodwin, Amanda Seyfried, and Jeanne Tripplehorn into one series about polygamous marriage. God only knows where we’d be without Big Love.
Bill Hader might have been strong on Saturday Night Live, but his turn on HBO’s Barry is the role he was meant for. The dark-comedy follows Hader playing the titular role, a Marine-turned-hitman who just happened to find his bliss (or, you know, get closerto it) by joining the theater scene in Los Angeles. The dream! Just remember to always yes and…
13. Getting On
Laurie Metcalf has always been a bit of an underrated actress. Pair her off with the likes of Niecy Nash and Alex Borstein, and you have one of the most accomplished casts on television representing overworked doctors and nurses in one of the most overlooked comedies on HBO.
12. Last Week Tonight
How many Emmys do you have to win to be considered the GOAT because John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight has to be nearing that number. The series that comically covers the week’s events has become so ingrained in our culture that it’s hard to believe it’s only been on six seasons. But don’t let the “comedy” moniker fool you. Oliver and his whip smart writing staff are holding feet to the fire better than a lot of news networks.
11. Six Feet Under
On the surface, Six Feet Under is just a darkly comedic look at death through the guise of a funeral home. The writing is smart and the acting is stellar, but when you look back on the series, you realize that the cast was kind of stacked: Peter Krause, Lauren Ambrose, Rachel Griffiths, and Dexter before he was Dexter? Damn.
Watchmen changed the television landscape in late 2019. Combining the talents of Damon Lindelof and Regina King, expectations were high for the miniseries. Watchmen surpassed them. Skewering conversations on race and LGBTQ people, the television adaptation of the graphic novel eclipsed the fanfare of the first film and left viewers hungry for more. In a rare move, Lindelof bowed out, leaving us with only one iconic season, but damn if it wasn’t great television.
Deadwood is the kind of period piece that feels like it just belongs on HBO. The drama, set in a lawless mining town in post-Civil War America, is one of HBO’s most recognizable exports.
8. Curb Your Enthusiasm
Improv on television? Sounds like a recipe for disaster. But former Seinfeld co-creator Larry David managed to create one of the most hilarious comedies on television by simply basing the comedy on himself. More than that, you’ll never hear the theme song without knowing exactly what mood it provokes.
Selina Meyer predicted something that we could have never seen coming: what happens when someone absolutely bananas ends up in the highest office in the land. But more than that, Julia Louis-Dreyfus created a character that set her far apart from her Seinfeld years, proving herself to be one of the most iconic comedic performers of our time.
6.The Larry Sanders Show
Garry Shandling broke the mold when it came to The Larry Sanders Show. The series may have been a fictional talk show, but something about the way Shandling infused his natural hosting talent with the vibe of the pretend Larry Sanders is magic that hasn’t been recreated. It’s arguably the best comedy that HBO has ever released.
5. Game of Thrones
Placing Game of Thrones is difficult because it’s a phenomenon in its own right. If The Sopranos defined this genre of high-end television, then you have to give GoT the credit for reinventing it. The show has a following unlike anything in recent memory, as well as some of the most intense scenes we’ve seen on TV in a while.
4. Sex and the City
Revolutionary for its time, I couldn’t help but wonder… could this list ever include Sex and the City outside of the top five? That’s a hard no. The adventures of Carrie, Samantha, Miranda, and Charlotte defined a generation and set up the idea that a show about women could be just a risqué as anything else on television.
l3. The Sopranos
Never has a cut to black caused so much controversy. But well beyond its shockingly ambivalent ending, the mob series set the tone for modern, elevated television. The Sopranos is responsible for television as we know it, and ultimately, no other show on this list would be what it is without the guidance of The Sopranos.
2. The Leftovers
A controversial top choice, The Leftovers ends up toward the top because it dared to be adventurous in a way a lot of shows shy away from. The Damon Lindelof show had all the makings of great television: big mysteries, a controversial ending, and a crash course in just how good Carrie Coon is.
1. The Wire
At the top of every HBO list is one of the culprits: The Sopranos or The Wire. While The Leftovers may have edged out The Sopranos, it’s just impossible to beat The Wire: a show that captures the gravity of the Baltimore narcotics scene in a way that is hard to describe. The Wireisn’t just the top of the HBO list, but maybe all TV series lists.