No television network has shows like HBO. Whether we’re talking about now-iconic crime series, historical epics, or superhero deconstructionist stories set in alternative realities, HBO is responsible for delivering some of the greatest TV series of all time from decade to decade.
Proof of this fact can be found in HBO’s seemingly endless amount of fantastic programming over the years, which have gone on to win literally hundreds of prestigious awards, including countless Emmy and Golden Globe Awards.
Nowadays, it seems like the tight grip HBO has on delivering premium content with a wide viewership will only continue to grow in the future, with fans currently delighting in original HBO series like Euphoria. While HBO also boasts some fantastic comedy shows, it’s the network’s drama series that helped cement HBO its place on television today.
For all those Euphoria fans out there wondering what to watch next, here are ten of the greatest HBO drama series of all time.
Adapting one of the most famous comic books ever written for television was never going to be easy. However, Watchmen superfan and showrunner Damon Lindelof made the very wise decision to offer a continuation of the original comic rather than a straight adaptation, allowing for a new, modern story set within the Watchmen universe.
HBO’s Watchmen stars Regina King as Sister Night, a masked police officer in Tulsa who uncovers a major conspiracy involving a white supremacist group and the death of her friend and boss, Judd Crawford (Don Johnson).
Much like the original comic’s discussion of the nuclear war in the mid-1980s, HBO’s Watchmen explores some very dark and serious subject matter that is plaguing society today: racial injustice and horrific crimes against Black citizens, as well as the role of police and a frank look into a post-9/11 America.
For its straightforward depiction of systemic racism and the 1921 Tulsa race massacre (one of the least-talked racial incidents in American history that Watchmen helped spread awareness of), the show was praised as one of the best miniseries of 2019.
It would earn a total of 26 Primetime Emmy Award nominations, winning in 11 categories (the most for any show in 2020), including Outstanding Limited Series, Outstanding Actress for a Limited Series (King), Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Limited Series (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), and Outstanding Writing for a Limited Series.
Imagine Orange is the New Black at a men’s correctional facility instead of an all-female prison. Oh, and a lot less comedy. That’s the basic premise for Oz, a show which openly discussed taboo subjects and featured shocking levels of violence and sexuality from the first season onward.
Set at the fictional maximum-security prison, the Oswald State Correctional Facility (“Oz” for short) within the “Emerald City” wing, administrator Tim McManus (Terry Kinney) tries to ease tensions between prisoners and aid in their rehabilitation, only for faction wars between groups to constantly get in the way of any genuine progress.
Oz can be certainly upsetting to watch—it’s far more depressing and violent than, say, The Shawshank Redemption, with numerous characters killed off in brutal, unexpected waysand it’s for that very reason it’s seen as one of HBO’s most important shows. In no uncertain terms, there was simply no other show quite like Oz, a program that probed deeply into the daily lives of inmates in American prisons who lived claustrophobic, stress-filled lives where everyday might mean some act of extreme violence or assault inflicted on them.
Any show that unapologetically discusses difficult subjects or portrays sudden, absurdly brutal levels of violence without holding anything back that was released in the past 20 years owes a serious debt to Oz.
Six Feet Under
Most of the entries on this list feature characters abruptly dying, but few handle the subject of life and death itself as sensitively as Six Feet Under.
On one level, Six Feet Under is an entertaining family drama following the owners of a funeral parlor in Los Angeles. What sets Six Feet Under Apart from other family dramas, though, is how well it handles discussions about death and how one’s mortality gives life meaning. Each episode begins with a character dying through natural causes or through some kind of accident, setting the tone for the remainder of the episode.
It’s natural to think a show that deals so heavily with death might be preachy or too overly philosophical at times, but Six Feet Under explores the subject with a refreshing amount of hopefulness. Rather than lamenting about the inevitably of death in a nihilistic or depressing way, the main message is to celebrate life while you can (both the good parts and the bad), because you never know how or when it will end.
Throughout its 5-season long run, the series received significant acclaim from critics, with praise aimed at the show’s excellent writing and a stellar cast. It would win nine Emmys, three Golden Globes, a Peabody, and three Screen Actors Guild Awards. It’s also considered to have one of the finest series finales in television history.
HBO has a large number of incredible miniseries based on historical events or persons, such as the amazing, award-winning miniseries, John Adams. One of the most remarkable historical dramas to ever be released on HBO, though, was Craig Mazin’s meticulously researched series, Chernobyl.
Mazin’s five-part series offers a largely accurate portrayal of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster—one of the worst nuclear-related accidents in global history—and the efforts to contain it. Chernobyl can be frightening and or difficult to watch for many, but there’s no question it can make for an engaging, startlingly factual viewing experience for its unflinching depiction of nuclear destruction and fallout.
Featuring a massive ensemble cast made up of Jared Harris, Stellan Skarsgård, Jessie Buckley, Emily Watson, Barry Keoghan, and many more, Chernobyl was named one of the best miniseries of 2019, winning acclaim for its performances, writing, music, and historical accuracy. It received the Golden Globe for Best Miniseries and Best Supporting Actor in a Miniseries (Skarsgård), as well as the Emmy for Outstanding Limited Series, Outstanding Directing, and Outstanding Writing.
It’s crazy to think that, initially, people thought Boardwalk Empire was destined to fail, believing it to be essentially a lesser version of The Sopranos set during the 1920s’. The pilot of this hit HBO crime series would prove all naysayers wrong, delivering a show that was arguably every bit as entertaining as The Sopranos, but was also drastically different as well.
An introspective portrait of life in the Roaring Twenties as well as the various criminals active during Prohibition (from common bootleggers to real-life historical gangsters such as Al Capone and Lucky Luciano), Boardwalk Empire focuses on the life and career of Enoch “Nucky” Thompson (Steve Buscemi), a corrupt politician in Atlantic City.
Like The Sopranos, Boardwalk Empire features numerous shocking plot twists, sudden and brutal deaths of long-standing, fan-favorite characters, and plenty of unforgettable performances from a huge ensemble cast (Buscemi, Michael Pitt, Kelly Macdonald, Michael Shannon, Shea Whigham, Michael Stuhlbarg, and Michael K. Williams, among others).
The series gained widespread popularity throughout its production, receiving 20 Emmys and receiving a total of 57 nominations. It also won the Golden Globe Award for Best Television Series – Drama, and the Screen Actors Guild Awards for Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble in a Drama Series two years in a row.
As you might’ve guessed by now, historical dramas are a staple for HBO programming, with the network producing such unforgettable shows as Band of Brothers, The Pacific, Boardwalk Empire, and Carnivàle. Among the first of these period piece genre shows was Deadwood, David Milch’s down-and-dirty historical epic set on the untamed Frontier of 1870s’ America.
Deadwood follows a group of people living in its titular South Dakota town before and after the territory’s annexation into the US.
Included in the large cast are real-life historical figures like Deadwood’s sheriff Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant), crime boss Al Swearengen (Ian McShane), as well as supporting roles from Wild Bill Hickok, Calamity Jane, Wyatt Earp, and George Hearst.
Deadwood may take a number of liberties in terms of its historical accuracy, but the series was praised for its ability to make fans sympathize with even the most despicable characters, whose actions are near-impossible to fully condone. Though critically praised for its time (especially in regards Milch’s writing and McShane’s performance), the series was surprisingly canceled after a mere three seasons.
Thankfully, in recent years, its popularity and esteem has only grown, with many critics citing it as one of the greatest HBO series of all time, eventually resulting in a television film sequel, Deadwood: The Movie, being released 13 years after the show’s cancellation. During its original syndication, Deadwood would win eight of the 28 Emmys it was nominated for, as well a Golden Globe (Best Actor—McShane) and a Peabody Award.
Game of Thrones
Even with its controversial final season, there’s no denying the impact Game of Thrones had over the course of its initial few seasons. A fantasy show that swapped out magic for political intrigue, war, and humanistic stories about complex, morally gray characters, it’s one of the most-watched HBO series in recent memory, and one of the best of all time.
Based on the best-selling series by George RR Martin and set primarily in the medieval fantasy land of Westeros, Game of Thrones tells the interweaving stories of multiple noble families and individual vying for power and the chance to sit on the Iron Throne, ruling their vast continent and presiding over all other kingdoms.
Such a simple description utterly fails to capture the nature of the series, which is heavily rooted in numerous characters and the evolution they see throughout the course of the series. In true HBO fashion, it’s also become known for quick, unexpected deaths of beloved characters, showing that—even when you desperately want them to—the good guys, unfortunately, don’t always end up winning in the grand scheme of things.
In its heyday, Game of Thrones was nothing short of a cultural phenomenon, equal in popularity to Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, and Harry Potter. It would win a total of 59 Primetime Emmy Awards (it holds the record for the most wins in a drama series), receiving the award for Outstanding Drama Series on four separate occasions.
It also won a Peabody Award, three Hugo Awards, and received five Golden Globe nominations for Best Television Series – Drama.
Band of Brothers
In 1998, Steven Spielberg confronted the painful, heartbreaking realities of war—specifically the 1944 invasion of Normandy—in his award-winning film, Saving Private Ryan. In 2001, Spielberg and star Tom Hanks oversaw the production of a similarly-veined project based on the nonfiction book, Band of Brothers, by Stephen A. Ambrose.
Band of Brothers follows the various members of Easy Company, a paratrooper infantry group that fought in some of the largest and most destructive in the European theater of World War II. Based on Ambrose’s interviews with the surviving members of Easy Company, Band of Brothers is unlike most other war films or TV shows like Saving Private Ryan due to its basis on the actual experiences of real soldiers’ who fought in WWII.
Some creative liberties may have been taken, but for the most part, its depiction of Easy Company’s journey from Normandy and the Netherlands to the frozen forests of Belgium is almost entirely factual and based on the company’s actual first-hand experiences.
Today, it's considered one of the definitively best miniseries of all time, having won seven Emmy Awards (including Outstanding Miniseries) and the Golden Globe for Best Miniseries or Television Film.
A serious argument could be that The Wire not only deserves the title of best HBO drama series, but the greatest TV show ever produced. It was and continues to be unlike most crime shows out there, a program where good guys and bad guys don’t exist, featuring law enforcement personnel working in a justice system they know is inherently broken.
Set in Baltimore, The Wire comprises five overarching seasons, with each new season portraying a different institution (the illegal drug industry, city government, education, and the media, among others) and how they relate to the city’s law enforcement. The Wire was essentially a police procedural series that portrayed both the police officers’ and the criminals’ side of the story, showing that sometimes, people need to break a few laws in order to make ends meet and survive.
It’s a startling meditation on urban crime and the failure of the American Dream, which ended up winning the series significant critical acclaim during its initial airing as well as in subsequent years.
If you look at any publications’ list for the “Best HBO Series of All Time,” you’re almost certain to find either The Wire or The Sopranos rounding out the list at number one. It’s up for discussion which one for certain deserves that coveted number one spot, but due to its now-iconic status in pop culture, we believe The Sopranos just barely manages to edge out The Wire in terms of the greatest HBO show there is.
James Gandolfini stars in the series as New Jersey-based mobster, Tony Soprano, with each episode framed around Tony’s discussing his personal and professional problems with his therapist. Like nearly every show on this list, The Sopranos was immensely successful in its original six-season-long run, winning 21 Emmy Awards, five Golden Globes, and a Peabody Award.
In more recent years, the show’s critical esteem has only grown more favorable. Several well-known publications like The Huffington Post listed it as one of the greatest TV series of all time, with Rolling Stone and TV Guide ranking it as the best TV show in history. In 2013, the Writers Guild of America also cited it as being the best-written TV series there is.
Its continued success and popularity is evident even today, with the show having received a video game spinoff and more recently a film continuation, The Many Saints of Newark.
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This post was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.
Image Credit: HBO Max.
Richard Chachowski is a freelance writer based in New Jersey. He loves reading, his dog Tootsie, and pretty much every movie to ever exist (especially Star Wars).