This story was originally published in May and has been updated to include more recent HBO shows.
During the rapid expansion of cable and satellite television in the 1980s, HBO was one of the new services’ biggest selling points, thanks to a lineup that featured uncut recent theatrical movies, concerts, stand-up-comedy specials, and even the occasional Broadway show … and not the same ol’ sitcoms and dramas. These days, HBO is still one of pay TV’s top draws, but it’s mostly because of shows like Game of Thrones and Veep and not because subscribers are eager to catch up with Ocean’s 8 and The Predator. Starting in the late 1990s — and especially after the debut of The Sopranos in 1999 — the network developed a reputation as the place to find the kind of sophisticated original storytelling broadcasters and basic-cable outlets wouldn’t touch.
But not everything HBO executives sign off on has been solid gold. And now the network itself is in a transitional period, with veteran executives stepping down, and new owner AT&T reportedly pushing for more of a Netflix-style “quantity first, quality if there’s time” approach to making television. So with both Game of Thrones and Veep having come to an end this year, and with newer shows like Watchmen and Succession becoming viral sensations in 2019, it seems as good a time as any to look back at every HBO original comedy and drama series, from the ’80s shows that were “regular TV but with naked gals and cusses,” through the explosion in the aughts of some genuinely fresh and even radical television.
Figuring out what to put where wasn’t easy. Generally speaking, the top ten here should be considered canonical television: Shows that didn’t just distinguish themselves with their quality and cultural reach, but which suggested entirely new approaches to making TV. The bottom ten would be the dregs: The real misbegotten products of the whole HBO experiment. Everything in between falls into more of a loose continuum. Each has their merits — and, no doubt, fans who’ll be mad they’re not ranked higher — but in determining which was a “somewhere in the 50s” show versus “somewhere in the 20s,” we tried to consider not just entertainment value, but originality and ambition. What is HBO doing here that other media outlets aren’t?
A quick note about what’s not on the list. We’re excluding made-for-HBO movies and miniseries, with the exception of the minis (like Big Little Lies) and movies (The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency) that later became regular, ongoing series. We also left off children’s shows (no Fraggle Rock, sorry) and animation, and because the emphasis is on scripted entertainment, we excluded all the sports and documentary series. Apologies to Real Sex fans.
The hardest exclusion was sketch comedy and dramatic anthologies, since the former category includes a few of HBO’s best (like Mr. Show and The Kids in the Hall) and the latter represents some of HBO’s earliest (like The Hitchhiker). But because the focus of this list is on how the network changed television by competing directly with broadcast TV, we decided to stick with serialized sitcoms and dramas. Still, it is possible that some future version of this article will add one or more of the other genres. (And one more note on this: True Detective is being categorized here as a drama and not an anthology because the most recent season indicated it’s all taking place in a “shared universe,” so to speak.)
With all that out of the way, let the debating begin.
82. 1st & Ten (1984–90)
Long before the era of “It’s not TV, it’s HBO,” this ribald gridiron sitcom attempted to use the allure of mild sex and risqué language to separate itself from its network counterparts. But other distinctions were nonexistent. A pre–Designing Women Delta Burke made it through two and a half of the show’s six seasons as the owner of the California Bulls, a football team she picked up in a divorce after catching her husband with another man. (Cue excruciating “tight end” joke.) The show cycled through multiple sexy owners, ending on ’90s skin-flick icon Shannon Tweed, and addressed some of the football controversies of the day, including steroids and women in the locker room. It also features five seasons of O.J. Simpson’s comic stylings, which are fittingly excruciating.
What if Sex and the City was set in Chicago and it was about dudes? And what if, instead of four complicated, funny ladies, the show was about three sex-obsessed stiffs who spend most of their time griping about how the women in their lives are humorless and controlling? Created by and starring Mike Binder, The Mind of the Married Man squandered a great cast (including the Whit Stillman favorite Taylor Nichols, as well as M. Emmet Walsh and the incredible Sonya Walger) in a raunchy sitcom that, to be fair, was trying to say something meaningful about changing gender roles in the 21st century, between all its jokes about prostitutes and porn. More often than not, though, Binder’s take on our modern-day battle of the sexes was depressingly reductive and reactionary.
Ever seen those YouTube videos that strip the audience laughter from a traditional three-camera sitcom, making it sound like every joke is being delivered — painfully slowly — into a soulless void? That’s the default mode for Dream On, an old-fashioned comedy about a sad-sack divorced dad (played by Brian Benben) who is trying to tamp down his neuroses so he can get more action on the New York dating scene. Co-created by Marta Kauffman and David Crane — who’d later make the true sitcom classic Friends — Dream On tried to distinguish itself from run-of-the-mill network comedies by slipping a few seconds of female toplessness into some episodes and by replacing studio-audience reaction with what often seemed like random clips from old movies and TV shows. Somehow, this was enough to earn the series a six-season, 120-episode run. That’s nearly 60 hours of stilted comedy stuck in second gear.
Writer-producer Alan Ball’s sublime Six Feet Under was like an upgraded version of his movie American Beauty, replacing his shallower and glibber provocations with real character development and a sense of humility. Here and Now, on the other hand, was like Ball trying to assemble an entire show out of all the ungainly “relevance” he cut out of Six Feet Under. Even the title is embarrassingly presumptuous: Here and Now, as in, “This is what really matters in our world today.” (Alternate title: This Is Us: The Unrated Director’s Cut.) Tim Robbins and Holly Hunter do their best, playing an upscale liberal couple with a multiracial adoptive family. But indiscriminately dropping references to contemporary social issues wasn’t enough to make this drama sear, and the series’ teases of some supernatural explanation for its slow-paced potboiler plot was hardly beguiling enough to hook viewers.
Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove would likely be the consensus choice for film’s greatest satire, so it takes a certain courage to produce a show about a collection of government functionaries and blithering idiots about to push the world to the edge of nuclear catastrophe. The Brink had that courage. What it didn’t have was the requisite discipline, intelligence, or slashing wit to keep it from falling woefully short of standard. Despite having two highly capable comic actors in the lead roles — Tim Robbins as a skirt-chasing secretary of State and Jack Black as a low-level Foreign Service officer in Pakistan — the show was more interested in the follies of powerful and consequential people than in drawing out the tragic absurdities of a possible nuclear mishap.
Though Arliss is often knocked as HBO’s worst comedy, that’s mostly because it stuck around on the network for so long, running seven full seasons — well into the era when the likes of Oz, Sex and the City, and The Sopranos had started to class up the joint. And, oh yeah, it also wasn’t very funny. Though it was supposed to be about the misadventures of a powerful sports agent (played by creator Robert Wuhl), Arliss was never all that savvy about how the sports business actually worked. Instead, Wuhl just lined up a bunch of cameos from genuine athletes and broadcasters and let that substitute for actual commentary. Arliss was unambitious and bland, not heinous — although wasting a young Sandra Oh in a marginal supporting-character role for seven years should constitute some kind of punishable showbiz offense.
This rock-and-roll melodrama had all the elements of a smash: from the reteaming of Boardwalk Empire creator Terence Winter with his producer-director pal Martin Scorsese to the rich setting of the early-’70s New York City music scene, a time when arena-filling superstars were starting to be challenged by proto-punk and disco. Even the cast was aces, with the larger-than-life Bobby Cannavale playing a past-his-prime record executive chasing the next big sound and Ray Romano giving a marvelously tragicomic performance as the label’s corrupt promoter. But rather than making good use of its one-of-a-kind milieu, Vinyl quickly devolved into another prestige drama about arrogant, impulsive men pushing each other around while neglecting the women in their lives. Aside from a few killer scenes scattered throughout the one-season run, this drama was unpleasant to watch, never finding a good groove.
In his vaunted return to political television after The West Wing, Aaron Sorkin’s show about a fictional cable news network exposed all his worst instincts: irritating walk-and-talk banter, thinly realized (and nearly interchangeable) female characters, and a weakness for liberal speechifying. What’s especially irksome about The Newsroom is that Sorkin gave himself the benefit of hindsight, allowing his hero/mouthpiece, anchor Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels), to rereport news events and get right what real-life journalists got wrong. Sorkin wanted viewers to embrace McAvoy as the last idealist: a man of integrity in a compromised business. But most of the show was about him trumpeting his virtue. It did get better as it went along, with longer and more nuanced story arcs, but Sorkin couldn’t dig himself out a hole that deep.
Though they have different titles, the four seasons of comedian Chris Lilley’s mockumentary series for HBO (all of which originally aired on Australian TV) are part of the same shared universe, spun off from Lilley’s earlier sketch shows Big Bite and We Can Be Heroes: Finding the Australian of the Year. In them, he played multiple characters representing a cross-section of society — including racial minorities and the underclass. Lilley gets points for ambition, and at heart, all of these shows encouraged empathy as much as mockery. But to spoof stereotypes, the writer-director-star had to re-create them … up to and including wearing costumes and makeup that made him look “ethnic.” The cringe factor is high in all of these series, even when they’re trying to say something profound.
A decade before Oz, HBO turned prison life into pulpy melodrama with Maximum Security, a gritty half-hour drama that aimed to emulate the mid-’80s standard-bearers of mature, quality TV: Hill Street Blues and St. Elsewhere. The cast — which includes ultimate ’70s and ’80s “I recognize that guy!” character actor Geoffrey Lewis as a pragmatic lifer, as well as a pre–Designing Women Jean Smart as a crusading social worker — was certainly game. But a comparatively low budget proved too big of a liability, resulting in a show that at best resembled a straight-to-video B-movie … and at worst, an After-School Special.
Had Entourage ended after one season, this Hollywood bro answer to Sex and the City might have retained some goodwill for the breezy, no-stakes adventures of a dim up-and-comer (Adrian Grenier) from Queens, his coterie of mooches, and his apoplectic agent (Jeremy Piven). But after eight seasons and a movie, the show just kept spinning its chrome-capped wheels, never adding dimension to the characters or presenting any obstacle that the gang couldn’t easily overcome. Whenever Entourage threatened a more surreal or substantive comment on Hollywood, it retreated into vacant lifestyle porn, populated by men whose unchanging personalities start to whiff like a roomful of stale farts.
With Entourage finally winding down, HBO and producer Mark Wahlberg needed to fill the Axe-scented void with more bro-tastic lifestyle porn. In stepped Dwayne Johnson and the mildly diverting Ballers. Set in the sun-kissed mansions and marinas of tony Miami, the show stars Johnson as an ex-NFL star who tries to use his experience and connections in the league to convince current players to let him manage their finances. Ballers understands the volatility of the NFL, and how expensive lifestyles can dry up with an injury or the end of a contract. But it’s mostly a delivery system for big boobs and fast cars, carried across by Johnson’s affability. Easy to consume, but mostly empty calories.
Before Louis C.K. and Pamela Adlon created Louie and Better Things for FX, they attempted this high-concept oddity that deliberately contrasted the staginess of The Honeymooners and Norman Lear sitcoms with extremely adult language and situations. Filmed in front of a live studio audience, Lucky Louie underscored its raw jokes about marital discord, questionable parenting, and sexual peccadilloes with gales of canned laughter, making the punchlines all the more uncomfortable. The show’s mostly a failed experiment: Rather than evoke the working-class bawdiness of classic sitcoms, the throwback style comes off as glib and insincere and not nearly as effective as C.K. and Adlon’s more naturalistic first-person shows on FX. And with a masturbation subplot in the very first episode, its connection to C.K.’s offscreen issues is now immediately icky.
Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner’s misbegotten follow-up to Girls adapts British creator-actor Julia Davis’s comedy series for America by sending up a particular strain of bourgeois narcissism and entitlement. Davis’s brand of cringe humor is still strongly in evidence, spinning off from Jennifer Garner’s performance as a monstrous control freak who gathers friends and family in the woods for an excursion to celebrate her husband’s 45th birthday. When her rigid itinerary (and Instagrammable moments) bumps up against the chaos of the larger group, laughs are supposed to follow. But Garner is better at triggering discomfort than laughter. Only Juliette Lewis, as the free-spirited chaos agent who ruins all the best-laid plans, offers a glimpse into the anarchic show that might have been.
The last of the collaborations between The Office–Extras partners Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant (at least for now), Life’s Too Short ran for only seven episodes plus a one-hour special, the latter of which aired over a year after the season-one finale. A mockumentary, starring the 3-foot-6 character actor Warwick Davis as a fictionalized version of himself — a fading genre-movie star with a massive ego — the comedy found Gervais and Merchant working a bit on autopilot, following yet another embarrassingly self-deluded but basically well-meaning Englishman. Davis is very funny though, and once the show exhausts all its cheeky “let’s make fun of the little guy” jokes, it actually develops into a sweet companion piece to Extras, satirizing showbiz from a different angle.
It’s a shame that fans of Christopher Guest movies like Best in Show and Waiting for Guffman couldn’t keep his funny, poignant Family Tree alive for more than one short season. Co-created by Guest with English actor Jim Piddock, the series starred Chris O’Dowd as a lonely man looking into his lineage, traveling across the U.K. and all the way to L.A. in search of distant relatives, hoping they’d help him understand himself. The quest for identity provided the show with a neat episodic structure and made Guest’s usual company of oddballs (played by the likes of Michael McKean, Ed Begley Jr., Fred Willard, and the hilarious puppeteer Nina Conti) seem less goofy and more likable.
63. His Dark Materials (2019-present)
Novelist Philip Pullman’s popular and controversial His Dark Materials fantasy trilogy defied one attempt at a screen adaptation, as the stilted 2007 film The Golden Compass was both a critical flop and a box office disappointment. HBO’s TV coproduction with the BBC uses its longer running time to flesh out Pullman’s mysterious, magical steampunk world, where a gifted young girl named Lyra (Dafne Keen) learns secrets about her own past — and about the covert battles a dominant religious order has been waging against human maturity and consciousness. But while the cast is strong and the special effects impressive, the TV version of His Dark Materials is still too clunky, heavier on explanations than action.
Creator Alan Ball’s follow-up to Six Feet Under traded gravitas for pulp, loosely adapting Charlaine Harris’s Bayou Country vampire novels into high-end trash, with graphic sex and violence (and stupidity) as overdone as the suspect Louisiana accents. In the backwater town of Bon Temps, Anna Paquin’s half-fairy waitress falls hard for Stephen Moyer’s 173-year-old vampire: one of many who surface after a synthetic blood source gives vamps the option not to feast on humans. But True Blood was about the persistence of such ravenous appetites — whether healthily channeled or unabashedly savage — and the show tied them to serious themes about sexual identity, discrimination, and addiction. True Blood leaned too hard into its southern gothic ambience at times, especially in later seasons, but that’s a natural consequence for a show that pushed camp to the absolute limit.
61. Euphoria (2019-present)
Every generation gets the Reefer Madness it deserves, and creator Sam Levinson (Assassination Nation) offers Euphoria as the ultimate in kids-aren’t-all-right hysteria, complete with glitter-bomb aesthetics and a news cycle’s worth of shower-room penises. As a 17-year-old whose childhood health problems contribute to a cycle of drug addiction and rehab stints, Zendaya does her best to give the series a strong emotional ballast. And there’s something, well, addicting about the heightened tone of the melodrama, which is matched by wild aesthetic pyrotechnics. But in defining the lives of teenagers through their erratic and aberrant behavior, the show lacks the sensitivity to discover other aspects of their humanity.
Sarah Jessica Parker’s return to HBO post–Sex and the City sparked a creative dilemma that Divorce never solved: Creator Sharon Horgan was brought in to make a half-hour comedy with the real-keeping aesthetic of her superb U.K. show Catastrophe, but Parker wasn’t as suited to a nasty decoupling as she was to the airier misadventures of New York singles. While the show quite got over its identity crisis, it was nonetheless sharply observed and bitterly funny in tracking the excruciating personal and legal conflict of a marriage falling apart. Changed locks, counseling sessions, custody issues, petty recriminations, and intermittent re-sparking of the romantic flame … It’s all there, and more.
A first-person show about the trials of a put-upon male comedian is about the last thing the world needed, but Crashing seemed to recognize that truth enough to get away with it. Creator-star Pete Holmes trades on his modest, self-deprecating personality. The show’s about his humble journey through the stand-up circuit, which ruins his marriage, leads to periods of homelessness, and has him hawking gigs on street corners. But the strongest episodes of Crashing are tethered to bigger personalities, like Artie Lange and Sarah Silverman, who bring a darker energy and edge to counterbalance Holmes’s amiable milquetoast shtick. This affectionate, warts-and-all takes on the stand-up scene and its personalities feels mostly true to life.
Though it played the undercard to Camping — the flat-footed American adaptation of Julia Davis’s British comedy series (see No. 58) — Davis’s own Sally4Ever was by far the better of the two shows, despite pushing cringe-comedy to new frontiers of shocking mortification. Davis challenges the uptight norms of British society by placing a representative example at its center. Sally (Catherine Shepherd) has resigned herself to a dull, loveless life with her simpering, sexually inadequate, drip-of-the-century boyfriend David (Alex Macqueen) until she has a fling with a freewheeling lesbian singer (Davis). It turns out the singer is conniving horror show herself, which further puts the squeeze on Sally. A little of this repulsive behavior can go a long way. (It seems David’s always applying topical creams between crying jags.) But Sally’s palpable desire for liberation keeps it grounded.
Blame the lack of a strong, clear premise for the early cancellation of this well-drawn slice of life. Set in the overlapping worlds of New York fashion, art, music, media, crime, and entrepreneurship, How to Make It in America was ultimately about something perhaps too esoteric for a half-hour cable dramedy: the ways creative young people in the 2010s have to hustle 24/7 to stay relevant and get paid. A strong cast filled with rising talent (led by Bryan Greenberg and Victor Rasuk as well-connected up-and-coming designers) helped push the show to two eight-episode seasons. But it never garnered the kind of critical buzz that was coming HBO’s way one year later with the similar Girls.
Lanky British writer-comedian Stephen Merchant has rarely gotten the credit he’s deserved for co-creating The Office and Extras with Ricky Gervais. He finally got a chance to show what he brought to that collaboration with Hello Ladies: eight half-hour episodes plus a movie about an awkward Englishman named Stuart (played by Merchant) who arrives in Los Angeles expecting to find true love and/or copious casual sex with some beautiful starlet. Mixing wince-inducing dark comedy with moments of winning earnestness, Hello Ladies was ultimately a character study as purposeful as The Office and Extras — and honestly was more focused than either, albeit less hilarious. It’s about what happens when an unexceptional man’s sense of romantic entitlement keeps getting undercut by the compromises of real-world dating.
Throughout Rowan Atkinson’s long career as a comedian and character actor, he’s returned periodically to a character he created in college: a kindly dimwit who bumbles through life, in the spirit of Buster Keaton, Jacques Tati’s M. Hulot, and Mr. Magoo. Mr. Bean episodes aired sporadically on British TV, because it took time for Atkinson and his collaborators (including future rom-com king Richard Curtis) to construct all the clockwork gags. In its occasional role as an importer of quality overseas goods, HBO recognized the remarkable comic achievement of Mr. Bean, airing it as one of its rare all-ages programs. The show’s recommended for comedy fans who care more about craft than big belly laughs.
Sprung from the strange mind of Adam Resnick — known for writing the movies Cabin Boy and Death to Smoochy, and for co-creating the cult TV series Get a Life — The High Life aimed to combine the “average Joe” comedy of The Honeymooners and All in the Family with the dark expressionism of film noir and the cosmic absurdism of Franz Kafka. Produced by David Letterman’s Worldwide Pants, the show was originally headed to CBS, where it likely would’ve been yanked after a couple of episodes. As it turned out, HBO ordered only eight half-hours (reduced from ten in the middle of production), and even those couldn’t find much of an audience. But unlike a lot of the early HBO originals that just feel like mainstream TV with swears, this show about a couple of down-on-their-luck Pittsburgh shmoes would still seem wonderfully “off” if it aired today.
Stylistically, HBO’s first continuing-drama series resembled just about every other TV mystery show at the time: slickly professional and soft around the edges, with very little of the “mature” content that the channel would soon shoehorn into nearly all of its productions. What made Philip Marlowe, Private Eye such a fine early prototype for a cable original was that the episodes filled up the hour, maximizing the plot detail and dialogue from Raymond Chandler’s original stories, while nodding to classic film noir in ways meant to appeal to more patient, sophisticated TV audiences. Add in Powers Boothe’s pitch-perfect performance as Marlowe and this is a strong example of quality genre television, ’80s style. If it had aired on NBC, it likely would’ve been an Emmy contender. Instead, it had to settle for a slew of CableACE nominations.
The first of Steven Soderbergh’s heavily improvised digital experiments for HBO — to be followed in 2005 by Unscripted and in 2017–18 by Mosaic — K Street was a docudrama that brought real-life political professionals like James Carville and Mary Matalin together with actors like John Slattery, Mary McCormack, and Roger Guenveur Smith. Carville and Matalin had already branded themselves as a liberal-conservative he-said-she said couple of partisan firebrands. The show was built around a bipartisan consulting firm in Washington, D.C., that seemed to favor middle-of-the-road types. The idea behind K Street was to react quickly to the news events of the day and to turn out episodes within a week. Soderbergh and his cast mostly pulled it off, bringing in all sorts of politicians and celebrities for cameo appearances. But today, the insidery feel of the show breeds as much contempt as admiration.
A confluence of bad timing may have kept the TV adaptation of Alexander McCall Smith’s popular The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency novels from running longer than one season. Two key pieces of the creative team — producer Sydney Pollack and director Anthony Minghella — both died right around the time their pilot movie aired. The film did well, but when the series finally got rolling a year later, it had lost a lot of its critical momentum. It’s also possible that American audiences in 2009 weren’t ready yet for a genteel mystery show set in Botswana, with a predominantly black cast. Those who didn’t give No. 1 Ladies’ a chance missed a terrific lead performance by Jill Scott, as well as memorable supporting turns from the likes of Anika Noni Rose, CCH Pounder, David Oyelowo, and Idris Elba. There’s been occasional talk over the years of reviving the series, but it hasn’t helped that the property’s owned by the Weinstein Company — another stroke of bad luck.
In both of the six-episode Doll & Em seasons, the show’s creator-stars Emily Mortimer and Dolly Wells look like they’re having the most fun of their careers, playing best friends always searching for ways to work together, even as their respective levels of showbiz success diverge. In the first season, Doll works for Em as a personal assistant and finds it hard to treat a pal as a boss; in the second, the pair try to mount a play loosely based on their relationship, starring Olivia Wilde and Evan Rachel Wood. Each season was roughly the length of an indie film — co-written and directed by the accomplished indie filmmaker Azazel Jacobs — and got its energy from the two leads sharing their natural gift for repartee. Their insights into the nature of close friendships between women and colleagues is remarkable for both its honesty and its optimism.
For the Duplass brothers, Jay and Mark, making the transition from the mumblecore of The Puffy Chair and Baghead to an HBO drama was entirely seamless, because their interest in down-to-earth, semi-improvised, character-driven comedy-drama has never really favored one medium over another. In fact, Togetherness may be the Duplasses’s most fully realized work, if only because they got the opportunity to devote two full seasons to the lives of a married couple (Mark Duplass and Melanie Lynskey) and the screwed-up people in their orbit. The sensitivity to family life, in all its unvarnished glory, was the show’s most consistent pleasure, though Togetherness also got a lot of mileage from Lynskey’s character’s efforts to form a charter school and from fine performances by Amanda Peet and Steve Zissis as desperate singles with serious flaws.
Three years after founding Tenacious D, their acoustic-metal duo (and self-proclaimed “Greatest Band on Earth”), Kyle Gass and Jack Black swung through HBO for two three-episode seasons, which typically alternates between open-mic musical mythologizing and humble apartment dwelling. Emerging from the same sketch-comedy laboratory as Mr. Show, Tenacious D now seems like a lo-fi, West Coast precursor to The Flight of the Conchords, another show about a musical duo whose exceedingly marginal presence on the music scene falls short of their aspirations. In the grand scope of the band’s existence — which is roughly 25 years and counting — the HBO show is but a three-year blip. But it’s a good example of Gass and Black squeezing the most out of a one-joke premise, then stepping offstage before wearing out their welcome.
Steven Soderbergh and George Clooney followed K Street with another unusual, quick-and-dirty improvisational series, which swapped Washington, D.C., for Hollywood — and had a lot more fun doing it. Krista Allen, Bryan Greenberg, and Jennifer Hall played versions of themselves: all struggling actors who spend their days going through the ritual humiliation of auditions, only to land the occasional bit part. (Which sometimes gets cut.) Greenberg and Hall are young and green, while Allen is a single mom who’s trying, with little success, to get over a run in the softcore Emmanuelle series. The three come together in an acting class run by a deliciously manipulative Frank Langella. Unscripted thrives mostly on the agonizing, funny, occasionally surreal business of making it in Tinseltown.
By description, Hung sounds like a sniggering one-joke comedy, following Thomas Jane as a down-on-his-luck high-school basketball coach from Detroit who puts his generous member to work as a gigolo. But while it did exploit this situation to comic advantage — especially in the casting of Jane Adams as a friend who pimped him out — the show took its characters and its setting seriously enough to evolve into something more substantial than just a girthier Weeds. At heart, it’s an evocative show about the Great Recession, focusing on a middle-class casualty who’s lost his home and his livelihood and has to turn to the oldest profession to make ends meet. His power in the sack is inversely proportional to his power outside of it.
Expanding on the themes of director Andrew Haigh’s acclaimed 2011 indie romance Weekend and writer Michael Lannan’s 2011 short film Lorimer, the slice-of-life drama Looking followed a circle of gay San Franciscans, each chasing romantic and career satisfaction in an era and a city where there was little to no social stigma attached to their sexuality. Broadway star Jonathan Groff gives a fine performance as Patrick: an overly cautious young tech professional who juggles multiple relationships and job prospects throughout the series, uncertain of who he wants to be as he moves into his 30s. The series (and its fantastic finale movie) considered the big decisions in life through the smaller choices that make up a typical day for any person, gay or straight.
Perhaps because it lacks the genre hooks of The Wire or The Deuce — or of the miniseries Generation Kill, for that matter — writer-producer David Simon’s Treme never drew the kind of thoughtful attention that his other HBO projects have. But this low-key drama, co-created by Eric Overmyer, presented Simon’s usual themes and methods in their most distilled form. Set in New Orleans in the years immediately following Hurricane Katrina, Treme detailed how even a devastated community could coalesce around shared cultural values, historical traditions, political activism, and bitter conflicts. With an eclectic cast that included all-time greats like Wendell Piece, Melissa Leo, John Goodman, and the wondrous Khandi Alexander, this was always a series that was intended more to be lived in than to keep viewers on the edge of their seats.
HBO has aired lots of series that could be called “unclassifiable” (cf. Cincinnati, John From), but few have lasted as long as Carnivàle … and even this quasi-mystical period drama ran for only two 12-episode seasons, well short of the six-season cycle creator Daniel Knauf had planned. Set in the ravaged Depression-era American heartland, Carnivàle was like a cross between The Waltons and Twin Peaks, considering the mysterious connections between ordinary folks and a traveling carnival full of misfits and mystics. Even fans admitted they didn’t always understand the plot — which, to be fair, Knauf and his writers never got to finish. But next to Deadwood, this may be HBO’s most-lamented abrupt cancellation, since nothing else on TV at the time had this series’ heady atmosphere and surreal poetry.
Jody Hill and Danny McBride’s follow-up to Eastbound & Down continued their impressive devotion to vulgarity and hatefulness, if anything amplifying it to molten extremes. McBride and Walton Goggins played co-vice-principals — and thus natural enemies — at North Jackson High School. In the first season, they became a team of rivals in order to sabotage the African-American woman (Kimberly Hebert Gregory) hired to be principal, even going so far as to burn down her house. The second season had a be-careful-what-you-wish-for quality that was funnier, as the men faced the consequences of the sins they’d committed, and grew improbably richer as a result. Vice Principals tests the viewer’s patience for despicable characters, but the payoff’s worth it — for the strong-stomached.
41. The Young Pope (2017-present)
It isn’t often that filmmakers make it onto television with their sensibilities intact. Recent counterexamples like David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: The Return or Nicolas Winding Refn’s Too Old to Die Young are much more the exception than the rule. But Italian director Paolo Sorrentino’s irreverent maximalism shines through every episode of The Young Pope. Sorrentino’s interest in the excesses of Italy’s power centers, on display in films like Il Divo and The Great Beauty, translates well into his semi-surreal treatment of the fictional Pope Pius XIII (Jude Law), a former New York archbishop who shakes up Vatican City. It remains to be seen whether he can sustain the fever pitch in the upcoming The New Pope, which adds John Malkovich to the mix, but energy has never been a problem for Sorrentino.
The series premiere of Luck was hotly anticipated: A new show by Deadwood creator David Milch, directed by Michael Mann, starring Dustin Hoffman as a mobster hellbent on revenge after a three-year prison stint. And the show mostly delivered as promised, offering a prismatic and personal view of a racetrack: from the cutthroats who operate it, to the trainers and jockeys, to the degenerate gamblers who turn up every day, thinking they have the angle. Yet Luck was also as cursed in its own way as Milch’s John From Cincinnati, another expensive show that missed out on a second season. Three horses died during production, and the safety of future animals could not be guaranteed. It’s hard to know what might have been, but Luck’s best stretches had the quality of a salty, Altman-esque tapestry, populated by lowlifes and losers, yet full of feeling all the same.
An irresistible mix of soapy melodrama, murder mystery, and social satire, the first season of this star-driven adaptation of Liane Moriarty’s best seller benefited greatly from Jean-Marc Vallée’s artful direction, which made the mini-mansions and cool cafés of coastal California look like well-appointed private hells. Season two, directed by Andrea Arnold (who has claimed that Vallée and his editing team butchered her work) was more scattershot. In both seasons, though, the real draw of Big Little Lies was its cast, with each of its lead actresses taking turns dominating scenes while working in different styles. Nicole Kidman is in a grim domestic thriller, while Shailene Woodley is in an underdog crime story, Reese Witherspoon is in a fast-paced comedy of manners, Laura Dern is in a “wronged woman” melodrama, and season two’s Meryl Streep is just chewing the scenery like a starving termite. All (aside from Streep) are doing some of the best work of their careers.
Based on an Israeli series called BeTipul, In Treatment produced an astonishing 106 episodes over three seasons, each airing on successive weeknights, and each about single characters discussing their problems with a therapist, played by Gabriel Byrne. Want to watch a fighter pilot (Blair Underwood) talk through his PTSD? Or an architecture student diagnosed with lymphoma? You could tune into their sessions on the same days every week. Even at 30 minutes or less per session, the time commitment was a big ask, and skipping episodes meant losing some breakthrough moment, or missing Byrne’s own psychological slippage. But In Treatment remains an absorbing experiment and as thoughtful a window into therapy as TV has produced.
Before completely squandering his goodwill by turning edginess into a personal brand, Ricky Gervais (and his co-creator Stephen Merchant) carried the cringe comedy and mockumentary style of The Office into the humbling world of “background artists.” Over two crisp six-episode seasons and a Christmas special, Extras brought Gervais’s Andy and his cohort Maggie (Ashley Jensen) into awkward encounters with recognizable stars like Kate Winslet, who dispenses relationship advice on the set of a Holocaust movie, and David Bowie, who improvises withering insults from his piano. The show was strongest in its second season, when Andy finally lucks into his own sitcom, then faces the fresh humiliation of seeing it dumbed down to the lowest common denominator.
36. The Righteous Gemstones (2019-present)
By now, HBO subscribers know what to expect from Danny McBride shows like Eastbound and Down and Vice Principals — stylish and raucous comedies built around McBride’s shitkicker persona, which exposes the worst in all-American avarice while somehow welcoming our identification. The Righteous Gemstones may be McBride’s most ambitious effort to date, detailing the internecine battles and rampant criminality that defines a trio of televangelists and megachurch preachers, with John Goodman as the patriarch and McBride and Adam DeVine as his sons. The first season took some time to find its footing, but it developed into a ruthlessly funny commentary on our current era of high-living grifters.
35. Gentleman Jack (2019-present)
A sort of cross between Downton Abbey and Fleabag, this energetic historical dramedy stars Suranne Jones as the real-life early 19th century English land-owner Anne Lister, who kept detailed diaries documenting her attempts to compete in a business environment controlled by men — while also, in code, describing her sexual affairs with women. Gentleman Jack is written and sometimes directed by Sally Wainwright, a veteran British TV producer who’s had hits with romances (Last Tango in Halifax) and criminal procedurals (Happy Valley). She splits the difference here, going granular with Anne’s daring and imaginative real estate deals while also exploring her giddy passion for a sickly, beautiful neighbor (played by Sophie Rundle). Jones, playing a woman who dresses and sometimes behaves like a typical cad, is outstanding throughout.
Based on a British series, Getting On was writers-producers Mark V. Olsen and Will Scheffer’s follow-up to their long-running Big Love (see below), and though it didn’t get as much buzz as Big Love at the time — in part because it’s a very different show — this “gray comedy” had just as much to say about the state of work and family in early-21st-century America. Following the daily routine in the geriatric ward of a low-rent California hospital — described as “like a teen slumber party with dying” — Getting On found grim humor in the drudgery and bureaucracy of the health-care industry. Alex Borstein as the emotionally unstable head nurse Dawn, Mel Rodriguez as the officious supervisor Patsy, Laurie Metcalf as the brittle academic Dr. James, and Niecy Nash as the reliable, saintly Didi all played characters who’d deluded themselves into feeling useful, struggling to preserve a little bit of personal and professional dignity in a job where the “customers” weren’t expected to walk away satisfied. Getting On may have scared some viewers away with its bleakness, but those who stuck with it through its three seasons were rewarded with rare, wonderful moments of beauty and compassion.
Premiering in a prime spot after The Sopranos finale, David Milch’s follow-up to Deadwood probably didn’t benefit from further confounding viewers already scratching their heads over “Don’t Stop Believin’” and the cut to black. But John From Cincinnati would have surely gone down as one of HBO’s most WTF efforts regardless. For those with a taste for the eccentric, though, Milch’s show about a down-on-its-luck surfing family in Imperial Beach, California, is WTF in the best sense, as three generations of surfers deal with the fallout of success in a marginal sport … and a visitation by the transcendent. The best strategy for enjoying the show is not to get hung up by inexplicable occurrences but to appreciate Milch’s magnificently salty dialogue, his evocation of a shoddy yet beautiful locale, and his eclectic taste in music.
Like the contemporaneous How to Make It in America, in retrospect Bored to Death feels like HBO making an early attempt at buying the kind of show they’d soon get with Girls: a shaggy portrait of modern New York life, largely populated by quirky young actors. The difference is that Bored to Death was also a postmodern mystery series, created by offbeat novelist Jonathan Ames, with Jason Schwartzman playing a heavily fictionalized version of Ames: a writer who makes ends meet by helping people out as a DIY detective. By splicing together down-to-earth New York stories with elements of film noir — and adding gonzo supporting performances by Ted Danson and Zack Galifianakis — the series both commented on 21st-century urban rootlessness and put it into a larger cultural and historical context.
Creator Cynthia Mort’s one-season wonder will be remembered most as a source of unusually explicit sex scenes — so graphic, in fact, that some falsely speculated that some of the action was unsimulated. But Tell Me You Love Me is more like the HBO equivalent of a Dogme 95 movie: a raw and unvarnished look at three couples, refreshingly candid about their emotions, in and out of the sack. Each of the couples are in varied relationship stages. One is married with children, another is struggling to conceive, and a third is going through a bumpy engagement period. But they’re all seeing the same therapist (Jane Alexander), who’s having domestic problems of her own. Though it didn’t last longer than ten episodes, the show now seems like a precursor to In Treatment and Togetherness, and perhaps better than both in its frankness.
Over five seasons, Mark V. Olsen and Will Scheffer’s provocative series about a fundamentalist Mormon and his three wives in suburban Utah approached the hot-button topic of polygamy with less of a political agenda than an acute understanding of human nature. It was only natural that Bill Hendrickson (Bill Paxton) would distribute his attentions unevenly between his first wife (Jeanne Tripplehorn) and her sister-wives (Chloë Sevigny and Ginnifer Goodwin), and that they, in turn, would struggle with their jealousy and unmet needs — all while, as a unit, devoting themselves to a higher spiritual calling. That’s to say nothing of the sullying power of good old-fashioned capitalism. The show was a suitably bumpy ride at times — and it never quite made the action at a dust-choked polygamist compound as compelling as the Hendrickson household — but it transcended the controversy surrounding it.
Michael Crichton’s 1973 sci-fi thriller Westworld imagined an adult theme park where glitchy robots turn on human patrons who’ve paid for an authentic Old West experience of sex, violence, and lawless adventure. Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan’s HBO series raises the stakes by making the androids indistinguishable — and often more sympathetic — than their flesh-and-blood counterparts, which gives the show an opportunity to philosophize about human consciousness while constantly pulling the rug out on its audience. As Westworld entered its second season and the multiple timelines and identity switcheroos metastasized, Joy and Nolan spent too much time trying to outwit Reddit puzzle-solvers. But even amid the confusion, they sound a plausible warning about a future where our creations — and our hubris — overwhelm us.
A big part of HBO’s branding as “not TV” was tied to the network’s ability to take on projects the networks and basic cable channels wouldn’t or couldn’t — either because of content or expense. Case in point: re-creating Ancient Rome for the purpose of mounting an intricate, intimate political drama, more akin to Deadwood and The Sopranos than Ben-Hur. Co-produced with the BBC, Rome served as a kind of “people’s history” of the Roman Empire’s rise, seen mostly from the perspective of two soldiers with very different takes on their leaders’ power grabs and betrayal. Like a lot of HBO’s pricey series in the post-Sopranos era, Rome couldn’t maintain a strong enough audience share to justify its cost, which is a shame. Rare among modern prestige TV, Rome didn’t skimp on plot. Its two seasons spanned decades.
27. Los Espookys (2019-present)
The lightly surreal Los Espookys is the product of three offbeat comic personalities. Co-creator Julio Torres — the whimsical comedian and writer best-known for the viral Saturday Night Live sketches “Papyrus” and “Wells for Boys” — plays an eccentric dandy of possibly extra-terrestrial origin. Co-creator Ana Fabrega brings her gifts for quirky physical comedy to the pointedly named character Tati: a wide-eyed naïf who takes any odd job offered. And executive producer Fred Armisen (of SNL, Documentary Now!, and Portlandia fame) sets the show’s amiably arch tone, and also pops up occasionally in the role of a parking lot attendant who keeps getting pulled into conspiratorial plots. Winning lead performances by Bernardo Velasco and Cassandra Ciangherotti — as the proprietors of a business that stages realistic “hauntings” for a reasonable fee — round out a Mexico-set series that’s as sweet as it is strange.
During Girls’ heyday, it sometimes felt like more people were talking about the show than were actually watching it. Girls earned that chatter, though — and not just because it was one of the only pieces of popular entertainment at the time dealing in a complex and honest way with the (often self-created) trials of the millennial generation. A sort of junior Sex and the City (without the glibness or glam), Girls framed New York as a city of paralyzingly immense opportunity, both professionally and personally. Creator and star Lena Dunham also kept the show current with trends in the indie-movie world she emerged from, working to make each episode play like a well-crafted short film, packed with jaw-dropping surprises and eye-catching imagery, all dealing with a modern world seemingly designed to prevent young people from growing up.
The New Zealand comedy duo Flight of the Conchords, Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie, existed before they and James Bobin created a TV show around them — which explains why their faux-folk songs, full of silly sentiment and interior monologue, drive the episodes, rather than the other way around. Though Flight of the Conchords owes a debt to the self-deprecating acoustic-metal of Tenacious D, Jemaine and Bret are far less certain of themselves as they try to break into the New York scene with the help of their manager Murray (Rhys Darby), whose main gig is as cultural attaché for the New Zealand Consulate. The show’s featherlight inconsequentiality is a plus, but it never gets better than its music-video sequences, which have Bret or Jemaine recounting their romantic failings in torch songs like “Sally” and “Business Time.”
Perhaps the ultimate example of auteur television, Nic Pizzolatto’s anthology crime series has zero narrative continuity from season to season, save for one moment in its third that suggests that they all exist in the same world. The only real continuity is in Pizzolatto’s obsessions: hard-boiled, hard-drinking lawmen working the case that will define (and ruin) their lives; criminal conspiracies that lead to sources of institutional power and unfathomable evil; and a neo-noir style that’s reflected in both the look of the show and in dialogue that often turns deep purple. The seasons vary in quality, but even the worst of them (yes, the second) have a pungent atmosphere and reliably excellent lead performances.
Before HBO picked up High Maintenance for three seasons (and counting), Ben Sinclair and Katja Blichfeld’s series about a cannabis dealer (Sinclair) who drops in on different clients every episode had already lasted four years and six mini-seasons as a web series on Vimeo. The production values have increased, but the pleasing stoner vibe of the show has remained a constant, tied to Sinclair’s affable yet soulful comic performance as the Guy, and a conceit that allows for ever-renewing slices of New York life. No one episode is the same, which can lead to whimsical and delicate surprises like “M.A.S.H.,” which drops in on a hippie’s wake upstate. And yet no episode is unfamiliar, either, because Sinclair and Blichfeld have honed such a gently observant and funny tone.
Mike Judge’s affectionate skewering of the tech world occupies a perfect spot between a healthy contempt for the pretensions of dot-com skullduggery and a genuine optimism that its band of innovators might change the world for the better. Mostly, though, it’s about the hapless genius played by Thomas Middleditch and his team — the warring engineers (Martin Starr and Kumail Nanjiani), the prim operations guy (Zach Woods), and the pothead visionary (T.J. Miller) — stepping on one rake after another. Silicon Valley keys in on the hypocrisy of the modern-day barons overseeing progressive, candy-colored campuses, but it’s even better as a supplier of Judge eccentrics, like a boorish Mark Cuban type (Chris Diamantopoulos) looking to “re-billion-ize” or a professional CEO (Stephen Tobolowsky) who touts his “conjoined triangles of success.” The show lost a certain spark when Miller departed, but even at diminished strength it always had something to say about our tech-addled present.
21. My Brilliant Friend (2018-present)
Based on the internationally best-selling “Neapolitan novels” by the pseudonymous Italian author Elena Ferrante, the ambitious series My Brilliant Friend will, by its end, tell the story of a friendship and a country, from the 1950s to the turn of the millennium. The first season introduces Elena and Lila, a couple of urchins largely left to fend for themselves in an impoverished Naples neighborhood. In the years that follow, the girls grow into women — sometimes leaning on each other for companionship and support, and sometimes drifting apart due to both their changing social circumstances and the influence of men. Rich in era-specific cultural detail, My Brilliant Friend uses its protagonists’ complicated relationship as a window onto the stubbornly intractable class divisions and gender roles of a turbulent stretch of Italian history.
Jody Hill and Danny McBride, the braintrust behind the shit-kicking indie comedy The Foot Fist Way, co-created (with Ben Best) this defiantly vulgar series about the humbling of a boorish redneck, whose dreams of baseball glory are diminished in the space of one episode. McBride’s Kenny Powers is a clear reference to John Rocker, the former Atlanta Braves closer whose fireballing on the mound was undone by his offensive comments to the press, which hastened the end of his career. McBride succeed at making Powers a relatively likable (or at least watchable) figure, if only by hitting his chin on every rung down the ladder, as he sinks from superstar to Mexican League sensation “Kenny Powders” to a house flipper, all with both middle fingers blazing.
Issa Rae’s web series Awkward Black Girl was a hilarious portrait of the everyday interactions of middle-class African-American cubicle-dwellers, like The Office crossed with Key & Peele. Because the structure of the series relied on single ideas, delivered in short vignettes, it didn’t necessarily seem like an obvious candidate to be adapted into an ongoing, serialized sitcom. But it only took a couple of episodes for Rae to prove that her concept was good for more than just quick-hit observational humor. Insecure goes in deep on the travails of young women who are balancing romance, friendships, and a career in Los Angeles, trying to master young adulthood while forging a unique identity — and in the age of social media, no less. Surprising plot twists and unexpected pathos help create a full, satisfying world to visit, episode after episode.
18. Watchmen (2019-present)
There are so many ways Damon Lindelof’s audacious riff on Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ graphic novel could go wrong that every episode of Watchmen feels like a gamble. But so far it has unfolded with the confidence and vision to support its provocations. Remnants of previous Lindelof shows like Lost and The Leftovers are present in its puzzle-box revelations and obsession with lingering societal trauma; but Watchmen has its own agenda, updating the book’s ‘80s-specific interest in the Cold War and nuclear annihilation to present-day issues of racism and white supremacy. Yet for such a heavy show, Watchmen doesn’t skimp on the pulpy pleasures of an adult-oriented comic, with plenty of kick-ass action sequences and a soundtrack that mixes a Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross score with choice songs from multiple eras.
Friends star Lisa Kudrow helped create this clever showbiz satire, packaged to look like footage from a reality show about Valerie Cherish, a once-popular sitcom actress trying to edge her way back into the spotlight, however possible. The genius of The Comeback (co-created with Sex and the City’s Michael Patrick King) is that while it mocks Valerie’s privileged lifestyle and her desperate hunger for fame, it also finds something real and tender within her. She’s a good person, beloved by the people who know her well, and mishandled by those who exploit her insecurities. Her values and self-esteem have been warped by an industry that chews through talent and is especially fickle toward women. The show’s two seasons — set a decade apart — serve as a none-too-flattering portrait of a Hollywood that, from generation to generation, takes itself too seriously.
Though it’s never been as beloved as The Sopranos, The Wire, Deadwood, or Game of Thrones, in some ways the Prohibition Era crime epic Boardwalk Empire was like a fusion of all of HBO’s most enduring dramas. It goes into fine detail about how some not-so-nice men and women try to profit from a society in transition, and it features characters capable of solving their problems with murder yet determined to exhaust every quasi-legitimate political and business option first. Boardwalk Empire is very much about how the American way of power — a mix of charismatic persuasion and brute force — “matured” in the 1920s. It’s also a compendium of great character performances, including memorable turns by an unimpeachable group of actors: Stephen Graham, Michael Shannon, Michael Stuhlbarg, Gretchen Mol, Michael Kenneth Williams, Jack Huston, and the star, Steve Buscemi.
When Barry first started, it seemed like a Hollywood twist on Grosse Point Blank: a whimsical dark comedy about an ex-sniper turned mercenary hitman who takes acting classes on the side. But co-creator, star, and frequent director Bill Hader has turned it into a more audacious and emotionally resonant show over time: one about a condemned man who keeps searching for peace and redemption in his life, but cannot (and maybe should not) pull himself out of the muck. The show also makes room for other superbly drawn characters, including Henry Winkler as a touchy-feely acting guru, Stephen Root as Hader’s injury-prone handler, Sarah Goldberg as his earnest acting partner–girlfriend, and Anthony Carrigan as NoHo Hank, the sunniest of Chechen mobsters. A second season risked exhausting a thin premise, but it turned out to be a great leap forward, pushing the show into more audacious and surreal territory while bumping up the intensity (and the body count).
After shows like The Wire, TreméA, Generation Kill, and Show Me a Hero, viewers know what to expect of creator David Simon: A carefully drawn, almost journalistically rigorous treatment of a volatile milieu populated by flawed characters who are often victimized by rotten institutions. And so it goes for Simon and George Pelecanos’ superb The Deuce, which re-creates the Times Square of the ’70s, which was dominated by sex workers and the ruthless gangsters and pimps who controlled their fates. In a dual performance, James Franco plays siblings who sink into a dangerous business; but for the first two seasons Maggie Gyllenhaal is the show’s moral center, as a freelance prostitute and single mother who goes from streetwalker to porn star to skin-flick auteur. In the often heartbreaking, 1980s-set season three, Emily Meade takes center stage, as a starlet wrung out by a fundamentally exploitative industry.
Strip away the funeral-home setting, the characters’ libertine behavior, and the occasional digressions into magical realism, and Six Feet Under may actually be one of the squarest shows in the HBO catalogue — but in a good way. Creator Alan Ball expanded on and deepened the themes of his Oscar-winning American Beauty screenplay, looking at an American family in spiritual crisis, dealing with old grudges and dark secrets as they try to move on from the death of their patriarch. In other HBO shows that could be called “family dramas” — like The Sopranos or Big Love — there’s some kind of pulpy genre framing. But while Six Feet Under features plenty of sensationalistic scenes involving sex and drugs, it mostly relies on the nuanced performances of Michael C. Hall, Peter Krause, Lauren Ambrose, and Frances Conroy, playing the Fishers, who spend every episode facing their own mortality in the eyes of their grieving clients … all the way up to a series finale that’s one of the best in TV history.
For much of the first decade-plus of HBO original programming, the channel mostly made conventional comedies and dramas, spiced up with swear words and bare breasts. But two years before The Sopranos, the violent, grandiose prison melodrama Oz took big chances in both content and form, proving that there’s more to making “mature” television than just profanity and nudity. Set in a rough penitentiary — where inmates of different ethnic backgrounds are only loosely supervised and mostly left to govern themselves — Oz is a detailed study of the factionalism and continued criminality of life behind bars. But it’s also a darkly poetic celebration of the human spirit. Explicit and often disgusting — to the point of verging on “body horror” — the series uses dynamic camera moves and fully committed performances from the likes of Lee Tergesen, J.K. Simmons, and Harold Perrineau to track how even the powerless can try to make the most of what they’re given … for better and for worse.
George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” novels carve up a sprawling fantasy epic into memorable little episodes, filled with scenic detail and genuinely shocking surprises, told from the perspectives of dozens of sympathetic characters, each with rich backstories and conflicting motivations. It took the vision of writers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss to see how — with just a little streamlining — this could translate to television. And it took the vision of HBO executives to see that Game of Thrones could fill the void left by the loss of shows like The Sopranos and Deadwood. In between all the dragons and sorcery and battlefield slaughter, the essence of this series was always strong characters (and even stronger actors), playing out battles of wills via gripping conversations in mammoth castles. The series lost some narrative depth once Benioff and Weiss ran out of Martin plot to adapt; but from the first episode to the last, it remained appointment television, working on a grander scale than even most blockbuster movies were attempting.
Though it has a lot in common with Curb Your Enthusiasm’s “comedy of awkwardness,” the political satire Veep might be better classified as a “comedy of exhaustion.” Created by British writer-producer Armando Iannucci — best known previously for his send-up of ineffectual English governance, The Thick of It — Veep expressed no faith in American politicians to have any deeply held ideals or well-thought-out plan to help ordinary people. Instead, star Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s Selina Meyer used her office as a way to validate her self-esteem, wielding power capriciously mainly to make herself look good. Iannucci left after four seasons, and the show’s final three years — while still side-splittingly funny — become perhaps excessively cynical and mean-spirited, even for Veep. But Louis-Dreyfus remained a marvel from start to finish, playing a character who’s kind of a feminist role model, in that she’s every bit as good at wasting taxpayer money on personal vendettas as any man.
Laura Dern was born to play the part of Amy Jellicoe, a multifaceted and ultimately noble wreck of a woman whose idealism and quest for personal growth continually bumps up against a self-destructive nature. She starts Enlightened as a businesswoman felled by an affair with her boss, and ends its too-short two-season run as a warrior who’s willing to risk her career and her livelihood to expose corporate abuse. Co-creator-writer Mike White, who also gives himself a prime supporting role as a weak-willed IT guy, bakes Dern’s iconoclasm into her character, who frustrates everyone around her with her instability and New Age swings but genuinely grasps for the transcendent.
In our current age of Large Adult Sons — that phenomenon where rich dimwits like the Trump children and Wyatt Ingraham Koch inherit the world — Succession has become our satirical Dallas. It’s an opportunity to revel in the treachery and incompetence (and incompetent treachery) of the ultrawealthy, as they vie for control over a media empire. Loosely referencing Rupert Murdoch and his children, creator Jesse Armstrong (The Thick of It) follows fading scion Logan Roy (Brian Cox) as he presides over adult children who both detest him and covet his approval, but don’t have the business savvy to do anything other than attempt self-destructive sabotages. The first season got stronger week by week, eventually becoming a must-watch as it grew from a soap opera about the lifestyles of the rich and miserable to an essential satire about a particularly 21st century brand of corporate monarchy. Season two turned the show into a cultural phenomenon, thanks largely to the equal parts hilarious and heartbreaking performances of Jeremy Strong, Kieran Culkin, and Sarah Snook as the Roy offspring jettisoning their souls in hopes of getting the keys to the kingdom.
Not all nine seasons of Larry David’s improvisational comedy are gold — and some conceptual hooks, like one where he’s cast in The Producers, stumble on the way to a big payoff. But David’s dyspeptic personality and various petty scrapes have huge cathartic value. For anyone who’s questioned certain social mores or has gotten into heated conflicts over the most minor offenses — which is to say, everyone — David’s onscreen persona is like a mascot. He’s the patron saint of the hassled. On top of genuinely expanding the form by filling intricately worked-out plots with improvised dialogue, Curb Your Enthusiasm also feels like a purer version of Seinfeld, the sitcom he made millions co-creating. Without a major network holding him back, David is free to be his misanthropic self.
The case could be made that Sex and the City is just as responsible as The Sopranos for putting HBO on the map. The raunchy, breezy saga of sex columnist Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker) and her three lusty besties (played by Kim Cattrall, Kristin Davis, and Cynthia Nixon), Sex and the City very quickly became appointment television for women and men around the country, who fantasized about being well off and promiscuous in hip, happening Manhattan. The frank jokes about sexual mishaps — coupled with the eventful romantic melodramas, and the willingness to make the heroines look relatably foolish — made this show not just addicting but savvier about mature adult relationships than anything the networks would dare air. An entire generation rightfully endured the oft-tortured, wordplay-filled dialogue and the glorification of self-absorption and conspicuous consumption just to spend time with four well-defined women whose character traits soon became “types.” If you’ve had a Cosmo in the past two decades, this show is probably the reason why.
Tom Perrotta’s novel The Leftovers, about a mysterious global catastrophe that ghosted 2 percent of the population, is a fine-enough book, but it never seemed like Perrotta fully realized the far-reaching implications of his own premise. That changed when Lost co-showrunner Damon Lindelof swooped in and expanded the story considerably for television, creating an increasingly rich and emotional drama about the grief and uncertainty of living with such an inexplicable loss. With extraordinary performances by Justin Theroux, Carrie Coon, Regina King, Ann Dowd, and others, the show registers varying reactions to the Sudden Departure, including the rise of a non-speaking, chain-smoking spiritual/terrorist cult that has its own answers. That there are no apparent answers for what happened is a psychological burden the survivors — and society at large — cannot bear.
Before The Sopranos solidified HBO’s reputation as a primary source of ambitious television, most of the network’s innovations were in the realm of comedy, where it could experiment with relatively low stakes. Uniquely fitted around the sensibility and professional experience of its co-creator–star, Garry Shandling, The Larry Sanders Show goes behind the scenes at a late-night talk show and revels in the narcissism, backbiting, and dysfunction that somehow results in a watchable hour of television. Shandling knows this world inside and out, which adds a note of authenticity to the satire. And his Larry Sanders is never above the fray. He chases ratings, antagonizes guests, and humiliates underlings, while his sidekick, Hank Kingsley (Jeffrey Tambor), sells himself to low-rent commercial enterprises and his producer (Rip Torn) runs the show with a kind of maniacal optimism. The Larry Sanders Show was always brilliant, but as the late-night wars have cooled off, it’s now an essential record of the savagery of that scene.
Over five masterful seasons, creator David Simon and a murderer’s row of crime writers detailed the cat-and-mouse game between law enforcement and drug dealers in Baltimore — but, as we all know now, The Wire is really a much more ambitious dissection of the city’s institutions and how they fail both the decent people who work within them and the most vulnerable citizens they affect. Each season focused on a different milieu, from public housing “towers” held hostage by a sophisticated drug operation to a daily newspaper that misses all the big stories, but the core conflict between cops and dealers gained in richness and depth as it went along, paying off in meticulous attention to the details of the investigative process, narcotics distribution, and characters playing for the highest of stakes. It’s an American urban tragedy of unparalleled scope.
Who could’ve imagined that HBO’s most foul-mouthed drama would be set in the Old West? Writer-producer David Milch’s earthy, ambitious Western saga combined the rawness of a Sam Peckinpah shoot-’em-up with the colorful lingo and lived-in performances of great theater. Set in an 1870s South Dakota town that’s just on the brink of becoming civilized, Deadwood assembled a collection of characters with varying ideas of what to do with all the new opportunities coming their way. Some were miners, some shopkeepers, some preachers, some lawmen … and some were gamblers, gunmen, or whores. The series was partly about a country being forged out of chaos and partly about people wrestling with their very own natures, weighing from day to day whether to live decently or to cash in on the free-for-all. Deadwood was as great a contribution to the Western genre as the best novels, movie, and TV series of the 20th century. It had a look that recalled the classic “New Hollywood” westerns (like McCabe and Mrs. Miller and High Plains Drifter), and some rich Milch dialogue, with characters defining themselves through winding speeches, full of profanity and accidental wit. Plus it had actors like Ian McShane, Molly Parker, Timothy Olyphant, John Hawkes, Robin Weigert, William Sanderson, Kim Dickens, Ricky Jay, and Garret Dillahunt offering some of their best stuff, filling the screen with new American archetypes.
It’s an ahistorical exaggeration to say that The Sopranos is the first truly mature, “cinematic” TV series. But it’s no exaggeration to say that the perception of The Sopranos as the crucial pivot point in modern television — as the show that made HBO relevant, that provided a model for the anti-hero-driven prestige show — has had a lot to with the network’s subsequent success and with the explosion of mature small-screen dramas in the 21st century. Really, though, The Sopranos tops this list not because it’s “important” but because it’s just so damn good. What initially seems like a cutesy premise — what’s a mob boss’s family life like? — ends up revealing so much about business ethics, the petty abuse of power, and the way we justify the worst sides of ourselves. Creator David Chase’s vision is deeply personal, born from his own memories of growing up Italian-American in New Jersey, but the star James Gandolfini (God rest his soul) turns Tony Soprano into the Everyman we’d rather not acknowledge, at once endearingly charismatic and terrifyingly quick-tempered. This is a show about American voraciousness, anchored by a protagonist who — even if he likes you — looks more than willing to take everything you’ve got, then to act hurt when you don’t thank him.