It’s not television, it’s HBO. There may have been a time when HBO’s signature slogan didn’t exactly ring true, but not anymore, as the premium cable provider continues to distinguish itself from your regular scheduled programming by providing high production value content that is legitimately some of the best television ever made. While the premium cable industry has become far more crowded in recent years with the rise of networks like Showtime and Netflix, HBO still reigns supreme when it comes to producing content that keeps people talking and keeps people talking. With that in mind, we’ve wrangled up the 10 Best HBO Series of All Time and talked a bit about why exactly you should spent some time watching them (if you haven’t already).
10. Flight of the Conchords
We’re sneaking a shocker into the number 10 spot on this list, but we didn’t have much of a choice here. In all the years we’ve been watching television, we can honestly say that we’ve never seen anything quite like Flight of the Conchords, the often strange and always hilarious series which follows the misadventures of Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie, “New Zealand’s fourth most popular guitar-based digi-bongo acapella-rap-funk-comedy folk duo”, after they move to New York City in an attempt to gain fame and fortune. Flight of the Conchords, which also starred Rhys Darby, Kristen Schaal and Arj Barker, was a critical success that has gained a massive cult following since the series ended (it only ran for two seasons). While we were forced to leave a number of legitimate drama series such as Oz (which you should also watch) off this list to accommodate Flight of the Conchords, we felt it necessary to highlight this incredibly quirky and insanely lovable show (and don’t worry, there’s dramas aplenty on here for you to read about).
HBO has routinely been at the forefront of television, proudly pushing boundaries and green lighting and producing series other networks wouldn’t (and couldn’t) touch with a ten foot pole. One such show is Girls, the revolutionary production which was created by star Lena Dunham and follows several young women (and a couple men) as they attempt to navigate the contemporary world in New York City. An often controversial program which has been hailed as a massive step forward for women in entertainment, but has also been criticized for its highly political content on race, class, and transgendered individuals, Girls remains one of the most intriguing shows currently airing and despite its political viewpoints, works as both a sad and funny espousal of just how difficult it can be to find your way from Point A to Point B in today’s fast moving society.
8. Boardwalk Empire
It would’ve been easy to label Boardwalk Empire the spiritual successor to HBO’s The Sopranos, and it would’ve been even easier for HBO to capitalize on that connection and let the former imitate the latter in the cheap sort of way that television series often do. It’s most commendable, then, that Boardwalk Empire resembles The Sopranos only via both series insistence on crafting fully realized criminal characters who are far more than walking, talking gangster stereotypes. Indeed, Boardwalk Empire’s Nucky Thompson (played brilliantly by Steve Buscemi) is a man of both conviction and depth, a welcome relief to a character that could’ve easily been a one-dimensional criminal overlord. Boardwalk Empire, which ran for five seasons on HBO and also starred Michael Pitt, Michael Shannon and Kelly McDonald, is one of HBO’s most acclaimed series of all time, receiving an astounding 57 Primetime Emmy Nominations over the course of its tenure on television, with praise being directed at the show’s acting, writing and unique visual aesthetic.
We’ve got nothing but love for Julia Louis-Dreyfuss, who might be our favorite woman on television. The former Seinfeld star had a strong comedic legacy to live up to when she signed on to star in Veep, but damn if it doesn’t make for some absolutely hilarious TV. Veep, which sees Louis-Dreyfuss starring as Selina Meyer, the fictional Vice President of the United States, as she attempts to navigate the often chaotic and absurd world of politics. Half satire and half political comedy, Veep does a wonderful job of allowing Louis-Dreyfuss to appropriately skewer the inconsistencies present in the American political paradigm while providing her with a lovable cast of compatriots (including Tony Hale, Matt Walsh and Anna Chlumsky). Veep, which is still on air and is entering its fifth season, provides us with consistently intelligent laughs, something we’re very grateful for (with the majority of television laughs being both unintelligent and cheap).
Deadwood is one of the few series on this list that was never given the opportunity to properly finish; the show, which follows the activities of a group of individuals in Deadwood, South Dakota as they attempt to deal with the harsh realities of the frontier in the 1870s, was cancelled after the completion of its third season, and that’s a damn shame. The recipient of almost universal critical acclaim, Deadwood was praised for its acting, writing, and ability to translate traditional Western themes into the television format. Unfortunately, after HBO failed to pick up the contracts of the series’ stars such as Timothy Olyphant and Ian McShane, they were forced to cancel the series. Rumors persisted for years of two feature length films being produced to conclude this beloved series, but in 2012 series creator David Milch suggested the series was likely finished once and for all.
5. Game of Thrones
It’d be easy to suggest that Game of Thrones, the HBO television adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novel series, isn’t worthy of a slot this high on the list. While the show has developed a rabid fan base and has incited a rekindling of interest in both fantasy literature and television, there’s truth in the statement that the show has often struggled with pacing issues and the adaptation process, which has left many fans of the original series frustrated. That said, there’s simply no denying that Game of Thrones makes for some of the most engaging and compelling television we’ve seen in quite some time, and it also happens to feature some of the more astounding cinematography that we’ve ever seen on TV (for all its fault, Game of Thrones is quite legitimately beautiful to look at). With the highest budget in the history of television and a wide variety of solid actors and actresses including Sean Bean, Kit Harrington and Lena Headey, Game of Thrones remains one of the few shows on television worth tuning into every week.
4. Curb Your Enthusiasm
We have to imagine that the scripts for HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm are mostly blank, with occasional directions saying things like: [Enter Larry] LARRY COMPLAINS [End Scene]. And you know what? We’re totally okay with that. HBO’s premiere comedy endeavour, Curb Your Enthusiasm follows Seinfeld creator Larry David, a cantankerous and opinionated man, as he navigates his day to day life, which features fellow actors, writers and comedians attempting to eke out a living in the entertainment industry. Also starring Cheryl Hines, Jeff Garlin and featuring a wide array of guest appearances by wildly famous individuals like Jason Alexander, Martin Scorsese, Ben Stiller, etc., Curb Your Enthusiasm remains one of HBO’s longest running series at eight seasons (while the series is currently on an indefinite hiatus, David has hinted that Season 9 could happen) and one of its most successful comedy endeavors.
3. Six Feet Under
It’s an odd thing that show called Six Feet Under, which follows the trials and tribulations of a Los Angeles family as they attempt to manage their funeral home, isn’t really about death at all. While each episode does begin with a gruesome death (usually of the strange or eerie variety), and the family does make a living by providing mortuary services, the show is oddly zestful and for the most part, about life. Six Feet Under, which mixes intense drama with a dark and morbid sense of humor that helps add levity to an otherwise dour subject matter, remains one of HBO’s highest rated series of all time, and despite it’s somewhat cadaverous content it’s a joy to watch. It’s beautifully acted (check out Richard Jenkins killing it as the deceased father of the family), written and produced, and features one of the most stunning opening credits sequences in the history of TV.
2. The Sopranos
The world suffered a titanic loss in 2013, when legendary actor James Gandolfini died of a heart attack at the age of 51. An imposing man who softened his large stature with a warm character, Gandolfini rose to prominence playing mafia boss Tony Soprana on HBO’s The Sopranos. Renowned for bringing long form storytelling back to television, The Sopranos is consistently cited as one of the greatest television series of all time, with the show’s writing, acting and artistic production values being praised. The Sopranos, which could have easily told a simple gangster tale, instead chose to highlight the difficulties a mafia boss like Tony Soprano would face in attempting to balance his criminal inclinations against his family obligations. The result is a compelling, fully realized character drama that is reminiscent of gangster films of old, but still manages to portray a more nuanced understanding of the cops and criminals that police procedural shows have made us all too familiar with.
1. The Wire
We can’t tell you how many times The Wire was recommended to us before we finally broke down and gave it a shot; lo and behold, all those individuals claiming it was the best television show ever made (or, at the very least, was a heavyweight contender for the crown) may have been on to something overall. David Simon’s episodic, sprawling drama about surviving on the streets of Baltimore holds up just as well today as it did when it premiered in 2002, and it’s thought provoking examinations of violence, addiction, poverty and power are perhaps even more relevant now than during the series inaugural run. The Wire, which starred Dominic West, Idris Elba and Michael Kenneth Williams (among many, many others), still rates as one of the most acclaimed television series of all time, and it’s compelling mix of high-intensity drama and occasional outbursts of violence ensure that it’s just as riveting the second time through as it was during the first. An unavoidable masterpiece, The Wire is HBO’s finest series ever.