In 1999, HBO fired the first shots of the TV revolution. With The Sopranos, the premium cable network kick started the golden age of television and left traditional network programming in the dust. The life and times of Tony Soprano then led to an olympic run of smash hits. Across the early 2000’s, HBO was home to heavy hitters like The Wire, Six Feet Under and Deadwood, all while lighter fare like Sex and the City and Entourage balanced out the drama. If binge-watching had been possible in 2005, HBO subscribers might have crashed the American economy.
Viewers truly had their pick of the litter, and for the first time in TV history, they were inundated with movie-quality television in the comfort of their own homes. Today, the greatness continues. After six stunning seasons of Game of Thrones, an unforgettable first showing of True Detective, miniseries like Show Me A Hero and the upcoming crime drama, The Night Of, HBO continues to outpace the competition.
We’ve already published a ranked list of Netflix series, but let’s take a look at the first cable channel to offer high-quality TV series that you couldn’t find on the networks. Here’s Screen Rant’s take on the Top 25 HBO Original Series, Ranked.
After the success of Entourage, HBO sought to replicate the formula by retrofitting Hollywood glamour into NFL stardom. From the perspective of financial manager, Spencer Strasmore (Dwayne Johnson), Ballers takes you behind the scenes of juicy gridiron drama. Though Spencer is retired and nursing his many pro-football injuries, he manages the exorbitant wealth of current football stars alongside his business partner Joe (Rob Corddry). As with Ari Gold in executive producer Mark Wahlberg’s Entourage (who also produces Ballers alongside Peter Berg), the show is ultimately about damage control in highfalutin situations.
If you haven’t seen Ballers, don’t expect particularly challenging material. The show is as easily consumed as a can of Pringles, and to be clear, there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. The NFL lifestyles are alluring, the women are beautiful, and the supporting cast will keep you in the game. With Andy Garcia on deck for the upcoming Season 2, Ballers may prove an even stronger presence in the second quarter.
24. Sex and the City
Without Sex and the City, brunch would still be an activity reserved for holidays like Easter. Thanks to the posh lifestyle of Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker) and her retinue, Sex and the City helped make “brunching” a weekend activity while defining the metropolitan culture of the early 2000s. Indeed, Michael Patrick King’s beloved show succeeded in part because each of the four women held such unique world-views. Their differences helped define the show’s trademark conversations about sexuality, friendship, dating and more while living in the Big Apple.
Though two-big screen showings of Sex and the City left many fans disgruntled, the series lives on. For better and for worse, the HBO series perpetuated the highly fictionalized concept that life in New York City is best traveled in Jimmy Choos. While the show set high expectations for countless New York City migrants, it remains a fixture of the conversation. Just imagine if Tinder had existed in 1998.
23. True Blood
In the height of the vampire craze, True Blood descended upon audiences. Based on Charlaine Harris’ novels of the same name, True Blood explored the Gothic mysteries in the fictional town of Bon Temps, Louisiana. A viscera-soaked soap opera, True Blood followed Sookie Stackhouse (Anna Paquin), a small-town waitress with telepathic talents. Her friends and lovers are equally gifted, like the shape-shifter Sam Merlotte (Sam Trammell), vampire Bill Compton (Stephen Moyer), and the 1,000 year-old blood sucker, Eric Northman (Alexander Skarsgard).
Led by creator Alan Ball, who previously worked on HBO’s successful Six Feet Under, True Blood presents a clear allegory for the marginalized and underrepresented in society. With the theme of vampires “coming out of the coffin” in the Great Revelation that frames the series, True Blood shares similar themes with mutants in X-Men who either integrate with the world or spend their days warring against it.
22. Big Love
Not only did this solid drama clean up at awards shows and earn critical praise, it also managed to infuriate the church of Latter Day Saints. Big Love depicts the polygamous life of Bill Hendrickson (Bill Paxton) and his three wives, Barbara (Jeanne Tripplehorn), Nicki (Chloe Sevigny) and Margie (Ginnifer Goodwin). Showrunners Mark Olsen and Will Scheffer infuse the show with gravitas by never mocking the Hendrickson’s alternative lifestyle, instead portraying them as if they were a typical suburban family in the Midwest.
Big Love premiered in 2006 as The Sopranos entered its own sixth season (along with The Wire in its prime). This may have been the apogee of HBO’s premium cable reign, with three distinct programs portraying vastly different lifestyles and communities. The performances in Big Love were consistently enthralling, particularly with Bill Paxton front and center. By the end of the show’s five seasons, you may find yourself accepting polygamy more than you imagined possible.
As the guy’s answer to Sex and the City, HBO’s Entourage delivered seven seasons of the life of a Hollywood movie star. Modeled after Mark Wahlberg’s own experiences with his east-coast crew, Entourage follows the ups and downs of Queens-born actor Vincent Chase (Adrian Grenier). Alongside his best friends, Turtle (Jerry Ferrara) and Eric (Kevin Connolly), and his has-been half-brother Johnny Drama (Kevin Dillon), Vincent steadily climbs his way up the Hollywood ladder. While “E” becomes Vince’s manager, Johnny and Turtle ride their superstar friend’s coattails for as long as possible.
Though the four friends always kept us coming back for more, Vince’s agent, Ari Gold (Jeremy Piven), was the real driving force of the show. An undeniable force of nature, super-agent Ari lives and breathes for success. The more ruthless he became, the harder we laughed, especially whenever he fired his employees. With 96 episodes to its name (and a feature-length movie), Entourage may have ended in 2011, but its memory will never die.
20. Getting On
Mark V. Olsen and Will Scheffer hit a home run with Big Love, and in 2013, they got back on base with Getting On. Though the setting could not be more distant from Mormon polygamy, Getting On follows the ridiculous antics of the Billy Barnes Extended Care Unit in southern California. Based on the BBC show of the same name, Getting On had the comical cinema verite trappings of The Office situated in a somewhat depressing hospital.
Though the morbid undertones of the show can’t be avoided, particularly with elderly patients knocking on death’s door, Getting On is a black-comedy of the highest order. The cast of Laurie Metcalf, Alex Borstein, Niecy Nash and Mel Rodriguez light up the room, particularly when they try to phonetically interpret a Cambodian patient’s plea for help. The show is filled with ridiculous scenes that always manage to feel rooted in reality, no matter how absurd they become.
19. Silicon Valley
Though creator Mike Judge set the series in the tech jungle of northern California, Silicon Valley is basically a buddy-comedy with an app-design backdrop. Led by Thomas Middleditch, TJ Miller and Zach Woods, three titans of the sketch comedy circuit, Silicon Valley absolutely nails the vibe of the tech industry’s hysteria and the kooky characters inhabiting it.
While the show occasionally descends into bland exposition, Silicon Valley succeeds because of its talented cast. In addition to scene-stealer Erlich Bachman (Miller,) Bertram Guilfoyle (Martin Starr) is the lovably cynical Satanist that complements his coding co-worker, Dinesh Chugtai (Kumail Nanjiani). When the whole Pied Piper team unites for a common purpose (like the time they used a phallic algorithm to fix their app), the show is at its best. When the plot turns circular and loses its narrative footing, as happened in the early episodes of Season 3, Silicon Valley starts to stumble.
HBO has long enjoyed the lack of FCC regulation on its content. To be sure, Home Box Office is a far cry from the run of the mill shows on basic cable. Yet, no matter how graphic Game of Thrones may be, no show can rival the brutality in Tom Fontana’s prison drama, Oz. The first hour-long drama in HBO’s history, Oz follows the struggle for power in the Oswald State Correctional Facility, a level 4 maximum-security prison. In the “Emerald City,” men of all races and backgrounds coalesce to create a truly diverse world. In prison as in society, however, rival factions form.
From the “Homeboys,” to the Muslims, the Latinos, the Aryan Brotherhood and more, this correctional facility is a high-octane cultural melting pot waiting to explode. As the show’s title and tagline clearly state, riffing off Frank L. Baum’s Wizard of Oz, this prison is “no place like home.”
17. John Adams
Long before he directed The King’s Speech, Les Miserables and The Danish Girl, Tom Hooper led the charge for John Adams. Alongside executive producers Tom Hanks and Gary Goetzman, the British-born Hooper helped create one of the most enthralling recreations of early American life. With Paul Giamatti filling John Adams’ shoes, this seven-episode miniseries did wonders to increase our understanding of this crucial period in western history.
Rather than glorifying the Founding Fathers as demigods, however, John Adams shows Benjamin Franklin (Tom Wilkinson), George Washington (David Morse), Thomas Jefferson (Stephen Dillane) and the eponymous hero as honorable men that carried all of the insecurities and doubts of regular citizens. Though dressed to the nines, riding in stagecoaches and wearing wigs, each of these men move away from historical caricature and approach something much more authentic. John Adams showcases HBO’s dedication to preserving our past, as they will do once again with their upcoming series, Lewis & Clark.
16. The Newsroom
It’s a shame The Newsroom isn’t still in HBO’s lineup. Though Aaron Sorkin’s most recent TV venture accrued many fans, it failed to establish the loyal audiences The West Wing once conquered. Following the happenings of the Atlantis Cable Network (ACN), The Newsroom centered on the hot-tempered news anchor, Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels). After he blows a gasket at a public event and exposes his true political beliefs, McAvoy’s gig as an unbiased anchor disintegrates. Thus begins his transition into full-on commentary assisted by ex-girlfriend and current producer MacKenzie (Emily Mortimer).
The rest of the news team stars John Gallagher Jr., Allison Pill, Olivia Munn and Dev Patel, all of whom prove more than capable of handling Sorkin’s verbal flourishes. Most of the twenty-five episodes (across three seasons) deal with real news events, like the assassination of Osama Bin Laden, sarin gas attacks and NSA spying. Though some found The Newsroom to be heavy handed with its social and political diatribes, it remains a solid entry in the HBO canon.
15. Boardwalk Empire
When news broke that Martin Scorsese would be directing the pilot, Boardwalk Empire became an instant sensation. With a first episode price tag of over $18 million, expectations for the series reached the stratosphere. For the most part, the Prohibition-era drama cashed in on its promises, netting 57 total Primetime Emmy Awards across its five season-long stay. As with the lifestyle of central character, Enoch “Nucky” Thompson (Steve Buscemi), Boardwalk Empire presented a thoroughly lavish take on Atlantic City in the Roaring Twenties.
Buscemi’s performance as Nucky, the corrupt, but even-keeled politician, laid the groundwork for the supporting cast to add dramatic contrast. From Bobby Canavale’s hot-tempered gangster, Gyp Rosetti, to Michael Shannon’s tightly wound Prohibition Agent turned bootlegger, Nelson Van Alden, Boardwalk Empire created a compelling show with cleverly drawn characters by creator Terence Winter. Behind all of the niceties and propriety of the seductive era are the same temptations and shortcomings of every other generation. Guys like Nucky were just better at hiding it.
14. The Pacific
As the follow-up to HBO’s now legendary Band of Brothers, The Pacific turned west to a new theater of war. Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg reunited to produce The Pacific, which follows the experiences of three men in different regiments of the 1st Marine Division. While their individual stories remain separate for the first few episodes, Eugene Sledge (Joseph Mazzello), Robert Leckie (James Badge Dale) and Jon Basilone (Jon Seda) eventually converge at the attack on the Peleliu airfield, one of the worst battles of World War II.
While The Pacific doesn’t fully recapture the emotional impact of Band of Brothers (perhaps due to the lead characters’ separated story lines), it still remains one of HBO’s strongest productions. The performances are fantastic, particularly those of James Badge Dale, Jon Seda and a young Jon Bernthal at the start of his career. Though the European theater of war is often best remembered in history books, The Pacific shines a light on what many consider to be the more brutal battle between the Allies and Japan.
Prior to Game of Thrones, Rome held the title as the most epic show on the premium cable network. For every fantastical detail of Westeros in George R. R. Martin’s adaptation, Rome applied real history and actual characters to the plot. Though its crippling price tag limited the show to just two seasons, Rome packs a visceral viewing experience with an sexy history lesson in one fell swoop.
John Milius (writer of Apocalypse Now and Conan the Barbarian) helped produce the show, focusing the first season on the rise of Julius Caesar (Ciaran Hinds) from 49 BC to his death on the “Ides of March” in 44 BC. While Julius Caesar enjoys his apotheosis, Rome steadily builds the rise of Augustus for season 2, as he battles against Marc Antony in the wake of Caesar’s assassination. According to co-creator Bruno Heller, additional seasons would have expanded their focus to Egypt, the rise of Jesus Christ in Israel, and more. If only.
Though recently canceled after its second season, Togetherness enjoyed a highly devoted fan following. Created by brothers Mark and Jay Duplass, along with their high-school friend, Steve Zissis, Togetherness explored the stories of four frustrated Angelenos seeking to reinvent their lives. Brett and Michelle Pierson (Mark Duplass and Melanie Lynskey) have hit a low point in their marriage, while Brett’s best friend and struggling actor, Alex (Zissis), has nearly given up on his career. To round things out, Michelle’s sister Tina (Amanda Peet) is mired in a mid-life crisis and moves in with the Piersons to seek rehabilitation.
Togetherness embodied the modern dark comedy with its themes of melancholy, exploring life’s purpose and finding love. When alone, none of these people are particularly happy. But when together, they help set each other on the right path. Through the show’s highs and lows, Togetherness presented a very realistic look at life and relationships.
11. Six Feet Under
Only Alan Ball, the screenwriter of American Beauty, could turn a concept about a family-run funeral home into something as mesmerizing as Six Feet Under. Though each episode of the beloved HBO series began with a death, Six Feet Under somehow always managed to make audiences laugh. Indeed, for a show surrounded with death, the performances and acerbic writing always made audiences feel acutely alive.
In addition to Alan Ball’s vision for the show, the enduring appreciation for Six Feet Under is equally due to the talented cast of Fisher & Sons Funeral Home. Peter Krause, Michael C. Hall, Frances Conroy and Lauren Ambrose, among many other actors, took the incisive scripts and distinct characters and truly brought them to life. Though the show ran five seasons and has been off the air since 2005, the unforgettable finale of Six Feet Under continues to linger in the memory of those who experienced it.
10. In Treatment
Art imitates life. For HBO’s In Treatment, the full meaning of the phrase came to bear. With a total of 106 episodes over just three seasons, the psychology-centered show consistently aired five episodes a week for two months at a time. Talk about a demanding shooting schedule. Still, In Treatment quickly became the easiest way for audiences to seek therapy for themselves — minus the hassle of actually paying for a doctor.
Based on the Israeli series, Be Tipul, creator Rodrigo Garcia put legendary actor Gabriel Byrne in the lead role as Paul Weston, the empathetic psychologist dedicated to helping his patients. Due to the formatting of the show, audiences had a unique opportunity to commiserate with Weston’s patients on a regular basis. The ability to watch them grow (or regress) over a series of sessions built an increasingly strong following. With strong performances from Dane DeHaan, Debra Winger, Amy Ryan, and Mia Wasikowska, among others, In Treatment offered meaty roles for hungry actors eager to work opposite Gabriel Byrne.
9. The Leftovers
Damon Lindelof’s rapture drama, The Leftovers, depicts a world where 2% of the world’s population has vanished. The fallout from this apocalyptic scenario sees the destruction of the world’s leading religions, the evolution of cults, and the eruption of widespread chaos as people seek answers for the disappearance of over 140 million people. While the first season was based off of Tom Perrotta’s eponymous book, the second season forged new and wholly original material.
With principal photography underway for the third and final season of The Leftovers, the show remains as schismatic as the “Sudden Departure” event it depicts. Though many critics and fans have heaped praise on the show, some have found it too grim to be enjoyable. Despite dissension on the show’s ultimate appeal, praise for the performances has been unanimous, particularly for Justin Theroux’s struggling cop, Kevin Garvey, and Carrie Coon’s Nora Durst, who seeks solace in the disappearance of her husband, son and daughter.
Given the plethora of dramas in HBO’s lineup, Veep is a more than welcome choice in comedic counter-programming. Led by the eternally-likable Julia Louis-Dreyfus, this political satire offers some of the smartest scripts on television. Jokes and witticisms fly by faster than Brian Williams in a helicopter under attack. Imagine if House of Cards turned down the seriousness and amplified the sarcasm. That’s Veep, more or less, but with Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Tony Hale in the driver’s seat, things get even more unpredictable.
The supporting cast seals the deal, making Veep consistently watchable since it started in 2012 (having just wrapped its fifth season). Upright Citizens Brigade alum Matt Walsh brings the laughs, but it’s Sam Richardson’s Richard Splett who continuously steals the show. This 2016 election season in particular makes Veep more relevant than ever.
7. Curb Your Enthusiasm
Curb Your Enthusiasm is coming back. Needless to say, we’re mightily enthused. Larry David’s brilliant comedy has been home to some of the funniest scenes in recent memory, and when the show appeared to be finished, fans were despondent. Having run for eleven years (and now longer) with 80 episodes, Curb Your Enthusiasm could understandably be considered HBO’s most enduring show. From Larry unleashing almighty hell at a poor songstress, to him turning a black swan into a massacre of feathers, Curb is undoubtedly one of the funniest shows HBO has ever put on the air.
Furthermore, Curb Your Enthusiasm was the sole reason for that legendary Seinfeld reunion that saw Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Jason Alexander and Michael Richards all back under the same roof. And who knows, with season 9 around the corner, it could happen again. Even if our Festivus dreams don’t come true, we’ll eagerly anticipate Larry reuniting with Jeff Garlin, Cheryl Hines and the rest of the cast.
6. True Detective
If time is a flat circle, then perhaps we can forget the travesty of True Detective’s second season and only remember the first. Beyond the stellar central performances of Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, the incredible cinematography, and Niz Pizzolatto’s bullet-proof scripts, Cary Fukunaga’s overarching directorial vision made this deep-south story come to eternal life. True Detective may start slow and demand your ultimate attention, but the thrills and the ultimate payoff are well worth the early commitment.
In the middle of the “McConaissance,” True Detective also solidified 2014 as the epicenter of the golden age of television. Rather than focusing on a variety of disparate story lines, True Detective excelled beyond similar procedural shows by hunkering down in one universe and a single dominating mystery. As a result, our affections were directed to the spellbindingly complex characters of Rustin Cohle (McConaughey) and Martin Hart (Harrelson). With Fukunaga at the helm of all eight episodes, the uniformity of vision was consistent from beginning to end. With season 3 reportedly in the works, let’s hope Pizzolatto hearkens back to the winning formula of the show’s maiden voyage.
The western genre has been around for decades, but David Milch’s Deadwood did more than revive it. In this Greek-tragedy like retelling of the American west, Deadwood eschews the spaghetti western formula of Sergio Leone and John Ford for something more sinister and compelling. Indeed, the show is set in a mining town free from any legal subjugation under the Continental United States. As a result, lawlessness abounds, ruffians run rampant, and the carnal desires of men know no end. Deadwood is about finding order in chaos, and for Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant) and Al Swearengen (Ian McShane), among others in this forsaken town, the opportunities for control are endless.
Though set in post Civil War America, perhaps the most specific era of HBO’s menu of shows, Deadwood is no less compelling than any of its contemporary competition. Though it only lasted three seasons, there’s a reason the demand for a Deadwood movie remains at fever pitch.
4. The Sopranos
Before even enumerating the thematic success of The Sopranos, let’s examine the history of the executive producers who worked on the show. After David Chase gave birth to the project, there was Terence Winter, godfather of Boardwalk Empire and scribe for The Wolf of Wall Street. Then, there was Matthew Weiner, mastermind behind a little known AMC drama about men who worked on Madison Avenue in the 1960s and drank a lot. That’s the legacy of The Sopranos.
As for the heroic yarn spun by the Italian mobster show, The Sopranos takes Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather and updates it in modern New Jersey. The central question asks: how can Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) juggle his unruly home life with the neverending demands of his place in the mob? Widely regarded as one of the best shows ever made, The Sopranos left audiences hanging on Tony’s every word, right up until the controversially cliffhanger finale.
3. Band of Brothers
Created and executive produced by Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg shortly after they completed Saving Private Ryan, HBO’s first venture into World War II used Stephen Ambrose’s eponymous book as its source material. From stateside training, to their D-Day jump above Normandy, to storming Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest in the Alps, Band of Brothers joins the ranks of the heroic 101st Airborne Division in their fight against the Nazis. With Captain Dick Winters (Damian Lewis) in the lead, we follow the harrowing missions placed at the daring division’s feet (often from Dwight D. Eisenhower himself).
This is where Band of Brothers separates itself from the WWII film and television pack. By staying with the same soldiers in each of the 10 episodes, you can’t help but build a connection with each of the men. In one particular episode, during the Siege of Bastogne, the division is forced to huddle up in frozen foxholes while the German’s unleash mortars from a distance. This hour-long episode will freeze you to the bone and make you grateful for peacetime. Band of Brothers is HBO at its very best.
2. Game of Thrones
Selecting the number one show out of HBO’s unbeatable canon is truly a modern Sophie’s Choice. At this level of small screen storytelling, there are only variations of “good” and “great.” Game of Thrones is a herculean achievement for HBO, and showrunners D.B. Weiss and David Benioff have essentially accomplished the impossible. By distilling George R. R. Martin’s impenetrably thick story, his abundance of unique characters, and the rich and detailed history of Westeros into a stunningly well-made show, Weiss and Benioff deserve enduring praise.
Think back to 2011, when Game of Thrones first landed on the premium cable provider. To those who had never heard of Martin’s books, this show was potentially a tough sell. Fantasy stories don’t always breach the literary divide into the greater public’s conscience, making Game of Thrones an incredibly expensive risk for the network. But as it heads towards its seventh season as perhaps the most talked-about show in TV history, the great gamble has paid off and created a cultural frenzy unlikely to be eclipsed anytime soon.
1. The Wire
Though HBO has an army of top-shelf TV, nothing can surmount the legacy of David Simon’s The Wire. It may have eluded the Emmy and Golden Globe adulation of its peers, but The Wire has become the stuff of legend since its fifth season wrapped in 2008.
Just as Game of Thrones effortlessly juggles the happenings of the Seven Kingdoms, The Wire portrays social, economic and political elements of Baltimore with remarkable precision. Beyond your typical urban procedural, The Wire accumulated increasingly profound insights with its target city in each subsequent season. As with a London-set Charles Dickens novel, The Wire made audiences feel as if Baltimore was their home, not some distant land without ramifications. Above all, the show’s multi-layered depiction of the city presents a deeply complex look at the way disparate lives and cultures intersect. Thanks to spot-on casting and Simon’s choice to favor realism over star power (a breakout performance from Idris Elba notwithstanding), The Wire feels less like TV and more like real life. That’s what great entertainment is all about.
What’s in your HBO top five? Tell us in the comments section!
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