It may be hard to believe, but HBO has been around since 1972. Not only is it the longest running premium cable network, but it’s also the most successful.
Hits like The Larry Sanders Show and Six Feet Under (neither of which are on the list, which just shows how many great shows HBO has) has kept the network relevant ever since they started making original TV in the ’80s. Now that Game of Thrones holds more Emmys than any other drama series in history, their cocky slogan of “It’s not TV, it’s HBO” rings truer than ever.
The network isn’t perfect though. Over their long history, HBO has released a fair number of duds, There are even a few series that were originally renewed for a second season, and then canceled in the middle of pre-production because the network realized there wasn’t an audience for the show. No matter what, the network keeps moving forward and releasing new shows. Right now, HBO is hoping audiences will fall for The Deuce, a new show starring James Franco and Maggie Gyllenhaal, from the creator of The Wire.
If you only know Game of Thrones, you’ve got an 18 month wait and quite a few shows you can watch in the mean time. So, put down your remotes and come learn more about the 10 Best (And 7 Worst) HBO Shows, Ranked!
17. Best: The Pacific
The Pacific is a brutal, honest look at the fighting in the south-pacific during World War II.
It follows three different marines in three separate regiments as they struggle to survive the island-hopping strategy that helped the U.S. secure victory over Japan. Not only do we see the horrors of war first hand, but we get to follow along with these characters and see how their attitudes are slowly hardened by them.
Since the show only had ten episodes, the total budget allowed for some spectacular action sequences that rival Saving Private Ryan and other war movies.
The Pacific is a follow up to Band of Brothers, another production led by Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks. The only difference is that while The Pacific focused on the battles between the Allied and Japanese forces, BoB was a look at the more frequently depicted fight against the Nazis in Europe.
16. Worst: The Brink
Jack Black, Tim Robbins, and Aasif Mandvi together on screen sounds like comedy gold, but The Brink didn’t match up with fan expectations.
Banking on the success of Veep, HBO thought another political comedy would do well on its Sunday night lineup. In what feels like an uneven mix between Dr. Strangelove and The Three Stooges, HBO gave audiences a mediocre satire about what happens when idiots are in control of the world’s nuclear codes.
Each episode included a forced twist that kept the story moving forward. Instead of earning certain story beats, the show just threw them in.
The weirdest one, which was apparently meant to be funny, was the accidental bombing of someone. These forced comedic beats often reduced the show’s tension and made it hard to believe anything too bad was really going to happen.
15. Best: Flight of the Conchords
Move over, Lord of the Rings movies, you have some competition for most best thing from New Zealand.
Flight of the Conchords follows the fictional misadventures of a two-person band from New Zealand as they struggle to find fame and fortune in New York City. Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie already performed together in a comedy band, so their chemistry together is wonderful. The show features their catalog of hilarious, satirical songs that, after a while, stand out for their own musical merit in addition to their comedic value.
Not only do the two of them turn in funny songs, but their awkward behavior and quippy dialogue with their manager Murray – who doubles as an employee at the New Zealand consulate – keeps the show packed with laughs throughout each episode.
14. Worst: Luck
An HBO show starring Dustin Hoffman sounds great on paper, but Luck hit quite a few snags along the way.
Focused on the high-stakes world of gambling and horseback racing, show creator David Milch told LA Times that he looked at the horse track the same way Mark Twain thought about the Mississippi river. Instead of being a show about horse racing, it’s a show about the assortment of people who all congregate at the tracks; some of them are good people while some are not so good.
It had potential, but the show never truly found its footing. The slow-burning plot was enjoyable to a certain extent, but after a while Luck felt like it needed more oomph. Unfortunately, the show was canceled in the middle of production on season two due to concerns about animal safety from groups like PETA. Throughout the filming of the first season, the crew was forced to euthanize two horses due to injuries incurred on set.
13. Best: Game of Thrones
Game of Thrones is a TV phenomenon unlike anything audiences have had in a while. The show is far from perfect, but hordes of fans come together every weekend with their friends and hum along with the theme song as they wait for the political intrigue and carnage to unfold. Even people who typically don’t like fantasy find it hard to resist the show’s charm.
The show has everything TV fans could want: epic battles, interesting characters, and dragons. As groups of rival families compete and plot against each other for power over Westeros, an army of the undead slowly prepares to unleash destruction. Even the characters who are cast as villains have clear motivations.
During the show’s formative years – before the writers felt compelled to rush stories along – everything that took place made sense and every character followed an understandable logic. Now, most of the rules have been thrown out the window in exchange for massive battles between dragons and zombies.
12. Worst: Real Time with Bill Maher
Bill Maher likens himself a one-man-war on political correctness. Throughout his hour-long program, Maher uses average, often insensitive jokes, to prove that the world is falling apart. Maher, who still embodies the hyperactive comedy of the ’80s, shoots jokes off at a mile-a-minute in an attempt to stay relevant. It’s neat that he gets impressive people to come participate on the show’s panels, but the fact that he makes his guests sit there awkwardly through his “New Rules” section each week proves he cares more about stroking his ego than anything else.
To be fair, Maher definitely has his moments. He does a great job making sure people from all sides get to share their opinions, but more often than not his smarmy attitude gets in the way. Religiousless was quite enjoyable, but Real Time doesn’t serve the same function when other late-night hosts, like John Oliver and Seth Meyers, are doing such a great job satirizing the current administration.
11. Best: The Leftovers
Unfortunately, The Leftovers didn’t quite catch on like HBO hoped. The third and final season just wrapped in June and somehow the masterpiece only earned one measly Emmy nomination. The series is based on a book by Tom Perrotta, but the events of the series go beyond the novel’s original narrative.
After two percent of the world mysteriously disappear, the rest of the population struggles to find meaning in their life. Some people turn to religion while others turn to nihilism. In the middle of it all is Kevin Garvey, played wonderfully by Justin Theroux; a sheriff who’s slowly losing his grip on reality.
Despite all the religious and fantasy elements, the series is really a study of broken people. Some of the show’s biggest questions aren’t answered because that’s how life goes. In real life, tragic things happen all the time and no one ever learns why, we just have to adjust and continue living our lives.
10. Worst: Vinyl
Vinyl is a strange beast. Executive produced by Mick Jagger and Martin Scorsese, the show had a lot of potential. The show followed a record executive in the ’70s as he struggled to do something different and create a new niche for his label. New York made for an interesting setting, but the simple characters and lazy plot points pulled the show off course.
As silly as it may sound, the best part of the show was Ray Romano. Everyone has heard about the McConaissance, but we’re also smack dab in the middle of the Romanaissance thanks to Vinyl. His performance was a great mix of comedy and sad desperation as his character struggled to keep things together.
9. Best: Veep
Instead of looking at D.C. as a serious soap opera like House of Cards, Veep casts a goofy, satirical look at the political world. Julia Louis-Dreyfus plays Selina Meyer, a Vice-President who has her eyes on the Presidency. Around her is a cast of Washington players, some of whom are the best at what they do, while others are essentially toddlers in suits. Everyone from lobbyists to Hillterns are skewered and made fun of by people with a lot of power and nothing to fear.
8. Worst: Vice Principals
Eastbound and Down is freaking hysterical, but Vice Principals – Danny McBride’s follow up series with HBO – is a bit of a mess. After a high school’s principal announces his intentions to retire, the school’s two vice principals begin competing for the vacant position. Unbeknownst to them, the principal decides that neither of them are worthy of the position and hires an outsider to fill the spot. In a desperate attempt to install one of themselves as principal, the two VPs team up and pull a series of stunts intended to get the new principal to leave.
It sounds like a concept that could support a YouTube comedy video for a few minutes, but this is a 30 minute comedy with nine episodes and the idea quickly gets old.
7. Best: Oz
Oz is where it all started. The Tom Fontana show was the first hour-long drama produced by HBO and it showed the world that HBO had no problem taking things to dark, tense places.
Set in the Oswald State Correctional Facility, Oz looks at the different communities that popped up in prison as well as how the stress impacted different individuals. Some people struggle to survive or find peace while others battle it out over power and control of the drug trade.
While all of the performances are great and many of the actors have become a part of HBO’s go-to set of performers, J.K. Simmons turn as Vernon Schillinger is truly terrifying. Schillinger is the leader of the Aryan brotherhood in the prison and is known for emotional manipulation and brutality. He has no problem humiliating and controlling someone else as long as there is something he can gain, whether it’s a sex slave or another bar of soap.
6. Worst: John from Cincinnati
John from Cincinnati is a peculiar beast. The show was created by David Milch, creator of shows like NYPD Blue and Deadwood, and Kem Nunn, a novelist whose style has been described as “surf-noir.” The show follows what happens when a mysterious man comes to Imperial Beach and joins the local surfing community.
Strange things start happening around John, including a dead parrot coming back to life. The mysteries of the character were never worked out since the show only lasted one season, but it had a philosophical and religious bent that constantly made the show feel like it was trying to be more than what it truly was.
5. Best: Big Little Lies
It’s hard to describe this show without giving too much away or just heaping a massive amount of praise on its back. At it’s core, Big Little Lies – adapted from a book by Liane Moriarty – is a book about how much stress people can take.
The beginning of the series introduces audiences to a murder mystery that dangles above everything as the plot progresses towards the event, but that’s not what makes the series compelling. Based in the serene backdrop of Monterrey, California, Big Little Lies examines the falsehoods in people’s everyday lives and how they slowly drive them crazy. Whether it’s an affair, a shady past or an abusive partner, no one’s life is as perfect as it seems, especially in the crisp, glitzy neighborhood the show is set in.
4. Worst: Entourage
Everyone knows those few, terrible people who seem continuously blessed with good luck. Well, Entourage is essentially a show about what happens when one of those bros from high school makes it in Hollywood and he drags his weird friends along with him for the ride. It’s hard to root for the main character because he’s constantly giving the audience reasons to think he’s a sleazy guy.
The story is loosely based on the experiences of Mark Wahlberg, an executive producer on the show, when he was first becoming famous. In order to keep things light and avoid discussing his violent past, the team decided to make it a fictional show about Hollywood in general.
As a result, the show is jam-packed with celebrity cameos that are meant to keep the show grounded in its setting, but more often than not their presence is more entertaining than the main characters.
3. Best: Curb Your Enthusiasm
Curb Your Enthusiasm is pretty, preettttty, prettttttty, pretty good.
After creating one of the world’s most popular shows with Seinfeld, Larry David could do whatever he wanted. Originally, Curb was developed as a one-time only, hour-long project set in the real world but it was eventually turned into a full-fledged, fictional comedy series.
In the show, David plays a fictionalized version of himself who constantly finds himself in uncomfortable situations. Due to his awkward and sometimes selfish behavior, he is frequently misunderstood and forced to explain himself.
Each episode has a script and a clear structure, but some of the funniest moments come when the actors improvise. Series regulars Cheryl Hines and Jeff Garlin, who play his wife and manager respectively, both have great chemistry with David and know how to push the conversation into hilarious places.
2. Best: The Wire
More than anything else, The Wire is a deep look at the city of Baltimore. Each of the show’s five seasons focuses on a different institution within the city, whether it’s the drug trade, the education system, or the local newspaper. While there is a core cast, led by Dominic West as Detective McNulty and Idris Elba as Stringer Bell, each season adds a new layer of characters that makes the world more interconnected and complicated.
Created by David Simon, a journalist who worked in Baltimore for twelve years, the show is painfully honest in the way it looks at crime in the city. Not only do we see how heartless and selfish some of the criminals are, but we also see characters who are forced to do terrible things due to the harshness of their surroundings. When one is forced to choose between a bullet in the head or a starving child, is there ever a right answer?
1. Best: The Sopranos
The Sopranos is the perfect combination of amazing acting, spectacular writing, and breathtaking cinematography. With an ensemble led by the powerful James Gandolfini, The Sopranos chronicled the difficult and flashy lives of some of New Jersey’s gangsters. Over six seasons, audiences were treated to tense conversations and explosive action scenes that kept them on the edge of their seats throughout each episode.
It’s hard to explain why the show is so much more than simply another look at the Italian mafia. Tony Soprano became the archetype for the traditional TV anti-hero, compelling audiences to root for him even as he does despicable things. Without him, characters like Walter White or Don Draper likely wouldn’t have been as appealing to network execs and audiences.
Whether we are watching Tony take out his opponents or spilling his guts in therapy, the contrast between his rough exterior and emotional core is always on display. He may be a gangster willing to do anything to defend his business, but at the end of the day, he’s also a father and a husband trying as hard as he can to hold his family together.
What HBO shows should have (or should not have!) been included on the list? Sound off in the comments below!
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