The premium channel moved from cable boxes to streaming platforms as it innovated premium television with outstanding series.
HBO's rise to the power it's become today came by innovating the very idea of cable television, with an early proposal by founder Charles Dolan, codenamed "The Green Channel" that would revolutionize the way we watch television. Dolan, later to become an owner of the New York Knicks and Cablevision, created a new idea in television — the first subscription-based cable enterprise that would show licensed movies in unedited versions on their channel. By the mid-'70s, HBO began regularly producing their own original entertainment, creating an early model for what would become the premium series of today. Despite some major hurdles as the property changed hands, then merged with Cinemax to create today's streaming platform, HBO has consistently churned out award-winning original series across multiple genres.
From hilarious political satires and murder mysteries, to dragon-laden epics and prison dramas, HBO has proven time and again that they've unlocked cheat mode on the premium series, making Sunday nights a national holiday when a series as important as The Sopranos or Game of Thrones is airing a new episode. Along the way, the channel has created a platform for the premium series itself to eclipse movies in their viewership and critical acclaim, as larger-than-life stars like Steve Buscemi, James Gandolfini, and Matthew McConaughey have given some of their greatest performances in this much larger format.
The following are 20 HBO series you need to make sure you watch before you die.
If True Detective seems low on this list, it's due to everything that happened post-Season 1, after creator Nic Pizzolatto and director Cary Joji Fukunaga dissolved the partnership that came to define their careers — but also cost them their relationship. The power struggle was an odd mirror of the strained relationship between Detectives Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson) and Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey), and the on-set tension between the show's primary collaborators somehow benefited the uneasy tenor of the series.
While the idea of using a different story and actors for each successive season was a brave one, it unfortunately cost the series dearly. It hasn't again risen to the bar set by Harrelson and McConaughey, though Jodie Foster may have something to say about that in the upcoming fourth season.
Veep helped television audiences remember the special comedic talent of Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who played Vice President Selina Meyer in the political satire years after the conclusion of Seinfeld. The series took the idea that politicians are normal, flawed human beings and ran with it, making Meyer into a politician often more concerned with her image than lawmaking. Along the way she becomes a socio-political mountaineer, and her bickering and lording over her staff creates the series' most hilarious tension, with Anna Chlumsky becoming the show's other greatest revelation in her award-winning role as Selina's Chief of Staff, Amy Brookheimer.
The Tom Fontana/Barry Levinson partnership has been a fruitful one over the years, with its greatest heights reached during HBO's prison drama, Oz, a series that utilized all the R-rated capabilities of cable television. The show revolves around Emerald City, an experimental prison wing that becomes fraught with violence and murder as inmates move between grudges and alliances. The series is most memorable for the cadre of character actors that cut their teeth in much larger roles than they were previously known for, with the greatest stand-outs being Harold Perrineau, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, and the recently-departed Lance Reddick, all rising to the occasion.
If you could describe Flight of the Conchords in one word — it may be "endearing", as the lovably lo-fi New Zealand musical comedy introduced HBO audiences to Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement, a multi-instrumental duo whose songs inter-splice between the duo's everyday conflicts. The show's intimacy and soul are its greatest earmarks, with a very small cast, very twee music, and an acting duo whose approach to comedy is seldom overdone — creating an HBO series that captured some of the early 2000s hyper-prevalent hipsterdom.
The brainchild of Doug Ellin and Mark Wahlberg (and based, in part, on Wahlberg and his agent Ari Emanuel), Entourage surprised everyone with a highly popular, eight season run and a movie. The show was appealing for showing the glamour and pitfalls of fame, as it followed Vincent Chase (Adrian Grenier) and his cronies up the fame ladder. The best performances routinely came from Kevin Dillon and Jerry Ferrara, as Drama and Turtle became household names. Jeremy Piven gave the show it's frenetic feeling as Ari Gold, who came to epitomize the Hollywood excess that the show so ably captured.
For Boardwalk Empire, Terrence Winter created a sprawling series loosely based around historical figures in Atlantic City, with Steve Buscemi leading a television series for the first time in his storied career. Winter had already had major success as a writer on The Sopranos, and now had the opportunity to create his own vision for HBO, tracing the Prohibition Era rise of Nucky Thompson, who must keep mobsters, bootleggers, politicians and government agents at bay as he builds his empire.
Buscemi, who was previously known more for supporting roles, finally got to show his true range as a leading actor, as Nucky finds love with Margaret Thompson (Kelly Macdonald) and competition with his brother Eli (Shea Wigham).
Chernobyl finally captured the scope of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster and resulting fallout, using a 5-part limited series to properly tell the stories of survivors. Craig Mazin showran the effort, which showed in gruesome detail the effects of radiation on those who helped to clean up the site, as the officials tasked with controlling the fallout faced the largest nuclear disaster on record. For their efforts, many paid with rare forms of cancer, such as Valery Legasov, played by Jared Harris. Legasov and Boris Shcherbina (Stellan Skarsgård) must make snap decisions in the series, with outcomes that affect millions of lives. It's hard to think of higher stakes than that.
The campiness, the sex, the….Sookie! True Blood had it all, injecting an odd humor into this Vampire drama series based on the novels of Charlaine Harris. Alan Ball, who earlier created Six Feet Under for HBO, now came up with a series to capitalize both on the bestselling source work and the newfound popularity of Vampires — thanks to Twilight. The series cleverly looked at vamps and humans uncomfortably co-existing in the same world, with Sookie (Anna Paquin) and Bill Compton's (Stephen Moyer) romance at the center of it. Bill is surprisingly agile for a 173-year-old, and Moyer was the series' second-biggest revelation, with Nelsan Harris' role as Lafayette, Sookie's most-trusted confidante, stealing the show.
Lena Dunham made a big impression with her semi-autobiographical first feature, Tiny Furniture, and had executives clamoring to package a show around her writing, with Judd Apatow eventually Executive Producing her HBO series Girls. The show created an opposite bookend to Sex in the City, another HBO series centered around four women, though Dunham had a much more contemporary, and less glamorized take on New York City, introducing audiences to the talents of Adam Driver by way of her writing — a visceral combination of hilarious comedy and stirring drama.
Despite being canceled after only 3 seasons, Deadwood left a lasting impression and created a cult following thanks to David Milch's clever writing and the commanding presence of Ian McShane as Al Swearengen. Despite an innovative mind that helped create series like NYPD Blue, Milch had poor luck with HBO, as Deadwood didn't reach expectations for viewership, and Luck, a series he and Michael Mann did later at the network had a plagued production that led to another early cancellation. Still, Deadwood had left a big enough impression to get a two-hour movie greenlit for the network 11 years later.
Mike Judge had some major success with his animated series Beavis and Butthead and King of the Hill, but his transition to live action work was, at times, a bumpy road. Still Office Space had become a cult film, and Judge's new series idea for Silicon Valley, about a band of misfit tech employees in the eponymous epicenter of the tech trade, had broad appeal to bring a younger audience to the network. The show became one of the network's best-ever comedy series, utilizing a hilarious ensemble, who bicker constantly while they innovate.
Part mockumentary, part sitcom — The Larry Sanders Show actually originated the shooting style and comedic approach that The Office is often given credit for, as Ricky Gervais was a long time fan of comedian and star Garry Shandling. Shandling had already made enormous creative contributions to television with The Garry Shandling Show in the 80s, and the late-night wars of the '90s created perfect comedic fodder to craft a series aternately narcissistic and self-deprecating host. Along the way, a new generation was introduced to the in-your-face genius of Rip Torn, and the delicately crafted acting of Jeffrey Tambor.
To think that, had the pandemic never happened, The White Lotus likely never would have made it to air, is just another amazing wrinkle in the story of Mike White's series, which eventually became one of the shows that benefited from the dearth of streaming options in the pandemic's first year. The show's biggest revelation was, of course, Jennifer Coolidge, who despite being a regular in Christopher Guest's mockumentaries, had never had such a big platform for her hilariously self-involved characters.
White created an eat-the-rich premise, wherein most of the characters are morally reprehensible save for a few members of the hotel's staff. Coolidge becomes the only connection between seasons one and two, but unlike True Detective, the reset worked — with the show's second season in Italy rising to the creative heights of the original, Hawaiian incarnation.
Likely the most critically-lauded of HBO's limited series, Band of Brothers created an extension of the partnership Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg had forged with the film Saving Private Ryan. Similarly, Band of Brothers employed a large acting ensemble of ascendant film stars to tell the true story of Easy Company, a 101st Airborne regiment that saw heavy action in World War II. The series gave a more proper scale to the enormity of war and the personalities of the soldiers, sort of a cable version of M*A*S*H that combined Robert Altman's style of ensemble casting with Spielberg's incredible prowess for conceiving of battle sequences.
Though a veteran of standup comedy, it's funny to think that, aside from an occasional cameo on his show Seinfeld, Larry David hadn't spent much time on television screens before Curb Your Enthusiasm.
While Seinfeld's George Costanza (Jason Alexander) became an avatar of sorts for David, Curb showed that David's conceptual genius belonged on both sides of the camera, as he created episodes so cringe-worthy and side-splitting that they, in certain ways, surpassed the network-constrained format of Seinfeld. Along with David's ascendance as an actor, he gave proper voice to the talents of Bob Einstein, JB Smoove, and Richard Lewis in a show that captured all the neuroses of this crew of comics via their interactions with an increasingly woke Westside of Los Angeles — a world where they fit like a square peg into a round hole.
Women had been tremendously under-represented in cable television before Sex and the City's iconic quartet of stars laid waste to the notion of female-driven comedy lacking marketability, becoming for a time the cable network's highest-rated series. Ironic, given that the series was created by Darren Star, but nonetheless important as Sarah Jessica Parker, Kim Cattrall, Kristen Davis, and Cynthia Nixon broke boundaries and made the show their own by creating a world where women are professionally empowered, sexually-awakened, and often romantically tortured.
The Roy family in Succession has become, in popular culture, the thesis of unchecked wealth and excess, as the series has become one of HBO's most streamed ever, thanks to lead Bryan Cox's condescendingly transatlantic voice, rife with a Shakespearian theatricality that makes Logan Roy's immense power all the more believable. Along the way, the series has helped Kieran Culkin eclipse the enormous fame of his acting family, Alan Ruck achieve his highest profile since Ferris Bueller's Day Off, and Jeremy Strong become the series' runaway star as Kendall Roy, a tremendously flawed character who best embodies the show's thesis.
Another of HBO's shows with more of an ensemble than any true lead, David Simon's The Wire has been considered by some to be the greatest cable series ever created. Unlike some of the cable network's other most famous series, The Wire wasn't an episode too long, with a 5-season arc that efficiently captures a crime epic that Simon based on his experience as a police reporter.
The series is one of the first ever to show African-Americans in the drug trade not as one-dimensional criminals (the way decades of television had previously done) but as multi-faceted human beings with complex personal lives and decisions driven as much by racism and impoverishment as ill-will. The series introduced American audiences to the sublime talents of Michael K. Williams, a very young Michael B. Jordan, and the cool calm of Idris Elba.
The very idea of an R-Rated approach to a fantasy epic was new territory of HBO with Game of Thrones, and despite the popularity of George R. R. Martin's novels, there was no guarantee the series would reach the same heights. It didn't — it surpassed them, as show runners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss only hinted at the existence of dragons in Season One, gradually drawing in an audience that eventually became enormous.
Despite the incredible acting performances, revolutionary special effects, and majestic filming locations, its greatest legacy is the writing, which perfectly married Martin's source work with cliffhangers that left audiences salivating between episodes, and incredible performances by Peter Dinklage and company to give the scripts some incredible voicing.
David Chase said he decided to cast James Gandolfini as New Jersey mob boss Tony Soprano the moment the actor wandered into his audition for The Sopranos, as the actor's tremendous physicality and gravitas were perfectly suited to the role. Ironically, the series got off to a somewhat slow start, ratings-wise. Still, HBO was a forgiving creative landscape at the time, and stuck with the series long enough for audiences to catch wind of the tremendous chemistry between Gandolfini and Lorraine Bracco, while maintaining the hilarity of the peripheral cast of mob goons (see: Tony Sirico as Paulie "Walnuts"), which owed a lot to Martin Scorsese's work.
Chase's series managed to break away from its inspirational director, though, by layering a crime epic with philosophical notions about psychotherapy and family-life. Chase's controversial decisions to essentially troll his heavily-invested audience with the show's anti-climactic final scene was a statement that, above all else, The Sopranos was "art" as much as "entertainment."
Born and raised in Los Angeles, Mike Damski studied Art at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, NY while beginning a twenty year career in Film and TV, performing nearly every job on set from Production Assistant to Stuntman. His credits include Prime, Surviving Christmas, Alex and Emma, The Sopranos, Royal Pains, Taxi, Little Manhattan, Early Edition, Boston Public and many more. He currently resides in Portland, Oregon.