A Complete Ranking of HBO’s Drama Series
HBO has been pretty much dominating the drama series game since 1997, when it came onto the scene with the one-two punch of Oz followed by The Sopranos. Though things have faltered a little in the last few years — projects being scrapped at the last minute, deals not working out, or big series failing to find an audience or their own voice — HBO has still produced some of the best series on TV and helped usher in an era of exceptional dramas.
The list below ranks the premium network’s drama series from the worst to best. “Worst” is a little harsh, because even the worst are still better than most, and the list very quickly moves into some great series that are still very worthy of a re-watch (or watching for the very first time)
For our purposes, a drama series is defined as an hourlong show that is scripted, though miniseries are left out (further, I’m considering The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency a comedy) As it so happens, HBO has some amazing miniseries: John Adams, Band of Brothers, Parade’s End, The Pacific, Generation Kill … go and watch those. They are almost all top tier (I didn’t love Olive Kitteridge). As for The Night Of, it’s staying in the miniseries category.
The rankings below are based not only on how solid the series were throughout their run, but also their legacy and influence on pop culture and television as a whole. With the premiere of David Simon‘s latest series The Deuce, we’re re-posting this list, with an update to come of where The Deuce lands at the end of its first season. Also of note, the 2003 political series K Street is not here because I never saw it, and it’s not available on streaming (not even on HBOGo!)
21. The Newsroom
Aired: 2012-2014 Created By: Aaron Sorkin
Cast: Jeff Daniels, Emily Mortimer, John Gallagher, Jr., Alison Pill, Thomas Sadoski, Dev Patel, Olivia Munn, Sam Waterston
If you could distill unbridled arrogance into a TV show, you’d end up with The Newsroom, a TV show that was essentially a soapbox for creator Aaron Sorkin. Sure, there were some aspects that weren’t so bad, but overall The Newsroom became a cultural punching bag for its sense of self-importance and lack of awareness — even though some of that was corrected over the course of its three-season run. Its dismissal of women and attempts at unearned grandiosity left most viewers cold, and ultimately, the show ended without much fanfare.
Created By: Mick Jagger, Martin Scorsese, Rich Cohen, Terence Winter
Cast: Bobby Cannavale, Ato Essandoh, James Jagger, Juno Temple, Olivia Wilde
Oh Vinyl. So much hype, so much pedigree, so much waste. The bloated, two-hour premiere did nothing to make viewers want to hang around to see the rest, and though HBO initially renewed it (perhaps thinking they had already invested too much to pull back), a new programming director cut it before it could do any more damage. Vinyl’s biggest problem was not that it was bad so much as it was boring. Plus, though the series tried to make its lead a conflicted antihero, he was ultimately just an self-indulgent jerk. How a story about a record executive during such a fantastic era of music could lack any emotional resonance or a cohesive narrative is difficult to know, although the series likely faltered from simply having too many cooks. But the costumes were pretty.
19. John from Cincinnati
Created By: David Milch, Kem Nunn
Cast: Bruce Greenwood, Rebecca De Mornay, Austin Nichols, Ed O’Neill, Luke Perry
One of the several David Milch projects on the list, John from Cincinnati confused critics and its handful of viewers when it aired on the heels of The Sopranos, and in no way was able to continue that show’s legacy. The “surf noir” plot and style of the series was truly bizarre, though it was filled with great performances (a constant on this list). But its examination of surf culture and its lofty philosophical ideas weren’t conveyed well, and were mostly half-baked. Adding insult to injury, its ending provided no resolution for those who stuck with it. Though it inspired a following at the time, it ultimately remains an enigma.
18. Tell Me You Love Me
Created By: Cynthia Mort
Cast: Jane Alexander, Michelle Borth, Tim DeKay, Luke Kirby, Adam Scott, David Selby, Katharine Towne, Sonya Walger, Ally Walker
Kind of like In Treatment, but with much more graphic sex, Tell Me You Love Me follows a group of couples grappling with different relationship issues that largely revolve around physical intimacy, fertility, and monogamy. The show strives for authenticity, with both the realness of its conversations and its sexual encounters (leading to a rumor at the time at the sex was not simulated). But sometimes you just want an escape from reality, and not to be so closely involved in other people’s arguments and continuous woes for entertainment. Still, if you want to get what you pay for with HBO …
17. True Blood
Aired: 2008- 2014
Created By: Alan Ball
Cast: Anna Paquin, Stephen Moyer, Sam Trammell, Ryan Kwanten, Rutina Wesley, Alexander Skarsgård, Nelsan Ellis, Carrie Preston
Remember when True Blood was the best show on TV? Lord love it, True Blood was the perfect summer show, full of eye candy and sultry southern nights, but it wasn’t amazing television. While it started off fairly grounded — for a vampire show — it went crazy off the rails fairly quickly. After showrunner Alan Ball left towards the end of its run, the series recovered slightly to end in a way that polarized fans and closed the chapter on a story that, truly, should have ended years before. The accents were all over the place, and the series soon lost its sense of Louisiana flavor that made it so distinct to begin with, and it was often a frustrating journey for fans. But True Blood was always entertaining, even when its cartoonish sensibilities went too far.
16. In Treatment
Aired: 2008 – 2010
Developed By: Rodrigo Garcia
Cast: Gabriel Byrne, Dianne Wiest, Michelle Forbes, Melissa George, Blair Underwood, Mia Wasikowska, Embeth Davidtz
An oft-forgotten HBO series, In Treatment took its plot cues from a popular Israeli series, as well as its schedule: the show ran five nights a week, with each night showing a different therapy session for a particular cast member. The series was engrossing, and a great acting showcase. It was occasionally a little boring, but its hook was that the backgrounds and lives of the characters were revealed only through their sessions. When hints were dropped at interesting things, you had to wait until their next session to experience more. It was infuriating but also engrossing, and the ambition of the show’s format has remained unparalleled. (Looking back now, it might make for a great binge-watch). It was heralded at the time, and nominated for a slew of primetime awards during its run, but it hasn’t left much of a mark on TV or on its own network.
15. The Leftovers
Aired: 2015 – current
Created By: Damon Lindelof, Tom Perrotta
Cast: Justin Theroux, Amy Brenneman, Christopher Eccleston, Liv Tyler, Carrie Coon
This is probably the most polarizing show on this list. I don’t care what anyone says about The Leftovers, no show should require a season and a half of wandering for a few episodes of payoff. There’s a difference between being the kind of show that doesn’t underestimate the intelligence of its viewers, and the kind that is so purposefully obtuse that it’s impossible to know, or even care, what is happening. The Leftovers stretched out a small book with a big idea into a confounded mess that had no sense of itself. Even if the last few episodes of Season 2 and the first episodes of its final season are considered by some to be the greatest things know to man (on television), it’s not worth the toil of getting there.
And yet … if it’s your thing, well, I guess it’s a beautiful thing (which is why I’m improving its ranking slightly since the end of Season 2, given how many critics I know and trust continue to faint over it). But if it’s not, man, it is an interminable slog.
One thing we can all agree on is Carrie Coon is a national treasure, and the show’s greatest legacy is introducing the world to more of her.
Created By: David Milch
Cast: Dustin Hoffman, Dennis Farina, Richard Kind, Kevin Dunn, Ian Hart, Ritchie Coster, Kerry Condon, Nick Nolte, Michael Gambon
If you can, for a moment, get past the horses dying on set (which …), Luck was actually a good show. A little uneven, especially when it came to its sprawling cast, but the unique series wonderfully examined the inner workings of the race track from the owners down to the “railbirds” who gamble on the winners. It was often gritty and grumbly (literally it was hard to ever know what Nick Nolte was saying), but even though it led with a movie star in Dustin Hoffman, the series was slow and reserved, and often meditative. There was a lot of heart and knowledge that went into building Luck’s world, with the same kind of poetry that Deadwood (also created by David Milch) possessed in its writing. It also was one of the first in a growing trend of movie stars coming to TV. But unfortunately, the accidents and safety concerns regarding the beautiful animals the series was meant to exalt caused production to be shut down.
Aired: 2005- 2007
Created By: John Milius, William J. MacDonald, Bruno Heller
Cast: Kevin McKidd, Ray Stevenson, Ciarán Hinds, Polly Walker
Rome was a vibrant entry into HBO’s drama slate, a kind of proto-Game of Thrones that examined the shifting politics and alliances of the empire through the eyes of both the powerful and lowly. It was historical but also deeply emotional, action-packed, and full of intrigue. The central relationship between two Roman centurions was a beautiful portrait of true friendship and loyalty, and design of the series as well as the cast (as is so often the case with HBO series) was absolutely exceptional, particularly Polly Walker.
The issue was that the series — a British and Italian co-production — was notoriously expensive, and when the series creator got word that the show would be cancelled after a truncated Season 2, he (by his own admission) crammed three seasons worth of story into the final episodes. The result was a confusing tailspin towards the fall of Rome, and the show has (unjustly) been largely forgotten.
Aired: 2010 – 2013
Created By: David Simon, Eric Overmeyer
Cast: Khandi Alexander, Kim Dickens, Michiel Huisman, Melissa Leo, David Morse, Clarke Peters, Wendell Pierce, Jon Seda, Steve Zahn
David Simon’s follow-up to The Wire has a legacy of being a little like homework for casual viewers. It’s true that some of its main characters were hard to like or care about, and extended musical numbers made the series feel more like a jazz documentary or exceptional sleep aid than a great drama. But Simon and Overmeyer approached the series with the same dogged desire they had in examining the fabric of the Baltimore streets, and truly dove into every aspect of post-Katrina New Orleans.
In that, it was fantastic. Treme showed a city in a transitory period, drawing itself out of its tragedy towards a new future. Some took advantage of that, some were swallowed up by it, but resilience defined the series. Its detail and specificity about the fabric of the city made it one of HBO’s most difficult to engage with, but also one of its most underrated.
11. Big Love
Aired: 2006- 2011
Created By: Mark V. Olsen, Will Scheffer
Cast: Bill Paxton, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Chloë Sevigny, Ginnifer Goodwin
I loved Big Love, and I still miss it. But the unique show, which started off so strongly by examining the emotional and practical aspects of the lives of a fundamentalist Mormon and his three wives, ultimately gave way to a dependence on plots points over the character drama that had made it so great. Still, the family connections at its core — aided by a fantastic cast who made you feel like you really knew these characters and were a part of things — was truly something special. Even though Big Love made some fairly major mistakes later in its run, it was also a portrait of heartland American family that (when you take out the polygamy) was beautifully told and utterly engrossing to watch. It captured its time and place so perfectly that it’s hard to think of another family-centric series that’s so distinctly and wonderfully tied to its setting.
Aired: 2016 – current
Created By: Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy
Cast: Evan Rachel Wood, Thandie Newton, Jeffrey Wright, Ed Harris, Anthony Hopkins, Ben Barnes, Jimmi Simpson
It’s really tough to add a show that only has one season under its belt to this formidable list, though Westworld‘s first season was a fantastically engaging puzzlebox. Like True Detective‘s first season, it ignited the imagination of viewers by making its characters — and by extension us — question the nature of reality, what defines humanity, and how events shape us. The shows’ multiple timelines created a fun, twisty narrative playground that was bolstered by the series’ keen sense of style (which married cold sci-fi aesthetics with the Wild West) and a fantastic cast of actors.
If you somehow didn’t watch Season 1, you absolutely should give it a shot — but stay away from spoilers.
9. True Detective
Aired: 2014 – ???
Created By: Nic Pizzolatto
Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Woody Harrelson, Michelle Monaghan // Colin Farrell, Rachel McAdams, Taylor Kitsch, Kelly Reilly, Vince Vaughn
Because True Detective is an anthology series, and the only one of its kind on the list, I seriously considered splitting up its two seasons into different areas of the list. But since it all comes under the same banner, and both seasons were written by the same person, Season 2 has dragged Season 1 down significantly in the rankings.
Look, True Detective Season 2 wasn’t a total disaster, but when you compare it to Season 1 — which was suffocatingly immersive, gorgeously crafted, perfectly cast, and satisfyingly concluded — well, there’s just no comparison. HBO’s former programming president has actually apologized for rushing Season 2 into production (though who can blame him?). Though Season 1 helped usher in an era of a single writer and/or director helming an entire season of a TV show — a lesson it did not seem to learn moving forward — the fact remains that Season 2 kinda crushed the series’ cultural cachet, making its legacy as whole uncertain, despite the vibrancy of its original outing.
8. Boardwalk Empire
Aired: 2010 – 2014
Created By: Terence Winter
Cast: Steve Buscemi, Michael Pitt, Kelly Macdonald, Michael Shannon, Shea Whigham
Like many dramas, and many on this very list, Boardwalk Empire’s look at organized crime in the Prohibition Era in Atlantic City started off with a bang and ended with a fizzle. The main issue was unexpectedly losing a key cast member at the end of Season 2, and in that, losing its heart. The gangsters came and went, but what stayed with viewers was the show’s gorgeous period details and larger-than-life sense of drama, which reflected the predilections of its lead, Nucky Thompson. There were more and more nods to real historical figures and events as the series went on, but that was never as enthralling as the fictional ones, especially Jimmy and Richard, the half-faced man. The show mismanaged the story of its leading lady, and didn’t have a particularly satisfying ending, but through its wonderful soundtrack and its visual splendor, it was always an atmospheric and dazzling spectacle.
Aired: 2003 – 2005
Created By: Daniel Knauf
Cast: Michael J. Anderson, Clancy Brown, Tim DeKay, Clea DuVall, Toby Huss, Nick Stahl
Possibly HBO’s most underrated drama of all, this haunting Dust Bowl-era series followed a carnival troupe who pick up a young man with healing powers, which starts off an increasingly weird and unforgettable story. Carnivàle was built on a fascinating foundation of rich, supernatural mythology, and if it aired now it would probably be a hit. Though its dueling storylines sometimes stalled its pacing, its exploration of themes of free will, good and evil, destiny, and religious overtones were engagingly explored.
Because it was cancelled after two seasons, it frustratingly ended before its many mystical threads came together. But the exceptional cast and wonderfully realized characters made the journey well worth it, and its ambitions and gorgeously crafted period details made it an eerie and fascinating ride.
Aired: 1997 – 2003
Created By: Tom Fontana
Cast: Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Ernie Hudson, Christopher Meloni, Harold Perrineau, J. K. Simmons, Lee Tergesen
HBO’s prison series was one of its first major drama series, and what an incredibly bold series that was. The violent and graphic show shocked viewers and critics at the time, with HBO taking full advantage of its premium status to show extreme depictions of drug use, nudity, rape, and violence. The unapologetic Oz (featuring, once again, an amazing cast) also confronted racial and ethnic tensions head-on, and paved the way for other brutal series, like Sons of Anarchy and even Game of Thrones, that push current boundaries. Oz grew increasingly complicated and emotionally dense as it continued through its eight seasons, and though it is not as dominate in the cultural conversation as it once was, it still remains a touchstone for engrossing, difficult television.
Aired: 2004 – 2006
Created By: David Milch
Cast: Timothy Olyphant, Ian McShane, Molly Parker, Jim Beaver, W. Earl Brown, John Hawkes, Paula Malcomson
The news of a Deadwood movie is music to our ears because the show definitely left us too soon. Like many of HBO’s best dramas, the series had a wonderfully rendered period setting, though far dirtier and more hard-scrabble than most of the others (as was befitting its Wild West setting). The greatest thing about Deadwood was its writing, taking on the distinction of being “Shakespeare in the mud,” especially when it came to the character Al Swearengen. The good guys weren’t all good and the bad guys weren’t all bad, but this wasn’t a typical Western — it was an engrossing character drama that managed to weave in historical figures in meaningful ways, yet traversed its own, unique path in the way it told its story of a town creating its identity in the American West.
4. Six Feet Under
Aired: 2001- 2005
Created By: Alan Ball
Cast: Peter Krause, Michael C. Hall, Frances Conroy, Lauren Ambrose, Freddy Rodriguez, Mathew St. Patrick, Rachel Griffiths
Six Feet Under is not only beloved but is known especially for having the most satisfying finale of all time. The family drama series about a prodigal son, who returns to help run his family’s funeral home in Los Angeles after his father dies, is a beautiful meditation on the heaviest possible topics of life and death. Each episode opened with a death that set the tone for the rest of the hour, yet that and the overarching story of one man’s acceptance of the notion of death was never morose or ghoulish — it was filled with humor and heart. The series had some mistakes that took it a little off course in its later seasons, but the sprawling stories of the Fisher family never lost sight of the series’ core (that being the intricacies of the relationships among the family members and their significant others). Those connections, and watching characters grow and change and discover themselves over the years, are what made it so emotionally raw and wonderfully rendered.
3. Game of Thrones
Aired: 2011 – current
Created By: David Benioff, D. B. Weiss
Cast: Kit Harington, Emilia Clarke, Peter Dinklage, Lena Headey, Maisie Williams … and the rest of the world
When considering cultural impact, one can make a case for Game of Thrones to be #1 on the list. It’s been a juggernaut not just for HBO in terms of viewers, but it has informed and truly dominated pop culture for the last few years. Even if not everyone remembers the names of the hundreds of characters on the show and how they all connect, aspects of the series have entered common parlance in meaningful ways, because everyone assumes everyone else is watching (and they probably are).
But the show has had its ups and downs, and spent several seasons finding a little too much glee in its depictions of sadism and sexual violence. The writing has often been a problem through its pacing, character changes, and even plausibility within the rules of its own fantasy world. Still, the quality of the actors, the costuming and settings, and the way the show hooks you and draws you in by immersing you in its story (even when that story falters), is unmatched. It’s appointment TV in an era of DVR and streaming, and for the spell it casts on us all, it earns its spot in the top three.
2. The Sopranos
Aired: 1999 – 2007
Created By: David Chase
Cast: James Gandolfini, Lorraine Bracco, Edie Falco, Michael Imperioli, Dominic Chianese
The Sopranos was to the 2000s what Game of Thrones has been to the 2010s, in that it was a massive success that everyone was talking about. The series’ focus on the internal conflict between Tony Soprano’s personal and work life became a staple for HBO dramas that followed. With the strength of the cast, the calibre of the writing, and the vision of creator David Chase, the series was almost sure to be a home run. And it was.
Though its series finale left many fans with a bad taste in their mouths, there’s no denying The Sopranos’ impact on both the culture of the day and TV at large. Tony Soprano carved a path for series like Mad Men and Breaking Bad, and for their complicated anti-heroes Don Draper and Walter White. The Sopranos also kicked off a wave of mob-inspired programming that remains popular to this day. While many have tried to emulate the series, very few have found the same amount of success and prestige. The series also helped define HBO as a place for critically acclaimed drama, and allowed the premium network to continue to grow and produce even more fantastic programming. But The Sopranos is still considered, among all TV, the crème de la crème.
1. The Wire
Aired: 2002 – 2008
Created By: David Simon
Cast: Dominic West, John Doman, Idris Elba, Frankie Faison, Wood Harris, Deirdre Lovejoy, Wendell Pierce, Lance Reddick, Andre Royo, Sonja Sohn, Michael K. Williams
This was a close call, but ultimately, while The Wire wasn’t particularly appreciated during most of its run by just about anyone, it’s become a cultural juggernaut that, curiously, seems to show no signs of slowing down. David Simon’s series explores the nuances of Baltimore institutions — from the streets to the ports and the schools and the local politics and the newspapers — with an incredible amount of nuance, depth, humor, and sincere emotion. Simon created characters so unforgettable that when one returns to the series, it feels like seeing old friends. The Wire is often depressing, though, because the institutions that control our lives are fundamentally broken, especially for the poorest among us. But the series is also a love letter to the resilience of some of the people who toil in these institutions, attempting to make things better, and those who toil because of them, struggling each day to get by.
The Wire’s legacy is not just its importance as a social document about the American inner-city, but in its minority casting. It’s a rare series featuring mostly black actors that mostly white people watch. You can choose to view that with cynicism or with hope, but I choose the latter. The Wire never backed down from the complications of race relations or the fraught interactions between people on the street and the police, but it treated it all with a necessary honesty. No series in HBO’s arsenal of dramas has ever been more relevant, more sincere, or more real.