The moment the HBO logo flickers on screen – emerging within a field of TV static before the audio segues into a note of church-like reverence – you know you’re about to see something special. Netflix may have quantity, but HBO Max shows have quality and there’s been little to compete with the dramatic finesse of The Sopranos or the complexity of The Wire.
So if you’re the kind of person who really cares about watching great TV, HBO’s hit rate is astonishing. And after nearly fifty years, the network is still producing highly-acclaimed shows like Game of Thrones, Euphoria and Succession.
Now, the HBO Max streaming service brings these bold, innovative, adult-oriented programmes together alongside shows and movies with much broader audience appeal. The bullet and expletive-riddled Deadwood shares billing with sitcoms The Big Bang Theory and Friends, helping the platform to attract a larger number of subscribers. This doesn’t want to be a niche service for TV diehards; it wants to be for everyone. But that fundamental HBO quality remains central to the package.
Below, we’ve rounded up our selection of the best HBO shows, all of which are streaming on HBO Max right now in the US. At $14.99 per month, the HBO Max price is on the high side, but in addition to ground-breaking TV series and exclusive Max Originals, you’ll enjoy new Warner Brothers movies day-and-date with their theatrical release throughout 2021 – in 4K Ultra HD and at no extra charge. Given time, the HBO Max shows on offer could make this America’s very best best streaming service.
Best HBO Max shows: new shows
The Flight Attendant
NEW Anchored by a hugely engaging turn from Kaley Cuoco, this mystery-thriller – based on the 2018 novel by Chris Bohjalian – charts the misadventures of American flight attendant Cassie Bowden. She’s a booze-hound and party-girl, who, after a layover in Bangkok, wakes up with the hangover from hell and the body of her one-night stand ice-cold beside her. With no recollection of what happened, she becomes embroiled in an international conspiracy and desperate to prove her innocence.
It’s a first-class production: slick, breezy, and effortlessly entertaining. Cuoco is a delight as Cassie, the girl-next-door with alcohol dependency issues who’s constantly being bailed out by Annie, her long-suffering lawyer friend (Zosia Mamet). Rosie Perez also stars as her eager-to-please colleague Megan, finding covert thrills trading company secrets, while T.J. Mackie is her anxious though affectionate older brother.
The show was nominated for two Golden Globes – for Best Actress and for Best Television Series – Musical or Comedy. It doesn’t tax the grey matter much, but like the best cocktails, it’s expertly made and easy to swallow.
It’s a Sin
NEW This five-part series from the mind of famed Welsh writer Russell T. Davis (Queer as Folk, Doctor Who) draws on his own experiences of life as a gay man in 1980s London. Davis vividly evokes the community, friendship, and freedom that five 18-year-old men experience after they leave home for the capital, and the dark pall that falls over the city as the AIDS crisis intensifies.
There’s a uniformly excellent cast. Singer Olly Alexander plays aspiring actor Ritchie, Omari Douglas is the unapologetically flamboyant Roscoe, and Callum Scott Howells is wide-eyed Welsh boy Colin. Keeley Hawes, Neil Patrick Harris, and Stephen Fry are equally brilliant in supporting roles, and there’s a killer 80s soundtrack including Blondie and the Pet Shop Boys.
It’s also impeccably written by Davis, who wrings raw emotion from his endearing, frustrating, but always empathetic characters, each of whom confront AIDS and public ignorance throughout the decade. Whatever happens, they’re spurred on to live and love more fearlessly than ever.
Best HBO Max shows: dramas
This factual drama about 1986’s Chernobyl disaster won tons of plaudits upon its 2019 release for both its attention to detail (though numerous inaccuracies have been alleged), and the easy-to-draw modern parallels of how the truth is misrepresented to suit the whims of governments. Jarred Harris stars as Valery Legaslov, charged with trying to solve the crisis in collaboration with Stellan Skarsgård’s Boris Shcherbina of the Soviet government. Even if it’s not exactly a documentary, this miniseries successfully captures the horror the citizens of Pripyat must’ve felt at the time, and the resourceful way the crisis was eventually resolved.
Sweary Western drama Deadwood, like The Sopranos and The Wire, is one of the big ’00s HBO hits that defined the kind of adult TV output it’s now synonymous with. Set in the late 1800s, it’s about the titular settlement at a key moment in history, and explores the impact of civilization on a massive cast of characters. A textured, complicated drama, Deadwood demands you turn your phone off and pay attention, but it’s an incredibly rewarding watch, bookended by last year’s long-awaited movie finale.
Based on Grant Morrison’s comics, Doom Patrol is DC’s weirder version of the X-Men, a drama about a group of superpowered outcasts. This quirky and adult series, which HBO Max picked up following a first-season run on the DC Universe streaming service, features the likes of Timothy Dalton and Brendan Fraser in its cast, and is worth trying if you think the DC Universe is just about Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman.
Game of Thrones
Despite a widely hated ending, Game of Thrones is a compelling fantasy drama that blew everyone away when it debuted in 2011. The show had such a huge impact because it took George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series of books so seriously, and spent a lot of money bringing that world to life, and drawing in credible actors like Sean Bean and Lena Headey to make it have a historical drama-like feel. If you’ve never been on that journey through Westeros, you owe it to yourself to watch it.
I May Destroy You
Forged amid the #MeToo furore in 2017 and a product of writer-producer-director-star Michaela Coel’s own experience of sexual assault, I May Destroy You is an BBC/HBO co-production that, over 12-episodes, skilfully unpacks the concept of sexual consent in the age of Tinder.
Coel is Arabella, a Twitter-famous writer and black Londoner recently returned from an unproductive trip to Italy. She initially bails on her friends – aspiring actress Terry and personal trainer Kwame – to attempt a stimulant-fuelled all-nighter. But her resolve weakens, and she steps away to briefly share a few drinks in a local bar. When she next regains consciousness, she lacks any recollection of the night’s events. Only the intrusive image of a man standing over her in a toilet cubicle provides any clue as to what happened.
It’s a poignant, thought-provoking, and often very funny series, whose unconventional narrative structure and kinetic style mirror Arabella’s subjective experience of trauma. It flew straight to the top of critics’ Top TV Shows of 2020 lists: proof if any were needed that Coel is no one-hit wonder.
Fans of Lost should watch co-creator Damon Lindelof’s first HBO series, which is an adaptation of the book of the same name by Tom Perotta. It’s almost an answer to the mythology overload of Lindelof’s prior series – it has a central mystery, in that 2% of the world’s population vanish at once leaving those left in the world with permanent emotional scars, but it’s not what drives the show.
Instead, this is a knotty character drama about grief, faith and the struggles of personal fulfilment. Starring Justin Theroux, Carrie Coon and Christopher Eccleston as characters dealing with loss in different ways, it’s arguably the most underrated HBO drama there is.
The second season, which moves the show to a different town and essentially has an entirely new story, has its own Picnic At Hanging Rock-style mystery about some missing girls. This is the best part of the show – though the final third season manages to shed further light on these brilliantly constructed, three-dimensional characters.
The Plot Against America
The Plot Against America is an alternate history drama that shows what happens to a Jewish family in New Jersey, after the USA chooses to elect Nazi sympathizer Charles Lindbergh over Franklin Roosevelt on the brink of World War II. Another series by The Wire’s David Simon and collaborator Ed Burns, it shows how latent antisemitic attitudes are enabled by this new isolationist leader, and the terrifying ways in which parts of Nazi dogma begin to infiltrate American life. While it’s hard viewing at times, it’s certainly resonant today for a number of reasons, and features a dazzling ensemble cast, including Zoe Kazan and Winona Ryder.
Search Party is best described as a Millennial mystery drama. Dory Sief (Alia Shawkat) goes looking for the missing woman Chantal, but rather than being a riff on Twin Peaks, Dory’s fascination with the case is more to do with her filling a gap in her own life. This underrated show, which HBO Max saved from obscurity, soon morphs into something darker. Episodes are short, and it’s well worth a look.
Six Feet Under
Over five seasons, this acclaimed drama series charted the highs and lows of the Fisher family – owners of a Los Angeles based funeral home. When patriarch Nathanial Snr. dies, eldest son Nate (Peter Krause) reluctantly returns home to take over the business. Along with his high-strung mother Ruth (Frances Conroy), repressed brother David (Michael C. Hall), and fiery teenage sister Claire (Lauren Ambrose), they’re all forced to confront, not only the daily business of death, but the messy reality of living.
Created by Academy Award-winning writer Alan Ball, Six Feet Under tackled taboo topics with honesty, heart, and lashings of dark humour. Yes, season 4 was unremittingly bleak (the particularly traumatic abduction lives long in the memory). But Six Feet Under’s revered final episode, both painfully beautiful and profoundly sad, succinctly demonstrated the show’s dramatic and emotional power.
Amy Adams stars as Camille, a journalist who returns to her hometown after two young girls are murdered, in this adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s novel. Sharp Objects explores Camille’s toxic relationship with her withering mother (played by Patricia Clarkson) and half-sister Amma (Eliza Scanlen). It’s not really a mystery show, and is instead focused more on these brittle character dynamics, and the sense of decay in this fictional Missouri town. The resolution to this miniseries is one of the most shocking reveals ever shown on television, though – do not miss it.
Show Me a Hero
Oscar Isaac stars as young mayor Nick Wasicsko, in a factual drama series that focuses on the creation of court-mandated social housing in Yonkers, New York, and the opposition to this plan by mostly white citizens. It’s another nuanced portrayal of the structures of American society by writer and producer David Simon. Crash’s Paul Haggis directed this 2015 miniseries.
No list of the best HBO shows is complete without The Sopranos, the David Chase-created drama series that put the network on the map in the late ’90s. The show is about Tony Soprano’s (James Gandolfini) dual life as an Italian-American gangster and patriarch of a family, and the various ways in which he struggles with that psychologically – including his close relationship with his therapist.
In many ways, this is the prestige TV template that many dramas still go by: tortured antihero male characters, slow-burning serialized plotting and shocking character deaths.
You’re supposed to hate billionaires, right? So why is that HBO’s Succession is full of characters that you can’t help but become incredibly invested in? As business magnate Logan Roy (Brian Cox) is hit by a health scare, he needs to decide which of his children will inherit his business. Will it be heir apparent Kendall (Jeremy Strong)? The Loki-like, misanthropic Roman (Kieran Culkin)? Or maybe it’ll be liberal outsider Siobhan – also known as Shiv (Sarah Snook).
The power struggle between the siblings, still ongoing after two seasons, is genuinely fascinating. Created by Jesse Armstrong, this show feels like it fits in the lineage of The Thick of It and Veep, both of which Armstrong worked on – the swear-y, smart dialogue and often bitter character moments give Succession a rare magic. Bring on season 3.
Before Game of Thrones, HBO’s first big-budget move into genre TV (other than the animated Spawn series) came with this adaptation of Charlaine Harris’ The Southern Vampire Mysteries. Sookie Stackhouse (Anna Paquin) is a telepathic waitress who falls in love with Bill Compton (Stephen Moyer), and investigates a series of vampire-related crimes in Louisiana. The ensemble cast, beautiful swampy setting and its borderline-campy tone make True Blood a very entertaining watch – plus it has one of the best theme tunes of all time.
Over the course of the show, more and more characters join the busy ensemble, and it’s fair to say the quality declines in later years – seven was probably too many seasons. But it’s still well worth checking out if you’ve never seen it before.
The consensus on grim detective anthology show True Detective is that its first season, starring Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, is the best, its second with Colin Farell and Vince Vaughn is the worst, and the third featuring Mahershala Ali is somewhere in the middle. While the first season is fantastic and the second is a little too muddled, despite having its moments, we’d argue the third is the greatest – with Ali and Stephen Dorff successfully embodying their characters over a case spanning decades.
A sequel to Alan Moore’s comic set in the present day, Watchmen is probably the best DC Comics TV show ever made. In this series, Rorschach’s mask has been appropriated as a symbol by the Seventh Kavalry, a group of white supremacists, while police wear masks to hide their identities. Angela Abar (Regina King) fights crime under the alias Sister Knight, and is forced to investigate the truth about her boss, police chief Judd Crawford (Don Johnson), after he’s found hanging from a tree.
As much a history drama as it is a continuation of the comic’s story, this show delves deep into racism in America, beginning with a vivid and scary look at 1921’s Tulsa race massacre. The show then explores the theme of inherited trauma, tying together parts of Watchmen lore with an original story that’s very relevant to our times.
Meanwhile, Adrian Veidt, aka Ozymandias from the comics (played by a very game Jeremy Irons), lives in some kind of Downton Abbey-style moon prison.
Somehow, Watchmen makes these disparate threads coalesce – offering an affecting and breathtaking follow-up to a seminal comic that’s surely beyond any fan’s wildest dreams.
David Simon’s examination of how drugs shape Baltimore, from the dealers up to the politicians, is widely considered one of the greatest TV shows ever made. It’s a rich, textured drama that carefully draws parallels between different strata of the city, and makes as many sympathetic characters out of the dealers as it does the cops.
Likewise, it shows the fallibility of the police, government and even the press – The Wire shows us the mistakes, the price of pursuing numbers at all costs and the various ways people are trapped within the choices they’ve been forced to make. This is the show that made Idris Elba and Dominic West household names. It’s a riveting watch that requires a touch of patience – give it the first season of 10 episodes before making up your mind.
Simon’s frequent collaborations with HBO are all worth checking out on the Max streaming service: porn industry drama The Deuce and New Orleans jazz drama Treme among them. Two of his miniseries, The Plot Against America and Show Me a Hero, are further down this list.
Best HBO Max shows: comedies
Barry is a dark comedy about an assassin who wants to be an actor. The unusual tone of the show shouldn’t work – it’s hilarious, violent and sometimes incredibly intense on an emotional level. But Bill Hader is just magic in this show, as is his surrounding cast, like wannabe actress Sally (Sarah Goldberg) and Barry’s handler, Fuches (Stephen Root).
But the real secret sauce of the show is Henry Winkler’s Gene Cousineau, Barry’s acting coach who’s a borderline scam artist. Cousineau feels so much like someone you could imagine meeting – he’s a brilliant creation.
One of HBO’s minor shows in terms of finding an audience but a definite cult hit, Lisa Kudrow stars as Valerie Cherish, a former sitcom actor who tries to mount a comeback a decade later. The whole thing is documented as part of a reality show, and explores the challenges of working in Hollywood as a middle-aged woman in brutal, but hilarious fashion. A second season was then commissioned some years later off the back of its later popularity – it’s worth checking out.
Curb Your Enthusiasm
Larry David’s semi-improvised and star-studded sitcom has been on the air for 20 years now. A show about a the co-creator of Seinfeld getting into awkward social situations in affluent areas of LA shouldn’t be this good. But the real Larry David and his team of directors are fantastic at picking up on universally awkward social moments – and somehow it’s remained at the same high quality bar for 10 entire seasons.
Eastbound and Down
Burnout baseball player Kenny Powers (Danny McBride) returns to his hometown after a career downturn, with the intention of winning the heart of his now-married childhood sweetheart, April (Katy Mixon) and returning to the big leagues. Powers is a reprehensible but oddly lovable character, with a ludicrous mullet and no self-awareness of how embarrassing he is. He’s an amazing comedic creation, though over time the tone of the show changes as Powers moves down to Mexico, and the ensemble cast around him is switched up.
You’ll also want to check out Vice Principals and The Righteous Gemstones on HBO Max, both featuring McBride and produced by the same creative team.
The Fresh Prince of Bel Air
Best known for kickstarting Will Smith’s career, as well as its catchy theme tune, The Fresh Prince doesn’t really get enough credit for being one of the best sitcoms of the ’90s. Will (played by Will Smith) gets into a fight in his home city of Philadelphia, and leaves to move in with his upper class California-dwelling relatives, the Banks family.
The Fresh Prince is synonymous with Very Special Episodes, particularly the one where Will’s dad returns, but it’s also a laugh-a-minute series with genuinely affable characters and hilarious episodes right up until the end of its six-season run. Remember the Vegas dance contest episode? This is still a treat to rewatch.
Probably the biggest coup by HBO Max, Friends was still one of Netflix’s most popular series before it made the jump to the newer streaming service. Friends’ gender politics and gay panic jokes make it feel like a product of its time, but if you can stomach that, it’s remarkably consistent and very funny even when you’re deep into its 10-season run. This sitcom about 20-somethings (and then 30-somethings) making it in New York felt so fresh when it first arrived, and there’s a reason it’s endured as long as it has. It’s the kind of show you’ll always enjoy having on in the background. “We were on a break!”, and so on.
The Larry Sanders Show
Instead of becoming the host of a late night talk show, Garry Shandling made an incisive, revolutionary sitcom about a fictional late night talk show instead. The Larry Sanders Show felt about a decade ahead of its time in its examination of the machinations of fame, and its documentary-like style is a clear influence on the likes of The Office. Larry Sanders also features a fantastic ensemble cast, including Jeffrey Tambor, Rip Torn, Penny Johnson and Janeane Garofalo.
Its vast range of guest stars playing fictional versions of themselves makes this show something of a ’90s time capsule, too. The Larry Sanders Show is still as funny now as it was back then.
Comedy nerds are no doubt very familiar with ’90s sketch series Mr Show already. Co-created by comedians Bob Odenkirk and David Cross, this innovative show connects every sketch together in each episode with a long, bizarre narrative, and the results are mostly great.
Rick and Morty
Adult Swim has its own hub on HBO Max, and while it’s not widely populated as it could be, it’s definitely a good start. Rick and Morty is the centerpiece of that offering, with the first three seasons of the series available. Rick Sanchez is a misanthropic scientist who drags his grandson, Morty, into numerous traumatizing sci-fi adventures. Really, Rick and Morty’s closest relative is Futurama – it’s an acquired taste, but a very popular one. HBO Max has non-exclusive rights to Rick and Morty, so you can also watch it on Hulu in the US.
Despite satirizing the tech industry’s showy nonsense and often ludicrous CEOs, Silicon Valley doesn’t have many hard edges as HBO sitcoms go. Richard Hendricks (Thomas Middleditch) starts his own company with his (sort of) friends, after creating an algorithm that can compress files with no loss in quality. While protecting his own terribly-named company, Pied Piper, from larger entities, Hendricks tries to make his fortune to mixed results. This is easy-to-watch and extremely entertaining, and it comes from King of the Hill creator Mike Judge.
HBO Max has the rights to the entire series of South Park, including the latest one, season 24. The adult animated sitcom from creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker has changed a lot over the years from shock comedy to insightful satire, and we’d only really recommend watching from season 4 onwards – but when South Park is on-form, it’s capable of being the funniest show on TV. The season 24 premiere South Park Pandemic Special being a prime example.
While the series primarily focuses on four kids, Kenny, Kyle, Cartman and Stan in the fictional Colorado town of South Park, over time the focus shifts to different people and stories in the town in a fashion not dissimilar to The Simpsons.
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