HBO at 50: Fifty Shows Everyone Should Watch In Their Lifetime

Spoilers

HBO is officially 50 years old, and we’re celebrating the incredible entertainment the still-thriving network provided along the way.

It’s hard to imagine that TV once featured a landscape without HBO, considering its impact on the television landscape. HBO boasts some of the best talents in television; this can be seen in the number of awards they have been nominated for and won throughout the years.

They have delivered many iconic TV shows with significant cultural impact. Their one-time slogan of “It’s not TV, it’s HBO” said it all, and their success can be attributed to delivering a solid roster of well-written, acted and produced shows.

We have compiled a list in reverse alphabetical order of 50 of the network’s best shows that everyone should watch in their lifetime. It can be a starting point when deciding the next thing to watch or gathering knowledge in the case of an HBO trivia event coming your way.

The Young Pope and The New Pope

The Young Pope Poster

One would think that the Vatican is the most boring place on earth. I mean, nuns and priests?

These two shows prove them wrong. In the Young Pope, the Vatican gets a new young American pope. With his age and where he grew up, he has modern and fresh ideas on how to drag the papacy into the 21st century.

The shows give a fresh perspective on one of the world’s oldest institutions and humanize it by showing it as another human establishment with its own set of challenges.

On The New Pope, a sequel to The Young Pope, there’s a new pope in town, as the title suggests.

The New Pope Poster

This pope doesn’t really want to be here, so he does things without care after the Young Pope goes into a coma.

The show’s beauty is found in the final episodes when the Young Pope wakes up and gives a speech that resonates with everyone in St Peter’s square.

The shows are largely successful, with creator Paolo Sorrentino and talents such as Jude Law and John Malkovich behind them.

The Wire

The Wire Poster

Some people hail this as the best HBO and best show ever. It might be true.

Set in Baltimore, the show follows everyone associated with the drug culture of the early 2000s. From the dealers and the cops who arrest them to their families and lovers who die because of them, it leaves no stone unturned.

It captures the 2000s, from fashion and music to the politics and social-economic state of the world then. It is a tale that will take the viewer on an unforgettable journey.

The White Lotus

The White Lotus Poster

This was a surprise hit for HBO. They had initially planned it as a limited series, but after it was a hit with audiences and critics alike, they decided to make it an anthology series.

The show follows rich people on vacation in the prestigious White Lotus resorts worldwide.

It has great writing and acting, but the sticking point is its characters.

The characters search for an escape on vacation, but their baggage follows them and the people they are with. Everything starts easy, but things come to a head when it all becomes too much. Each season ends with a murder.

Westworld

Westworld Poster

This ambitious show is set in the near future and dives into the rise of artificial intelligence and consciousness.

Seasons vary in setting, but it is mainly focused on a theme park where humans indulge their darkest fantasies with intelligent machines.

The best thing about it is the care that goes into every detail.

It has some insane plot twists that have the viewer questioning what they are watching and even their reality.

We Are Who We Are

We Are Who We Are

This limited series comes from the director of the critically acclaimed film Call Me by Your Name.

Luca Guadanigno’s style usually focuses on identity and coming of age. The show is not any different.

It follows Fraser and his military upbringing coming into the teenage hood and figuring out his sexuality. It has some outrageous scenes, but overall it is a nice commentary on growing up while being an outsider.

Watchmen

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Everyone loves a good superhero show. Many of them toy with the idea of fighting evil, but they do so broadly. Watchmen is based on a graphic novel by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons.

It follows Angela Bar, played by Regina King. Angela is a black superhero who dresses up as Sister Night and fights racists while still grappling with the legacy of former vigilantes in her niche.

It is a limited series that will leave you begging for more.

The Vow

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It might not be believable, but even in the 2020s, cults are still a thing.

The Vow follows a documentary-style narrative as it chronicles the experiences of people in the inner circle of the group NXIVM, which featured Smallville’s Allison Mack walking in tandem with its leader, Keith Raniere.

This group outdid itself when it was charged with a myriad of charges, including sex trafficking and racketeering conspiracy, brought on its top-ranking members, including Keith Raniere, its founder.

Veep

Veep

Politics are a dirty game, and when you are one of the first female Americans to get to sit in one of the highest offices in the land, it’s even messier.

Premiering in 2012, Veep follows Selina Meyers, a Vice President of the United States. Julia Louis-Dreyfus plays Selina

Veep received critical acclaim and was nominated for multiple awards, with its cast also being nominated for several during its seven-year run. Selina and her team get sidetracked by the day-to-day politics as they try to make a mark and leave a legacy.

True Detective

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True Detective is an anthology series that features a new storyline every season, all following detectives as they investigate crimes spanning decades.

The series is known for bringing movie starts to TV with incredible pairings, most notably Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson for True Detective Season 1.

The series received critical acclaim, was nominated for multiple awards, and earned high ratings for HBO.

It premiered in 2014 and has been renewed for a fourth season as of 2023.

True Blood

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Alan Ball’s vampire drama is one not to miss.

It is adapted from a series of novels about Sookie Stackhouse, a human girl who falls in love with a vampire.

The show does a great job of imagining a world where vampires are real and walk into society. It tackles all the drama and politics that might arise from such a society.

The best thing about it is that it presents vampires in the classic sense, where they are bloodthirsty, cold-blooded killers who make no apologies — mostly — for what they are.

Succession

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This hit show follows a mega-rich media conglomerate family and all their issues.

It breeds great drama due to its unfiltered nature and has spawned many arguments about whether it’s truly a drama, a dark comedy, or something fresh merging the two. We go with the latter.

The writing and acting are stellar, but it’s the characters, their souls laid bare for everyone to see, that have led to Succession’s critical success, often dominating during awards season.

The Sopranos

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Some people hail this as the most popular HBO show. This, too, might be true.

It follows mob boss Tony Soprano who, apart from the stress of being a boss, also suffers from mental and family problems.

It is a saga that spans many seasons and storylines. Despite continuing the previous, each season feels like a fresh one.

The best thing about it is how it makes subtle or not-so-subtle commentary on 2000s America and American culture in general.

Six Feet Under

Six Feet Under

Alan Ball kept the lights on at HBO in the early 2000s. Six feet under is a creation of his that premiered in 2001 and ran for five seasons.

It follows the Fisher family, who run a funeral home in Los Angeles. It also looks at the lives of the Fisher family’s friends, lovers, and clients.

It has been lauded by critics and audiences for its story, writing, and acting. It was nominated for multiple awards and is regarded as one of the greatest television series of all time, with arguably one of the best finales ever produced.

Sex and the City

Poster for Sex and the City

Before HBO was the giant it is today, it was relatively unknown. This changed in 1998 when Sex and the City premiered, following the lives of four women in New York City as they navigated myriad issues, some uncommon for the time. It helped popularize HBO as a network.

It ran for six seasons and received widespread acclaim and criticism alike. It was nominated for many awards throughout its run and cemented itself as a culture-defining moment being referenced later in shows set in the time, like 2019’s Pose.

It spun a sequel called And Just Like That… that premiered in 2021 and follows three of its four central characters.

Real Time with Bill Maher

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America’s late-night and commentary shows are divided along political sides, with objectivity almost impossible to attain. Not on Real Time with Bill Maher.

With 22 seasons in as of 2024, Real Time sets itself apart by having informed people on all sides of the political spectrum debate current issues in front of a live studio audience.

It is hosted by comedian Bill Maher and is genuinely one of the funniest political shows. Guests don’t have to censor themselves, this being HBO, so it sometimes gets heated.

Real Sex

Real Sex

The name gives it away. Before street interviews became a thing during the social media age, Real Sex did it first.

It is a documentary-style show that features honest and uncensored depictions of sex over multiple segments per episode.

For those of us who happened to wander past the channel without knowing what was on tap, it proved to be a stunning education in short order but quite moving, as well.

The show began in 1990 and concluded in 2009, having aired thirty-three episodes.

The Plot Against America

The Plot Against America

Sometimes, we all wonder what could have been. And David Simmons, most known for The Wire, also did.

The Plot Against America is an alternate history mini-series that premiered on HBO in 2020 and followed a Jewish working family as they watched the rise of a xenophobic populist to becoming president.

It is based on Philip Roth’s novel and stars Winona Ryder, among others.

Perry Mason

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This is a remake of a hit 80’s show about a lawyer who uses unorthodox methods to find evidence for cases he’s working on.

Many of the cases he takes are not as straightforward as they appear, and his ultimate goal is to uncover the truth no matter who it might end up hurting.

It starts slow but culminates in big reveals towards the season’s end.

OZ

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Prison is some people’s worst nightmare, and with good reason. It is a place of torture and suffering instead of correction and penance. OZ tried to portray the latter but ended up with the former.

OZ is set in an experimental prison unit that aims to correct how prison serves its occupants.

The series launched many careers with its no-holds-barred exploration of a life behind bars and of the people tasked with keeping the prison functioning and on track.

It premiered in 1997 and concluded in 2003 after six seasons.

The Night Of

The Night Of

An accusation can alter the course of someone’s life and usually for the worst. Such was the case for Nasir when he was accused of murdering a woman.

The Night Of premiered in 2016 and concluded after eight episodes. It received eight nominations for the Emmys and was critically acclaimed.

Although its run was short, it was talked about for a long time afterward and remains one of HBO’s best explorations of the human psyche.

The Newsroom

The Newsroom

A lot of work goes into any news production before and after viewers have a chance to view it.

The Newsroom looks into the behind-the-scenes workings of the fictional ACN — a news channel. It mixes real-world events in the background amidst the news crew’s personal drama.

It was written by Aaron Sorkin and ran for three seasons and twenty-five episodes, and led to numerous awards nominations and wins, especially for its lead, Jeff Daniels.

Mildred Pierce

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Mildred Pierce ran for a single five-episode season. It was adapted from James M. Cain’s novel of a similar name.

It premiered in 2011.

It stars Kate Winslet as the titular Mildred, an overprotective mother during The Great Depression. She finds herself separated from her husband, opening a restaurant on her own, and falling in love with another man while trying to earn her narcissistic daughter’s love and respect.

McMillions

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Every day, fraudsters find new and ingenious ways to scam money out of unsuspecting people. Such was the case in McDonald’s Monopoly game between 1989 and 2001.

McMillions is documentary miniseries that chronicles the promotion scam associated with the fast-food giant. In the scam, the company’s head of security orchestrated a fake game and recruited other people, making $24 million.

The docuseries is told with incredible wit, making it incredibly entertaining.

It premiered in 2020 and aired all six episodes.

Lovecraft Country

Lovecraft Country

Lovecraft Country premiered in 2020 and was canceled by HBO, sparking an outcry from viewers.

It follows Atticus, Letitia, and George as they travel across America to find his missing father in the 1950s.

They encounter the horrors of the racist white middle America and monsters that could be pulled from a Lovecraft paperback.

The show featured a strong narrative with great performances and visual effects.

Looking

Looking Poster

Very few shows focus exclusively on the lives of Queer men and women. Looking is a show that does.

It is an unfiltered look into the gay men living in San Francisco in the 2010s.

The show portrays its characters as regular people while not sacrificing the authenticity of queer experiences.

The Leftovers

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In a global phenomenon, 2% of the population disappeared. That was the premise of The Leftovers, which picked up three years after the events.

The show began airing in 2014 and ran for three seasons earning critical acclaim from critics and viewers alike.

It explored the whole emotional range of the human experience, taking viewers on an unforgettable journey to its brilliant conclusion.

Some regard it as one of the greatest series of all time.

The Larry Sanders Show

The Larry Sanders Show

The Larry Sanders Show is a sitcom set in the office and studio of a fictional late-night talk show.

It premiered in 1992 and ran for six seasons. It featured celebrities playing exaggerated versions of themselves.

It is regarded as one of the best shows ever and has influenced other sitcoms in the same genre, and was nominated for various awards during its run.

The Jinx

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The Jinx is a six-episode documentary mini-series that premiered in 2015.

It follows the New York real estate heir Robert Durst, who was suspected of multiple murders and convicted of one. A day before its finale aired, Robert was arrested for first-degree murder.

The show is expansive, featuring a lot of supplementary material such as video footage, interviews, and dramatic re-enactments.

It featured one of the craziest self-confessions ever caught on TV when Durst walked out of the interview room with a hot mike, and while behind closed doors, laid his fears on the table.

Insecure

Insecure Poster

Insecure is a comedy-drama starring Issa Rae that premiered in 2016, running for five seasons and forty-four episodes.

It follows the lives of two black women from their perspectives as black women. It was highly rated during its run and received critical acclaim.

It was nominated for and won multiple awards.

Industry

Industry Poster

Industry focuses on young 20-somethings in the world of finance.

In the 2020s, everyone knows something about money and investments, but even if they don’t, the drama is too good to pass up. Sex and drugs are part of this universe, but they are handled in a better way than many shows do.

Every episode is tenser than the last one, culminating in an epic season finale.

In Treatment

In Treatment Poster

A patient walks into a therapist’s office and starts to go off. A therapist walks into his therapist’s office and starts going off about his patients.

If the first premise isn’t interesting enough, the second one is bound to be. The show goes into the psychology of patients, exposing the nature of people and what motivates them to do or not do some things.

The show originally ran for several seasons and got a limited reboot.

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark

I'll be Gone in the Dark  HD Poster

In this true crime documentary series, Michelle McNamara spends her nights researching and writing a book about the serial killer she coined as The Golden State Killer.

McNamara put so much of herself into the investigation that she required medical attention, and she died of an overdose of various drugs in her search for sleep before she finished the book.

I’ll Be Gone In the Dark the series follows Michelle’s history, from childhood through her death, showing how she was on the only path that would have ever satisfied her longing to understand the mind of a killer.

The series premiered in 2020 and ran for six episodes, with a final special episode in 2021.

I May Destroy You

I May Destroy You HD Poster

Michaela Coel stars in this show as a millennial pseudo-famous social media star. The character she plays is raped, but the full weight of its effects doesn’t settle in until later.

In an age where consent is crucial to a sexual encounter, the show dives into how complicated sexual situations can be and does it with unabashed honesty and emotions.

I May Destroy You also touches on race, gender, and sexual orientation and how all they play into consent and sexual assault.

Girls

Girls Poster

Inspired by HBO’s Sex and the City, Girls also follows four young women who navigate life in New York as young people. It was inspired by the creator Lena Dunham’s life after her parents cut off their financial support.

It began airing in 2011 and ran for six seasons and sixty-two episodes.

The show received critical acclaim throughout its run. It was nominated for and won many awards.

Game of Thrones and House of the Dragon

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These epic shows are some of HBO’s most popular.

Based on books by George RR Martin, they’re expansive shows with an incredible narrative breadth. They extensively cover stories from many characters without losing a beat.

Incorporating fantasy, drama, war, and politics in a single show, they offer the best in genre programming.

House of the Dragon is the prequel to Game of Thrones, depicting events long before its predecessor and has quickly found a vast audience.

Euphoria

Euphoria Poster

All Gen-Z routes converge at Euphoria.

Euphoria tackles life as a young person in today’s world fuelled by drugs, sex, relationships, and social media.

It centers on Rue, a drug addict, and those close to her. It deals heavily with addiction and drugs in general.

Its biggest charm is its well-written characters, who are so unbelievable. It has inspired memes, quotes, and fashion trends bigger than any show.

Entourage

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The show focuses on an up-and-coming actor in 2000’s Los Angeles.

The show’s biggest charm is its unfiltered characters, especially Ari Gold, who wins viewers over with his flawlessly flawed manner of speaking.

It is a product of its time, but it is overall a great show to watch when reminiscing about the 2000s

The Deuce

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For many, it is easy to dismiss porn as immoral and a guilty pleasure. For some, it might be the worst evil.

The Deuce portrays pornography as art. The show details the rise of porn in 1970s New York. It features a myriad of storylines, all of which form a greater narrative.

From the pretty girls with dreams that die upon arriving in New York, family men and women looking to feed their children, entrepreneurs, artists, and the mob, to the misguided, The Deuce gives weight to all of their experiences.

The series never stands in place if it can elevate the conversation. It could have easily turned into a sexually gratuitous show, but instead, it chose a more sophisticated direction.

Deadwood

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It is a western drama set in the 1870s.

It began airing in 2004 and ran for three seasons and thirty-six episodes.

It chronicles the growth of Deadwood from camp to town and features the appearance of real historical figures against the backdrop of fiction.

The show was critically acclaimed, having been nominated for and winning numerous awards, and returned with a movie to wrap up unfinished storylines.

Curb Your Enthusiasm

Curb Your Enthusiasm Poster

The show is a sitcom created by Larry David and follows a semi-fictionalized version of himself.

It premiered in 2000 and is twelve seasons in, as of 2023. It occasionally features celebrity appearances, each playing a fictionalized version of themselves.

Most of the dialogue is improvised, with David only outlining the plot and subplot.

The show has received many nominations and awards throughout its run.

The Comeback

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Ever wondered what the entertainment television industry looks like from the inside? This show portrays a satirical look into the environment.

It ran for a thirteen-episode season in 2005 before being canceled nine years later. It was later revived for a second season in 2014.

The Comeback suffered ratings because of the time it found itself when sitcoms all featured the same formula.

Chernobyl

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One of the worst nuclear accidents happened in Chernobyl in 1986. The show follows the events that lead to the moment and what happened afterward.

It focused on the lesser-known stories, including firefighters and volunteers, and the horror they suffered in the aftermath of a tragedy that could have been averted if government officials had been properly doing their jobs.

All aspects of the show were lauded by audiences and critics alike.

It premiered in 2019 with five episodes and was nominated for and won multiple awards.

The Case Against Adnan Syed

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In a now vacated verdict, this docuseries portrayed the events that led to the conviction of Adnan Syed for the killing of Hae Min Lee.

The series aimed to show how the facts of the case were never simple and questioned the conviction.

The Case Against Adnan Syed premiered in 2019 and was broadcast in four episodes.

As of 2023, HBO is following the events of the case with a follow-up documentary planned to look at life after his release.

Boardwalk Empire

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This period drama transports viewers to prohibition-era America.

It primarily centers on Nucky Thompson, a businessman and politician who is as evil as they come.

The show stars include Steve Buscemi, Michael Kenneth Williams, and Michael Pitt.

Big Love

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Among some of the hotly contested issues in Mormonism is the practice of polygamy. Big Love follows the patriarch of a fundamentalist Mormon family and his three wives.

It premiered in 2006 and ran for five seasons after fifty-three episodes.

It received wide critical acclaim and won several awards.

Big Little Lies

Big Little Lies Poster

In a quiet coastal town that presents as a calm and peaceful place to raise a family, it’s a façade to hide the dysfunctional relationships in certain spaces.

The show brings together some of Hollywood’s best female talent and uses them to great effect.

Big Little Lies maintains a tense atmosphere that draws in the viewer, allowing them to connect intimately with the characters.

Barry

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A hitman faces a career crisis when he travels to Los Angeles to kill someone and finds himself wanting to become an actor.

Barry premiered in 2018 and stars Bill Hader as the titular character and bolstered by a strong supporting cast that often steals his thunder on screen.

In its third season as of 2023, the series received acclaim for its acting and originality, among others.

It has been nominated for and won multiple awards in different categories.

Band of Brothers/The Pacific

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It is a war drama miniseries adapted from a book of the same name.

Premiering in 2001, the show was one of the most expensive miniseries of the time, having cost around $125 million to make.

Its characters were based on the “Easy” Company, 2nd Battalion, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division. Effectively, it featured a huge cast ensemble.

Band of Brother and The Pacific are regarded as two of the best portrayals of war ever made.

Autopsy

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This documentary series follows a real-life forensic pathologist called Dr. Michael Baden. 

It explores the world of forensic science through case studies and photos.

It premiered in 1993 and ran for nine seasons.

Atlanta’s Missing and Murdered: The Lost Children

Atlanta Missing Children

Statistics show that when many African American children are lost, those responsible for finding them never usually bother.

This documentary series looks into new evidence that comes to light in the abduction and murder of approximately thirty African American children over the span of two years in Atlanta in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

It premiered in 2020, and viewers learned about the unrelenting child murders as broadcast over five heartbreaking episodes.

•••••

We always want to hear your thoughts, so don’t hesitate to drop below to leave a comment about your favorite HBO series.

Denis Kimathi is a staff writer for TV Fanatic. He has watched more dramas and comedies than he cares to remember. Catch him on social media obsessing over [excellent] past, current, and upcoming shows or going off about the politics of representation on TV. Follow him on Twitter.

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