now streaming

The 50 Best TV Shows on HBO Max

Watchmen. Photo: Mark Hill/HBO

HBO Max launched at the end of May 2020 with one of the deepest catalogues in the streaming game from day one, thanks in large part to the history of HBO and Warner Brothers, the two entities that serve as the Max foundation. Most people are spending hours digging through the dense library of feature films that includes new releases, TCM Classics, Criterion, and even Studio Ghibli. But, needless to say, there’s also plenty of great TV to be watched. Of course, most of what you will find under the Series tab of HBO Max comes with the pay cable network’s original programming, but they also have a selection of alternates from the WB cartoon networks, sci-fi hits, and even some beloved sitcoms produced by the company.

To even the playing field a bit, we’ve eliminated anything currently running on HBO, so this is more of a look at the best of the HBO Max archive instead of just a highlight of what was on the network last night. So shows like Last Week Tonight, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Euphoria, Insecure, and Westworld will be considered when they’re done. Until then, there should be more than enough to keep you busy.

Adventure Time

One of the best cartoons of the modern era is this creative and progressive fantasy series from Pendelton Ward that aired on the Cartoon Network for most of the 2010s. It’s the story of a boy named Finn and a dog named Jake, who live in the Land of Ooo with creatures of all kinds. It’s an adventure series that never talks down to children and engages them with deep ideas and surreal visuals.

Angels in America

Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer Prize–winning play was turned into an Emmy-winning juggernaut by Mike Nichols in 2003, when a prestige miniseries like this wasn’t as common as it is now. Honestly, even this kind of pedigreed cast isn’t common now as Al Pacino, Meryl Streep, Patrick Wilson, Mary-Louise Parker, Emma Thompson, Justin Kirk, and Jeffrey Wright turned Kushner’s masterpiece into a TV event for the ages.

Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown

This is the beautiful show that aired on CNN from 2013 to 2018 and featured the legendary chef Anthony Bourdain traveling the world, going to places not often seen on television and exploring their cultures through their cuisine. Bourdain was taken from us far too soon, but there are over 100 episodes of this great show on HBO Max to further cement his legacy as one of humanity’s most empathetic traveling correspondents.

The Bachelor

Bachelor Nation, rise up! For the first time ever, multiple seasons of the ABC hit are available on a streaming service. Watch a bunch of barely distinguishable people fight for love on three seasons of The Bachelor, three seasons of The Bachelorette, all three seasons of Bachelor Pad, three seasons of Bachelor in Paradise, and, get this, iterations of the show from around the world! Canadian and Australian seasons of The Bachelorette are there, as are seasons of The Bachelor from Australia, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, and Canada.

Band of Brothers

One of the best limited TV series of all time, 2001’s Band of Brothers was the kind of television event that feels rare even today. This landmark in the medium was created by Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg, adapted from the WWII history book of the same name by Stephen E. Ambrose, and it’s quite simply one of the best things that ever aired on TV. Pay tribute to the brave men who fought in WWII in this deeply personal, moving blend of history and filmmaking.

The Big Bang Theory

HBO Max has been pushing the faces of this massive CBS hit’s cast to sell their product (along with the regulars at Central Perk and the kids of South Park). Exclusivity to a sitcom that ran for over 275 episodes is a big deal in the industry, and the people who love The Big Bang Theory really love The Big Bang Theory. Put on all 12 seasons and zone out to the adventures of Leonard, Sheldon, and Penny for days on end. No one will judge you.

Big Love

HBO’s family drama never got the attention it deserved, often falling in the shadow of other giants on the service like The Sopranos, The Wire, and Deadwood. It feels like viewers couldn’t quite get past the icky factor within the concept of spending time with a man who has multiple wives, but this look at modern Mormon culture has one of the best ensembles of the Peak TV era, including great work from Bill Paxton, Chloë Sevigny, Ginnifer Goodwin, Jeanne Tripplehorn, and Harry Dean Stanton.

Boardwalk Empire

Terence Winter and Martin Scorsese teamed up for this mesmerizing period piece that never quite broke through the critically or commercially. Steve Buscemi stars as Nucky Thompson in one of the most lavishly detailed historical dramas ever to air on television. Buscemi is great, but this one hums because of its supporting cast, including great turns from Michael Shannon, Shea Whigham, Michael Stuhlbarg, Michael Kenneth Williams, and, most of all, Jack Huston.

The Boondocks

Aaron McGruder’s comic strip was turned into a progressive, revolutionary series on Adult Swim in the 2000s that never got the critical attention it deserved. That could all change in the 2020s. Not only are the original four seasons on HBO Max, but the company has commissioned two new seasons — overseen by McGruder — that will begin airing this Fall. We can’t wait either.

Carnivale

One of the shows that we fervently believe needs a closure movie like the one granted Deadwood fans, Daniel Knauf’s period drama–fantasy feels like it has more devoted fans now than it did when HBO axed it after only two seasons. Cut in a wave of cancellations of programming deemed too expensive, Carnivale was never really given a chance to find an audience when it aired in the aughts. Maybe HBO Max can make that movie a reality.

Chernobyl

One of the most acclaimed miniseries in recent years, this five-part drama from Craig Mazin details the failure of a government to respond to an international crisis. It was downright prophetic. Jared Harris, Emily Watson, and Stellan Skarsgard earned worldwide raves for their work here in a drama that perfectly balances sociopolitical commentary, relatable performances, and historical detail about a disaster made worse by the governmental response to it.

Clarence

There are a bunch of Cartoon Network series on HBO Max — they even have their own section — but this is easily one of the best of that bunch, a tender and rambunctious story of a 10-year-old boy named Clarence and the trouble he gets into with his buddies. It’s simple but sweet and smarter than it looks. The shame is that it ended in 2018, but that leaves 130 episodes on HBO Max to enjoy.

The Closer

This police procedural really put TNT on the map, winning awards for star Kyra Sedgwick and dominating in the ratings. At times, it was the highest rated drama on cable TV. People were drawn to Sedgwick’s excellent work (and J.K. Simmons didn’t hurt) and The Closer even went out on top. All the way to the end, it was a ratings juggernaut (9 million people watched the finale), and people will surely want to revisit it on HBO Max. It’s actually one of the few procedurals on the service.

Deadwood

One of the best television shows of all time returned to HBO in 2019 over a decade after its cancellation in the form of Deadwood: The Movie. If you’re wondering why fans were so excited to revisit David Milch’s Western, now is the time for an education. This is one of the smartest, deepest shows in the history of television, a program that takes what we think we know about history and the Old West and uses it to tell human stories that resonate today. It’s also got arguably the best overall ensemble in TV history.

Doctor Who

Both the classic episodes and the current ones are now exclusively on HBO Max. The legacy of the doctor really changed when Russell T. Davies was given the reins to update the program for a new generation and introduced fans to his vision of the show, which has led to several of the most beloved doctors in the program’s history, including Christopher Eccleston, Matt Smith, and David Tennant. On and off since the show’s return to prominence in 2005, Doctor Who has delivered some of the smartest science fiction on television.

Doom Patrol

There’s something weird going on with DC Universe and HBO Max. The same company owns them, but the only program to appear on both services is the most acclaimed DCU property to date, this excellent adaptation of the comic of the same name that stars Alan Tudyk, Brendan Fraser, Timothy Dalton, Matt Bomer, and more. Dark and intense, this is the best comic-based show on TV right now, and a second season premieres on both DCU and HM on June 25. Only time will tell if other DCU hits like Titans and Harley Quinn end up here too. (We hope so.)

Eastbound & Down

Jody Hill, David Gordon Green, and Danny McBride collaborated on the first of three HBO McBride comedies (Vice Principals and The Righteous Gemstones would follow) and some episodes stand among the funniest that have ever been on HBO. McBride’s creation Kenny Powers is something to behold, a pro baseball player sent back to his hometown with his obnoxious tail between his legs. McBride is a force of nature.

Enlightened

With Big Little Lies and Marriage Story, everyone is in love with Laura Dern now — as they should be. Do yourself a favor and check out her brilliant character work as Amy Jellicoe on Mike White’s two-season dramedy. Dern and White completely reinvented the cliché of the character who hits rock bottom with this razor-sharp program, which co-stars Luke Wilson, Diane Ladd, Jason Mantzoukas, Robin Wright, Molly Shannon, and Dermot Mulroney. It’s a shame we only got two seasons, but they’re both perfect.

The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air

Nostalgia for this 1990s NBC hit is high, and not just because pretty much everybody loves Will Smith. The show that made the Fresh Prince into a superstar has an easygoing charm that we could all use even three decades after it premiered. Just sit right there and let him tell you how he became the prince of a town called Bel-Air.

Friends

The news that HBO Max would be the exclusive streaming home of Friends made major waves in the market when it was announced. Netflix already knew that people like to zone out to the adventures of Ross, Rachel, Chandler, Monica, Joey, and Phoebe. And HBO Max is counting on them to bring in new subscribers looking for their favorite comedy.

Game of Thrones

It ended in a flurry of think pieces and complaints but there are definite peaks in the run of Game of Thrones, particularly in early seasons. And now you can sit back and take in the entirety of this fantasy epic, something that feels a bit like an end of a TV era. Vulture’s Matt Zoller Seitz even suggested as much when the finale ran. Will there ever be another Game of Thrones? There certainly isn’t one yet.

Girls

HBO gets a lot of attention for changing the face of TV drama, but they have had just as big an influence on comedy with shows like Sex and the City, Veep, and this Lena Dunham creation. Sure, she’s divisive and the show is inconsistent, but it has moments of undeniable brilliance over its entire run, and HBO Max is a great way to find those series highlights and remember when this show was one of the most-buzzed in the world.

*Harley Quinn

DC Universe is clearly coming to an end, but WB has moved their two most acclaimed shows over to their new streaming home at HBO Max in Doom Patrol and this animated gem for adults. Once again, people can’t get enough of the story of Harley Quinn, the star of this year’s Birds of Prey and next year’s The Suicide Squad. Here, she gets into trouble with her BFF Poison Ivy in a show that’s clever and innovative in ways that this kind of programming often isn’t allowed to be.

In Treatment

Streaming services would come along and redefine how people watched TV, but companies were experimenting with the structure of the form before that. Take HBO’s In Treatment, which actually aired on the cable network five nights a week during its first season, visiting a different patient of its protagonist therapist (Gabriel Byrne) every day. The structure allowed for different supporting players every year, highlighting amazing performances from Alison Pill, Hope Davis, Mia Wasikowska, John Mahoney, Debra Winger, Dane DeHaan, and more.

John Adams

Paul Giamatti does some of the best work of his career in this 2008 miniseries in which the Oscar nominee plays President John Adams. Directed by Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech), this is one of those historical miniseries that deftly balances educational content with entertainment value. It was so well-received that it won 13 Emmy Awards, a record for any miniseries in history.

The Larry Sanders Show

TV comedy doesn’t get much better than this ‘90s classic, a series regularly put on lists of the best shows of all time. Created by and starring Garry Shandling, it’s a behind-the-scenes look at a late-night talk show, complete with all the needy personalities and backstabbing creatives that thrive in such an environment. The writing is razor sharp, as are the performances by Shandling, Jeffrey Tambor, and the late great Rip Torn.

The Leftovers

One of the best shows of the 2010s is this Damon Lindelof adaptation of the book by Tom Perrotta. It only ran for three seasons, but it had such an impact on those who watched it that it made most lists of the best dramas of the last decade. This is a show that people are going to discover and rediscover for years to come and will soon be recognized among the best in HBO history, if it’s not already.

Looney Tunes

HBO Max isn’t just the exclusive streaming home of classic cartoons starring Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, and the rest of the gang, but they’re actually producing new shorts starring the same characters. Created by modern animated masters from shows like Steven Universe and Star vs. the Forces of Evil, the new shorts are in the same style and tone as the classics, and they’re so wonderful that HBO Max has already commissioned 80 of them.

Luther

This BBC award winner has jumped around the streaming services and now lands on HBO Max as a part of its launch package. If you think Idris Elba only starred in one great drama (The Wire), think again. He’s mesmerizing here as a cop who has looked into the abyss for so long that he’s lost himself in it. There are only 20 episodes over five seasons (the Brits do it differently), so you can binge this modern masterpiece pretty easily.

Mad TV

Remember when Saturday Night Live had legitimate competition for the best network TV sketch comedy series? At its peak, Mad TV, which aired on FOX, was pretty damn funny, and it launched the careers of Orlando Jones, Artie Lange, Nicole Sullivan, Alex Borstein, Michael McDonald, Will Sasso, and many more. There are 14 seasons on HBO Max. Strap in.

Mr. Show With Bob and David

Any list of the best sketch shows of all time that doesn’t include this influential masterpiece is tragically incomplete. Geniuses Bob Odenkirk and David Cross created and star in this surreal journey through their senses of humor that aired on HBO from 1995 to 1998. The only thing wrong with Mr. Show is that we didn’t get more of it.

The Night Of

Four years later and the Richard Price and Steven Zaillian project about failures of our justice system and how it can turn innocent men into criminals seems even more relevant now. Riz Ahmed plays a Pakistani-American young man suspected of a murder he clearly didn’t commit, and John Turturro plays the attorney who tries to defend him before custody at Rikers Island destroys him. A modern drama masterpiece.

The O.C.

They can’t all be intensely dramatic crime shows! Sometimes you just want to escape to your favorite series from your teenage life, and that just may have been this Fox hit that ran from 2003 to 2007 for almost 100 episodes. The show that turned Ben McKenzie, Mischa Barton, and Adam Brody into stars can still be felt in the DNA of shows like Riverdale. The writing on Josh Schwartz’s teen drama was often much smarter than it got credit for being.

Olive Kitteridge

Frances McDormand plays the title characters in this 2014 masterpiece based on the novel by Elizabeth Strout. She’s the wife to Richard Jenkins’s Henry Kitteridge in a small town in Maine. It’s a character study about a retired schoolteacher and how she navigates through life with nuanced, empathetic writing and some of the best acting you’ll seen anywhere on any streaming service. The supporting cast includes Zoe Kazan, Rosemarie DeWitt, and Bill Murray.

Oz

HBO’s reshaping of the TV landscape didn’t start with The Sopranos. While David Chase’s wildly successful show often gets credit as an influencer, it feels like not enough people recognize that Tom Fontana’s Oz came before it and was really one of the key programs to make it clear that “It’s not TV, it’s HBO” was more than just a slogan. Still a program that would be powerful and searing if it aired two decades later, Oz is one of the cable network’s most essential building blocks.

The Plot Against America

The newest miniseries on HBO Max is this 2020 adaptation of the Philip Roth novel by David Simon. The creator of The Wire perfectly blends his voice with Roth’s to tell a cautionary tale about corrupt power and what happens when good people do nothing in the face of evil. It couldn’t be timelier for 2020 and will be on any respectable list of the best things to air on any network this year.

Robot Chicken

This stop-motion sketch-comedy show helped put Adult Swim on the map in the 2000s. The Seth Green creation uses toys and other items from pop culture to skewer our obsession with it in creative, surreal ways. After being rejected by pretty much everyone else, it’s become a staple for Adult Swim, still airing on the Cartoon Network offshoot 15 years after it premiered.

Samurai Jack

Another early Cartoon Network hit is available on HBO max for nostalgia and reappreciation. This Genndy Tartakovsky hit had an incredibly loyal cult following when it aired in the early 2000s and helped turned its creator into an icon in his industry. Visually stunning in ways that TV animation often isn’t allowed to be, it influenced some great cartoons to come in the decades since its premiere.

Search Party

Remember how You aired on Lifetime but no one really noticed till it landed on Netflix and became a massive hit? It feels like that could happen to Search Party, a critical darling that aired on TBS for two seasons but is now making the jump to HBO Max, who has commissioned a third season of the series to premiere June 25. Witty and empathetic, this is a smart show that’s only partially about a missing girl and more about that quarter-life crisis feeling that any of us could go missing and no one would really notice.

Sex and the City

Are you old enough to remember when Carrie Bradshaw ruled comedy television? There was a window when a new Sex and the City was the biggest cultural event around. This show was at the peak of its popularity pre-DVR, and people canceled plans to see what the ladies of Sex and the City were up to now. It paved the way for shows like Girls and even Big Little Lies on the network. See why.

Six Feet Under

Peter Krause headlined this HBO drama from Alan Ball that incorporated issues of family and grief in ways that television hadn’t really done before. Sure, there had been family dramas on network TV for generations but none that explored the issues of how much family ties can bind with the adult flavor of what was often one of the best shows on TV. Ball & Co. couldn’t quite keep the quality level up for the entire run, but they did stick the landing with one of the best series finales of all time.

The Sopranos

Maybe you’ve heard of it? Often cited as the best TV show of all time, David Chase’s award-winning masterpiece can truly be credited with altering the landscape forever. Who knew when Tony Soprano sat down to talk to his therapist about panic attacks that a cultural phenomenon would come from it? The first season of The Sopranos is a perfect season of television. Just watch it and try not to be hooked enough to watch it all. Maybe even twice.

*South Park

The boys of South Park have a new exclusive home on HBO Max after years of moving around streaming platforms. In fact, their exclusivity here has been one of the main advertising points for the new streaming service. Who doesn’t want to check out and check in on Kyle, Eric, Cartman, and Kenny when the world gets too crazy? The show has had its ups and downs over the many years it’s been on the air, but it’s stayed surprisingly smart and funny overall.

Steven Universe

If you don’t have kids, you may not know about the adventures of Steven Universe and the Crystal Gems. Your loss, people. Even without little ones, you need to see this creative, surreal gem (pun intended) about a kid who teams with Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl to defend the Gems and just be a normal kid at the same time. The series ended in January 2019 but there has already been a movie and a limited series epilogue. Steven ain’t going anywhere.

Togetherness

Mark Duplass, Jay Duplass, and Steve Zissis created this incredibly smart dramedy that sadly only lasted two seasons on HBO. In an era of high-concept TV, a traditional character-driven piece about love and friendship has trouble finding an audience, but HBO Max could lead people to this one, where they’ll find one of the best ensembles of the 2000s, including (Mark) Duplass, Zissis, Amanda Peet, and Melanie Lynskey.

Torchwood

In 2006, Russell T. Davies spun this series off from his reboot of Doctor Who, and it was actually a better show for most of its run. More aimed at adults, Torchwood was a complex and progressive series about a team of alien hunters who just happened to be based in Cardiff, and it features a lead performance from John Barrowman that really should have made him a massive star.

True Detective

The three-season arc of Nic Pizzolatto’s show has been a roller coaster. The general consensus is that the Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson first season is a masterpiece, the Vince Vaughn and Colin Farrell second season is a disappointment, and the Mahershala Ali and Stephen Dorff third season is somewhere in between. Now you can use HBO Max to see if you fall in the majority opinion on all three for yourself.

Veep

When people write the history books about television comedy, Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s performance as Selina Meyer will need its own chapter. When someone dominates a genre so much that they win multiple Emmys, it can often feel like overkill, but it’s impossible to deny that JLD has deserved every single one. Her comic timing here is literally perfect, and she’s supported by one of modern TV’s best ensembles too.

Watchmen

One of the best shows of 2019 was this Damon Lindelof miniseries adaptation of the classic graphic novel by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons that serves more as a sequel than a classic interpretation. Regina King is mind-blowing as a Tulsa police officer thrust into an investigation about the death of her superior that leads her to confront the very racist past of our country. Visually striking and thematically powerful, this is about as good as TV gets.

The Wire

Television doesn’t get more ambitious than David Simon’s five-season examination of life in a modern city. Using Baltimore as his template, Simon looks at every aspect of urban life, starting with what first seems like a simple-but-smart look at cops and criminals and expanding the canvas to include dock workers, educators, journalists, and politicians over the course of the series run. There’s a reason some people consider this the best show in the history of television.

The 50 Best TV Shows on HBO Max