The Best HBO Drama Series From Deadwood to Sopranos

No television network has a lineup of shows as impressive as HBO. Whether we’re talking about now-iconic crime series, historical epics, or superhero deconstructionist stories set in alternate realities, HBO has been consistently responsible for delivering some of the greatest TV series from decade to decade.

Proof of this fact can be found in HBO’s seemingly endless array of fantastic programming over the years, many of which have gone on to win literally hundreds of prestigious awards, including countless Emmy and Golden Globe Awards.

Nowadays, it seems like the tight grip HBO has on delivering premium content with a wide viewership will only continue to grow in the future, with fans currently delighting in original HBO series like Euphoria, The Last of Us, and House of the Dragon.

While HBO also boasts some fantastic comedy shows, it’s the network’s drama series that helped cement HBO its place on television today. Here are 10 of the greatest drama series we’ve seen from HBO so far.

The Sopranos

Image Credit: HBO Entertainment.

It’s up for discussion which series deserves the coveted title of HBO’s best show, but due to its now-iconic status in pop culture, we believe The Sopranos just barely manages to edge out The Wire.

Having recently suffered from some mental health issues, New Jersey-based gangster Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) agrees to discuss his personal and professional problems with his therapist (Lorraine Bracco).

Like nearly every show on this list, The Sopranos was immensely successful in its original six-season-long run, winning 21 Emmy Awards, five Golden Globes, and a Peabody Award.

In more recent years, the show’s critical esteem has only grown more favorable. 

The Wire

The Wire Idris Elba, Wood Harris, Michael Kostroff
Image Credit: HBO Entertainment.

A serious argument could be that The Wire not only deserves the title of best HBO drama series but greatest TV show ever produced. It was and continues to be unlike most crime shows out there, featuring law enforcement personnel working in a justice system they know is inherently broken.

Set in Baltimore, The Wire comprises five overarching seasons, with each new season portraying a different institution (the drug trade, the port authority, city government, the education department, and local news, among others).

The Wire was essentially a police procedural series that portrayed both the police officers’ and the criminals’ points of view, showing that the distinction between society’s heroes and villains aren’t always that clear. It’s a startling meditation on urban crime and the failure of the American Dream, which ended up winning the series significant critical acclaim during its initial airing as well as in subsequent years.

Band of Brothers

Image from the series Band of Brothers
Image Credit: HBO Enterprises/Warner Bros. Television.

In 1998, Steven Spielberg confronted the heartbreaking realities of war in his award-winning film Saving Private Ryan. In 2001, Spielberg and star Tom Hanks oversaw the production of a follow-up project based on the nonfiction book “Band of Brothers” by Stephen A. Ambrose.

Band of Brothers follows the various members of Easy Company. This paratrooper infantry group fought in some of the largest and most destructive battles in Europe during World War II.

Based on Ambrose’s interviews with the surviving members of Easy Company, Band of Brothers is unlike most other war films or TV shows due to its heavy basis on the actual experiences of real soldiers who fought in WWII. 

Some creative liberties may have been taken, but for the most part, its depiction of Easy Company’s journey from Normandy and the Netherlands to the frozen forests of Belgium is almost entirely factual. Today, it’s considered one of the definitively best miniseries of all time, having won seven Emmy Awards (including Outstanding Miniseries) and the Golden Globe for Best Miniseries or Television Film.

Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones Kit Harington, Emilia Clarke
Image Credit: HBO Entertainment.

Even with its controversial final season, there’s no denying the impact Game of Thrones had over the course of its initial few seasons. A fantasy show that swapped out magic for political intrigue, war, and humanistic stories about complex, morally gray characters, it’s one of the most-watched HBO series in recent memory.

Based on the best-selling series by George R.R. Martin and set primarily in the medieval fantasy land of Westeros, Game of Thrones tells the interweaving stories of multiple noble families vying for power and the chance to sit on the Iron Throne, ruling their vast continent and presiding over all other kingdoms.

Such a simple description utterly fails to capture the nature of the series, which is heavily rooted in numerous characters and the evolution they see throughout the course of the series. In true HBO fashion, it’s also become known for quick, unexpected deaths of beloved characters, showing that – even when you desperately want them to – the good guys don’t always end up winning in the grand scheme of things.

In its heyday, Game of Thrones was nothing short of a cultural phenomenon, equal in popularity to Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, and Harry Potter. It would win a total of 59 Primetime Emmy Awards (it holds the record for the most wins in a drama series), receiving the award for Outstanding Drama Series on four separate occasions.


Deadwood (2004) Kim Dickens
Image Credit: Warner Bros.

As you might’ve guessed by now, historical dramas are a staple for HBO programming, with the network producing such unforgettable shows as Band of Brothers, The Pacific, Boardwalk Empire, and Carnivàle. Among the first of these period piece genre shows was Deadwood, David Milch’s down-and-dirty epic set on the untamed Frontier of 1870s America.

Deadwood follows a group of people living in its titular South Dakota town before and after the territory’s annexation into the U.S. Included in the cast are real-life historical figures like Deadwood’s sheriff Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant), crime boss Al Swearengen (Ian McShane), gunfighter Wild Bill Hickok (Keith Carradine), and mining mogul George Hearst (Gerald McRaney).

Deadwood may take a number of liberties in terms of historical accuracy, but the series was praised for its ability to make fans sympathize with even the most despicable characters, whose actions are near-impossible to fully condone.

Though critically praised for its time (especially in regard to Milch’s writing and McShane’s performance), the series was surprisingly canceled after a mere three seasons. Thankfully, its popularity and esteem have only grown, with many critics citing it as one of the greatest HBO series of all time, eventually resulting in a television film sequel, Deadwood: The Movie, being released 13 years after the show’s cancellation.

Boardwalk Empire

Boardwalk Empire Michael Shannon
Image Credit: HBO Entertainment.

It’s crazy to think that, initially, people thought Boardwalk Empire was destined to fail, believing it to be essentially a lesser version of The Sopranos set during the 1920s. The pilot of this hit HBO crime series would prove all naysayers wrong, delivering a show that was arguably every bit as entertaining as The Sopranos but also drastically different. 

An introspective portrait of life in the Roaring Twenties as well as the various criminals active during Prohibition (from common bootleggers to real-life historical gangsters like Al Capone and Lucky Luciano), Boardwalk Empire focuses on the life and career of Enoch “Nucky” Thompson (Steve Buscemi), a corrupt politician in Atlantic City.

Like The Sopranos, Boardwalk Empire features numerous plot twists, sudden and brutal deaths of fan-favorite characters, and plenty of unforgettable performances from a huge ensemble cast (Buscemi, Michael Pitt, Kelly Macdonald, Michael Shannon, Shea Whigham, Michael Stuhlbarg, and Michael K. Williams, among others).


Chernobyl Emily Watson
Image Credit: HBO.

HBO has a large number of incredible miniseries based on historical events or persons, such as the amazing, award-winning miniseries John Adams. One of the most remarkable historical dramas to ever be released on HBO, though, was Craig Mazin’s meticulously researched series, Chernobyl.

Mazin’s five-part series offers a largely accurate portrayal of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster – one of the worst nuclear-related accidents in global history – and the efforts by Russian scientists and other personnel to contain it.

Chernobyl can be frightening and or difficult to watch for many. Still, there’s no question it can make for an engaging, startlingly factual viewing experience for its unflinching depiction of nuclear destruction and fallout.

Featuring a massive ensemble cast made up of Jared Harris, Stellan Skarsgård, Jessie Buckley, Emily Watson, Barry Keoghan, and many more, Chernobyl was named one of the best miniseries of 2019, winning acclaim for its performances, writing, music, and historical accuracy.

True Detective

True Detective Matthew McConaughey
Image Credit: HBO Entertainment.

An ambitious crime anthology in the same mold as FX’s Fargo, True Detective takes viewers on a grim journey through multiple decades, focusing on law enforcement agents’ attempts to solve violent crimes in their respective jurisdictions.

Save for its disappointing second season, True Detective’s first and third seasons are nothing short of brilliant, especially in the case of its earliest entry. Starring Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey in his breathtaking portrayal of ingenious yet nihilistic Louisiana detective Rust Cohle, it’s a masterful miniseries in and of itself, pushing the police procedural story to untold new heights.

While its third season does an admirable job playing catch-up, True Detective has yet to match the superior quality of its opening season. However, that doesn’t mean we don’t anxiously await each new entry to see what horrific crimes and humanistic stories the showrunners have in store for us – itself a testament to True Detective’s above-par storytelling.

The Last of Us

The Last of Us
Image Credit: Sony Pictures Television.

It’s still a bit early to tell where The Last of Us will rank in the wider trajectory of HBO series. When looking at its excellent first season, though, it becomes clear that if the show stays on its present course, it’s poised to become the most exciting post-apocalyptic show since the first three seasons of The Walking Dead.

After a massive fungal infection triggers a societal collapse, the remaining survivors live in a brutal dystopian state. When cynical courier Joel (Pedro Pascal) is hired to transport the 14-year-old Ellie (Bella Ramsey) across the decrepit ruins of America, he discovers a shocking secret about his new client.

Doing what few movies or TV shows have ever done before, The Last of Us proved you could make a faithful adaptation of a beloved video game, translating much of its story from the original game while introducing newer elements to flesh out certain characters in greater depth.

It’ll be interesting to see how future seasons of The Last of Us pan out, but its inaugural season is a notable achievement – ranking easily as the best video game adaptation we’ve seen to date.

Six Feet Under

Six Feet Under Lauren Ambrose, Freddy Rodríguez, Frances Conroy, Michael C. Hall, Peter Krause
Image Credit: HBO Entertainment.

On one level, Six Feet Under is an entertaining family drama following the owners of a funeral parlor in Los Angeles. What sets Six Feet Under Apart from other family dramas, though, is how well it handles discussions about death and how one’s mortality gives life meaning.

Each episode begins with a character dying through natural causes or through some kind of accident, setting the tone for the remainder of the episode.

It’s natural to think a show that deals so heavily with death might be preachy or overly philosophical at times, but Six Feet Under explores the subject with a refreshing amount of hopefulness. 

Rather than lamenting about the inevitability of death in a nihilistic or depressing way, the main message is to celebrate life while you can (both the good parts and the bad) because you never know how or when it will end. 

Mare of Easttown

Mare of Easttown Kate Winslet
Image Credit: Zobot Projects.

In addition to its exceptional representation of the hard-to-mimic Philadelphia accent, Mare of Easttown is easily among the best miniseries to arrive on HBO in recent memory. A fascinating police procedural crime series, it makes endlessly clever use of its A-list cast, none more so than series star Kate Winslet.

In the suburbs of Philadelphia, overworked police detective Mare Sheehan (Winslet) investigates the murder of a teenage girl, struggling to keep her personal life together long enough to solve the crime.

As with True Detective, Mare of Easttown excels at creating a more nuanced portrait of its lead character, focusing just as much on Mare’s relationship with her family as it does on the central mystery at the heart of the show. By doing so, showrunner Brad Ingelsby conjures up a fully-formed, three-dimensional character, one brilliantly embodied by Winslet, who is able to effortlessly bring out Mare’s abundant strengths as well as her more than obvious flaws.


Euphoria Hunter Schafer
Image Credit: HBO Entertainment.

One of the most-watched series in HBO’s recent history, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that Euphoria is also among the greatest teen dramas there is. Thanks to HBO’s slack rules of adult-oriented content, the series is able to examine a wide range of serious subject matter affecting teens and young adults, ranging from child abuse and toxic relationships to addiction and assault.

Set against the backdrop of a Californian high school, Euphoria follows several teenagers as they struggle against mounting issues in their personal lives, each of them seeking escape in an external form (whether through substance use or in the arms of a potential lover).

As with the best HBO shows, it’s impossible to list the reasons to watch Euphoria in its entirety. For starters, the thematic issues it explores are all superb, giving us all a better understanding of the anxieties and fears young people experience on a daily basis. What’s more, the series has also employed a huge cast of younger actors, all of whom have received their breakthrough roles courtesy of Euphoria – including central star Zendaya, Hunter Schafer, and Sydney Sweeney.

The Leftovers

The Leftovers Liv Tyler
Image Credit: White Rabbit Productions.

When a mysterious rapture-like event causes millions of the world’s population to suddenly disappear, the people left behind mourn their losses, struggling to rebuild society.

After the underwhelming conclusion of Lost, Damon Lindelof set out to create a show in some ways similar to his previous series, finding ample inspiration in Tom Perrotta’s 2011 novel, The Leftovers. An ideal segue between Lindelof’s earlier work on Lost and his later adaptation of Watchmen, The Leftovers delights in creating a large cast of characters, all of whom possess their own succinct personalities, behaviors, and traumatic backstories.

Remarkably, The Leftovers managed to top itself with each new season, probing deeper into the dark recesses of its main characters’ minds, exploring the most troubling aspects of their inner psyche. A disturbing, macabre post-apocalyptic dystopian series, it may not get the same publicity as Lost or Watchmen, but it almost certainly should.


Image Credit: HBO Original Programming.

Imagine Orange is the New Black at a men’s correctional facility instead of an all-female prison. Oh, and a lot less comedy. That’s the basic premise for Oz, a show which openly discussed taboo subjects and featured shocking levels of violence and sexuality from the first season onward.

Set at the fictional maximum-security prison, the Oswald State Correctional Facility (“Oz” for short) administrator Tim McManus (Terry Kinney) tries to ease tensions between prisoners and aid in their rehabilitation, only for factional fighting between groups of inmates to constantly get in the way of any genuine progress.

Oz can be certainly upsetting to watch – it’s far more depressing and violent than, say, The Shawshank Redemption – and it’s for that very reason it’s seen as one of HBO’s most important shows. In no uncertain terms, there was simply no other series quite like Oz. This program probed deeply into the daily lives of inmates in American prisons who lived claustrophobic, stress-filled lives where every day might mean some act of extreme violence or assault inflicted on them.

Any show that unapologetically discusses difficult subjects or portrays sudden, absurdly brutal levels of violence without holding anything back that was released in the past 20 years owes a serious debt to Oz.


Watchmen Jeremy Irons
Image Credit: Paramount Television.

Adapting one of the most famous comic books ever written for television was never going to be easy. However, Watchmen superfan and showrunner Damon Lindelof made the very wise decision to offer a continuation of Alan Moore’s original comic rather than a straight adaptation, allowing for a new, modern story set within the Watchmen universe.

HBO’s Watchmen stars Regina King as Sister Night, a masked police officer in Tulsa who uncovers a major conspiracy involving a white supremacist group and the death of her best friend and boss, Judd Crawford (Don Johnson).

Much like the original comic’s discussion of the nuclear war in the mid-1980s’, HBO’s Watchmen explores some very dark and timely subject matter plaguing society today: racial injustice and horrific crimes against Black Americans, especially. For its straightforward depiction of systemic racism and the 1921 Tulsa race massacre (one of the least-talked racial incidents in American history that Watchmen helped spread awareness of), the show was praised as one of the best miniseries of 2019.

Richard Chachowski is a freelance writer based in New Jersey. He loves reading, his dog Tootsie, and pretty much every movie to ever exist (especially Star Wars).

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