They have not only garnered the affection of the public, who find them innovative and intriguing, but also a host of critical awards.
Comedy or drama, fantasy or action, HBO series have been winning us over for decades for their ability to dare, to mix genres, to show new sides of the stars who rely on them and… they are always very well written. Which is why, even before the current streaming platforms, before the release of a new season, they were already the subject of temporary channels or ad hoc thematic slots in which to catch up on all the previous episodes in three-to-five-day non-stop marathons. Most recently, those dedicated to Game of Thrones and soon those that will reunite us with House of the Dragon when the second season is ready, as well as a recap of Succession before the fourth round of new episodes. In the list below, we review the 20 most representative titles of the immense production, sorting them by the scores they received from critics (on RottenTomatoes) and focusing on the elements that made them special and persistent in pop culture, launching or resurrecting careers.
1 Hacks (100% RT) – 1 season from 2021
The HBO series that to date gets the only unanimous critical acclaim. Centred on two women looking to revive their careers after a shake-up, it follows the birth of an alliance between a Las Vegas stand-up comedy star victim of ageism and a 20-something with a mordant writing style, who ended up in the blizzard and was hit by cancel culture for a wrong tweet.
2 I may destroy you (98% RT) – 1 season from 2020
Written and performed by Michaela Coel, it is a demonstration of how deep into the writing of a tragedy great comic talent can come. The author, in fact, exploded with the surreal and bittersweet comedy series Chewing Gum, a kind of I Never, but written like hell 8 also in comic timing). Here, however, Coel measures herself with the theme of violence against women. I May Destroy You is the story of a rape and the abyss it opens up in a body, in a soul, of the way to regain possession of oneself and of a life forced to change, due to a point of no return. Although terribly painful, everyone should see it.
3 Band of brothers – Brothers at the front (97% RT) – 1 season from 2001
Produced by Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks, this 10-episode series brings viewers face to face with the Second World War, told from the point of view of a battalion of paratroopers, whom the story follows from their training to their mission in Europe, until the end of the conflict. The ensemble cast, devoid of film stars, includes Damian Lewis from Billions and Homeland and David Schwimmer from Friends.
4 The Brilliant Friend (97% RT) – 3 seasons from 2018
Yes, among the big HBO titles there is also an Italian series (specifically produced by Wildside, Fandango and The Apartment with Umedia and Mowe for Rai Fiction, HBO and TIMvision). It is the transposition on the small screen of Elena Ferrante's bestsellers starring Lenù and Lila, observed in their bonds for over 30 years, first very close, then separated by traumas and different growth paths, but united by the same ghosts and perhaps regrets.
5 Watchmen (96% RT) – 1 season in 2019
Inspired by the comic book of the same name written by comic genius Alan Moore in the mid-1980s, this miniseries is being developed as its ideal sequel signed by Lost and The Leftovers author Damon Lindelof. In a 2019 very different (but not so different) from our own, the superhero who had threatened to destroy the world is in exile on Mars (and doesn't even remember it anymore), while on Earth a far-right group inspired by him threatens the present with a new wave of racism and violence. This forces the police to operate incognito, with faces covered by masks like the late super vigilantes used to do.
6 Chernobyl (95% RT) – 1 season in 2019
The tale of the biggest nuclear catastrophe to hit mankind turns into a true horror film and at the same time into a kind of procedural that traces the events from the moment they happened, and then shows on the one hand the heroism of ordinary people (firemen, plumbers and volunteers) who exposed themselves to the radiation – even unaware of a certain and atrocious death – in order to save what could be saved, on the other hand the unacceptable omertà of politicians and the army and the obstinacy with which the technicians worked to ensure that the disaster was admitted and that adequate containment and safety solutions were put in place.
7 The Wire (94% RT) 5 seasons since 2002
Set in Baltimore and written by David Simon (The Deuce), it is 9th in the American Screenwriters' Union's ranking of the best written series ever. You can understand why by watching it again: The Wire, a title that refers to eavesdropping systems, is a rare series of socio-political interest, which tells the story of the crisis of a time, through the lives of the community in the city of Baltimore, famous at the beginning of the millennium for its high murder rate often linked to drug trafficking in a reality with high levels of corruption. Each season, it follows a specific city scenario (drug dealing, shady dealings in the harbour, local politics, the media, etc). The series is also notable for its very hip hop soundtrack, which also makes it one of the most street culture-oriented titles on TV in recent decades.
8 Deadwood (94% RT) – 3 seasons since 2004
If the western genre had dominated the television scene after World War II until the 1980s, it had not been so in the late 20th century. Deadwood brought it back into vogue, with a great Ian McShane, telling us about it in a more raw and contemporary yet baroque way, mixing elements of fiction and historical facts and digging into the roots of American culture (in this case going back to the Gold Rush in the Dakotas).
9 Succession (94% RT) – 3 seasons from 2018
When the new record-breaking series (Game of Thrones) was about to run out of steam, HBO unleashed a new 'dynastic' show, a new power play immersed in reality instead of fantasy, but no less cruel and dark, Succession, where the children of a TV and financial mogul fight against each other to replace him when he suddenly shows signs of breaking down, which could lead to his demise. Produced (also) by comedian Will Ferrell, it reaches unprecedented heights of hilarious sarcasm. With one character more wretched and cringeworthy than the next, yet all fascinating in their damnation. Its fourth season is perhaps the most anticipated TV event of 2023.
10 Veep – Incompetent Vice President (93% RT) – 7 seasons since 2012
One of the HBO series that have garnered the most Emmys is comedy and is the American adaptation of a UK-born hit for the same author, Armando Iannucci. The show, constructed as a sort of docureality inside the White House, pokes fun at the many awkward and sick micro-mechanisms that lurk in the normal routines of the great machine of politics. As biting as it is hilarious.
11 The Sopranos (92% RT) – 6 seasons since 1999
What the screenwriters' union considers to be the best written series of all time, is less rewarded than other HBO titles on the most popular database of TV and film critics. Undoubtedly, The Sopranos is one of the titles most deeply rooted in the hearts of audiences in the last 25 years, representing the small screen equivalent of a great underworld fresco like The Godfather, Goodfellas or Once Upon a Time in America at the cinema. Not surprisingly, it shares some of its cast (some 30 actors, already involved in those three cult films).
12 The Newsroom (91% RT audience) – 3 seasons since 2012
HBO, over the years, also signs one of the few media series and the best about contemporary journalism. It was signed by Oscar winner (for The Social Network) Aaron Sorkin, an author who had become a cult 6 years earlier with the best series ever on politics (The West Wing, a show on rival NBC, set inside the White House among ghost writers, lobbyists, public relations offices, senators and congressmen, the president and all the rest of the world in the midst of the re-election launch). It is not a school of journalism, but almost. And it is a gem to watch in the original language, to perfect your English.
13 The leftovers – Vanished into thin air (91% RT) – 3 seasons since 2014
The pen of Damon Lindelof (of Lost and Watchmen) engages in another mystery series in which suddenly the Earth has lost 2% of its population (over 140million people) simply vanished into thin air at the same time. The humanity we meet is that three years after the traumatic event, still intent on processing a loss it literally cannot come to terms with, between cynicism and new mystical waves, often with disturbing drifts.
14 Game of thrones – (89% RT) – 8 seasons since 2011
The first major HBO product of the new millennium, the show that shattered all previous records. The first one that woke up Italy in the middle of the night to watch the new episodes simultaneously with the whole world. And the fantasy revolution. Returning to the great correspondents between cinema and TV: the transposition of George RR Martin's epic on the small screen caused the same pandemonium that moved the arrival of The Lord of the Rings in theatres. In some ways it even succeeded in being more transformative, because fantasy on TV, before GoT, was papier-mâché and bad costumes, the stuff of children's afternoon shows. Game of Thrones has made everything fiercer and more adult, in an unprecedented play on power and the supernatural that has blossomed a whole new generation of performers who still set trends with each of their new projects. Not only that, it has revitalised the entertainment industry of Ireland and other countries touched by the production, creating a very positive spin-off in developing or crisis areas. It's just a shame how the show ended up season after season.
15 The White Lotus (89% RT) – 2 seasons from 2021
Currently testing its second season, this HBO series, which uses the backdrop of the detective story (reconstructed by flashback or in rising climax) to support a brilliant social satire, may turn into one of the broadcaster's most enduring and changing products. This is because a luxury hotel chain gives it its title, potentially leading us to encounter a different place and culture with each new season. Its spark, always in the clash between the boredom of the super rich and the cultural impact that a certain tourism has on the local scene, with all the short circuits it can create.
16 Euphoria (88% RT) – 2 seasons (and two specials) from 2019
Created as a transposition of an Israeli hit, it is one of the most direct and honest drama shows in talking about the dark side of being a teenager or young adult today. There is no generational dynamic or pain point (but not only) that Euphoria does not touch upon through its characters, and because of this it reaches the hearts of a huge audience. As much and more than Skam or Skins or Girls, the show manages to touch on persistent taboo subjects. Particularly those related to addiction or toxic, violent relationships and behaviour. Its protagonists are the face of a new generation of stars. Starting with Zendaya.
17 Lovecraft country (86% RT) – 1 season from 2020
Written by contemporary horror master Jordan Peele and also produced by JJ Abrams, the series takes us to the racist America of the 1950s, with an on-the-road tale on the trail of a lost father and a notebook that opens up mysteries so arcane they transport us to the world of the first great US horror author, H.P. Lovecraft.
18 House of the dragon (86% RT) – 1 season from 2022
It was hard to recover from the Game of Thrones season eight debacle, but the spin-off prequel centred on House Targaryen has been making waves since its first images. Beautiful, dark and cruel as The Game of Thrones. Perhaps it delivered a little too much shock (each episode raised the bar for the scene to be tackled by putting its hands over its eyes in horror, often also purely moral), yet in some ways it redeemed itself in that universe's tendency to spell bad fates for women. That ruthless world seems more and more like our own. And the civil war it opens on at the end of the last episode promises a second season to put the TV show to shame with the most titanic battle scene in TV history, The Battle of the Bastards from Game of Thrones 7.
19 Six Feet Under – (81% RT) 5 seasons since 2001
A family drama with dark comedy overtones, this series opens the new millennium with audacity, taking us where few had ever ventured before, a family-run funeral parlour, orphaned by the pater familias and with children and heirs very misaligned with each other, with the business or emotionally, amidst addictions and secrets difficult to keep hidden.
20 Westworld (80% RT) – 4 seasons since 2016
It was originally a 1973 film starring Yul Brynner directed by Michael Crichton. Then, almost 50 years later, it became a series written by Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy with J.J Abrams among the producers and a star-studded cast in high gear. For a dystopian tale that investigates, like Black Mirror, the moral dilemmas offered by a hyper-technological future. In this case, how man might become in a society in which robots and artificial intelligence can allow the creation of simulated realities, enclosures in which humanity's worst instincts can be endlessly vented. A nightmare just reading these words (and that's just the tip of the iceberg).
Written by Michael Zippo
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