HBO is synonymous with top-tier original entertainment. Its streaming service, HBO Max, offers the best of the best. Skipping obvious hits like The Wire, Watchmen, and Game of Thrones, here are the best original HBO shows, new and old.
Creator Terence Winter worked as a writer on The Sopranos, and Boardwalk Empire has a similar gritty, grounded take on flawed mobsters. It’s also set in New Jersey, focused on organized crime in Atlantic City during Prohibition, when the city was a haven for illegal gambling and alcohol.
Steve Buscemi stars as local politician and mob boss Nucky Thompson, whose rule over the city is ruthless but fragile. The cast also includes Michael Shannon, Kelly Macdonald, Shea Whigham, and Michael K. Williams, among others, making up a stellar ensemble of fascinating underworld characters.
Jason Schwartzman stars in Bored to Death as a writer and Brooklyn hipster who decides to become a private detective despite his lack of experience or skills (or a license). Mostly a hangout comedy co-starring Zach Galifianakis and Ted Danson as the main character’s friends and reluctant assistants, Bored to Death captures a specific 2010s Brooklyn vibe, poised between literary pretension and stoner goofiness.
It’s as much about goofy man-children bumbling toward maturity as it is about solving actual mysteries, even if they eventually manage to do that, too.
Longtime HBO contributor David Simon is best known as the creator of The Wire, but he’s produced quite a few other serious examinations of urban subcultures. The Deuce takes on the adult industry of New York City’s Times Square in the 1970s and ’80s with thoughtfulness and a wide cross-section of characters. Led by James Franco as twin entrepreneurs (one industrious, the other impulsive) and Maggie Gyllenhaal as a prostitute turned porn auteur, The Deuce finds nuance in a world many dismiss as sleazy and distasteful.
Fans of Christopher Guest’s mockumentary movies like Waiting for Guffman and Best in Show should seek out Family Tree, an under-the-radar one-season comedy series co-created and directed by Guest. Presented in Guest’s familiar improvised faux-doc style, Family Tree follows a middle-aged man played by Chris O’Dowd as he explores his heritage and extended family, meeting all sorts of oddball characters along the way. Guest regulars included Ed Begley Jr., Michael McKean, and Fred Willard make appearances in the funny and surprisingly poignant series.
Star and co-creator Issa Rae catapulted from a beloved web series to mainstream success with her semi-autobiographical dramedy Insecure. Rae plays Issa, a young single woman in LA balancing her career ambitions and her love life, both of which she’s unsure and, yes, insecure about. Rae captures the rhythms of life in LA’s Black community, as Issa and her best friend Molly (Yvonne Orji) find their comfort zones between their familiar community and the often white-dominated corporate world.
A reboot of the classic legal drama starring Raymond Burr as the title character, this new version of Perry Mason provides an origin story for the freakishly competent defense attorney. Matthew Rhys plays Perry as a rumpled, melancholy private detective in 1930s Los Angeles, whose investigative work eventually leads to his practicing law. The series retains the moral righteousness of the original while allowing for more nuanced character development and a look into the seedier side of Depression-era Southern California.
Ridley Scott executive produces sci-fi series Raised by Wolves, and it’s easy to see echoes of his well-known sci-fi movies, especially Alien and Prometheus. A pair of androids attempt to raise human children on a harsh, distant planet, while locked in battle with a faction of human religious zealots from Earth.
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Amanda Collin gives a chilling performance as the deadly but nurturing android known as Mother, and the unforgiving environment emphasizes the characters’ bleak prospects. The show is both contemplative and suspenseful, much like Scott’s best sci-fi movies.
New Zealand comedian Rose Matafeo co-created and stars in the charming romantic comedy Starstruck. She plays Jessie, an aimless London singleton working odd jobs and trying to find direction in her life.
When she unexpectedly has a one-night stand with famous actor Tom Kapoor (Nikesh Patel), she finds herself in a potential romantic relationship with the last person she’d imagine. Jessie and Tom navigate their feelings for each other as they both figure out their future plans.
Part musical, part sketch comedy, part story of two folk musicians from New Zealand trying to make it in New York City, the Emmy-winning Flight of the Conchords is a two-season comedy that ran from 2007 to 2009. It chronicles the miserably wonderful adventures of fictionalized versions of the real-life Conchords, played by real-life Kiwis, Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie.
Because there are no plans for a Conchords tour any time soon, make sure you don’t miss their 2018 reunion show on HBO Max, Flight of the Conchords: Live in London.
An award-winning dark comedy starring Bill Hader, Barry tells the story of a modern hitman who becomes disenchanted with his current profession when he discovers a new love for acting. Hader himself was the first to doubt his ability the play a former Marine, but his performance and the fantastic writing behind the show blend comedic genius with poignant intimate moments.
In terms of original content alone, you might find HBO Max to be well worth the price tag of $14.99 a month, especially if you want to binge all the good stuff now and then rotate your subscription.
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