20 essential HBO series everyone should stream at least once

Whenever someone asks for a show recommendation and your brain draws a blank, go with HBO. It’s unlikely your pick will disappoint.

HBO has a long history of blessing us with quality, addictive series. It all started back in the 90s, when the cable company began experimenting with original programming. Ever since, HBO has built a solid reputation for creating innovative television, from cult series like The Larry Sanders Show to huge international hits like Game of Thrones.

Although the competition in television has grown exponentially during the past few years with the rise of streaming services, HBO managed to maintain the same levels of success. Most recently, the pay-TV service tied with Netflix for total wins at the 2018 Emmy Awards, proving that HBO isn’t going anywhere. In fact, the network is keeping its title as the US leader in prestige television for at least a little while longer.

In Australia, Foxtel is the home of HBO, allowing subscribers to keep up with the latest releases express from the US. Moreover, series are available on demand, so you can catch up with your favourite shows anytime. Or, you can simply get a Foxtel Now subscription and stream all the HBO content you fancy with the Pop or Drama channel packs.

1. Game of Thrones

Bloody and epic, Game of Thrones is based on George R.R. Martin's best-selling book series A Song of Ice and Fire. The show takes place in the fictional realm of Westeros, where several families battle to sit on the coveted Iron Throne. There are dragons, ice zombies and steamy sex scenes, so the series has all the ingredients to become a smash hit – and it did, attracting record viewership on HBO year after year. With the final season wrapping up in April 2019, now is the perfect time to finally bend the knee and discover all the wonders Westeros has to offer.

2. The Sopranos

Despite being off the air for more than 10 years, The Sopranos is still widely regarded as one of HBO’s best original series of all time. The show follows Tony Soprano, a middle-aged man who has to juggle the problems of his dysfunctional family with a family of a different sort – the mob. The Sopranos changed TV for the better, finally proving that the medium can masterfully tell complex stories usually reserved for the big screen. And with more episodes to go around, it may even do a better job at creating compelling characters that stand the test of time. If you haven’t seen this HBO treasure yet, what are you waiting for?

3. Rome

Before there was Game of Thrones, HBO had Rome, a short-lived but spectacular series featuring war, family tragedies and political intrigue. The series follows two Roman soldiers who are caught in the historical events of an era, during a time when the Senate was seeking to undermine Caesar's power, setting the stage for inevitable civil war. Rome is an ambitious exercise in storytelling, boasting a tremendous cast and stellar writing that doesn’t undermine the viewers’ intelligence – quite the contrary, it challenges fans with a fun mix of history and fictional characters. Plus, it’s a visually stunning treat, from the show's magnificent sets to its elaborate wardrobe. Too bad it only lasted for two seasons.

4. Sex and the City

Certain episodes of Sex and the City haven’t aged particularly well, so it can be easy to forget that the show revolutionised television. But when it came out back in 1998, there wasn’t anything else like it on TV. The series centres on Carrie, a sex columnist, and her three best friends, as they navigate the complicated Manhattan dating scene. It was daring and controversial, fun and fashionable, sexy and ridiculous. More importantly, it transformed the conversations around women and sex. It showed a group of women being comfortable with who they are even when lacking a partner, which was bold and refreshing at the time. Friendship never goes out of style and, for better or worse, neither will Sex and the City – at least not anytime soon.

5. The Wire

It’s exciting to live in the golden era of television, with tons of shiny new series fighting for your attention. However, don’t make the mistake of overlooking the classics. Constantly regarded among the best dramas of all time, The Wire centres on the narcotics scene in Baltimore. Instead of focusing solely on law enforcers, the show also prominently features drug dealers and users, painting a more well-rounded and compelling picture overall. It shows how the US system is rigged to keep the oppressed oppressed and it does so with incredible empathy, which is no easy feat. All in all, The Wire is a complex, moving and clever series, commanding attention from episode one. If you haven’t seen it yet, now is the perfect time to dive in.

6. Westworld

HBO’s Westworld revolves around an atypical amusement park, where rich vacationers can interact with robotic hosts. And by interact, we mean basically live out their illicit fantasies through artificial consciousness. The sci-fi drama is based on the 1973 film of the same name, but it dives deeper into the human side of AI, managing to somehow balance pure insanity with more grounded and intelligent drama. Westworld thrives on clever twists and engaging characters, benefiting from a talented ensemble cast and captivating scripts. Stylish and gorgeously shot, the series takes its time to pull viewers into its bonkers world. Once you’re in, you’ll definitely enjoy the ride.

7. Silicon Valley

This smart HBO comedy not only pokes fun at the world of venture capitalism, but it does so in a subtle and charming manner, managing to also tell a fascinating story about the lengths to which an introverted programmer is willing to go to see his dream come true. The show follows Richard, a coder who develops a powerful search algorithm. Things only get more complicated from there, as Richard and his friends try to make it in the cutthroat tech landscape by building a successful company without compromising their values. The creators of the show manage to stay ahead of tech trends, which makes the series feel more on point that ever before. Sharp and hilarious, Silicon Valley remains one of the best comedies currently on air. Binge it immediately.

8. Girls

Girls has been controversial from the get-go. A worthy successor to Sex and the City, the dramedy follows a group of girlfriends in their twenties as they navigate life in New York, perfectly capturing that uneasy feeling of having no idea what you’re doing with your life. These characters are flawed, selfish, annoying and bratty – yet somehow, viewers will be unable to look away. Girls is insightful, rife with shock value and often hilarious. The show is far from an easy binge as it features plenty of cringe-worthy storylines. However, Girls is more honest and thought-provoking than your average sitcom, so you’re missing out if you don’t give it a shot. It may end up surprising you.

9. The Leftovers

The Leftovers is one of HBO’s more underrated gems, which is a shame given the show’s ambitious storytelling and outstanding performances. The series centres on life in a small town after many of its residents vanished in a Rapture-like event called The Sudden Departure, when 140 million people from all across the world disappeared without a trace. The Leftovers takes place three years after the cataclysm and perfectly showcases the difficulty of maintaining order in the aftermath of such a devastating event. It’s an intelligent and interesting drama, which will make you obsessively think about purpose, connection and humanity. Consider yourself warned.

10. Boardwalk Empire

A period drama for the ages, Boardwalk Empire takes place during the Prohibition era, when alcohol was outlawed and outlaws became kings. The story follows Enoch "Nucky"’ Thompson, who is equal parts politician and gangster, as he gains prominence and takes control of the famous Atlantic City. As one might expect, all this power doesn’t come without a fair share of complications. Stylish and gritty, Boardwalk Empire offers so much more than your average gangster drama. It features exciting action scenes that will keep viewers on the edge of the seat, but it also has enough substance to ensure they will keep coming back for more.

11. Veep

Veep has been dominating awards ceremonies ever since it first came on the air. This sharp political satire centres on Selina Meyer, perfectly embodied by the talented Julia Louis-Dreyfus, as she deals with the inner workings of the US government, juggling her political aspirations with her tumultuous personal life. Viciously funny, Veep is a refreshing mix of smart comedy and memorable performances, benefiting from an exquisite ensemble cast which includes the likes of Tony Hale and Anna Chlumsky. The rapid-fire dialogue between the gloriously incompetent White House staffers is delicious, although their absurd shenanigans might hit a little too close to home given the current US political landscape. Alas, that's all the more reason to tune in.

12. Curb Your Enthusiasm

Created by Larry David, Curb Your Enthusiasm is a hilarious and semi-improvised sitcom that centres on a neurotic TV writer and his life in LA. David plays a fictionalised version of himself – a successful man who always manages to get himself into all sorts of mishaps and gaffes. Each episode of the show is a generous helping of neurotic delight. The way in which David deals with life's little annoyances is sure to put a smile on your face, even as you’re wondering how this man manages to maintain any kind of relationship in his personal life. If he were real, you’d probably punch him in the face. Thankfully, Curb Your Enthusiasm is fiction – and pretty funny fiction, at that.

13. Enlightened

There’s no secret that Laura Dern is a treasure – and if you’re not a fan of her work yet, you will be after binging Enlightened. The series centres on Amy, a successful woman who suffers a public nervous breakdown which sends her to a mental institution. However, when she returns home with a fresh outlook on life, she discovers that not everyone is willing to accept the new her, so she struggles to figure out what’s really important. Enlightened is the type of show that grows on you, with a healthy dose of black humour to keep things interesting. At best, it will inspire you to live more positively. At worst, it will make you laugh. In short, you’ve got nothing to lose here.

14. Six Feet Under

Compelling and thought-provoking, Six Feet Under is the kind of show that has probably always been on your watch list, but the bleak premise never really pulled you in. It’s time to finally take the plunge; otherwise, you’re missing out on some superb acting and a considerable amount of wit. The show follows the dysfunctional Fisher family, who own and operate a funeral home in Los Angeles. This unusual setting allows the characters to engage in enough macabre meditations on mortality to last a lifetime, with some surreal dream sequences and dark humour sprinkled in. The engaging ensemble should be enough reason to watch as the show stars Peter Krause, Michael C. Hall and Frances Conroy, among others.

15. Barry

A fresh addition to HBO’s roster of original shows, Barry is already making waves, with Bill Hader and Henry Winkler both winning 2018 Emmy Awards for their performances on the series. Barry follows a low-level hitman who isn’t particularly satisfied with his life. As a result, he finds the idea of becoming an actor incredibly appealing, although juggling his new aspirations with his night job will prove a bit complicated. The show successfully mixes comedy and violence, which enables it to stand out in a competitive TV landscape. Barry takes a lot of risks, but most of them pay off big time, as the end product is both mesmerising and unnerving. With only eight episodes so far, the sadcom is the perfect quick binge for a lazy weekend.

16. Big Little Lies

Based on Liane Moriarty’s successful novel of the same name, Big Little Lies follows a group of moms – Madeline, Celeste and Jane – as they struggle to maintain their apparently perfect lives while dealing with fractured, dysfunctional relationships and trauma. It’s a show about how nothing is as idyllic as it may initially seem. It also features a thrilling mystery that will keep you guessing until the very end. The cast is the stuff of dreams, featuring Nicole Kidman, Shailene Woodley and Reese Witherspoon. Plus, Meryl Streep is set to join them for Season 2, which is all the more reason to check out this highly addictive drama.

17. Sharp Objects

Also an adaptation, this time of a Gillian Flynn novel, Sharp Objects centres on Camille Preaker, a damaged reporter who returns to her small hometown to investigate a series of mysterious crimes. The show benefits from a powerhouse performance by Amy Adams, who makes viewers care deeply about the flawed protagonist as she grapples with mental health and family issues. Sharp Objects is a provocative series that pulls you in despite its slow pacing and grim atmosphere. Rest assured – you may have to endure a few too many scenes of Camille driving contemplatively in her car while listening to music, but the payoff is worth the wait.

18. Treme

Treme is a powerful show that takes place in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, following several interesting characters, from street musicians to college professors, who try to move on with their lives. Their determination to get back on their feet is what fuels the show as viewers root for these flawed but incredibly complex characters to succeed. The music is gorgeous, which is expected since the show is set in New Orleans, a city defined by its musical culture. But more than that, Treme delivers a touching portrait of a community waiting for relief from despair. A universal story that’s never boring to watch.

19. Looking

Funny and honest, Looking follows three best friends living in San Francisco as they navigate the complexities of contemporary gay relationships. Despite the premise, the show isn’t obnoxious. It doesn’t set out to define gay relationships in any way, but remains low-key and trusts its characters to win over the audience with their charm – which is revolutionising in itself. As the title suggests, the three friends are looking for partners, for jobs and for themselves. It’s a show about people struggling to determine what and who they want in life. So if you’re into that type of thing, while also enjoying smart, endearing comedy, you should definitely give Looking a watch.

20. Insecure

Insecure follows Issa and Molly, two black women and best friends who cope with an endless series of awkward everyday occurrences. The series doesn’t rely on stereotypes, but takes the viewer on a poignant and often hilarious journey through the life of two twenty-something women. Besides the usual difficulties of young adulthood, they also have to deal with uncomfortable racial experiences on a daily basis. Insecure is fresh, witty, stylish and sincere, providing an unflinching look at modern dating and life in general. You’ll be charmed from episode one.

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