The 50 best TV shows to watch on HBO Max right now, from 'The White Lotus' to 'Hacks'
The new service has made a name for itself as the exclusive streaming home for Monica, Rachel, Phoebe, Chandler, Joey and Ross, but it has a deep library of great TV beyond our "Friends." HBO Max combines original TV shows, including Emmy-nominated "Hacks," and films with the entire library of HBO and many series from its corporate siblings such as TNT, TBS and CNN. So you'll find "Friends," sure, but also series like "Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown," "The Sopranos," "Sex and the City" and new "Looney Tunes" cartoons. And now the much-hyped "Friends" reunion is also streaming.
Although its archive of TV is deep and exciting, there are plenty of duds mixed in with critically acclaimed and Emmy-winning series. We've picked the 50 best series to watch in August 2021, from reality to documentary to children's shows to dark dramas (listed in alphabetical order).
1. “Angels in America”
HBO’s 2003 adaptation of Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, an allegorical examination of the AIDS crisis and LGBTQ life in the 1980s, is absolutely mesmerizing. Its outstanding cast, including Al Pacino, Meryl Streep, Patrick Wilson, Mary-Louise Parker, Emma Thompson and Jeffrey Wright, makes it an absolute classic.
2. “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown”
The travel and food show was always a thoughtful exploration of culture and cuisine, and its 12 seasons, which originally ran on CNN, became even more poignant and touching after the death of chef Bourdain in 2018.
3. “The Bachelor” franchise
If the bachelors and bachelorettes of ABC's long-running reality dating franchise can find love in a hopeless place (like in front of millions of TV viewers), then there's hope for the rest of us, too.
4. “Band of Brothers” and ”The Pacific”
Created by Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg, these two World War II set miniseries are exquisite. Like Spielberg’s lauded “Saving Private Ryan,” the HBO series capture the epic scale of war but are measured and realistic in the costs and sacrifices of soldiers and bystanders.
In HBO’s black comedy as dark as Batman’s cape, Bill Hader plays a depressed hitman who finds new purpose taking acting classes in L.A. A concept that sounds too out there to work is pulled off thanks to Hader; Henry Winkler; and Anthony Carrigan, whose dumb mobster NoHo Hank is a breath of lightness the show sorely needs.
6. “A Black Lady Sketch Show”
Created by Robin Thede and produced by Issa Rae, HBO’s tiny-but-mighty sketch comedy series is knee-slappingly hilarious. Its talented Black lady comedians excel in sketches that are unique to their experiences and universal in their humor. Season 2 premieres April 23.
7. “The Big Bang Theory”
CBS’ hangout sitcom starring Jim Parsons and Kaley Cuoco was often TV's most popular show for a reason – its big, broad humor and nerdy characters are comforting and familiar.
8. “The Boondocks”
With a stunning voice cast (Regina King! John Witherspoon!) and provocative material, this Adult Swim animated series was woefully underrated when it aired from 2005-2014. But hopefully its new home on HBO Max, which streams the original seasons and has commissioned two new installments, will bring the adaptation of Aaron McGruder’s comic strip the acclaim it deserves.
The brilliance of HBO’s historical miniseries, which chronicles the 1986 nuclear disaster at a power plant in Soviet Ukraine, creeps up on you. “Chernobyl” is never crass or exploitative, but rather it simply, and anger-inducingly, explains the failures and hubris that led to the disaster, and introduces the people who tried to mitigate its consequences.
10. “Curb Your Enthusiasm”
Larry David’s dry, meta comedy, in which he plays a fictionalized version of himself, is a reliable source of humor for his fans. Whenever he returns to HBO for a new season, David is ready to poke fun at his peculiarities and neurosis.
Creator David Milch’s masterpiece of a Western, which originally aired on HBO for for a criminally short three-season run in the 2000s, is one of TV’s all-time best series, and a 2019 revival movie didn't disappoint.
12. “Doctor Who”
With a time machine, a screwdriver and a plucky spirit, there is no limit to where (or when) the Doctor (currently embodied by Jodie Whittaker) can take you in this British sci-fi institution.
13. “Doom Patrol”
The best superhero show on TV right now is this irreverent team-up show that originally streamed on DC Universe. Starring Alan Tudyk, Brendan Fraser, Timothy Dalton, Matt Bomer and more, the series steers clear of tired tropes and fake optimism for a gritty-but-not-exhausting version of superheroics.
If you liked Laura Dern in “Big Little Lies,” you’ll love her razor-sharp, nearly unhinged role as Amy Jellicoe in this two-season HBO series from creator Mike White. A cringe dramedy that never goes too far (but gets very, very close), the smart series sees Dern turn in one of her best performances.
15. “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air”
While a dramatic reboot of Will Smith’s seminal NBC comedy is coming to streaming service Peacock, HBO Max has the original six seasons of the sitcom about a teen (Smith) from West Philadelphia (born and raised) who moves in with his rich relatives in California.
More than two decades after it premiered, "Friends" remains a cultural institution and reliable source of delight and laughs. Its long afterlife in cable reruns and streaming (it was on Netflix for years before it moved to its new HBO Max home) has introduced it to new generations. It may be a cliché, but it is nice to spend some time with our "Friends."
17. “Game of Thrones”
At any moment during its eight seasons and 73 episodes, “Game of Thrones” could be the best or worst series on TV, but when it was at its peak, there was nothing else like it. A full exploration of this complex series reveals impeccable acting, gorgeous costuming and an expansion of our collective ideas about what TV can achieve.
Lena Dunham’s 20-something women in New York series, which ran from 2012-2017, was controversial and had its creative ups and downs over its six seasons, but overall the HBO comedy is a smart portrait of what being young was like in the Obama-era economy and culture.
In this darkly funny comedy, Jean Smart gets the star turn she’s long deserved. As Deb Vance, a Joan Rivers-type comedian with a Las Vegas residency and a QVC empire, Smart is in her element and at her best, a prickly diva with hidden depths. When Deb’s gig is threatened, she is forced to take on Ava (Hannah Einbinder, a revelation), a young, self-centered comedy writer who is forced to work with heDeb after a dumb tweet leaves her jobless.
20. “Harley Quinn”
Cuoco gives voice to this animated version of the DC Comics villain (and sometimes anti-hero) that Margot Robbie brought to life on the big screen. As wonderful as Robbie’s performance is, the DC Universe series is a smarter, more dynamic portrait of Harley, with superb scripts and an excellent supporting voice cast, including Lake Bell, Alan Tudyk and Christopher Meloni.
21. "Happy Endings"
Of the many "Friends"-like hangout sitcoms to emerge over the past two decades, ABC's "Endings" is on the quirkier (but far funnier) side, following five thirtysomethings in Chicago.
22. “I May Destroy You”
British actress and writer Michaela Coel broke out in the U.S. with her beloved Netflix comedy “Chewing Gum,” but “I May Destroy You” is where she truly triumphs. An imperfect but vital examination of sexual assault and consent in the modern world, Cole’s performance is heartbreaking and vivid.
Issa Rae crafts a distinctly millennial and hilarious series in this HBO comedy about a Black woman in Los Angeles who, as she approaches 30, begins to question her life decisions, including her long-term boyfriend.
24. "It's A Sin"
HBO Max's British import miniseries, about a group of young gay friends at the height of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, is a masterpiece. Beautiful, funny, profound and heartbreaking, the series tells the stories of found families, lives cut short and the deadly consequences of homophobia.
25. “John Adams”
Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney anchor HBO’s historical miniseries that brought one of the architects of the American Revolution to life almost a decade before “Hamilton” would do the same (albeit with music) for Alexander Hamilton. Never stodgy or stuffy, “John Adams” is a biopic that may gloss over some of history but is a gripping fictionalized narrative.
26. “Leaving Neverland”
Among the many true-crime documentaries of late about sexual assault allegations, this one – about two men who accused Michael Jackson of sexual abuse when they were children – stood out. Wade Robson and James Safechuck were given a platform on HBO to tell their harrowing stories, and director Dan Reed is unflinching as he captures the pain and suffering of the men and their families. Tough to watch, it's also an eye-opening look at the lasting effects of abuse and the way the media handles allegations against powerful men.
27. “The Leftovers”
Even if the tone of HBO’s overwhelmingly somber series isn’t your style, it’s hard to ignore the level of artistry delivered over three seasons from co-creators Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta. Two percent of the earth’s population disappears without an explanation, but the story is not in the mystery but in the aftermath, the broken people forced to keep living in a world that doesn’t make any sense.
28. “Looney Tunes”
Not only are the archives of the classic children’s cartoons available on HBO Max, but the streamer has produced new installments that capture the mania and humor of Bugs Bunny and friends perfectly for the modern era.
29. "Mare of Easttown"
Kate Winslet could pass for a suburban Philly native in this crime miniseries from HBO (Sundays, 10 EDT/PDT). The Oscar winner plays a smalltown detective trying to solve the murder of one young girl and the disappearance of another, while battling her own personal trauma and family problems. The series is surprisingly compelling, a character dramapiece in cop-show clothing.
30. "The Middle"
During its 2009-2018 run, this ABC comedy starring Patricia Heaton, Neil Flynn and national treasure Eden Sher was woefully underrated, outshined by its buzzier and flashier family sitcom cousins on the network. But now you can stream all nine seasons and revel in the hilarious averageness (they're very middle of the road, you might say) of Indiana's Heck family.
31. “Mr. Show with Bob and David”
Bob Odenkirk and David Cross are delightful, hilarious and unhinged in their 1995-1998 HBO sketch comedy series, considered to be one of the best sketch comedies of all time.
32. "The Nanny"
One of the few great 1990s sitcoms that hasn't streamed in the past few years, CBS' "The Nanny" is finally available to be binge-watched in all its glory. Fran Drescher's inimitable performance as the eponymous childcare provider – the voice! the clothes! the hair! – and the slow burn of her relationship with boss Max Sheffield (Charles Shaughnessy) added up to a sweet, boisterous comedy.
33. “The O.C.”
With a perfect cast, just the right amount of soap opera and gorgeous California setting, “The O.C.” was the best teen drama of the 2000s and continues be a deliciously juicy binge-watch.
34. “The Office (UK)”
Before Steve Carell made us cringe as Michael Scott, Ricky Gervais played the somehow-even-more-cringeworthy David Brent, king of his own little office, in the UK version of the series he co-created.
35. “The Plot Against America”
An alternate history drama with dire warnings about modern culture, “Plot,” based on Philip Roth’s 2004 novel, tracks what would have happened in the U.S. if Franklin Roosevelt had lost the 1940 presidential election to Charles Lindbergh. Adapted by “The Wire” creator David Simon, “Plot” evocatively brings a scary could-have-been to life.
36. “Pride and Prejudice”
There’s no Mr. Darcy quite like Colin Firth. This miniseries adaptation of Jane Austen’s celebrated novel, which originally aired on PBS in the U.S., is the definitive take on “Pride and Prejudice,” thanks to Firth’s performance and its faithful, but not restricted, translation of the story from page to screen.
37. “Robot Chicken”
Stop-motion and distinctly adult humor make this Adult Swim series, created by Seth Green, one of the network’s biggest successes, gaining the show celebrity guest stars six Emmys and 10 seasons and counting in Cartoon Network’s mature programming block.
38. “Samurai Jack”
Another Cartoon Network series with plenty for adults to enjoy, “Samurai” is fun, gripping, visually daring and has a loyal cult fanbase.
39. “Search Party”
This surreal comedy (which originally aired on TBS but jumped to HBO Max) is both relatable and infinitely absurd. A group of 20-somethings, led by Alia Shawkat (“Arrested Development”), gets over involved in the disappearance of a former classmate, leading to hilarious, horrifying and morbid discoveries.
40. “Sesame Street”
A 50-year institution for a reason, there is no children’s show quite like “Sesame Street,” which has both old PBS episodes and new HBO installments available to stream.
41. “Sex and the City”
Although it may be a bit dated, “Sex and the City” remains a classic sitcom, both for the magnetism and performances of its four leads: Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker), Miranda (Cynthia Nixon), Samantha (Kim Cattrall) and Charlotte (Kristin Davis). Dating in New York now means more apps and fewer cosmopolitans, but “Sex” still captures the uncertainty of putting yourself out there, looking for love and affection. HBO Max will also be the home of an upcoming revival of the series titled "And Just Like That," that will bring back Carrie, Miranda and Charlotte, but not Cattrall's Samantha.
42. “The Sopranos”
HBO’s New Jersey mobster drama that launched a thousand antihero knockoffs still has punch (pun intended) two decades after its debut.
43. “South Park”
Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s adult animated series may not, in current episodes on Comedy Central, have quite the same bite it did in its heyday during the mid 2000s, but it is still a generational touchstone and one-of-a-kind satire of American life.
44. “The Thick of It”
Before Peter Capaldi was “Doctor Who” and before Armando Iannucci created “Veep,” the pair collaborated on this searing British political satire, both hilarious and known for containing nearly 50% profanity in any given scene.
45. “True Detective”
If you ignore the subpar second season, HBO’s crime anthology series has two compelling mysteries, and two superb casts, for your viewing pleasure. In particular Mahershala Ali shines in Season 3 as a Black detective working in the 1980s.
Some of the political satire's bite faded in later seasons as our world has become more absurd and shocking, but that doesn't dull the sharpness of star Julia Louis-Dreyfus' performance.
HBO’s very loose adaptation of the graphic novel has blossomed into one of creator Damon Lindelof’s best series, and from the man behind “Lost” and “The Leftovers,” that’s some achievement. The series has a superb cast – including Emmy-winner Regina King – that elevates smart scripts that get better as the season progresses. Lindelof and his writers find surprising ways to bring the superhero story from the 1980s into today’s culture, helping “Watchmen” upend the comic book formula once again.
48. "The West Wing"
The simplicity of politics in Aaron Sorkin's White House drama feels almost quaint in 2020, but the rousing speeches of President Jed Bartlett (Martin Sheen) still inspire and captivate (Seasons 1-7 streaming Dec. 25). HBO Max is also home to this year's "West Wing" special, which featured the original cast reuniting for a staged reading of a Season 3 episode to benefit get-out-the-vote efforts.
49. "The White Lotus"
"Enlightened" creator Mike White has done it again with this blistering satire of the wealthy and white patrons of the exclusive White Lotus resort in Hawaii. The limited series starring Connie Britton, Jennifer Coolidge, Natasha Rothwell and Jake Lacy is this summer's absolute must-watch, a rollicking and awkward adventure with mostly terrible people.
50. “The Wire”
Touted by many as the best TV show of all time, writer David Simon's meticulous crime drama is gorgeously wrought and acted by the likes of Dominic West, Idris Elba and Michael B. Jordan.
Have a different streaming service? Here are the shows worth checking out:
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