Both on the awards circuit and in the public consciousness, HBO is a network that was one of the first to recognize that television, as a medium, had the power to deliver large scale stories on a smaller screen. From its ascent in the late 1990s through its continued dragon-aided rise, HBO original series have tackled global stories, stretching across continents and through time.
HBO hasn’t been without controversy, though. The network has faced questions about its lack of diversity in the network’s largest series. And, unshackled from the restrictions of broadcast TV, the various steps the network has taken to push the limit of what’s allowed on screen has earned HBO its share of headlines.
Overall, the network’s commitment to collaborating with talented filmmakers and inventive creators has earned them creative success that few of their rivals have been able to equal. Even as the age of prestige TV has blanketed the marketplace with plenty of other options, HBO’s newest shows have been able to stand out as well, as current shows like “Insecure,” “Silicon Valley,” and “The Night Of” carry on the tradition across genre and time period.
On the heels of another batch of new seasons, here’s an overview of decades’ worth of original programming across the scripted and unscripted spectrums, a collection of the best that HBO has had to offer.
20. “Fraggle Rock“
Dance your cares away
Worry’s for another day
Let the music play
Down at Fraggle Rock!
The Jim Henson series might be considered the “HBO starter drug” for a generation of viewers, now in their 40s, who came of age in the 1980s. Fraggles are mostly carefree creatures with different personalities – led by the characters Gobo, Red, Wembley, Mokey and Boober. They sing, they play, they eat structures built by Doozers, they steal radishes from the Gorgs and seek answers from the enlightened Marjory the Trash Heap. Out in the real world, Doc and Sprocket were the gateway for the Fraggles to “outer space.” The Fraggle world lived on with the recent Hulu animated series “The Doozers.”
19. “Game of Thrones“
Even with a head start as rich as George R. R. Martin’s novels, translating the dense mythology of this fantasy behemoth to the world of TV has been an unprecedented undertaking, creating entire cities and species from the ground up on a mammoth scale. In the process, that attention to detail and willingness to forge new directions for these characters has kept the series grounded in ways that keep viewers in dragon-free zones hooked week after week. In a fractured entertainment environment, the mere existence of “Game of Thrones” as an all-consuming, quadrant-crossing hit is something of a minor miracle. Even as the show enters its home stretch, to finish on its own terms, the impending spinoff series prove that we won’t be done with Westeros any time soon.
18. “Last Week Tonight“
Even before the neverending news cycle became a White House-focused monoculture, “Last Week Tonight” provided a valuable service by directing the late-night focus away from the front page. With segments on pressing issues as disparate as net neutrality, multi-level marketing schemes, mandatory minimum sentencing, gerrymandering and infringement on LGBT rights, John Oliver and company have produced far more than the “evisceration” they often get headlines for (something Oliver himself has poked fun at). Using the show’s distinct viewpoint to punch up rather than tred on easy targets, it’s political-themed comedy that offers something constructive to our national discourse, all while managing to slip in dogs who look like Supreme Court justices for good measure.
17. “The Jinx“
“The Jinx” kicks off with a criminal trying to get caught. If Andrew Jarecki’s journey into the mind of Robert Durst was only an unpacking of that single idea, it would have still been compelling TV. That this true-crime docuseries also uncovers plenty of unexpected discoveries not just about Durst, but about the ethical nature of the proper reporting process of these potential homicides makes it a watershed moment of the “Serial” boom. “The Jinx” doesn’t skimp on the brutality of these crimes, showing them in full detail so that an unsuspecting audience has a better understanding of the severity of these alleged murders. Ultimately, it’s a gripping examination of the power of trauma and how the cycle of violence can be perpetuated before we even realize it.
16. “Big Little Lies“
Whodunits so often get overrun by the juiciness of their premises. Not so for Jean-Marc Vallée and David E. Kelley’s recent adaptation of the Liane Moriarty novel, which crafts a central California community of intrigue and looks for the more nuanced story behind the death that sets off the series. The show’s central quartet (played by Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Shailene Woodley, and Laura Dern) each bring a dynamic thread to the fabric of this seaside town and the children whose actions become a focal point for the story. While the series left off as a strong, standalone piece of TV craftsmanship, it’s a testament to how well this blend of visual style and otherworldly performances captured audience’s imaginations that Season 2 rumbles have persisted since the finale.
Up next: picks #15-11, including a few underrated choices