Ranking the 10 Best HBO Dramas

I’m saying goodbye to HBO and more importantly HBO GO as I move to a new place where I don’t want a $160 cable bill, but before I do, I wanted to take one last look back at some of my favorite series from the channel.

HBO has had so many good shows over the years, I had to restrict this list to dramas alone. No Larry David, Kenny Powers or Bret and Jemaine. Rather, these are the shows and characters that have become legends over the years from Tony Soprano to Al Swearengen to Omar Little. Check out the full list below

10. Carnivale

Carnivale was a rather bizarre show, which is why it might not of caught on and lasted more than a pair of seasons. But it did have a fanbase, and if you can manage to get into it, it’s actually quite good.

It was one of HBO’s bolder concepts, I credit them for trying and I do think it deserves to make the top ten here. It’s overshadowed by their other classics, but remains quite good in its own right.

9. True Blood

Say what you will about True Blood these days, but there was a time where it was a very addicting, strangely compelling show. A world where everyone knew vampires existed was an interesting one, and when they were the only creatures out there, things were a lot better.

Unfortunately as time went on, the show felt like it needed to keep topping itself, and more and more monsters were added until it started being ridiculous. Werepanthers? Really? But give seasons 1-3 a watch and you just might enjoy it.

8. Boardwalk Empire

It’s not HBO’s best dramatic effort, but it’s not a bad show either. Set during prohibition, the series focuses on illegal bootlegging and crime during the era. Steve Buscemi is great, though I’ll admit I’m not the biggest Michael Pitt man. It was clearly Scorsese going for a Leonardo DiCaprio-type on a budget.

I’m not fully caught up with season two yet, but it’s not a bad show to watch when you’re waiting for Game of Thrones to come back.

7. Oz

Watching all six seasons of Oz in the span of two months was probably the single most exhausting media feat I’ve ever accomplished. The show is a relentless assault of depressing and horrifying violence, and is 100% set in the same prison for the duration. After six seasons, you want to escape as well.

That said, it is a powerful show and extremely well written. It’s far harder than Prison Break or movies like The Shawshank Redemption. It’s prison at its most visceral, and that’s the way it should be.

6. Rome

Before Game of Thrones, Rome was HBO’s most ambitious project. It’s what ultimately led to its downfall as even if the show was good, it was just too damn expensive and the massive fanbase it needed wasn’t there.

The most interesting part about it was that it was set in real time, where season two tried to be historically accurate by jumping ahead of number of years, and even recasting one of the lead roles as the character grew up. It really was a great show, and it’s too bad it ended as early as it did due to budget constraints.

5. Six Feet Under

Truth time, I haven’t seen more than the pilot episode of this show. I know, I know, it’s a travesty. I promise I’m trying to get around to it eventually.

That said, I know there would be many of you who would be screaming if I didn’t include it on the list, and I have a lot of friends who have watched it who assures me it deserves its place here. The dark and oddly humorous drama is where Dexter’s Michael C. Hall got his start, and it had a memorable cast of characters acting out plotlines from (now True Blood’s) Alan Ball.

4. The Sopranos

Though this would be higher? It’s often viewed as the ultimate HBO drama, or at the very least, the penultimate (first time I’ve used that word correctly in about five attempts). Tony Soprano might be one of the great characters of television history, but I think HBO does have just a few more better offerings.

This was also tough to watch all in a row, as it can sometimes be slow moving and things just got a bit weird at the end. That said, I stand by the consensus that the blackout finale was indeed brilliant, even if it had me screaming at my TV at the time.

3. Deadwood

Oh Deadwood, how I miss you so. The cowboy drama managed to run before three seasons before it ran out of ideas and support, but before it did so, it was one hell of a ride. It was based on the real life town of Deadwood where legends like Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickcok resided for a time.

Timothy Olyphant as Sheriff Seth Bullock and Ian McShane as Al Swearengen were the reasons the show worked at all, and Swearengen especially turned out to be one of the best TV villains in history. Furthermore, it’s rather amazing how many of the characters and storylines were based on real world events in the town.

2. Game of Thrones

So what IS the penultimate HBO drama? Right now, it’s everyone’s favorite, Game of Thrones. Fanboyishness aside, it’s a truly great series from the scripts to the acting to the costumes to the (usually) subtle usage of CGI.

It certainly helps that there is a fantastically written series of books to use as a roadmap, but HBO could have easily botched it. Instead, they’ve casted almost every role to perfection, given it all the money it needs and some would argue even improves upon the original books in parts. Though that last item will probably rile a few people up.

1. The Wire

It’s hard to say if there will ever be another show as phenomenal as The Wire. For all our sakes, I hope there is, but it’s definitely going to be hard to top. It’s one of the only dramas I’ve ever seen that simply feels like real life. It’s like you’re watching the most highly polished documentary ever about what life is like for dealers, cops and addicts on the streets of Baltimore.

Each season showcase new issues from the inner city. Drugs are a huge, central focus, but later seasons tackle education, journalism and government spending, and the The Wire features perhaps the best line-up of memorable characters across any other show on television, past or present..


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  1. Treme over oz, with GOT and Six Feet Under tied for second with Wire first, of course. Sopranoes could easily be higher except it really went downhill after season 3. Six Feet Under is well worth the investment.

  2. I’d so put Carnivale higher.. Clancy Brown, nuf said. It’s one of my most favorite shows I’ve ever watched. I’d give anything for them to complete the story.. a book, graphic novel ANYTHING. TAKE MY MONEY!

  3. Great list but I have to agree with J5. Boardwalk Empire should be maybe a couple spots higher. I think Carnivale should be a little higher as well but thats just personal preference. I have always felt it was so far ahead of it’s time and how under-rated it really was.

  4. What?!? No Sex and the City or Arliss? LOL.

    Actually, a couple that were probably before your time deserve a mention.

    The Larry Sanders show was awesome. Pure unadulterated Garry Shandling being himself (meaning a neurotic dick) as much as anything, Rip Torn at his sardonic best and it finally exposed Jeffery Tambor “Hey Now!!” to a much larger audience.

    Mr. Show with Bob and David. Worth watching for the H.R. Pufnstuf parody alone.

    And now that I reread the Title of the article, I see it was dramas, so I’m guessing the Comedy series top ten will be coming later.

    BTW, if Curb Your Enthusiasm isn’t number one on that list, you’re crazy.

  5. I think Deadwood, Game of Thrones, and the Wire are all equally as good. It’s really tough to rank those for me.

    We got screwed on Deadwood without any real closure and, from what I understand, the story of Game of Thrones has barely even started.

    I guess that’s why The Wire comes it an #1 in this list.

  6. Am I the only one that felt Carnivale isn’t as good as everyone says it is? It is an interesting and strange show with a wonderful dark backdrop, but it was slow and after two seasons it didn’t seem like the story really moved forward. I agree with Paul’s placement on his list: Carnivale definitely deserves a mention in the top ten but it doesn’t need to be placed any higher. That’s my two cents anyways.

  7. Wow, I was surprised to see Six Feet Under so low. Excellent list!!!

    Mine is probably:

    1. The Wire
    2. The Sopranos/Six Feet Under
    3. Deadwood
    4. Game of Thrones

  8. Great List! I would put Game of Thrones at the top but that’s only because I was recently able to get HBO and up here in Canada I don’t think we ever got The Wire…I’ll have to find the dvds I guess.

    P.S. I’ve never seen Boardwalk Empire – what’s going on with that dude’s face in the picture??!!??

  9. I’m just crushing through Oz right now. Almost done season 4. Ridiculously good show. Can’t stop watching. Definitely exhausting though like you said. 4 seasons in 2 weeks is a lot to take in.

  10. Sopranos is #1. the wire is awesome , i think the sopranos touches on aspects that are far more interesting and important. The wire might be a true modern greek tragedy , the sopranos was poetic and reflects everyday life. Noteworthy mentions would be Veep , Generation Kill.

  11. Love the list, and agree with a lot…When I try to recommend a series to someone to try:

    1. The Wire starts pretty slow, as there aren’t many characters like McNulty, Stringer Bell and the cornermen.

    2. Oz is VERY nihilistic.

    3. Deadwood is excellent, but some can only take so much of Ian McShane saying cocksucker, over and over and over…

    HOWEVER, when I introduce someone to Game of Thrones, as the pilot ends with (SPOILER ALERT) a child being thrown out a window, after seeing a Kingsguardsman having sex with the Queen AND his sister, welllll, many can’t wait to see what happens next.

  12. I need to watch The Wire.

    My personal list would include Sex and the City, of course. Game of Thrones = #1 (since I haven’t seen The Wire yet).

  13. There was no ‘interesting gap’ between season 1 & 2 of ‘Rome’. 2 begins immediately after 1. Caesar is murdered at the end of 1, 2 starts with his personal slave walking in to the forum and finding him. So what, a matter of minutes? That’s far *less* time than most series.

    Anyway, interesting top 10!

  14. Also – while it’s of course apples and oranges, this *is* a top 10 list… While I adore The Wire, The Sopranos is superior. The Wire usually edges it because white middle-class types can get all righteous, and it’s certainly a fantastic series [beyond middle class people realising the world is a terrible place and not everything is wonderful]. The Sopranos out-drama’d The Wire by a mile, I really don’t understand how the author of this said it was hard to watch due to being too slow – crazy talk, the dramatic depth and breadth of the show made everything else look bad.

    Game of Thrones? Seriously? It’s good, but it’s not as good as the source, and that will always take away from it, because you’ve got how good it *could* be staring right at you.

    Also – ultimate = last. Pentultimate = second-from-last.
    Usually used in terms of top, end, final – ultimate being a ‘positive’ last [i.e. last one standing as opposed to finishing last in the race, though it can be used like that].
    Not to be used in terms of ultimate being ‘best’.

  15. I think Boardwalk Empire will be higher on the list once you finish season 2.

    Game of Thrones should be behind The Sopranos simply because, like Boardwalk Empire, the show is just getting started. The Sopranos did kind of fall apart, especially the last season, but it was a great show.

    It feels like a lot of people that missed Deadwood are starting to discover it and that is excellent because it is a show that should be seen. It’s just a bummer that it never got a chance to be properly finished. That cast has exploded in popularity, especially Timothy Olyphant and John Hawkes.

  16. I think the title of this should not be “Ranking the 10 Best HBO Dramas” but “Ranking My Top 10 HBO Dramas”

    There’s no way Game of Thrones and Deadwood can be ranked higher than The Sopranos. The cultural and artistic influence and impact it had ALONE would merit it way higher in this list.

    Also, True Blood? Really? REALLY? REALLY? Just because it had a decent season or two doesn’t mean it should be here. The rest of the series was pure and utter garbage. But uh… good list besides all of that!

  17. I’m one of those rare folks who thought THE SOPRANOS was way overrated. Same thing on THE WIRE; I tried to hang with it, but I gave up on it second season b/c it seemed to be chocked full of stereotypes. Love DEADWOOD and BOARDWALK EMPIRE and GAME OF THRONES, though. Never tried OZ; just didn’t look all that interesting to me. CARNIVALE had some highs and lows that made it really inconsistent during its first season, much better narratively second season; and I miss it and its oddities even still today.

  18. Thanks for the list! I’ll have to give a few of these shows a shot. I hope it’s not too late to catch up! True Blood is such a good one so, with any luck, the other shows on the list will be just as entertaining. I still have to watch the latest episode before the new one comes on tonight. Sundays are usually a busy day at my job for Dish so I always have to DVR it and watch it later. HBO’s new show, Newsroom, is another one I would recommend. It just premiered so it’s too soon to tell if it will be a quality show, but I’ve already got that one set to record weekly. Luckily, I just upgraded my DVR to the Hopper so even if the show turns out to be lame, it will barely put a dent on the recording space I have available. However, based on the premiere, Newsroom is definitely one to keep an eye on!

  19. I know its a miniseries, but Band of Brothers should have at least got an HM. Every single episode is magnificent. I’d put it right under the two juggernauts if it were eligible

    My top 10:
    1. The Wire
    2. The Sopranos
    3. Six Feet Under
    4. Deadwood
    5. Game of Thrones
    6. Rome (shame they had to cram so much into the 2nd season)
    7. OZ
    8. Carnivale
    9. Boardwalk Empire
    10. True Blood

    Treme bored me to death. John Adams deserves a mention. The Newsroom pilot gave me the Sorkin chills, which are the best chills.

    Shows like Kings and The Black Donnellys would have been amazing on HBO.

  20. Game of Thrones > All…

    Oh, and True Blood should be higher than Boardwalk Empire and The Sopranos is too high on the list in my opinion.

    MY list would be
    1 Game of Thrones
    2 Deadwood
    3 The Wire
    4 Rome
    5 Oz
    6 True Blood
    7 The Sopranos
    8 Carnivale
    9 Boardwalk Empire
    10 Six Feet Under

  21. True Blood is on the list because so many people watch it, it would seem odd not to be. But its a horrible show, and once it finally ends it will be quickly forgotten.

    If you don’t believe me, keep in mind this season features a story arc about the daughter of the women who is sleeping with the guy who employee Sookie…

    or, if you haven’t watched it: That’s an arc about an ancillary character to an ancillary character to an ancillary character to the main character… yikes…

    Imagine if the Soprano’s did a story arch about the neighbor of the Polish husband of the woman who cleaned Tony’s house.

  22. Boardwalk Empire improves a lot in the second season. The last two episodes are really fantastic television. These episodes make the difference between a good show and a great one. Catch up, it´ll be worth it.

  23. Do yourself a favor and finish the 2nd season of Boardwalk Empire. Then come back to this article. If you know what a deep, complex, and brilliant show is then Boardwalk will surely be higher.

    Oh and to all the “mehhhh but its sooo boring cuz im to dumb to realize all the brilliance and complexity going on” go to cinemax and watch Strike Back to get your action fix. weetahds.

  24. My top ten is
    1) Sopranos
    2) The Wire
    3) Six Feet Under (The series finale is the best ever)
    4) Oz
    5) Deadwood
    6) Boardwalk Empire
    7) Game of Thrones
    8) Rome
    9) Treme
    10) Big love

  25. Good shows, bad places.

    The Sopranos and The Wire MUST be in top 3 it’s just not debatable. Probable alongside with Deadwood maybe Rome.
    Boardwalk empire deserves higher place as well.

    The presence of True blood on the list, and second place for Game of Thrones are mistakes big as Asia.
    Boardwalk empire deserves higher place as well.

  26. The Wire is by far the best show ever, it’s not even close so you didn’t ruin the list.

    What I don’t understand is that the Sopranos is ranked so high… some people are putting it above The Wire which is really weird. If you ever saw movies like Goodfellas, Witness To The Mob, Gotti, Donnie Brasco, Casino, … than u would know that the Sopranos is not that good. I think it’s a good series but I don’t think it’s a maserpiece, and it shouldn’t be ranked higher than Carnivale which was more unique and had a better story.

  27. I’m still trying to figure out what everyone is raving about when it comes to Game of Thrones, even though I liked the second season a lot more than the first.
    But honestly, aside from Peter Dinklage’s Tyrion Lannister, there isn’t much to say about the characters/performances.. Except that they’re occasionally compelling at best(Eddard Stark), and one-dimensional cardboard cut-outs at worst(Jauffre Lannister, the boy-king).

    I’m leaning towards the conclusion that any show where each frame looks like a million dollars automatically earns a top spot. Sopranos, The Wire – you are sorely missed.

    (GoT-fans: Sorry in advance)

  28. Please pass the blunt if you actually think Game of Thrones is better than The Sopranos or Deadwood. Seriously – you are high. Game of Thrones isn’t anywhere near as good as its source material. This is obviously a joke considering True Blood even made the list. Big Love is about 1000x better.

  29. man nobody ever shows oz it’s respect. it was RAW and deserves a much higher slot than 7. not as good as the wire though. I would put wire at number 1, oz at number 2, game of thrones at 3 and sopranos at 4

    1. Agree on ‘OZ’. Great show, and even greater acting. Season 6 was a bit muddled though. Maybe they rushed the storylines just to tie everything in a neat bow before the finale?

  30. True Blood was quite good during season 1 and 2, i remember i loved it, even season 3. But after that it was ruined, so bad… Carnivale was a wonderful tv show, and better.

  31. Nothing touches The Wire. I glad to see a person put The Sopranos at 4. I’d actually put Six Feet Under above it but you are on the right track. That show is incredibly overrated. The Wire set the precedent for all future TV dramas to match. There may be another show as good as The Wire but nothing will ever top it.

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