HBO Max, which costs $14.99 per month, arrives about half a year after the wildly successful Disney+ and the less successful Apple TV+, on the heels of on-the-go mobile streamer Quibi and just ahead of NBC’s debut of Peacock in July. It also lands while many people continue to stay at home as social distancing measures remain in place or are tentatively lifted—a time that’s brought both a big spike in streaming and a fallow period for real-time TV and movie theaters.
Exactly how HBO Max will fit into the streaming landscape remains to be seen, but so far WarnerMedia’s strategy seems to rely on a limited number of originals to satisfy viewers of various ages and inclinations—Elmo, voguing and crafting are among the draws in its first six series—and a massive portfolio that includes DC comics movies, CNN docuseries, CW shows and Warner Bros. films from recent years (Crazy Rich Asians, A Star Is Born) to decades past (The Wizard of Oz, Casablanca).
So, where to begin with HBO Max? First, read our TV critic’s take on the six HBO Max originals launching today. (The summer will see more debuts, from an Amy Schumer docuseries and the Friends cast reunion special to a Jordan Peele-produced sci-fi horror adaptation and a Seth Rogen time-travel comedy.) And if you’re in the mood to rewatch a favorite or discover an oldie but goodie for the first time, here are some ideas for what to watch in the vast back catalog of HBO Max.
Reality TV, Docuseries, Travel and Game Shows
Fashion is a reflection of the times we live in, and that’s never more clear than in American Style, a four-part series that examines how what we wear can tell the story of what’s happening book profits in our world—socially, politically and otherwise. From the invention of the bikini to the emergence of the “power suit” for women, American Style explores how clothes helped write the narrative of America in the 20th century.
At Home With Amy Sedaris
While there’s plenty of crafting and cooking on At Home With Amy Sedaris, it’s sly comedy that takes center stage on the satirical sketch series. Riffing on popular lifestyle talk shows, Sedaris brings the no-holds-barred zaniness that grew her a loyal fanbase on Comedy Central to side-splitting sketches of domestic bliss that feature famous friends like Stephen Colbert and Rachel Dratch.
Starting with his infamously rocky start on The Tonight Show, Conan O’Brien never seemed all that comfortable behind a desk, engaging in the pitter patter of celebrity small-talk. Instead, he’s thrived in remote segments across the world, in which he verbally spars with non-showbiz types and learns about different cultures with self-deprecating delight. His best segments include awkward encounters with a Korean language instructor, a Cuban rum museum tour guide and a Greenland weather report.
While the premise was simple—a chef roams the world looking for a bite and a beer—the execution was anything but. In every episode of the docuseries Parts Unknown, Anthony Bourdain approached a new local food scene with a hunger not only for the food but its history and culture, in the process giving a mouthpiece to marginalized creators. He told excellent stories, lifted up struggling restaurants, embraced the customs of remote parts of the world—and on top of it all, was just an extremely good hang.
Whose Line Is It Anyway?
Improv comedy may have fallen out of favor in the mainstream, but Whose Line Is It Anyway has proved its resilience and gut-busting laugh-worthiness over 22 years and multiple eras of comedy. Ryan Stiles, Colin Mochrie, and Wayne Brady perform in improvised skits, gags and musical numbers, while Drew Carey or Aisha Tyler serves as host; the show is often funniest when the bits go off the rails and the cast members break. One standout episode from 2000 features a jubilant Robin Williams in rare form.
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9/11: 15 Years Later
American Dynasties: The Kennedys
The Bush Years: Family. Duty. Power
Chasing Life With Sanjay Gupta
Christiane Amanpour: Sex & Love Around the World
CNN Decade Series
Crimes of the Century
Ellen’s Game of Games
The End: Inside the Last Days of the Obama White House
Finding Jesus: Faith. Fact. Forgery
The History of Comedy
Pope: The Most Powerful Man in History
Race for the White House
The Redemption Project
This Is Life With Lisa Ling
The Wonder List With Bill Weir
13 Going on 30
The premise of 13 Going on 30 begins with a geeky teenage girl’s dream: fast-forwarding to the future, when she will no longer be an awkward barely teen, but 30, flirty, and thriving. It’s a concept that could easily turn saccharine—but Jennifer Garner’s turn as the grown-up but still earnest and romantic Jenna Rink is endearing, lending warmth and substance to a rom-com about realizing that sometimes the far-off fantas you’re dreaming of was with you all along.
There are plenty of washboard abs and ripped bods in this sweet, silly film about male strippers, but what makes Magic Mike worth watching (and re-watching) is its heart. Loosely based on the young adult years of Channing Tatum, who plays the titular character, the movie follows Mike’s journey, hustling with odd jobs by day and dazzling crowds of swooning women by night, before a young protegée and a new love interest make him reconsider his ambitions in life.
Sandra Bullock is an FBI agent turned undercover beauty pageant contestant on a mission to prevent a threatened bombing at the Miss United States competition. The 2000 comedy, which counts Michael Caine and Candice Bergen among its cast, marries the trappings of beauty contests—from baton twirling to learning to ‘glide’—with all the thrills of a mystery.
In his breakout role, an endearingly young Tom Cruise plays a well-to-do teen left on his own for an unintentionally wild weekend of partying, break-ins and entrepreneurial fixes. It’s a coming-of-age comedy with a sweet edge, featuring Cruise in that iconic dancing-in-your-underwear scene. Come for a throwback to the early ’80s, and stay for dialogue that’s held up.
When Harry Met Sally
Nora Ephron’s masterwork is hands down the best romantic comedy ever created—and not just because of that Katz’s Delicatessen scene. Can men and women be friends? Of course. What’s ingenious about this film’s charged banter—and Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan’s performances—is that their conversations beg the question, can these two specific people with totally opposing views on sex and love be more than friends? The answer never fails to delight.
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Crazy Rich Asians
A Star Is Born
Genre Films: Superheroes, Horror, Crime and More
Thanks to its hair-raising jump scares and ghastly depiction of demonic possession, this fright flick earned an R rating ahead of its 2013 release simply for being absolutely terrifying. Starring Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson as married demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren, the original Conjuring recounts the allegedly “true story” of the 1970s haunting of the Perron family and has spawned the second highest-grossing horror franchise of all time, behind only Godzilla.
The DC Extended Universe Movies
The DC Extended Universe has come a long way since Henry Cavill first graced the big screen as Superman in Man of Steel. With standout installments like Wonder Woman, Shazam! and the most recent DC flick, Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey, the superhero franchise has shined when focusing on the origin stories of fan-favorite characters rather than the overly dark throughline of the Batman vs Superman saga.
In Martin. Scorsese’s Oscar-winning cat-and-mouse gangster epic, Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon play a policeman embedded in a criminal enterprise and a criminal embedded in the police force, respectively, each looking to ferret out the other. The impressive cast includes Jack Nicholson, Mark Wahlberg and Alec Baldwin, all taking stabs at their best Boston accents. The quick cuts and shifting perspective keeps the audience on their toes, even on a rewatch.
Uma Thurman stabs, punches, kicks, twirls and glowers her way through four hours of revenge in this two-part Quentin Tarantino epic, which is as pulpy, violent and entertaining as any Tarantino film. Playing The Bride, Thurman fights through several iconic set pieces, including an absurd melee at the House of Blue Leaves and a ferocious one-on-one finale against Lucy Liu. And there’s a glimmer of hope that Volumes 1 and 2 won’t be the end of the series—cast member Vivica A. Fox said this month that a third installment could be in the works.
The Hobbit Trilogy
While not as critically successful as the Lord of the Rings movies, Peter Jackson’s three-part adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s original Middle-earth tale offers a thrilling prelude to the fateful War of the Ring that would take place 60 years later. Martin Freeman stars as a young Bilbo Baggins, the uncle of Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood), who is swept up into a quest that not only alters his own life, but the course of the world forever.
The Lord of the Rings Trilogy
Peter Jackson’s live-action adaptations of J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy epic awed moviegoers at the time of their release and remain a touchstone for the genre that fans revisit time and time again. The trilogy follows hobbit Frodo and eight companions as they seek to destroy the accursed Ring of Power before the overwhelming forces of the dark lord Sauron consume Middle-earth—a sweeping story of courage, friendship and the triumph of good over evil.
Steven Soderbergh’s remake of the classic heist film Ocean’s 11 might just take the title of the most rewatchable movie ever filmed. It’s loaded with movie stars—George Clooney, Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts, just to name a few—all clearly having the time of their lives hanging out in Las Vegas (and, in Pitt’s case, enjoying Vegas’ culinary offerings in nearly every shot of the movie). And no matter how many times you revisit the film, there’s something particularly satisfying about watching all the pieces of Danny Ocean’s convoluted heist lock into place.
“Hereeee’s Johnny,” croons Jack Nicholson’s axe-wielding Jack Torrance as he stalks his wife (Shelley Duvall) through the ghost-infested Overlook Hotel first brought to life in Stephen King’s 1977 novel of the same name. That’s only one of countless iconic scenes—from the terrifying appearance of the world’s creepiest twins to the haunting reveal of the true meaning of “Redrum”—in Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 adaptation of King’s tale that have become some of the most recognizable tableaus in American horror history. For King purists, it may be important to note that the author has famously denounced Kubrick’s take on his story.
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Every Batman and Superman movie from the last 40 years
The Matrix Trilogy
There’s a reason the eminently quotable, 1942 wartime love story Casablanca, starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, has remained one of the most beloved films for decades: the fiery, doomed romance between Bogart’s Rick and Bergman’s Ilsa cuts clearly across the decades, and the overarching themes of war, love and sacrificing for the greater good are, naturally, timeless.
Orson Welles’ 1941 debut has been lauded for decades as one of the greatest films of all time. Citizen Kane follows the story of media mogul Charles Foster Kane, a character based on a combination of real life newspapermen, including William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer, as a reporter tries to decipher the meaning of the last word he utters: “Rosebud.” The reporter’s search uncovers Kane’s past and paints a portrait of the newspaper magnate through the eyes of those who knew him.
The Wizard of Oz
Dorothy’s adventures in a strange, technicolor fantasyland are the stuff of American legend. From the glittering Emerald City to the Wicked Witch’s signature cackle—and all those forever-stuck-in-your-head songs—every scene of The Wizard of Oz is filled with visceral joys (and a few terrors), with a luminous Judy Garland captive in everlasting youth. Does it make sense? Not too much, but the shoes sure do sparkle.
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2001: A Space Odyssey
Chariots of Fire
The Color Purple
The Last Samurai
Kids and Family Content
For all the parents bemoaning watching dumbed-down kids cartoons for the 100th time in quarantine, a solution: get your kids hooked on Looney Toons. Never as precious as their Disney competitors and always vying for parents’ laughs as well as kids’, classic bits like “What’s Opera, Doc?” or Bugs and Daffy arguing over duck season and rabbit season offer a welcome respite from certain other brain-melting cartoons.
Before Wonder Woman or Captain Marvel had their big-screen debuts, Powerpuff Girls was quietly overturning sexist tropes during Saturday morning cartoons in the 1990s. The three little girl superheroes—made of sugar, spice, everything nice and something a little more sinister called Chemical X—demonstrated three radically different variations on femininity and power, quietly giving children permission to express themselves and exercise their own strengths in different ways.
What better way to feed your Last Dance-fueled Michael Jordan nostalgia than with Space Jam, a comedy that perfectly offsets Jordan’s hyper-competitive ferocity with Looney Tunes’ slapstick absurdism. For kids, it’s a riotous no-brainer; for adults, there’s still plenty to enjoy, from blink-and-you’ll-miss-it innuendoes to an underrated supporting performance from Bill Murray. And Last Dance fans might find a curious resemblance between the villainous Mr. Swackhammer and a certain Chicago Bulls administrator that features prominently in the series.
One of the most beloved and critically acclaimed animated shows to debut in the last few years, Steven Universe follows the titular teen as he defends Earth with the Crystal Gems, three female-presenting, nonbinary aliens. The show was Cartoon Network’s first created by a woman, and has been praised for its emotional intelligence, character development, musical numbers and deft handling of mental health issues like anxiety and isolation.
Studio Ghibli Movies
Master storyteller Hayao Miyazaki, co-founder of Studio Ghibli, is arguably the greatest animator of all time. His imaginative films blend of fantasy, reality, environmentalism and philosophy. But what lifts Miyazaki above other animators—including Walt Disney—is the fact that he trusts that kids are as capable of profound thought as adults. The studio Ghibli movies have long been unavailable to stream, so if you’re just dipping your toes in for the first time, try the heartwarming My Neighbor Totoro for smaller children and the profound Spirited Away for slightly older kids.
There’s a reason it’s been on the air for more than half a century: it’s educational for kids, far from brain-numbing for parents and often entertaining for both—with its endearing mob of monsters and of-the-moment celebrity guests. From introducing Muppets living with HIV and autism to giving the world an enduring elegy to the cookie, Sesame Street is as guilt-free as screen time for littles ones can be.
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Gremlins 2: The New Batch
The Iron Giant
The Lego Movies
March of the Penguins
TV Dramas and Miniseres
This modern teen drama classic centers on ultra-wealthy prep schoolers on Manhattan’s Upper East Side whose romances, fights, moves and friendships are tracked by an anonymous blogger. Come for the heartrending breakups, epic acts of revenge, Kristen Bell’s blogger voice and some stellar late-aughts fashion choices.
The Honourable Woman
This moody thriller in the vain of Bodyguard or Little Drummer Girl stars Maggie Gyllenhaal as a British-Israeli woman whose arms dealer father is assassinated before her eyes. Gyllenhaal’s Nessa has a humanitarian mission in Palestine that may be compromised by her bloody past as well as competing interests of American, British and Israeli intelligence. If you love John le Carré-style spycraft, this drama is for you.
Ugg boots, mini skirts and bikini tops were an aspirational uniform for early-aughts teens, all because of The O.C. It’s the ultimate high school drama, dropping a kid from the “wrong” side of the tracks into the moneyed mansions of Newport Beach over a soundtrack of the era’s coolest indie bands. The tangled love lives of Ryan, Marissa, Seth, Summer and their families are fun to watch, but its the lighter comedic moments and sun-soaked vibe that have stood the test of time. (In its later seasons, the melodrama veered into even soapier territory.) Without The O.C., we may never have added Chrismukkah to our national lexicon, and for that alone we must be grateful.
Pride and Prejudice
Among the many adaptations of Jane Austen’s classic novel, the BBC miniseries, starring Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy and Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth Bennet, stands out, thanks to the crackling chemistry between the two leads, as their characters move from a mutual misunderstanding of each other to realizing they might just be meant to be. And with six episodes, the series gives generous room to Pride and Prejudice’s secondary characters, fleshing out, for example, Mrs. Bennet’s cringe-worthy behavior or Jane Bennet’s own romance with the neighboring Mr. Bingley. For fans of period pieces, this version is essential—not least because of that lake scene, where Firth’s Darcy emerges from a swim, his white shirt stuck to his chest, right before running into a very surprised Elizabeth.
The West Wing
While the idealism, interoffice romance and rousing soliloquizing of Aaron Sorkin’s turn-of-the-century drama might feel quaint, there’s still something extremely powerful about watching a team of capable and motivated experts working their hardest to resolve the country’s ills. Martin Sheen stars as President Josiah Bartlet as he tangles with his cabinet, brought to life by one of the best acting casts in recent memory—including Allison Janney, Rob Lowe, Bradley Whitford, Dulé Hill and many more.
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Pretty Little Liars
Even More Movies
Whitney Houston made her film debut in 1992’s The Bodyguard, in which she appeared as a pop star and actor who falls in love with the bodyguard (played by Kevin Costner) who’s protecting her from a dangerous stalker. Is the film dramatic, soapy and over the top? Yes, but it’s also deliciously compelling, largely in part to Houston’s onscreen charisma and one of the best movie soundtracks of all time.
Joy infuses Hairspray, the 2007 musical film adaptation of the John Waters original, which follows Tracy Turnblad, a plus-size dance-obsessed teenager in 1960s Baltimore who, after landing a spot on a local TV dance show, decides to integrate the program, much to the offense of the white showrunners. While Hairspray’s tone is not exactly made for 2020, with its focus on Tracy’s weight and John Travolta playing the role of Tracy’s mother, the musical’s song-and-dance routines remain quite catchy.
Mona Lisa Smile
In this 2003 drama, Julia Roberts plays an unconventional art history teacher at Wellesley College in the 1950s—an era in American history when women were often sent to university with the sole aim of finding good husbands—who incites controversy on campus by encouraging young students to look beyond an “MRS” degree. While her lessons about the meaning of art and the joys of living an independent life are invaluable, it’s Kirsten Dunst’s transformation from the conservative, marriage-ready Betty to an aspiring law student that drives the film.
The Shawshank Redemption
Widely considered one of the most beloved movies of all time, The Shawshank Redemption recounts the nearly 20 years that unassuming banker Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) spends in prison after being wrongly convicted of murdering his wife and her lover. Narrated by the ever-affecting Morgan Freeman, this poignant tale of suffering, hope and unbreakable friendship is another Stephen King adaptation for the books.
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Million Dollar Baby
The Right Stuff
Sitcoms and Adult Animation
While Rachel, Ross, Monica, Phoebe, Joey and Chandler have been dearly missed since Friends left Netflix last year, all 10 seasons of the NBC sitcom will soon be there for you on HBO Max, along with an as-yet-unscheduled highly-anticipated cast reunion. Packed with memorable lines and scenes, from “We were on a break!” to that one jellyfish sting, Friends has remained an audience favorite in the more than 15 years since it went off the air.
The Office (UK)
With just 14 episodes total, the British The Office, which inspired the highly popular U.S. version, remains a shining achievement of the mockumentary form. Ricky Gervais’ David Brent is the perfect insecure, cringe-inducing general manager at a paper company, who leads his team with a hilarious combination of political incorrectness and narcissism. Fans of the U.S. adaptation who haven’t yet watched should certainly seek out the original.
Rick and Morty
How many TV shows could cause grown men to stage mass protests over a hot sauce or jump up and down on a fast food counter, shouting, “I’m Pickle Riiiiiiick?” Such is the power of Dan Harmon’s Rick and Morty, in which an alcoholic, sociopathic scientist drags his easily frightened grandson on dangerous and absurdist adventures through the multiverse. The nihilistic and often nasty show isn’t for everyone—but many people like it so much that they form their entire identity around it. Proceed at your own caution.
There are over 200 episodes to choose from when diving into Seth Green and Matthew Senreich’s bizarrely hilarious stop-motion sketch comedy show. With bits exploring how Emperor Palpatine interacts with Darth Vader behind the scenes to what Jason Voorhees does when he’s not murdering teens at Camp Crystal Lake, irreverent pop culture parodies are the name of the game in this animated oddball that calls Cartoon Network’s late-night Adult Swim lineup home.
In the South Park writers’ room, nothing is sacred, and this has helped creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker’s satire remain unrelenting for more than 20 years. But unlike other comedies that take random aim at cultural phenomena and popular figures just for the sake of earning a few laughs, South Park’s blistering comedy has always been multifaceted. The crude kids growing up in South Park, Colorado have uncovered some uncomfortable but necessary truths about everything from gaming culture to gentrification to a certain church that attracts a lot of A-list movie stars.
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The Big Bang Theory
The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air
HBO Original Series
You don’t earn 30 Emmy nominations for nothing: Alec Berg and Bill Hader’s dark comedy about a hitman trying to change his life and become an actor intermingles poignant explorations of PTSD with hilarious subplots while avoiding glorifying its murderous-but-trying-to-change antihero. Hader is great but supporting actors Henry Winkler, Anthony Carrigan, Sarah Goldberg and others make the show worth watching
Big Little Lies
This lush series based on the Liane Moriarty novel of the same name is a study in contrasts: dark secrets and scandals that take place on the affluent, sun-dappled beaches of Monterey; petty catfights between protective mothers diverting eyes from violent domestic strife. These elements heighten an epic murder mystery that rocks a sleepy beach town to its core. The show is at its best when it flirts with these juxtapositions, which it does often thanks to the efforts of its all-star cast, namely Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Laura Dern, Shailene Woodley and Zoë Kravitz.
Set during the ecologically disastrous Dust Bowl of the 1930s, this strange show follows a mysterious traveling circus desperately on the hunt for patrons, patsies and pardon. Its motley cast and intricate plotlines owed a lot to the bizarre machinations of Twin Peaks, and many noted similarities between Carnivàle’s mythological leanings and the upcoming Lost. But be forewarned: though this forerunner of television’s Golden Age is well worth a first or second viewing, HBO sliced its planned six seasons down to two, leaving furious fans with a gut punch of a cliffhanger that remains unresolved to this day.
“What is the cost of lies?” This question, posed by Jared Harris as nuclear physicist Valery Legasov, is at the heart of HBO’s critically acclaimed miniseries chronicling the unprecedented April 1986 disaster that took place at a nuclear power plant in what was then the Soviet republic of Ukraine. Over the course of five emotionally draining episodes, Chernobyl follows Legasov, fellow scientist Ulana Khomyuk (Emily Watson) and government official Boris Shcherbina (Stellan Skarsgard) as they navigate the fallout of one of the worst man-made catastrophes in history and push back against a culture of disinformation to prevent further tragedy.
What happens when three guys from Queens follow their movie-star best friend, played by a floppy-haired Adrian Grenier, to Hollywood? The buddy comedy of Entourage updated the fish-out-of-water plot of The Beverly Hillbillies for a new generation. Over its eight seasons, it also came to represent the peak of 2000s maximalism: pool parties at hilltop mansions, scantily clad love interests, raw money hunger, bro humor at its least evolved. But its peeled-back takes on showbiz and the alienating process of fame gave it some depth. Endless celebrity cameos—often played with only veiled attempts at fictionalization—are reminders of an often brazenly shallow decade.
Game of Thrones
Over five seasons, this sprawling, gruesome series based on George R. R. Martin’s fantasy books became the country’s official water-cooler conversation topic. Its premise—battling royal families seek control over a medieval land—isn’t unique. But risky narrative choices, gratuitous sex and violence and striking film locations won it serious attention. A sky-high budget meant scenes of magic and war look more like movies than typical TV. Expertly cast and rich with lore, Thrones ended in controversy but remains the gold standard for fantasy.
No show has become as synonymous with the lives of millennial women than Girls, the series created by and starring Lena Dunham. The show turned a sharp, funny and, at times, unsparing eye on the friendships and dalliances of four young women in New York City. While Girls received its fair share of criticism and attracted plenty of controversy for its niche, often. privileged perspective, it made the radical case for embracing imperfect women, in spite of—and because of—their shortcomings and struggles.
The Guy (co-creator and star Ben Sinclair) may be a pot dealer, but this show isn’t about pot. Instead, it cleverly uses the Guy’s customers as a vehicle to explore the sometimes interconnected, but often disparate, stories of people living their daily lives in New York. The freedom of the show’s framing concept allows for a wide range of tones and character depictions in and out of each episodes and, in the end, one of the best mosaic portraits of the city ever committed to film. (Bonus: once you get through all four seasons, go back and check out the show’s first life as a Vimeo web series, before HBO picked it up.)
In Insecure, the series created by and starring Issa Rae, everyone’s just trying to figure it out—whether “it” is their career, their love life or their friendships. Rae’s lovably awkward character, also named Issa, gives fresh, hilarious and at times heartbreaking insights into the triumphs and struggles of being a black twenty-something woman who’s just trying to find happiness while balancing life’s demands.
The Larry Sanders Show
Before there was Arrested Development, 30 Rock, Veep and Curb Your Enthusiasm, there was The Larry Sanders Show. Set against the backdrop of a 1990s late night talk show, this legendary series is widely considered one of the forerunners of modern television comedy, with its single-camera focus, its lightning-quick timing, its dense jokes and ironic take on real celebrities. Sadly, the Garry Shandling/Jeffrey Tambor/Rip Torn vehicle does suffer from plenty of unenlightened moments and a huge lack of diversity, but almost 30 years after its premiere there’s still plenty of value in what TIME named one of the best 100 TV shows of all time.
Based on a novel by Tom Perrotta, The Leftovers—starring Justin Theroux as a struggling small-town police chief—is one of HBO’s most emotionally devastating shows. It’s also a real head-scratcher, which creators Perrotta and Damon Lindelof will be the first to say is exactly the point. It takes place in a world rather like our own, except that in an unexplained supernatural tragedy, 2% of the global population has vanished into thin air. The result is a planet in mourning. People turn to masochism, alternative faiths, hedonism: whatever it takes to get by. The Leftovers doesn’t offer answers, but its three grim, haunting seasons are a case study in the powers of grief, uncertainty and human connection. (Superb performances by Carrie Coon and Regina King also bear mentioning here.)
Just as The Larry Sanders Show was the one of the progenitors for modern television comedy, Mr. Show did the same for comedy’s alternative side. The outstanding four-season sketch show, largely the brainchild of Bob Odenkirk and David Cross, twisted, turned and inverted many comedic sensibilities of the mid- to late-1990s and painted over them with a thick coat of Gen X sardonicism. Come for timeless, galaxy-brained sketches like “Pre-Taped Call In Show” and stay to see a staggering cast of great talents at their beginnings, from Jack Black and Sarah Silverman to Spongebob Squarepants’ actor Tom Kinney and so many more.
Aaron Sorkin’s most recent TV work, The Newsroom was a lofty, short-lived attempt at bringing the sharp dialogue and inter-office drama of The West Wing to the world of network news. Jeff Daniels anchors the show, literally and figuratively, preaching the gospel of fairness and truth to a country divided by partisan politics. Workplace romances, questionable investigative journalism tactics and nail-biting live-TV reports abound. The Newsroom isn’t always true to its industry’s more mundane realities. But it is fun to get lost in Sorkin’s rapid-fire scripts and performances by actors like Sam Waterston and Jane Fonda.
Sex and the City
We couldn’t help but wonder… what would TV, or New York for that matter, look like without Sex and the City? The show was heralded as groundbreaking at its 1998 premiere, thanks to its frank depictions of (and conversations about) sex and single life, based on Candace Bushnell’s book of the same name. Some moments of its six snappy, designer-filled seasons feel dated now. But Sarah Jessica Parker, Kim Cattrall, Cynthia Nixon and Kristin Davis’ tragicomic exploration of friendship and life as Cosmopolitan-swilling 30-somethings has morphed into a cultural touchstone. Thanks to the flawed but lovable Carrie Bradshaw, legions of young people move to New York City in search of love even today—although her passion for labels, and ability to afford a Manhattan studio on a freelance writer’s budget, may no longer be within reach (if they ever were).
Sharp Objects, the miniseries adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s novel of the same name, stars Amy Adams as a journalist prone to destructive drinking and self-harm. Though the series shares a director with the first season of Big Little Lies (Jean Marc Vallée), this one is much darker, bordering on horror. Fans of Flynn’s other work like Gone Girl or those looking forward to Adams’ turn in the upcoming film The Woman in the Window will want to check out this one, which also features strong performances from Patricia Clarkson, Chris Messina and Eliza Scanlen.
Northern California was ripe for satirization in 2014 when HBO premiered this dark parody of Silicon Valley culture, in which a group of underdog developers attempt to undermine the supremacy of reigning tech titans. The stereotypes—and displays of sexism, racism and classism—can be uncomfortably harsh, and unfortunately accurate. But at the show’s heart is a great comedic turn from actor Thomas Middleditch, and a desire over its six seasons to find justice for the little guy, against the odds.
David Chase’s six-season New Jersey mob drama is widely considered the dawn of the new golden age of television, the birth of the modern-day TV antihero (see also: Don Draper, Walter White) and one of the best TV shows ever made. What better time than now to dive in and commit to seeing the job through?
In just two seasons, Succession became HBO’s latest critical darling Every character on Succession, which excavates the cruelty of an enormously rich media tycoon (Brian Cox) and his conniving family, is despicable in their own way. But it’s hard not to root for them even as they’re doing such unforgivable things as hushing up corporate sexual assault cases, mismanaging a rocket launch or destroying a marriage for the sake of a job promotion. Succession gives us all the potential pleasures of escapist TV, like beautiful estates, lavish dinners and exclusive parties. (And the cringe comedy of pitch-perfect performances from Nicholas Braun, Jeremy Strong, Matthew Macfadyen and Kieran Culkin.) But everything is flavored with the sour taste of heartless greed. Watch at your own risk.
Tales From the Crypt
Horror TV shows may seem like a dime a dozen these days, but one of the best sprang out of HBO’s weird late 1980s experiment. A generation grew up with the gruesome, puppeteered Cryptkeeper spinning his gleefully horrifying tales, with each week delivering a new, twisted tale of terror definitely not for the faint of heart. Running for seven seasons, from 1989 to 1996, this iconic anthology series delivered 93 chilling episodes and featured a buffet of surprising cameos including Tom Hanks, Tim Curry, Brad Pitt and even the directorial debut of Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Sookie Stackhouse (Anna Paquin) is a small-town Louisiana waitress whose ability to read minds has proved disastrous for her love life. That is, until the night that brooding vampire Bill Compton (Stephen Moyer) walks into her bar. Based on Charlaine Harris’s Southern Vampire Mysteries novels, True Blood is a true guilty pleasure series fueled by campy supernatural drama, steamy love scenes and over-the-top violence.
Although neither of the two subsequent seasons have reached the addictive heights of Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson’s original run as mismatched cops investigating a web of grisly crimes in the Louisiana backcountry, creator Nic Pizzolatto’s modern crime noir quickly became the water-cooler show of the moment when it debuted in 2014. The gritty anthology series offers a new mystery populated by big-name stars like Colin Farrell, Rachel McAdams and Mahershala Ali each go-around to keep things fresh.
Led though it may be by Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ self-serving and often incompetent Selina Meyer, Veep is one of the sharpest, funniest shows ever to air on television because of the immense talent of its ensemble, from Tony Hale’s put-upon but endlessly loyal body man Gary to Timothy Simon’s unctuous, “giant mangled skeleton” Jonah Ryan. The insults burn, but there’s love buried somewhere deep, deep beneath the jabs.
Consider Watchmen the refreshing rejoinder to the current superhero craze. Based on the 1986 comic book of the same name, the series remixes the hero narrative by following the efforts of a group of masked vigilantes, led by Regina King’s Sister Night. This is no nostalgic, feel-good tale of good defeating evil, however; the show seeks to both ask and answer tough questions about how we construct race, power and justice.
Another hugely influential HBO show from another revered David (Simon, in this case), this Baltimore-set crime series explores a different institution within its home city in each of its five seasons. With a vast, impressive ensemble cast including Dominic West, Michael Kenneth Williams and Idris Elba, it’s well worth settling in for a concentrated binge.
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