HBO Max may have launched with some confusion, but these days it’s got an astounding catalogue of original shows and streaming favorites. So astounding in fact, that when it came time to make a list of the best TV shows on HBO Max, the task was kind of impossible. Some of the best TV shows ever made are HBO originals, and telling people to watch The Sopranos, The Wire, Sex and the City, Watchmen, The Leftovers, Barry, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Succession, Big Little Lies, Insecure, True Detective…you get the idea, seemed redundant.
For this list, we’ve collected 17 “less obvious” choices for the best TV shows on HBO Max, which range from a Hanna-Barbera animated courtroom comedy to a kung fu Cinemax gem about 19th century Chinese gang wars. We’ve also capped the year of release at 2000 and later, so iconic shows like The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air wouldn’t muddy up the waters for newer TV greats.
1. Harley Quinn
Imagine a bloodier, more profane, and hilariously over-the-top animated take on Birds of Prey. Then throw in stuff like winking nods to Bane’s terrible voice in The Dark Knight Rises and heartfelt and deeply textured relationship drama. That’s DC’s animated Harley Quinn series in a nutshell. It’s one of the most entertaining and thoughtful DC stories of the modern era and is a must-watch for anyone who cheered Harley’s post-breakup rebound mayhem in the (unconnected but thematically simpatico) 2020 film. — Adam Rosenberg, Senior Entertainment Reporter
2. Pushing Daisies
Creator Bryan Fuller’s trademark mix of death obsession and aesthetic whimsy reached its peak with Pushing Daisies, an occasionally musical television masterpiece. Pushing Daisies stars Lee Pace as Ned the Piemaker, a socially anxious man with the power to bring the dead back to life with a single touch. Anna Friel plays Chuck, Ned’s dead childhood sweetheart who (kind of) benefits from those powers. The world of Pushing Daisies is a candy-colored, grown-up Dr. Seussian landscape with tongue twister names and unforgettably unique characters, and its two lovely seasons will forever leave viewers wanting more. — Alexis Nedd, Senior Entertainment Reporter
3. My Brilliant Friend
Based on the novels by Elena Ferrante, My Brilliant Friend is the kind of breathtaking drama that envelops you completely in its characters’ lives and feelings. Margherita Mazzucco and Gaia Girace play lifelong best friends Lenu and Lila, bonded by their big dreams and small town outside of Naples. The show is filmed entirely on location with a native cast and Neapolitan dialogue, immersing you instantly in Italian summers, teenage dreams, and a neighborhood that comes to feel familiar after just a few episodes (along with Max Richter’s hauntingly beautiful score). Lila and Lenu are vastly different characters, but played with the same elegant stoicism by Mazzucco and Girace, as the friends grow up, grow apart, and face life’s hardships. — Proma Khosla, Entertainment Reporter
How to watch: My Brilliant Friend is Streaming on HBO Max.
4. Doom Patrol
Imagine a superhero team as group therapy and that’s basically Doom Patrol, which collects some of the strangest and saddest super-powered characters you’ve ever met and then sits back and watches as they work through their issues with each other, the world, and most especially themselves. But an endless sob fest this is not: As seriously as Doom Patrol takes its characters’ trauma, it’s also darkly hilarious, with a sardonic sense of humor and a willingness to embrace whatever bizarre shit gets thrown at it — vengeful rats, interdimensional donkey portals, teleporting sentient streets, and all. — Angie Han, Deputy Entertainment Editor
Though it debuted an entire decade ago, Enlightened feels every bit as fresh and relevant today as it did then. Maybe even more so, considering it was ahead of the curve on conversations about complicated female characters, workplace harassment, corporate irresponsibility, and the unimpeachable brilliance of Laura Dern.
Dern plays Amy Jellicoe, a woman who returns from work after a nervous breakdown and subsequent rehab stint with a less prestigious job position, a sunnier outlook on life, and a newfound determination to change the world for the better — starting with her own corrupt employer. You’ll love her, you’ll hate her, and above all else, you won’t be able to look away from her. — A.H.*
6. Infinity Train
Climb aboard the Infinity Train! It’s got everything — crystal forests, alien nightclubs, a giant Pig Baby voiced by J.K. Simmons, and a healthy dash of existential dread. Every car of this never-ending train contains its own unique world, making for a show that is boundlessly creative and a visual treat. However, it’s not all fun and games: Passengers on the train face tests and puzzles designed to help them work through their troubles in the outside world. If they refuse to learn and change, they risk being stuck on the train forever.
Each season of Infinity Train follows a different passenger, resulting in four different stories that are equal parts funny, mysterious, heartfelt, and soul-crushing. Without spoiling any of the train’s secrets, let’s just say that when you watch Infinity Train, you’re in for the ride of your life. — Belen Edwards, Entertainment Fellow
How to watch: Infinity Train is streaming on HBO Max.
7. Eastbound and Down
When it comes to capturing a very specific subgenre of white male American bluster, few are doing it better than Danny McBride. Eastbound & Down — the first, rawest, and arguably laugh-out-loud funniest of what McBride calls a “misunderstood angry man” trilogy, which also comprises Vice Principals and The Righteous Gemstones — stars McBride as Kenny Powers, a washed-up major league pitcher desperate to reclaim some semblance of his former glory at any cost.
Floridly obnoxious and offensively crude, Kenny is hard to like and even harder to root for. But McBride makes you enjoy watching him in spite of yourself, no matter how low he sinks, how depraved his actions become, how pathetic he’s revealed to be. — A.H.
8. Chewing Gum
Before she wrote and starred in the powerful I May Destroy You, Michaela Coel wrote and starred in Chewing Gum, a laugh-out-loud series about a 24-year-old woman whose quest to get laid for the first time takes up her every waking thought. Coel’s signature quick humor and amazingly expressive face is front and center in her character Tracy, whose corner of London is far removed from what less creative shows have ever portrayed. — A.N.
From the very first episode that premiered on TBS in 2016, Search Party was immediately more brilliant — more thought-provoking, hilarious, and sardonic — than it had any right to be. Dory Sief (Alia Shawkat) is desperate to feel important, and she finds a perverse sense of purpose in pursuing a missing high school classmate. The case of the missing girl engulfs Dory and her entitled millennial friend group, leading to murder, subterfuge, kidnapping, and the complete destruction — or reveal — of Dory’s identity.
Created by Sarah-Violet Bliss, Charles Rogers, and Michael Showalter, Search Party is a a gold-standard dark comedy with a formidable young cast. Shawkat consistently pushes herself into new territory, impeccably balanced out by John Reynolds’ jaded nice guy, John Early’s hyperactive narcissist, and Meredith Hagner’s demented sweetness. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll gape in horror, and then you’ll want to do it all again. — P.K.
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