Ranked: HBO Dramas from Worst to Best

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Which gritty, sprawling, multi-character drama will come out on top?

HBO recently unveiled its newest drama, Luck, which stars Dustin Hoffman, and while it’s a little soon to gauge where it’ll fit in the network’s already-sterling legacy, it got us thinking about that legacy, and where exactly all of our favorite shows fit into it. Is The Wire better than The Sopranos? Is Oz better than Deadwood? Several fistfights later, we still hadn’t settled it. Finally, after an eight-hour meeting that left Editor Alex in the corner muttering about “the horror,” we think we nailed it. 

15. K Street (2003)

Steven Soderbergh and George Clooney certainly had an interesting concept on their hands when they came together to produce K Street in 2003; a largely improvised show about a fictional consulting firm that would feature real lobbyists and politicians in DC. At first, it sounded like it could be both entertaining and enlightening. Too bad it was very little of either — turns out Congressman and Senators are boring people. K Street died after one season. 

14. John from Cincinnati (2007)

Coming off his primetime hit NYPD Blue and the critical success of Deadwood, David Milch was looking for his next great show. John from Cincinnati wasn’t it. For all its beautiful surfing footage, John from Cincinnati is best remembered for its unlikeable characters and grating faux-mysticism. If the titular John had used his magic powers to pull an interesting plot out of his pocket, they might have had something. Sadly, all he had in there was a bottomless pit of Biblical imagery.

13. Treme (2010-ongoing)

David Simon’s highly anticipated post-Wire show about post-Katrina New Orleans has been lauded nationally (and more importantly, locally in Louisiana) for its authenticity. Simon’s newest creation does achieve an exceptional level of realism. What Treme doesn’t always deliver, though, is compelling drama. Treme is well-shot, well-acted, and well-written, sure. It’s can also be pretty boring — certain storylines just don’t have any emotional resonance or pull to them.

12. Carnivale (2003- 2005)

Like so many HBO dramas before and since, Carnivale wasn’t shy about pushing the envelope. It took full advantage of its subject matter by reveling in the physical oddities of its cast of strange carnies. Unfortunately, it couldn’t push the plot quite as well. Moving at a glacial pace, the show never generated drama as interesting as its imagery. Carnivale was the weirdest, most beautiful, most mind-numbing circus imaginable. Well, after Cirque du Soleil.

11. In Treatment (2008-2011)

Conceptually, In Treatment is unique. So unique, in fact, that HBO still hasn’t figured out how and when to air it, going from five nights a week to two nights, then back up to four. Schedule waffling aside, this is a solid show: watching Gabriel Byrne play one of the worst therapists on television is entertaining enough on a Tuesday or Wednesday night. In fact, if this were a list of almost any other cable network’s original dramas, it would definitely be higher (cough Starz cough). Unfortunately for Dr. Weston, he isn't competing against Spartacus: Blood and Sand.

10. Rome (2005-2007)

Historical drama is hard to pull off. Finding the balance between historical accuracy and dramatic moments is a challenge that many have failed. Rome relied a lot more on dramatizing than reenacting, occasionally paying almost no attention to what actually happened in history. The results weren't always accurate, but were often watchable. However pulpy, gratuitous, and over-the-top, Rome was fun and sexy.

9. True Blood (2008-ongoing)

Speaking of pulpy, over-the-top gratuitousness, True Blood has become one of HBO’s most popular series to date. In between all the blood splatter and cross-species fucking, there’s actually a good, albeit inconsistent, show at work. In the grand tradition of allegorical pulp, Alan Ball's science-fiction soap opera uses vampires as a thinly veiled metaphor for the LGBT community.True Blood can be self-indulgent, but even at its silliest, you're hard-pressed to look away.

8. Big Love (2006-2011)

In spite of Bill Paxton’s inability to communicate emotion of any kind, Big Love was a great show. What saved the show from his wooden performance were the performances of the various women in the Henrickson family. Their acting, coupled with sharp writing, pulled a surprisingly relatable and enthralling narrative out of a rarely seen part of America. It did so by focusing on people and their complications, instead of just their lifestyle choices. 

7. Six Feet Under (2001-2005)

Before swinging for the transgressive fences with True Blood, Alan Ball developed this comparatively restrained tragicomedy. Quiet, smart, and well-crafted, without ever being boring, Six Feet Under featured some of the strongest writing ever seen on HBO.

6. Game of Thrones (2011-ongoing)

In just one season, Game of Thrones has distinguished itself as one of TV’s better shows through its massive, fascinating universe. And, where many shows would stumble trying to incorporate so many storylines, David Beinoff and D.B. Weiss find a way to juggle all of them effortlessly and shed just enough light on each. Medieval fantasy has seldom been better, and it's never been this violent or this sexy. Looking forward, if Game of Thrones stays on-course, it will have a spot in the top five in future iterations of this list. It is that good.

5. Deadwood (2004-2006)

One of the great tragedies in television history is the premature cancellation of Deadwood. Sure, its characters might be too foul-mouthed for mainstream tastes (forty-three "fucks" in the first episode alone). But aside from that, what was the problem? Deadwood was nearly perfect, and it could have achieved plenty more if it had been given the same opportunity as some of the other shows on this list. 

4. Oz (1997-2003)

Oz was HBO’s first attempt at an original drama series in 1997, and set the stage for a decade and a half of excellence. It also signalled their “anything goes” attitude towards programming. Oz, the functional opposite of Prison Break, was at times hard to watch, but once they had you, it was harder to not watch. Adding stylistic flair — eerie surrealism and fourth-wall-breaking narration —  to its often-gruesome scenes, Oz was a gritty masterpiece.

3. Boardwalk Empire (2010-ongoing)

The minute I heard “Terence Winter,” “Martin Scorsese,” and “Prohibition-era crime drama” all used in the same sentence, I was sold. Thankfully, Boardwalk Empire delivers on all of its promises. I know it’s only been two seasons, but everything about Boardwalk is exceptional —  the plot is deep, the characters are amazing, the cinematography is on-point. None of that is terribly surprising, though. What is surprising is Steve Buscemi’s brilliant portrayal of Nucky Thompson; typecast for years, he was given a chance to carry a project, and carry it he does.

2. The Sopranos (1999-2007)

If you have never seen The Sopranos, you have either been in a coma all these years (if so, welcome back!) or you hate yourself. If it weren’t for the show you knew would be number one before you clicked this, The Sopranos might be the best show ever. Labyrinthine, nuanced, gritty, and occasionally hilarious (not to mention beautifully shot), the show barely had a single flaw. Start with this, and, once you feel like giving up another huge chunk of your life, progress to The Wire.

1.The Wire (2002-2008)

What could I possibly say about this show that hasn’t already been said twice? Nothing. Is it the greatest show of all time? Probably. Do you need to watch it and join the cult? Almost certainly. In spite of anything The Wire or Simon might have gotten wrong (cough Season Five cough), all the hype is true. In the endless Wire/Sopranos debate, I have to give the edge to The Wire. Because while The Sopranos is a brilliant study of a particular character, The Wire is about all of us, and the way forces beyond our control punish us for our individual wills. At once cosmic in its scope and minute in its focus, this show is what all other drama series try, and fail, to be.