Ranked: HBO Dramas from Worst to Best

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

by David Warner

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.

Commentarium (75 Comments)

Jan 30 12 - 1:23am
Finn

Treme deserves a higher ranking...certainly above Carnivale, In Treatment, Rome, Big Love and True Blood. And probably over Six Feet Under.

Jan 30 12 - 1:45am
Hmm

I agree with everything but Six Feet Under. But that show is just magnificent in my opinion, even for all those Game of Thrones junkies out there. It's better.
~hippie

Jul 23 12 - 1:05pm
sjd

just finished six feet under. I would put it either right above or below sopranos, with the Wire at #1 forever.

Aug 28 12 - 1:02pm
lesa

This, exactly. I only recently watched SFU, having shunned it for a decade for the "reason" that it was recommended to me by roughly the same people who were also very fond of the imho horrible Ally McBeal. I'd place SFU on a shared second place with Sopranos.

Jan 30 12 - 3:33am
bcarter3

"Oz" was ridiculous, and doesn't belong anywhere near this high on the list. And "Deadwood" should be at least number 3, if not higher.

Apr 08 12 - 6:03am
PaulieWalnuts

I think The Sopranos is far and away the best show of all time. The acting is far superior to The Wire. Yes, I said far. And The Wire is my second favorite show of all time. The Sopranos better acting, better directing and more powerful scenes and episodes. How many classic episodes and moments can you name in The Sopranos? Boardwalk Empire could be number 3 on the list after one more season but I don't have a huge problem with it. I find The Wire to be absolutely brilliant and is almost like a docudrama due to its accuracy. But its not really about all of us really. I identify with Tony's family issues and Christophers problems more than any character on The Wire. It's about dirty cops and a screwed up system where kids get left behind due to the failure of the war on drugs. The Sopranos title character pretty much carries the show by himself, and when you throw in Michael Imperioli, Edie Falco, Joey Pants, Buscemi. The quality is just a tad higher than The Wire. So for me its

01) Sopranos 2) The Wire 3) Rome 4) Oz 5) Boardwalk Empire 6) Deadwood 7) Six Feet Under 8) Big Love 9) True Blood...haven't watched enough of Treme took too much of a liberal agenda. That's what's great abotu The Wire and The Sopranos, nuanced. True Blood and Six Feet Under are a tad transparent for my taste. Even though 6FU is great. But I think shows should be based on what would I want to watch again and again. Highest repeatability. And True Blood better than Rome? Please. Rome is top 5 easily and it only had 2 seasons.

Aug 15 12 - 10:11am
BigKahunaDaddy

The Wire enjoyed some fine writing, but it was overwhelmed by terrible cinematography, cliched characterizations, awful art direction and terrible editing. Was 'The Wire' trying to give the impression it cost a couple of hundred to produce in order to reinforce its realist aesthetic? They certainly succeeded.

Jan 30 12 - 5:19am
w

Boardwalk Empire is ranked way too high on this list, certainly not top five at all.

Jan 30 12 - 3:20pm
s

Agreed. I watched it for awhile but stopped because it was just so BORING. I never cared about any of the characters.

Jan 30 12 - 5:13pm
Finny

I like Boardwalk, but in no way is it better than Deadwood. I'd say In Treatment should be 2nd to last because the premise seemed so overwhelmingly boring that myself and many others probably refused to even consider watching a single episode.

Jan 30 12 - 8:54pm
Frenchbread

Gotta stand up for Boardwalk. If you never made it out of the first season you really missed out. Best show on tv as far as I'm concerned. Stays with you and the characters are phenomenal.

Jan 30 12 - 6:12am
Johno

Six Feet Under is waaaaaay too low. And I'd say The Sopranos is too high.

Jan 30 12 - 8:56am
andrea

wasn't sex and the city an hbo show?

Jan 30 12 - 10:02am
Saratoga Slim

Yes - an annoying one.

Except for Kristin Davis and her hips. Mmmmmm. Reet petite! Hommina hommina hommina! Voot! Humga, hunga! Halala halala! Nyang nyang! Hubba hubba! Mum-muh-muh-muh-muh-muh-muh-muh! Ottity-ottity-ot! Hot-cha!

Krisin Davis...

Jan 30 12 - 10:45am
dave1976

The list is top 15 "dramas," so I'm assuming Sex And The City wasn't included because it was more of a sitcom. Same reason Lucky Louie's not on the list...or for that matter, Dream On.

Jan 30 12 - 1:30pm
brutony

Actually, SATC became a dramedy, then a straight out drama its last few seasons, which may explain just ONEr eason why it sucked ass-and not the good kind, like me sucking Kristin Davis's ass, or Bigs first-second? wife, Bridget Moynihan, MMMM, both of em!

Jan 30 12 - 10:32am
Buck Nasty

Game of Thrones... such bullshit.

#1 - Sopranos.
Numbers 2 through 4 in some order - Oz, The Wire, Six Feet Under, Deadwood.

Feb 02 12 - 6:49pm
K-man

Yes, I agree, Game of Thrones should have been #2 behind "The Sopranos".

Jan 30 12 - 10:34am
Jordan

You guys forgot about the one-season "Tell Me You Love Me." I was OBSESSED with that show.

Jan 30 12 - 10:55am
Kelley

Couldn't disagree with this list more. Deadwood and Six Feet Under certainly should be higher on the list with Six Feet Under at number one. Oz shouldnt have even made the list. Though I do love Game of Thrones. Carnivale was definitely a guilty pleasure.

Jan 30 12 - 11:29am
tmp

It actually sounds like you could disagree with this list more.

Jan 30 12 - 11:07pm
Cynthia's name

No, tmp, Kelley couldn't possibly disagree with this list more than she already does.

Aug 28 12 - 1:20pm
mel

Yes, she could. Kelly may not have it in her, but that's another issue.

Jan 30 12 - 10:56am
Wallace

I love Tremé, but I can live with the ranking and it's now over yet. Hopefully 3 season is good.

Jan 30 12 - 12:55pm
xdl

What about Band of Brothers or The Pacific?

Jan 30 12 - 1:02pm
SA

Both are a mini-series - that's why they're not included

Jan 30 12 - 7:27pm
Thom

So was Rome. That's included.

Jan 30 12 - 8:08pm
sven

No, Rome ran for two full seasons.

Jan 30 12 - 1:37pm
brutony

Sopranos first 3 seasons, yes, BEST drama EVER! OZ is and SHOULD be up there-quite ground breaking-and ass breaking too, right, Beecher, lol? Was his and Schillingers bromance one of the small screens greatest love/hate stories?

Jan 30 12 - 1:54pm
Amanda

Six Feet Under deserves to much higher on this list - certainly higher than Boardwalk Empire. It was brilliantly written and the acting was great...not to mention it actually provided an ending in the last episode.

Jan 30 12 - 8:50pm
Me

Only problem with Six Feet Under was that it faltered in the last few seasons.

Jul 23 12 - 1:09pm
sjd

no, it got better

Aug 28 12 - 1:24pm
mel

Yes, it became better! Season four was the second-strongest, only to be surpassed by the final season. The third season rubbed some people the wrong way who apparently never got back on track. Their loss.

Jan 30 12 - 3:20pm
Timmeka

Oz what a great show. If I made the list it would have been number 2 but I am very happy the wire is number one.

Jan 30 12 - 3:59pm
SW

Six Feet Under was my all-time favorite show. Definitely deserved a higher ranking.

Jan 30 12 - 5:21pm
Finny

You definitely got #1 correct, and I don't think that was even debatable. As for the rest of the list, it's pretty subjective. I would put Deadwood and Six Feet Under above Sopranos, but Sopranos was also hurt by repetition and lower quality in its later seasons, whereas Deadwood consists of a few perfect seasons. I think John from Cincinnati gets an unfair amount of criticism and was actually a really cool show with fantastic acting and amazing dialogue. In Treatment looks too stupid to watch so I wold put it next to last.

Aug 28 12 - 1:27pm
mel

So you haven't watched In Treatment, but you insist it's bad... Well, I admit it *is* a mixed bag. But some of the storylines are wonderful, e.g. Alison Pill's character was absolutely compelling, as good as anything HBO has produced.

Jan 30 12 - 5:29pm
Johnny C

Pretty decent list, actually. I think Oz and Rome could do to switch places, but I get it that Oz paved the way for all the others, and so it kind of gets the special attention in that regard. I've personally never been as big a fan of the Sopranos as we're all seemingly supposed to be. Maybe if they'd condensed it into 5 seasons it would have been the masterpiece that it really isn't. Not surprised to find it near the top, though.

Jan 30 12 - 5:35pm
John W

I agree with the top two choices. Excellent shows.

I can't wait for the next season of Game of Thrones.

Jan 30 12 - 6:28pm
Hateintreatment

Not entirely sure why the writer of this list talks as if the show IN TREATMENT is still on. "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."? The show officially had it's last episode back in 2010, and HBO hasn't said it's bringing it back.

Jan 30 12 - 8:53pm
sylvia

Six Feet Under should be top 3. that show was one of the greatest things to ever air on tv, beautiful acting, writing, soundtrack, themes, everything

Jan 30 12 - 10:05pm
Mads

its INSANE to not have Curb Your Enthusiasm on this list, I'm stunned / shocked

Jan 30 12 - 10:52pm
Happies

It's INSANE that you don't know the difference between comedy and drama.

Feb 01 12 - 2:55pm
mj

*SNAP!*

Jan 30 12 - 11:07pm
Yojimbo Slice

Booooo! Treme should be higher. It's way ahead of its time. The subsequent pillaging of of Post-Katrina New Orleans still hasn't gotten the attention it deserves. Treme is at least fighting that, and doing a fabulous and heartfelt job doing so. On top of this, they shoot it in NO where they can hire locals, creating jobs.

Treme should be higher!

Jan 30 12 - 11:49pm
PP

At first, I was reading this article, and thinking of how much I enjoyed some shows on the list, as well as how I should finally get around to checking out Game of Thrones.

And then I got really really sad that I'd watched every episode of The Wire ever. And basically no show will ever be as good.

Dammit.

Jan 31 12 - 8:58pm
Haymaker

Pretty solid ranking. Only comment I have would be that Boardwalk Empire is a little too high and Rome a little too low. Those knocking Oz are crazy. Absolutely loved that series and is perfectly ranked here.

Watched everything but K Street, John from Cincinnati, Treme, and In Treatment, and by the rankings not feeling too bad about it.

Feb 01 12 - 3:40pm
AN

Wait, wait, wait!

True Blood is ranked higher than Rome, Treme and Carnivale? Huh? True Blood is incoherent guilty pleasure fodder and no more. It tried to do more in its first season but it's been crap ever since then.

And HOW is Deadwood is lower than Oz and, more importantly, the massively overrated Boardwalk Empire?! In what universe?! Boardwalk Empire can't touch Deadwood in any way, shape or form. Deadwood should be 3rd on this list. Period.

:steps off soapbox while mourning for Deadwood's premature cancellation:

Feb 03 12 - 1:22pm
20hours

Totally agree with everything you said.

Aug 28 12 - 1:30pm
mel

+1

Feb 01 12 - 4:06pm
Lyn LeJeune

Loved Carnivale and the fact that my publisher has been marketing my book as a forerunner to Carnivale
Elijah Rising

Feb 01 12 - 4:58pm
res

Vampires higher than post-Katrina New Orleans?!?!?!!! I've gotten over the continued trashing of John From Cincinnati, but David Warner, you have proven yourself to be an IDIOT by this sentence about Treme: "certain storylines just don’t have any emotional resonance or pull to them."
Well, what storylines are you referring to? I notice you don't bother to denote them.
I guess trying to recover from the physical and mental trauma brought on by the Katrina and the governmental incompetence that followed isn't enough emotional resonance for you? I guess you don't know anyone from NOLA, or they'd have set you straight on that count. ALL of that show is about people trying to recover, rebuild, reconnect...even if it's not there on the surface, it's lurking below everything that every character does on that show.
It's ok, I bet you think that the movie "The Big Easy" is an accurate reflection of life in New Orleans. And that's why you don't get Treme. Talk to a native New Orleanian and they'll set you straight.

Feb 02 12 - 3:56pm
D. Warner

I usually stay off the comments on my own stuff, because I don't like being "that guy," and no matter what points I make here, I'll probably come off as thin-skinned for defending my opinion. But you used my full name and called me an "IDIOT," so here goes.
I don't like Vampires more than post-Katrina New Orleans (for starters, one is a fictional species and the other a city). What this list indicates is that I believe True Blood is a better show than Treme. That is all: one TV show compared to another, True Blood is better.
My point about the story lines not connecting emotionally has to do with craft, not subject matter. A story about struggle in the aftermath of a disaster is important and heart-breaking, sure. If it isn't written well enough, though, it can fall flat on-screen.
And to answer your personal attacks, I went to high school with a number of people displaced by the hurricane, and got to know them fairly well. I don't think they'd be insulted by me not particularly enjoying Treme (again, one TV show).

Feb 03 12 - 1:28pm
20hours

Bravo David! I might not agree with everything in your ranking order but your rebuttal to that emotional (and completely illogical) argument by 'res' was well said. I for one vote you Non-Idiot Extraordinaire. :-) P.S. Deadwood belongs in the top 3. Just saying.

Feb 02 12 - 5:52am
Reality Check

All the Six Feet Under love... It was so maligned towards the end of its run. Glad people are coming to realize how great it was.

Feb 02 12 - 1:34pm
Jennifer

It's Benioff*

Unfortunately, I think it's too difficult to rate current shows against past series. But this series thrives on debate, so maybe that's the idea.

Feb 02 12 - 11:54pm
RB

Treme and Deadwood should be higher. Boardwalk Empire? More like Bored-walk Empire, Nucky is not that interesting a character. True Blood is just a big soapy gratuitous mess, not a brilliant show. You got #1 right though :-)

Feb 03 12 - 6:02pm
sir ronald bradnam

Dexter? Sons of Anarchy? Game of thrones def intop 3 even now.

Feb 07 12 - 1:34pm
Ugh

Seriously? I know this article is a few days old, but I keep being drawn back to your post. How do you not know what channel you're watching? Do you use a remote? What numbers do you punch in? Is there a button called "magic" or "me want favorite shows now"? Do you get lost looking for the couch?

Feb 04 12 - 7:25pm
Gochicoa

Sopranos deserves to be #1 the Wire #2. The Sopranos changed everything, the pop culture, the mass media, etc.

Feb 07 12 - 12:26pm
SD

Not agree, but.. this is like in everything. Opinions

May 14 12 - 10:51am
richard

WHAT?! season 5 was amazing. just as good as the first 4. whatever, boardwalk empire SUCKS!

May 15 12 - 9:44am
sinan

Was breaknig bad an HBO drama?

Aug 28 12 - 1:40pm
mel

Yes, AMC's Breaking Bad is an HBO drama. And it has been concluded already, as of 2012.

Seriously, how do some people manage to post a comment but not use Google?

May 29 12 - 8:00pm
MarkT

Deadwood was an incredibly well-written and acted show that should have run two more seasons. It was like foul-mouthed frontier Shakespeare. Whatever insanity seized Milch and HBO to can that masterpiece for that surf-turd, "John from Cincinnati," deserves a special place in the American Psychology Association's list of official severe and debilitating mental illnesses. Milch lost his mind. Completely. So did HBO. A travesty to lose it.

Boardwalk Empire: I have watched two seasons now, and I have to say it; it is a boring, aimless, demented-in-a-bad-way, horseshit written DISASTER. They have small moments of capturing the era that work every 30 minutes for 60 seconds, and that is what keeps me watching, since I love the period. But it is a horrible show.

Needs new writers BADLY. Could have been great. IT AIN'T.

I have to laugh at the people who rate "In Treatment" at the bottom without having even seen it. It was one of the best written and acted shows on HBO. A real pleasure for people who don't always need things blown up, whacked, impaled or put on the rack. People with some brains.

Jun 13 12 - 11:49am
beacher

hey from the Uk!

pretty spot on for me..maybe i would change 1) and 2) as i can pick up a sopranos episode and watch it any time..dont think i could do that with the wire..but it is fab..
OZ would be 3) for me, it all started with OZ on HBO..(HBO's original dramas that is).. its ultra evilness and violence in some of the episodes might put people off but the stories where great.. boardwalk and game of thrones have the potential to reach the heights of the wire/sopranos. I’ve watch boardwalk and thought is was great..it could flake of a times and there should be more al capone but its still good. Game of thrones is shaping up nicely and i flew through the 1st and 2nd seasons

Jun 14 12 - 2:47pm
post crunk

Wonder what this list would look like if you included Mad Men and Breaking Bad. You just know HBO wishes they had those two shows.

Jun 29 12 - 5:18pm
JollySmoker

The wire, sopranos, six feet under, oz, boardwalk empire,beautiful:) mad to watch deadwood but afraid ill be lost when it ends so sudden:(

Jul 03 12 - 2:16pm
walter

Newsroom has the worst casting, writing, acting, directing ever on ANY TV series since the Princton baseball game. Rushing around reminds me of the old Toyota commercials
How could Jeff Daniels get involved in such rubbish?

Jul 05 12 - 3:03pm
Frances

What does True Blood in a top of best series? All clichés... The only funny side was the "out of the coffin"-series of jokes. Further: boringly empty

Aug 28 12 - 1:47pm
mel

Yep, True Blood was okay for its first season, but nowhere near "great" even then. Since then, it has deteriorated below average basic cable drama, with gratuitous cursing and tits (neither of which I mind when it's embedded in well-written drama).

No wonder Adam Ball left the writing crew of True Blood, seeing what aimless crap the show really is.

Jul 05 12 - 3:10pm
Frances

Where is Californication by the way?
my list is
1. Deadwood
2. 6 Feet Under
3. Californication
4. In Treatment...

Aug 11 12 - 8:41am
1 2 3 bitch

fucktard

Sep 01 12 - 11:07am
SOPRANOS

SOPRANOS is by far the best show, the acting is out this world from James Gandolfini, its his show , no show will ever top it.

Sep 17 12 - 3:47pm
JOHNZON

glad to see some negative comments about Boardwalk Empire here... I really tried... watched all of season 1, about half of season 2 when I realized that I wasn't getting anything out of it. The show feels totally devoid of value for me. No character, horrible writing... I would go so far as to say the show is a total disaster, the likes of which are rarely seen, especially considering the positive hype it has gotten in comparison with how I personally feel about it. Nowhere near the quality of something like Six Feet Under, which again, I'm glad to see other people on this page giving it the love it really deserves!!! That show was amazing, seriously... a revelation.

I honest to God can't rank Sopranos, Six Feet Under, or the Wire. They're truly equal.

Deadwood 4th.