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
How to watch: Harley Quinn is streaming on HBO Max.
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
How to watch: Pushing Daisies is streaming on HBO Max.
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: , 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
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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.*
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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 and — 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.
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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.
How to watch: Chewing Gum is streaming on HBO Max.
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.
How to watch: Search Party is streaming on HBO Max.
You don’t need to know about, let alone like, the long-running CBS legal drama this 2020 reboot was based on to appreciate its impeccable execution.
Matthew Rhys stars as the titular Perry Mason, a hard-as-nails private investigator working for a defense attorney’s office in 1932. He’s investigating the murder of a baby boy — more specifically, whether the boy’s mother had anything to do with it — against a backdrop of Prohibition-era prosecutorial misconduct and religious fervor. It’s a gritty and theatrical ordeal that only ramps up its intensity across eight phenomenally well-written episodes.
Knockout performances from John Lithgow, Juliet Rylance, Chris Chalk, Shea Wigham, Tatiana Maslany, Gayle Rankin, Stephen Root, Lili Taylor, and more make this a masterclass in reimagining historic franchises. It’s the perfect binge for a weekend, but just as compelling to break up across evenings. — Alison Foreman, Entertainment Reporter
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11. Avenue 5
Avenue 5 takes the dry and cutting comedic sensibilities of Veep — both were created by Armando Iannucci — and sends them hurtling off, out of control, into deep space. The intensely relatable comedy follows a leisurely space cruise line that’s thrown off course, turning a months-long journey into a years-long one. Driven by hilarious performances from Hugh Laurie, Zach Woods, Suzy Nakamura, and an overall impressive ensemble around them (including Josh Gad, if you’re into that sort of thing), Avenue 5‘s escalating series of disasters makes for one of HBO’s funniest seasons of new TV in recent years. — A.R.
How to watch: Avenue 5 is streaming on HBO Max.
12. Mrs. Fletcher
It’s the horny Kathryn Hahn vehicle you didn’t know you needed.
Based on Tom Perrotta’s novel of the same name, Mrs. Fletcher is a of a middle-aged woman exploring her sexuality. In the premiere, Eve (Hahn) sends her teenage son Brendan (Jackson White) off to college, her sexless exhaustion symbolically pitted against his virility and arrogance. Across the limited series’ six other episodes, we watch that dynamic flip as Eve reconnects with her inner goddess at home and Brendan faces backlash for his toxic behavior towards women at school.
As a matter of storytelling, many will find Mrs. Fletcher‘s plot points and pacing frustrating. But Hahn delivers a sloppy-yet-sexy performance so spectacular you’ll still finish the series, and probably consider going back for more. — A.F.
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Based on original treatment written by Bruce Lee, Warrior is a show almost 50 years in the making and worth every minute of the wait. It’s a kung fu crime action drama starring actor/stuntman Andrew Koji as Ah Sahm, a Chinese immigrant to San Francisco whose deadly martial arts skills earn him a spot as a hatchet man for a dangerous Chinatown gang. Warrior may take place in the 1870s, but its themes of immigrant exploitation, xenophobia, found family, and spin-kicking racists directly in the face all resonate with today’s America. — A.N.
How to watch: Warrior is streaming on HBO Max.
14. Los Espookys
Los Espookys centers on a group of horror enthusiasts who start a business staging spooky scenarios for various clients — a fake sea monster to drive tourism to a seaside town, for instance. But the “real” world the characters live in is pretty damn strange already. On any given day, this gang might find themselves showing a water demon the 2010 Colin Firth drama The King’s Speech, or figuring out how to break an American ambassador out of a supernatural mirror world, or fending off the advances of a duke whose greatest flaw is that he is not a cartoon prince. Whatever comes their way, you can bet on these besties to take it in stride and live to haunt another day. — A.H.*
How to watch: Los Espookys is streaming on HBO Max.
15. The Knick
Set in turn-of-the-century New York City, this 2014-2015 series tells the story of a medical staff at the forefront of surgery, just as it was beginning to be practiced by doctors rather than barbers (yes, that was a real thing). The show puts you on the ground at the Knickerbocker, as its brilliant surgeons (played by a stunning cast that includes Clive Owen and André Holland) figure out gruesome but life-saving procedures for illnesses that used to be terminal, like appendicitis.
What makes The Knick especially pertinent during the pandemic is a visceral understanding of how you can never win when you’re the one faced with the impossible task of outsmarting death. It’s the unlivable anguish we’re asking medical professionals to endure every day now on the frontlines of this battle against our unseen, unknowable enemy. — Jess Joho, Staff Writer*
How to watch: The Knick is streaming on HBO Max.
16. Harvey Birdman
The best use of Hanna-Barbera cartoons ever? Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law.
The adult animated series, which debuted on Adult Swim in late 2000 and had its brilliant spinoff Birdgirl debut in April 2021, casts the Saturday morning icons we know and love in a nonsensical legal drama. Superheroes like the titular Harvey Birdman (voiced by Gary Cole) help defend and prosecute iconic characters from shows like The Flintstones, Yogi Bear, and Scooby-Doo on behalf of the Sebben & Sebben law firm.
If that doesn’t sound instantly incredible to you, then it’s probably not your thing. However, the deciding factor for anyone on the fence should be a quick listen to Harvey Birdman‘s earworm of a . “Whooooooo is the man in the suuuuit? Whooooo is the cat with the beeeeeaaaaak?” — A.F.
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Fans of The Wire need to know just one thing: Treme is a David Simon production. Created in partnership with his former Homicide: Life on the Street collaborator Eric Overmyer, the underrated 2010 series dive deep into the life, community, and culture of one of the most vibrant cities in the United States: New Orleans. Picking up in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the series follows a memorable crew of residents as they work to rebuild and rediscover their sense of community in the wake of the natural disaster. Just like The Wire, all the pieces matter here — right down to the authenticity of a locally sourced cast and an intense, loving focus on music, which has long been one of the city’s finest cultural exports. — A.R.
How to watch: Treme is streaming on HBO Max.
* Some of the blurbs on this list previously appeared in other Mashable articles in slightly modified form.