Has any studio even come close to upending HBO as the greatest TV studio of the 21st century? Probably not. Home Box Office is the undisputed king of television in the US and the world over. Its legacy of almost 50 years remains intact today due to the constant shuffling of the formula. HBO has given a platform to many unique artistic voices without compromising their vision for the projects. Everything about an HBO television, including numerous miniseries, is grand, spectacular, and of the very highest quality. Despite not having a realistic streaming service until this year, HBO managed to stay afloat and still dominate the television space despite the OTT revolution brought upon by the likes of Netflix and Apple TV+.
HBO has done well to build up its offerings both in regular series and limited series categories. Each of these has its separate advantages and distinguished fan followings. With the former, creators get an opportunity to expand upon their ideas and the cinematic world with more artistic license. They take it slow and, in the process, discover many facets of their own universe that become clear to them along the journey. A limited miniseries, on the other hand, requires a little more conviction and organized planning.
The small quota of hours they provide is more binge-able in the sense that the destination, in terms of finishing a story, looks smaller. The creative focus is usually very streamlined, and we get the most optimum level of storytelling. Even though HBO started the experimentation with this shorter format back in the 80s, the trend did not catch on until the release of ‘The Corner’ in 2000. That single-handedly turned the screws and gave validation to the concept of a limited series. Since then, there has been no stopping the endless number of limited series that HBO has churned.
This article is like a homage to the heavyweights. For all the joy they have bestowed upon the world, this is for you, HBO. In this meticulously curated and refined piece, we bring you our selection of the 15 best HBO TV miniseries in the 21st century you must get to watch right away.
15. Scenes from a Marriage (2021)
Hagai Levi and Amy Herzog’s collaboration on developing Ingmar Bergmann’s titular Swedish miniseries for an American landscape yielded very positive results. Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac portrayed the central couple over the course of the five episodes. Those who have seen the series would know that the actors used the small moments in between to make the most of their talents. Chastain and Isaac nail both aspects of their performances. It is not easy to play sparring couples with residual love and respect for one another.
Such is the voltage of their portrayals that the dynamic keeps fluctuating only to return to the mean. These vivid oscillations are evoked as they go through a chapter of their marriage, both on dark and joyous occasions. Given the background of the characters – psychologist and “divorce” lawyer – the makers adapt the original series beyond their comprehension of the American landscape. The cultural differences form the basis of the project, but it is the larger picture of discussion on things like love, the human connection, and societal expectations that end up making ‘Scenes from a Marriage’ HBO’s most rooted limited series in theatrical norms.
14. Generation Kill (2008)
‘Generation Kill’ is a show centering around war and violence. HBO seems to have quite a penchant for producing content around the subject. The duo of David Simon and Ed Burns collaborated on the show. Released in 2008, the series is based on the non-fiction book of the same name by Evan Wright, who was embedded as a journalist with the 1st Reconnaissance Battalion of the United States Marine Corps during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. America’s sketchy time in the Middle East region is viewed quite differently in hindsight. Its destabilization and the subsequent emergence of terrorist groups in the region are now tied latently to America’s so-called “peace efforts.”
The series follows the experiences of the First Recon Marines as they navigate the challenges and complexities of the early stages of the Iraq War. It offers a gritty and realistic portrayal of the war from the perspective of the soldiers on the ground. The events depicted are based on real experiences and interviews conducted by Evan Wright. Simon and Burns follow a similar strategy as ‘The Wire’ and ‘The Corner’ to anchor their storytelling with facts. Having their ear so close to what actually happened gives the creators license to use their talents to structure the story.
The perspective of the Marines leads to chilling conclusions about how ‘Generation Kill’ transpired during its initial airing. The show’s attention to detail and the performances of the cast, many of whom are actual military veterans, are some of the great things that add bite to the portrayal of the military action in Iraq.
13. Mare of Easttown (2021)
Kate Winslet’s starring central role in ‘Mare of Easttown’ was pivotal in grounding the HBO limited series in tangible complications. Although the central mystery of the murder is handled really well, it is Mare’s character study and her attachment to the town that elevates the series. All the major themes revolve around the people of the small town who know each other. Such shows are set amongst tightly knit communities that don’t let outsiders in and hardly ever see the face of crime thrive on genuine characters.
‘Mare of Easttown’ has plenty of them on offer. Not only are their characterizations a plus, but the characters also reveal themselves in a non-obvious way that keeps the tension up. Most of the cast consists of female actors, but the choice is not for the sake of having them. Their representation is another key victory for the makers. ‘Big Little Lies’ took new strides as an HBO show with a similar mindset, but the schematics of‘Mare of Easttown’ are level-headed and closer to reality. The only thing HBO can be faulted for is not giving us more of this story.
12. The Night Of (2016)
Naz’s heartbreaking story and the indictment of the American criminal justice system make ‘The Night Of’ a compelling watch. Riz Ahmed won hearts once again for his honest portrayal of a man caught in confusion for a murder he does not remember committing. ‘The Night Of’ takes many shapes during its eight-episode run. But the problem with ‘The Night Of’ and the low ranking on our list is owing to its deviation from the baseline. For the first four episodes, it provides riveting, first-rate entertainment. Without veering too much away from the established formula, ‘The Night Of’ creates a great standard.
But the follow-through in the second half is weak. It deviates from the baseline considerably and perhaps might even be branded mediocre. The pace falls off, developments in the plot feel contrived, and the execution comes across as half-hearted. The legitimacy of ‘The Night Of’ cannot be questioned, though. It brings out important points about the justice system and its frailties. In its aftermath, it kickstarted relevant discussions about practices in jails on many forums and forced some changes to make the laws better. The limited series from HBO is an uncomfortable yet significant watch.
11. I May Destroy You (2020)
“The perfect show for an anxious world” – these words are fitting to pitch ‘I May Destroy You’ to younger audiences. The gnarly truth at the core of its plot is disturbing in itself. But how it affects everyday life and being of dynamic writer Arabella Essiedu is the real conceit. The limited series arduously breaks down the trauma of what Arabella experienced and how she comes to remember it. There is often entanglement over what dark humor really is. ‘I May Destroy You’ shows the world how it is done, marrying the humorous vein with deep discomfort.
The tone is not preachy or optimistically melodramatic. All these mediocre creative choices are avoided in the show’s twelve-episode run. You are not made to live through Arabella’s experience but are made to live with her new reality and how she rebuilds her life. Michaela Coel gives a breakthrough performance as Arabella, channeling her energy really well. ‘I May Destroy You ‘is a contemporary limited series dealing with issues that other entrants on this list do not touch upon.
10. Sharp Objects (2018)
When ‘Sharp Objects’ first came out, the ‘return to small-town’ trope had become very saturated. Most narrative rhythms and outcomes had been established. This included character sketches and the kind of themes that would be explored through them. But despite those inherent disadvantages, this HBO limited series managed to make a telling impact. Amy Adams brought her signature vulnerability to the role of Camille Preaker, an alcoholic reporter recently discharged from a psychiatric hospital. The setting of the plot is entirely in the town of Wind Gap. The quiet community is in shock after the cold-blooded murder of two young girls. Camille investigates the crimes while also coming to terms with her watchful mother, Adora’s scrutiny.
Gillian Flynn’s exquisite positioning of these two women in her literary source work makes the staging of the series very interesting. Under Jean-Marc Valle’s trained eye, Flynn’s guarded world unravels in slow-burn madness that takes shape in the blink of an eye. ‘Sharp Objects’ jumps into action at its business end without notice or any hint of diffidence. It is one of the great HBO limited series in the mystery genre, one that you should watch right away.
9. John Adams (2008)
The life of former US President ‘John Adams’ could not have been more intimately brought to life than the way it has been in this HBO miniseries. Paul Giamatti delivers the performance of a lifetime as Adams’s journey from a respected lawyer to a retired President is established. Of course, it takes many more brilliant performances from the rest of the cast to truly give us the best experience. The massive ensemble is tasked with playing real historical characters. Despite being in the nature of a period drama, the focus in ‘John Adams’ is more on bringing out the cultural and moral values of America. The visual grandiosity is missing, but even then, it makes an impact.
The real treasure that the HBO miniseries unpacks for us is the man himself. Adams was one of the founding fathers of the Constitution, and his place in American history is undisputed. Adams was a pillar of solidarity with the ideals of the American people. His ideas about what a democracy should be emanated from his astute understanding of a sovereign government tasked with making the best decisions for its territories and people. The tone of the storytelling wavers between didactic and personal. Although the later part of Adams and his family’s life is not as interestingly characterized, it still makes for an overall riveting experience.
8. The Pacific (2010)
‘The Pacific’ is another war drama limited series by HBO that hits the mark. Comparisons with ‘Band of Brothers’ are bound to happen, but ‘The Pacific’ has its own strengths and weaknesses. The series is set during the same time period, but the setting is the titular ocean. The Pacific War has many modern-day iterations, including Tom Hanks’s ‘The Greyhound.’ It was fought on an enormous scale and led to the loss of many lives and resources. The limited series reflects on the sombreness of war in its visual depiction. ‘The Pacific’ is intentionally more melancholic and hard-hitting to bring out the ugliness of war.
Some of the scenes in Okinawa and Peleliu are so brutal they are not for the faint of heart. That in itself was a bold choice as it is an unpopular one and remains so even today. ‘The Pacific’ struggles to reconcile the use of three different storylines at different times, and that is the series’s major flaw that disrupts the flow of watching it. It gets a little sidetracked by politics and downtime in subplots, but it remains one of the most honest and metaphysical ruminations of war in a miniseries.
7. Olive Kitteridge (2014)
‘Olive Kitteridge’ revolves around the life of the titular character, played by Frances McDormand. She plays a complex and flawed character living in a small town in Maine. The series explores themes of love, loss, family dynamics, and the complexities of human relationships. The storytelling is intimate and deeply emotional, delving into the lives of various characters and their interconnectedness with Olive. It offers a nuanced portrayal of human nature and the struggles people face in their everyday lives. McDormand and Richard Jenkins get most of the screen time as the central pairing. The translation from Elizabeth Strout’s literary source material to the screen exemplifies how talented the artists are.
Every nuance of their characters is expressed in the littlest of body language changes or subtle facial expressions. It becomes difficult to decipher where the source of inspiration really stood. There is a wealth of acting talent in pockets as well. Bill Murray, Zoe Kazan, and Ann Dowd give all-around exciting performances to complete the ensemble.’ Olive Kitteridge’ is the shortest HBO limited series on the list, but that does not take away any of its standing as one of the most affecting and personal offerings.
6. Angels in America (2003)
‘Angels in America’ is one of HBO’s most significant limited series. It was a turning moment for the adaptation of theatrical material in mainstream American cinema, which had previously been limited. The fantastical adaptation was helmed by Mike Nichols, who truly extracted the best from the A-list cast. The list includes names like Al Pacino, Meryl Streep, Jeffrey Wright, and Patrick Wilson, who were all at the top of their game back then. Due to the nature of the writing, ‘Angels in America’ was a unique phenomenon for the television space. Even with a larger-than-life grandiosity in the execution, the limited series was grounded in complex themes revolving around the human condition.
Some might place the show lower on the list, but for us, ‘Angels in America’ marked the onset of a golden era for writers. It opened up the doors to different kinds of materials that had hitherto been deemed too ambitious or offbeat for television. The accessibility to such refined works of literature today is thanks in part to this HBO limited series. ‘Angels in America’ combined all elements of filmmaking that many creators can only dream of without straying away from the original material.
5. Show Me a Hero (2015)
It is no wonder that almost all David Simon creations, including ‘Show Me a Hero,’ feature on our list of the best HBO miniseries of all time. ‘Show Me a Hero’ delves into the complexities of race, politics, and class, exploring the deep-rooted prejudices and conflicts that arise during the housing desegregation battle. The thoughtful and thought-provoking examination of these issues provides further opportunity for discourse and objective review of the true-to-life battle of housing segregation. David Simon’s background in journalism and his commitment to realism are evident in the show.
‘Show Me a Hero’ weaves together multiple storylines and perspectives to provide a comprehensive view of the events unfolding in Yonkers. The direction by Paul Haggis and the production values of the show are high quality, something you would expect from HBO. The attention to period detail and the atmospheric cinematography graphically contributed to the show’s overall impact. Oscar ISaac’s winning performance ranks among the best on this list. The actor disappears into his role and brings the best out of himself.
4. The Corner (2000)
In hindsight, the big decision-makers at HBO will be thanking their stars that David Simon stopped at nothing to make ‘The Corner.’ For once, the studio almost missed a huge trick by not financing this documentary-like limited series. ‘The Corner’ shares many similarities, in the thematic category, with ‘The Wire.’ They can also be viewed as companion pieces that dramatize the harshness of living life under the thumb of addiction and poverty. The non-fiction novel of the same name was adapted for the screen by Simon and Ed Burns. The McCullough family’s torment in a neighborhood famished by the riches of a dignified life is a brutal assessment of the situation of so many families like them.
Given the show’s timing and Simon’s nuanced understanding of race relations in America, every aspect of the storytelling had an edge of rebellion. ‘The Corner’ was not just about telling a story but also taking shots at the systematic attempts to marginalize these communities. Simon’s obit for DeAndre McCullough captures the essence of what he learned while he spent all that time with him and his family – the measure of a human soul in the face of unyielding depravity and hopelessness.
3. Chernobyl (2019)
The same year that HBO came out with ‘Watchmen,’ they also released Chernobyl, a harrowing examination of human resilience and sacrifice in the face of mankind’s deadliest nuclear disaster. As the name suggests, the five-episode series delves deeper into the cause of the accident and also covers the response of Russia and the world in its immediate aftermath. The limited series effectively conveys the magnitude and urgency of the disaster, keeping viewers engaged and emotionally invested in the story. The writing by Craig Mazin, combined with the direction by Johan Renck, creates a compelling narrative that unfolds with a tangible sense of dread.
The realization that all of this happened in real-time without any notice still gives us all chills. In fact, the knowledge of what will happen next makes its manifestation on screen even more shocking. The series had a cinematic feel that elevated it beyond traditional television standards, adding to its immersive and impactful storytelling. It upholds the HBO brand of television and its ambitious efforts to bring the box office to our homes.
2. Watchmen (2019)
Damien Lindelof’s ‘Watchmen’ is not just a reboot but has a story of its own to tell. The creator’s vision of setting the sequel to the original story in an alternate reality with some of his creative input comes alive over the course of the limited series. ‘Watchmen’ follows the rebuilding of the Tuscan Police Force after the fateful events of the White Night, when a racist group violently attacked and killed many officers in their homes. The new realities of their profession require them to not look like the police anymore and be masked to protect themselves. A lot more goes around in Lindelof’s world that reflects his commitment to creating a streamlined narrative.
The different conflicts introduced to the original comic book elevate its appeal and make the experience more gritty. Regina King towers above everyone else with her central performance and single-handedly leads the cast. The new interpretations of iconic characters, such as Adrian Veidt/Ozymandias (Jeremy Irons), offer fresh perspectives on the story’s moral complexities. The show’s exploration of contemporary themes of white supremacy, police brutality, and the legacy of systemic racism in America drew parallels to real-world events and sparked discussions about social justice at the time of its run.
1. Band of Brothers (2001)
‘Band of Brothers’ has the same significance as shows like ‘The Wire’ and ‘The Sopranos’ when it comes to the limited series format for HBO; and, by extension, for general television content as well. ‘Band of Brothers’ truly eclipses every other show on this list in all aspects of filmmaking. It might even give many larger-scale movies a run for their money. Although Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg are credited as the creators of the miniseries, the cohort of creative personnel attached to the project shows grit and commitment. ‘Saving Private Ryan’ definitely serves as a mantlepiece and reference point, but ‘Band of Brothers’ creates its own special qualities.
The legendary Easy Company’s World War II efforts and their roller-coaster journey are dramatized over the course of 10 episodes. We move across an entire continent in a blitz that ends with the surrender of Austria. The production challenges that might have seemed insurmountable in the conception stage do not even occur when you see the final product. ‘Band of Brothers’ features a long list of actors who appear throughout. The narrative focus is all over the place, and there is no cohesive mainstay to follow. That makes the job a little harder as a viewer, but it must not come your way in absorbing the legacy of this miniseries.