When it comes to prestige television, HBO is leading the pack. There are few channels or streaming services that have the same level of association between their brand and good TV. So, when Warner Bros. Discovery, the owner of HBO, decided to rebrand the streaming service from HBO Max to just Max, many fans were confused. They argued that they wanted Max to be known for not just great TV, but also more digestible shows and daytime TV. Deciding to distance themselves from their biggest selling point — making good TV — is an odd move, but what matters is that HBO is alive and well and still putting out great work.
Over the 50 years that HBO has been around, they've produced so many incredible shows that when it comes to Rotten Tomatoes ratings, the lowest score in the Top 20 is 97%. Evidently, this means that several shows share the same score and when that's the case, the show with the higher number of reviews will be placed ahead. When it comes to Rotten Tomatoes itself, it's not a definitive measure of what is good and bad, it's simply an aggregation of critics' reviews. This means that this Top 20 list looks very different to what most people would consider to be HBO's best shows of all time. In fact, heavy-hitters such as The Sopranos or The Wire don't even make an appearance. To find out what beat them, keep reading.
20 Sally4Ever (2018) — 97%
First up, we have Sally4Ever, which was created by and stars Julia Davis and has a score of 97%. She plays Emma, an actress who embarks on an affair with the titular Sally, whose boyfriend had just asked her to marry him. Davis is accompanied by Catherine Shepherd as Sally, Felicity Montagu, and Julian Barratt.
In this hilarious comedy, the writing walks the precarious line between cringe comedy that is laugh-out-loud funny and that is too awkward to watch, but somehow always lands on the right side. It's certainly not for the faint of heart, but if you can handle uncomfortable humor, then there's not much better than this.
19 Band of Brothers (2001) — 97%
Also scoring 97% is a more typical HBO miniseries, Band of Brothers, which tells the story of a regiment in WWII from their first days of training to V-J Day. It was based on a novel by Stephen Ambrose and created by Stephen Spielberg and Tom Hanks. Some of the ensemble cast includes Damian Lewis, Ron Livingston, and Dexter Fletcher.
In classic HBO fashion, it's violent and graphic, which is just one of the reason that the series is so exhausting to watch — arguably as it should be. While it's not so much an enjoyable watch, it's hard to say it's not excellent television, and it would definitely be more concerning if tone were light and airy.
18 The Other Two (2019-2023) — 97%
Another 97%-er is The Other Two, a comedy series about the adult siblings of a teenage boy who finds overnight fame on the internet. The older siblings, Brooke and Cary, are played by Heléne Yorke and Drew Tarver, and they are both seeking success in the entertainment industry. This means that their 13-year-old brother achieving what they so desperately want with little to no effort takes a toll on their self-esteems and view of the world.
It's a smartly written satire of the industry it depicts that combines real-life observations with shocking and surreal events.
17 My Brilliant Friend (2018-Present) — 97%
My Brilliant Friend is based on the series of novels by Elena Ferrante that charts the course of two women's lives from early childhood to their elderly years. The first series sets the scene in a suburb of Naples early in the 1950s when the two main characters, Elena and Lila, meet at school.
The relationship between these characters is so complex and fascinating, with each of them having a huge impact on the other's life both positively and negatively. With an evocative and unique score by Max Richter and rich period production design, the series has well-earned its 97% Rotten Tomatoes score.
16 Treme (2010-2013) — 97%
Set in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Treme follows residents of New Orleans as they attempt to get their lives back in order. With a large cast that features Wendell Pierce, Melissa Leo, and Khandi Alexander, there is a strong set of actors on board.
Treme has a meandering plot that focuses much more on building interesting characters and strong atmosphere than on twists and turns in the narrative. Moreover, the attention paid to the music of New Orleans gives the drama a richness that is aided by such strong writing across the board. This individuality and incredible execution earns the series yet another 97%.
15 Insecure (2016-2021) — 97%
The final HBO series to score 97% on Rotten Tomatoes is Issa Rae's Insecure. The show was born out of Rae's web series Awkward Black Girl, but shows a complete mastery of the craft with no growing pains from moving between the internet and television.
With a simple premise, Rae stars as a version of herself navigating her career and relationships alongside her best friend Molly, played by Yvonne Orji. Simply through great writing, the show is raised from the mundane day-to-day to charming and hilarious. It's no surprise that this effortlessly wonderful show is so beloved among fans and critics alike.
14 Betty (2020-2021) — 98%
Moving into the shows that have earned a 98% score, we have Betty. This show is based on the movie Skate Kitchen, with several cast members reprising their previous roles, including Dede Lovelace, Kabrina Adams, and Rachelle Vinberg. It follows a group of young women navigating the world of skateboarding.
In a similar way to Insecure, Betty is another simple yet effective show. It has a real sense of authenticity to it in the way these friends interact with each other and navigate the world. They demonstrate both defiance and playfulness that are true to teenage life and make the characters feel like old friends.
13 Station Eleven (2021-2022) — 98%
The miniseries Station Eleven also holds a 98% on Rotten Tomatoes. Based on the novel by Emily St. John Mandel, the series tells the epic, decade-spanning story of a group of people who survived a deadly flu. Some of the central characters are played by Mackenzie Davis, Jeevan Patel, and David Wilmott, with Patel earning an Emmy nomination for his work.
After experiencing the onset of a pandemic very recently, the subject might be off-putting, but what's important about Station Eleven is that it maintains an important level of hopefulness. It's experimental, genre-shifting, and singular among its peers.
12 High Maintenance (2016-2020) — 98%
High Maintenance is a comedy series that ran for four seasons on HBO, finishing with a score of 98% on Rotten Tomatoes. Its format is interesting, using its central character, a weed dealer named "The Guy," to explore the life of a different New York City resident each episode, so it's almost, but not quite, an anthology series.
Co-creator Ben Sinclair stars in the central role, with some of the guest stars being Dan Stevens, Amy Ryan, and Peter Friedman. The biggest selling point of the show is that it treats each story as important as the next, and extends equal and impressive empathy to each new character, whoever they might be.
11 I May Destroy You (2020) — 98%
Michaela Coel's groundbreaking miniseries I May Destroy You took the world by storm upon its release. Coel stars as Arabella, a writer grappling with an impending deadline while trying to deal with fuzzy memories of a sexual assault on a night out. The tone is dark yet simultaneously very funny, as the two tend to occur together in real life.
Coel proves herself to be an incredible talent as the star, writer, and co-director of the series, which goes to show it is a reflection of a clear vision. It's not an easy watch, but it more than pays off what you invest in it, and it is incredibly worth your while.
10 Barry (2018-2023) — 98%
The final series scoring 98% is Barry. It stars Bill Hader in the titular role as a depressed hit man who travels to Los Angeles for a job, only to discover a love for the theater. However, unfortunately for Barry, his handler is not too keen on him abandoning the career in favor of acting and will do anything to stop him.
Hader is joined by Stephen Root as Fuches, his handler, Sarah Goldberg, and Henry Winkler. Interestingly, Barry's final season aired alongside Succession's and despite the latter's popularity and acclaim, Barry holds the higher Rotten Tomatoes score and Succession doesn't make the list.
9 Tenacious D (1997-2000) — 100%
The first of the HBO shows to score 100% on Rotten Tomatoes is Tenacious D. The title refers to a band made up of Jack Black and Kyle Gass, playing versions of themselves, and the series follows their ups and downs as friends and bandmates. This series is a great example of where Rotten Tomatoes falls down. With only five reviews for the series, some of which are retrospective, this 100% score doesn't give as comprehensive an idea of critics' opinions in comparison with a show that has hundreds of reviews, like Insecure or Barry.
Therefore, more popular shows are at a disadvantage as they receive more reviews, giving them a greater chance of having their score weighed down, which explains why some of HBO's most popular shows haven't made the top 20.
8 The Corner (2000) — 100%
An HBO miniseries with the coveted 100% score is The Corner, which follows the lives of a family living in poverty in Baltimore. From the same team that went on to make The Wire and Treme, this first effort is also their highest-scoring one. The central family is made up of Khandi Alexander, who also stars in Treme, T.K. Carter, and Sean Nelson as their son.
With the parents caught up in active drug addictions that consume most of their days, their son is largely left to fend for himself. It's hard to watch but also not something to turn away from, with the characters presented as whole human beings rather than being just morality tales.
7 Random Acts of Flyness (2018-Present) — 100%
Random Acts of Flyness is a fascinating, hard to pin down show. Sitting somewhere between a sketch show and a variety show, it's a dizzying and exciting series of sketches, documentary vignettes, animations, and more. The segments are connected in ways that are loose yet also make sense, like moving through scenes of a dream.
In an interview with The Guardian, creator Terence Nance discusses how a big question he asked himself when making the show was "how do we celebrate, not satirize?" With such an array of never been done before work throughout the two existing seasons, it's safe to say Nance has done exactly that and scored 100% in the process.
6 How to With John Wilson (2020-2023) — 100%
In many ways, How to With John Wilson is like a documentary version of High Maintenance. It has a similar premise in which John Wilson, the cameraman and narrator of the series, explores different aspects of life in New York City, although this is more diaristic by nature. While the two shows have similarities, they remain distinct, and Wilson's unique perspective on life sets the tone here.
In a review for Thrillist, Dan Jackson argues that the heart of the show comes from the way Wilson "arrives at larger poetic truths by grounding the work in his own observations." In this way, How to With John Wilson provides further evidence for the idea that the most specific and personal things can also be the most broadly relatable.
5 A Black Lady Sketch Show (2019-2023) — 100%
A Black Lady Sketch Show was created by and stars Robin Thede, with other guest actors including Ashley Nicole Black, Quinta Brunson, and Issa Rae. The writing on these sketches is incredibly sharp, both in terms of the observations they're making about the world and in regard to the strength of the comedy.
There is no compromise made here between humor and social critique; they exist in harmony thanks to the talent of this crew. Additionally, the already impressive quality of the writing and acting is amplified by the fact that everyone on screen is evidently having so much fun, making it impossible not to laugh along with them.
4 Los Espookys (2018-2022) — 100%
Los Espookys is a delightfully unique comedy series in which a group of friends set up a business providing horror and spookiness wherever people need it, like a quniceañera, obviously. It was created by Fred Armisen, Ana Fabrega, and Julio Torres, who all also act in the series, though Armisen less than the others.
Anyone familiar with Armisen's work on Portlandia will find a lot to enjoy here, but there's definitely a fresh sensibility here from the other writers. It's silly and quirky in all the right ways but also posesses a gentleness and heart that balances out the absurdist elements of the show. Hitting all the right beats, it's no wonder the show has ended up with 100% on Rotten Tomatoes.
3 Somebody Somewhere (2022-Present) — 100%
In a subdued and naturalistic turn, Somebody Somewhere stars Bridget Everett as Sam, a woman rocked by the recent death of her sister. With the help of a coworker, she finds herself a new sense of community in her small town in a group of outsiders.
It seems that one of the things HBO shows do best according to critics is tackling serious topics in a gentle way because this is something that comes up here as well as in previously mentioned top 20 shows. Everett is the heart of the series, bringing humor and a center of gravity to the meandering plot, she's a big part of the 100% score.
2 The Larry Sanders Show (1992-1998) — 100%
The second best reviewed HBO show dates back to the 1990s, The Larry Sanders Show. Here, Gary Shandling — who is also a co-creator of the show — plays Larry Sanders, the host of a late night talk show. The action takes place both backstage and during the taping of the show itself, creating a somewhat meta structure.
The comic timing is perfectly executed, and the premise goes down nice and easily. What's most impressive about this show's second place position is not just its 100% score but also that after 30 years, it has only been overtaken by one show.
1 Hacks (2021-Present) — 100%
Coming in at first place with the highest number of exclusively positive reviews is Hacks. This stars Jean Smart as a legendary comedian who finds herself waning in popularity. To combat this, she takes on Hannah Einbinder's character, an out of luck comedy writer, to help revamp her act. The chemistry between the two of them is one of a kind and hilarious.
A winning formula of constant jokes combined with explorations of "vulnerability, self-image, and gender politics," which allows the show to go "deeper than the ironic name suggests," according to James White at Empire Magazine. Hacks is HBO's best reviewed show for great reason, and it's impressive that its popularity hasn't yet brought in any negative reviews.