The Best HBO Shows You’re Not Watching
Welcome to the golden age of TV's most prestigious network.
If you thought Game of Thrones was the end of HBO’s golden age, think again. HBO is producing a whopping 50 percent more hours of TV in 2019 compared to a year earlier, providing viewers with a bottomless well of excellent programming. These days, there’s so much to watch on TV’s most prestigious network that it’s impossible to catch it all. The question isn’t “What’s good?”; it’s “What’s the best?” Since you already know Westworld counts as must-see TV, here are all the other HBO shows you should add to your list. Happy viewing!
My Brilliant Friend
As far as book-to-screen adaptations go, My Brilliant Friend is uncannily faithful. The eight-part, Italian-language miniseries—based on Elena Ferrante’s best-selling novel of the same name—takes place in Naples, Italy, in the 1950s and explores the lifelong friendship between two young women, Raffaella “Lila” Cerullo (Gaia Girace) and Elena “Lenù” Greco (Margherita Mazzucco). Like the book, plot beats come slow and patient, gathering like cumulus clouds before they build into a gale-force storm.
Midcentury Italy may sound like a nostalgic, romanticized setting, but—as Lenù, the narrator, stresses—this story provides no such thing. It’s dismal, depressing, and harsh. So rather than fill every scene with limoncello and linen suits, the producers render Naples drab and nearly colorless, almost sepia-toned—a visual manifestation of Ferrante’s prose. If you’re aching for a new drama, there’s no better time to start watching than now: A second season (based on the second book in the series, The Story of a New Name) is on the way.
Since it premiered in 2016, Insecure has received rapturous praise. Not only does it currently have a 97 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, but it also earned series star (and co-creator) Issa Rae two Golden Globe nominations and one Emmy nod for Best Actress.
Insecure primarily focuses on the friendship between two 20-something Stanford grads—Issa (Rae), a nonprofit staffer, and Molly (Yvonne Orji), a high-powered lawyer—living in Los Angeles. It’s funny, it’s messy, and it takes a sledgehammer to stereotypes. Not long after another HBO show, Girls, was criticized for lacking diversity, Insecure feels like refreshing, essential programming.
“We’re just trying to convey that people of color are relatable,” Rae told the Los Angeles Times. “This is not a hood story. This is about regular people living life.” And good news: A fourth season is on the horizon.
As silly as it is surreal, Los Espookys is an exercise in whip-smart absurdity. Set in an unnamed Latin American country, the show follows a group of kids who turn horror-magic into a business. (In one episode, the group performs an exorcism.) And if you’re a Portlandia fan, you’ll particularly get a kick out of the fact that in every episode, a character played by Fred Armisen (also an executive producer on the show) pops up.
Though viewership is low, HBO execs clearly love Los Espookys: Just five days after the first season wrapped up, the network renewed it for a second. With just six episodes currently available, you could easily power through all of them in a single sitting.
Bill Hader plays the titular character, a hitman in Los Angeles who, while on assignment, stumbles into a theater class. (Henry Winkler plays the class’s teacher, a performance that won him a Primetime Emmy.) There, Barry has an epiphany—to give up his life of crime and instead become an actor. Of course, that’s far easier said than done, and the show quickly becomes a fine balancing act between high-stakes crime drama and low-stakes ensemble comedy.
The laughs come as fast as bullets, and the drama hits as hard as one. We won’t spoil anything, but whatever degree of hijinks you’re imagining, triple it. In the crowded “dramedy” space, it’s safe to say that Barry, which currently sits at 99 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, is a high water mark. Season 2 wrapped up on May 19, 2019; a third season has been confirmed by HBO.
Is Ballers good? Not exactly. But does it star Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson? Yes—and, honestly, that should be enough of a draw.
Johnson plays a sharp-suited, silver-tongued former pro football player who’s pivoted careers to become a financial manager…for pro football players. The stakes aren’t ever really that high on Ballers, but it’s flashy and splashy, and features cameos from IRL football superstars (which is why it’s been frequently compared to Entourage). As far as unchallenging fare goes, you can’t beat it. A fifth season kicks off on August 25, 2019.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that a show about the 0.1 percent couldn’t possibly be compelling. But Succession is one of TV’s most gripping dramas this side of The Sopranos. Reportedly inspired by the familial drama surrounding media scions like Rupert Murdoch or Sumner Redstone, the drama begins when Logan Roy (Bryan Cox) steps down from the conglomerate he founded. From there, a Shakespearian spat kicks off between Roy’s three kids—Kendall (Jeremy Strong), Roman (Kieran Culkin), and Shiv (Sarah Snook)—over who gets to run the business. And you know what that means: backstabbing, more backstabbing, and whole lot of dramatic irony. A second season premieres on August 11, 2019.
Created by Mike Judge, the man behind Office Space, Silicon Valley is the social satire to end all social satires. It pulls no punches at excoriating the target it’s named after as it follows a small, ragtag group of coders trying to change the world via startup. Their main antagonist? A gigantic, omnipresent Google-like tech entity swallowing up every cutting-edge piece of IP in the region. (Sound familiar?) But the main draw is the awkward, hilarious emotional whiplash: Every time the main characters take a step forward, they take two back.
On top of that, Silicon Valley has had an actual effect on real-world culture. In the first season, the writers came up with something called the Weissman Score, an algorithm that measures compression speed. After the inaugural season aired, Stanford scientists actually came up with a fully usable, real-world Weissman Score.
Don’t miss this game-changing show’s final season, which is just seven episodes, when it debuts in October 2019.
In the early 1970s, pornography became a legal industry. That’s the backdrop for The Deuce, a show set in seedy ’70s New York City. James Franco plays two twin brothers who, at the start of the series, become fronts for the mob. At the same time, Maggie Gyllenhaal jumps from street-level sex work to on-camera gigs. Make no mistake: What you get is entirely NSFW. But, if you can handle it, The Deuce’s dramatic bona fides—in addition to the A-list leads, it’s helmed by David Simon, the esteemed creator behind HBO’s The Wire—are peerless. A third season (the final one) is set to premiere on September 9, 2019.
Random Acts of Flyness
You’ve no doubt heard of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, but we’d like to direct your attention to HBO’s other late-nite program: Random Acts of Flyness, a sketch show created by, written by, directed by, and starring Terence Nance. Upon its premiere, The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum described it as “liberated and raw,” an examination of “black male vulnerability through an experimental [lens].”
Some skits features claymation; others feature “found footage” storytelling; and others feature fake infomercials that veer directly into the surreal. (One, starring Jon Hamm, “advertises” an ointment called White Be Gone.) Yes, it’s safe to to say Random Acts of Flyness is one of the oddest shows on television today—but it’s also one of the most innovative. Watch out for a second season soon. (Though HBO has confirmed one, no date has been announced.)
The Atlantic called it “grotesque.” Rolling Stone deemed it “squirm-inducing.” Still, with a 97 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, the seven-episode Sally4Ever is beloved by critics. The show follows Sally, a buttoned-up British marketing associate (Catherine Shepherd) who’s been in a years-long, frankly uninspired relationship with a man named David (Alex Macqueen). The night David proposes, Sally meets Emma (Julia Davis, also the show’s creator) and the suburban life Sally and David share goes quickly off the rails.
As far as awkward moments go, Sally4Ever makes The Office seem like a happy-go-lucky network sitcom; Emma, in particular, is riveting in her lack of moral standing. (Like the best on-screen sociopaths, you can’t take your eyes off her.) Still, the pacing is frenetic, and the wit is unmatched. Season 2 hasn’t yet been announced, but HBO hasn’t officially canceled the show, either. Our fingers are crossed for a return!
In the early 19th century, Anne Lister, a well-to-do industrialist from West Yorkshire, wrote a whole lot of diaries—reportedly four million words worth. Most historians believe Lister’s journals were written in code, meant to hide a lengthy lifetime of illicit lesbian relationships. Gentleman Jack is about those relationships—and about Lister’s goal of fixing up her newly inherited estate. For those looking to fill the Downton Abbey-sized hole in their life, this show is a worthy salve. Co-produced by BBC One, a second season has been confirmed. And for more essential programming, Here are The Best Netflix Shows You’re Not Watching.
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