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Ranked: The best HBO miniseries of all time

HBO

HBO is the king of television. With an adherence to a higher standard than every other network, the premium cable channel has been revolutionizing storytelling and taking risks going as far back as the 1980s. While most people will think of HBO for their dramas, such as The Sopranos or The Wire, the home box office also specializes in broadcasting some of the best miniseries available.

A miniseries is more difficult to pull off than many people think. Telling a longer story than a movie and a shorter one than a full series, these single seasons have a vision that needs tight execution and exact planning. HBO has dabbled in historical dramas, war stories, the superhero genre, and LGBTQ+ themes to create a library full of incredible miniseries. These are the ten best HBO miniseries of all time!

10. Watchmen (2019)

10. Watchmen
tv-ma
1 Season
Genre
Crime, Drama, Action & Adventure, Sci-Fi & Fantasy
Stars
Regina King, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Jeremy Irons
Created by
Damon Lindelof
Watch on HBO Max

Watchmen is based on the graphic novels by DC in the 1980s, but don’t expect a ton of superpowers or cartoonish plotting in this one. Damon Lindelof’s (who worked on Lost and The Leftovers) miniseries about the Tulsa race massacre in the 1920s and its trickle-down effect on the present in Oklahoma will make you think about how people react to racism and how far we have to go before the world is a just place for everyone. Regina King turns in a career-defining performance, but don’t overlook the sterling supporting performances of Jean Smart and Jeremy Irons.

9. Tanner '88 (1988)

9. Tanner '88
1 Season
Genre
Comedy, War & Politics
Stars
Michael Murphy, Pamela Reed, Cynthia Nixon
Created by
Robert Altman, Garry Trudeau
Watch on Amazon

Tanner ’88 is the perfect political companion for the upcoming presidential election. It’s fascinating how so many of the same political issues plague the United States almost 40 years after this mockumentary poking fun at the system and the results of it made waves. Tanner ’88 is a satire that stars Michael Murphy as a candidate running for America’s most important position of power that aired concurrently with the election between George H.W. Bush and Michael Dukakis. Garry Trudeau leverages the darkly comedic undertones of the race by inspecting what makes a person a good candidate for public service.

8. Mare of Easttown (2021)

8. Mare of Easttown
tv-ma
1 Season
Genre
Drama, Mystery, Crime
Stars
Kate Winslet, Jean Smart, Julianne Nicholson
Created by
Brad Ingelsby
Watch on max

If True Detective is the first big HBO crime drama to use movie stars effectively, Mare of Easttown is certainly the next one in line. Kate Winslet is jaw-dropping as a complicated detective who juggles a variety of personal trials with the mysterious murder investigation rocking her hometown. Jean Smart and Julianne Nicholson add to the dynamic female cast list that shows how awesome it can be when genre stereotypes are flipped on their heads.

7. Angels in America (2003)

7. Angels in America
tv-ma
1 Season
Genre
Drama, Sci-Fi & Fantasy
Stars
Al Pacino, Meryl Streep, Jeffrey Wright
Watch on max

Al Pacino and Meryl Streep are just two of the famous legends in this adaptation of Tony Kushner’s transcendent theatrical story of the AIDS epidemic and its devastating fallout on the queer community during the 1980s. Angels in America makes even the most supportive allies think about how hate, religion, and politics intersect to destroy lives and how love and affection can overcome even the most powerful deceit. This miniseries feels more like a movie because it aired over a two-week period. It might have been formatted differently if it aired now.

6. The Pacific (2010)

6. The Pacific
tv-ma
1 Season
Genre
Drama, Action & Adventure, War & Politics
Stars
James Badge Dale, Jon Seda, Joseph Mazzello
Created by
Bruce C. McKenna
Watch on Netflix

War often gets trivialized and taken advantage of in American media for the purpose of pumping out more shows and movies. The Pacific does the opposite by forcing the audience to see the perspectives of three different soldiers suffering through the Pacific Theater during World War II. Through the trauma, both the characters and the audience come out the other side with a changed viewpoint on the devastation of battle.

5. I May Destroy You (2020)

5. I May Destroy You
tv-ma
1 Season
Genre
Drama
Stars
Michaela Coel, Weruche Opia, Paapa Essiedu
Created by
Michaela Coel
Watch on max

Michaela Coel displays unmatched talent as the creator and star of this limited series that deals with sexual assault, trauma, and perseverance in novel ways. It’s a delicate balance to depict these themes in such a way that audiences can relate and feel sympathy for the survivors of sexual violence without the story feeling contrived or trite. I May Destroy You makes the uncomfortable truths of rape more palpable than ever before.

4. John Adams (2008)

4. John Adams
tv-14
1 Season
Genre
Drama
Stars
Paul Giamatti, Laura Linney, Stephen Dillane
Created by
Kirk Ellis
Watch on max

John Adams is a historical miniseries made by and for people who enjoy reliving America’s primitive years. Paul Giamatti is fantastic as the titular politician who was more important to the country’s founding than many other figures talked about in school textbooks. Special attention to detail with excellent set pieces and costume design make this an educational and entertaining masterpiece of its genre.

3. Generation Kill (2008)

3. Generation Kill
tv-ma
1 Season
Genre
War & Politics, Drama, Action & Adventure
Stars
Alexander Skarsgård, James Ransone, Lee Tergesen
Created by
David Simon
Watch on HBO Max

Generation Kill comes from the minds of The Wire creators David Simon and Ed Burns to give a different take on the complicated nature of the Iraq War at the dawn of the 21st century. Using real-life journalist Evan Wright’s reporting on the conflict, the miniseries differs from historical war dramas because so many people can still vividly remember the effects of the bloodshed in the Middle East.

2. Chernobyl (2019)

2. Chernobyl
tv-ma
1 Season
Genre
Drama
Stars
Jared Harris, Stellan Skarsgård, Emily Watson
Created by
Craig Mazin
Watch on max

The Chernobyl disaster is one of the moments that completely altered the course of European history. Creator Craig Mazin never ceases to amaze in adapting the story for the silver screen. Adding layers of subcontext and humanity to the events surrounding the power plant’s blowup, viewers will never look at Chernobyl the same after this miniseries.

1. Band of Brothers (2001)

1. Band of Brothers
tv-ma
1 Season
Genre
Drama, War & Politics
Stars
Damian Lewis, Donnie Wahlberg, David Schwimmer
Watch on Netflix

Band of Brothers released at the perfect time, both for HBO and the United States. With the first episode airing just two days before the terrorist attacks at the World Trade Center, this miniseries helped to comfort Americans who needed a reminder of the country’s resilience and what it means to be a patriot. Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg set out to pull open the curtain on the tragedies of World War II in a way movies of the previous decades hadn’t, and they achieved this handsomely. The show fit perfectly next to other pioneers on the network to build HBO’s reputation as the premiere name in television. If you watch one HBO miniseries, make sure it’s Band of Brothers.

Movie images and data from:
Shawn Laib
Shawn Laib is a freelance writer with publications such as Den of Geek, Quote.com, Edge Media Network, diaTribe, SUPERJUMP…
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