Though HBO Max is full of great HBO original series and a combination of all Warner Media properties that deliver an excellent TV roster on their own, there are also HBO Max original series. Totally not confusing at all!
The list of HBO Max originals is small but growing, and it’s quite a mixed bag; below we’ve ranked the 10 best that you can watch right now. We’ve mostly stuck to English language, scripted, live-action series—with one or two docuseries exceptions. But since Max Originals are just getting started, there will be plenty more to come.
Directed by: Clay Tweel
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Based on the formation, recruitment, and ultimate mass suicide of the prominent 1970s cult Heaven’s Gate, the four-part docuseries on HBO Max is a careful, honest, and ultimately heartbreaking depiction of the organization. Heaven’s Gate consists of historic footage as well as interviews with participants—or those related to them who are able to paint a picture of the cult in its early days, and how things changed as the organization grew bigger. Similar to Netflix’s smash hit Wild Wild Country, this miniseries shines a light on the eccentric leaders who cultivated a following and spread their illogical beliefs. But with the tragic end for many of the cult members, Heaven’s Gate offers an attempt at a real understanding of how the members were attracted to the group and why they were searching for salvation in such dim corners. For anyone who is interested in or fascinated by the humanistic drive to join a group like this, Heaven’s Gate seeks to find those answers. —Radhika Menon
Created by: Jeremy Carver
Stars: Diane Guerrero, April Bowlby, Alan Tudyk, Matt Bomer, Brendan Fraser, Timothy Dalton, Joivan Wade
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The third-tier answer to Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy, Doom Patrol has learned plenty from its scrappy counterpart, taking as much away from that franchise’s ragtag group of space pirates/superheroes as it does the DC series with a senses of humor. The CW’s Legends of Tomorrow and Cartoon Network’s hyper, strange, and hyper-strange Teen Titans Go! have been dark horse TV success stories, with the latter earning its own (very fun!) movie and the former improving consistently over the course of its four seasons. Doom Patrol carves its own tonal niche, balancing the self-referentiality of Go!, the tragedy of Titans, and the ridiculousness of Legends.
Bolstered by Fraser’s easy charm and some knockout acting by Dalton, Doom Patrol stakes its claim as DC’s best live-action streaming option—simply because it understands and subverts expectations with its unique mix: It’s not just funny, it’s not just sweet, and it isn’t afraid to push the boundaries on either.
Elasti-Woman has gross-out slapstick thanks to her malleable physiology and at the expense of her vanity. Negative Man can stop functioning any time the mysterious force within him decides, leading to plenty of limp, full-body flops. Robotman can’t even move his mouth as profane reactions stream from his stoic face. Robotman and Negative Man’s physical actors—Riley Shanahan and Matthew Zuk, respectively—do plenty of fun pantomime to help out the famous voices behind the tragic bodies. And it’s all funny—even funny at the expense of its characters’ tragedies, which are handled so well that the show may even squeeze out a few unexpected tears. —Jacob Oller
Created by: Sarah-Violet Bliss, Charles Rogers, Michael Showalter
Stars: Alia Shawkat, John Reynolds, John Early, Meredith Hagner
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Search Party initially captivated us when TBS aired the entire first season in five days. It’s the story of a New Yorker named Dory (Alia Shawkat) who becomes obsessed with a missing college classmate because she herself is feeling so lost and floundering in her own life. Her support system—a kind of a wet rag boyfriend and two very self-centered friends—isn’t terribly interested in indulging Dory’s quest to find the missing Chantal, but they get unwittingly sucked in (along with the audience). It’s a weird combination of comedy, drama and mystery, but it is definitely worth a watch.
Search Party carries its charm into its subsequent seasons through a scintillating evolution from mystery to horror. From a neon sign that reads “slay” and an eerie synth jingle to a painting of a dead man and a play about Charles Manson, it’s littered with half-frightful, half-funny details; the episode titles (“Murder!” “Suspicion” “Obsession,” etc.) might’ve been culled from the poster for one of Hitchcock’s classics. Indeed, if the first season’s search for Chantal Witherbottom (Clare McNulty) once reminded me of Vertigo, the second completes the connection: Dory (Alia Shawkat) and Co. are the series’ Scottie Fergusons, unraveled not by the chase, but the capture. Though I want to put on my Stefon voice and say, this show has everything—the relentlessly funny John Early, as the fast-unraveling Elliott Goss; a Marge Gunderson figure on the characters’ trail; a guest arc for J. Smith-Cameron; scatological humor, awful pseudonyms, primal screams—the fact is, that everything is working in felicitous harmony to underscore Search Party’s most elemental fear: Seeking, and ultimately locating, the thing we thought would make us happy, only to discover that it’s not what we’d hoped. —Matt Brennan
Created by: Ravi Patel
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Amidst the pandemic, seemingly every streaming service released a travel show that tried to provide some sort of escapism while most people were stuck indoors. For many shows, the execution was shallow. But one found a way to deliver the gifts of travel with a reminder that the world is a vast place filled with people and cultures that we can always learn from. Hosted by Ravi Patel, a comedian and actor most known for his documentary Meet the Patels, the four-episode docuseries takes him to different corners of the world—from Mexico to Japan, South Korea to Denmark—and focuses on a different societal issue that the country at hand has either mastered or is still grappling with. In each episode Patel is joined by a friend or family member who relates closely to the episode’s topic, whether it’s his parents joining him to discover how to retire well in Mexico, or a business-minded friend joining his South Korea journey for a chat about workaholism. The optimistic, open, and investigatory nature of the show allows us to recognize shared flaws that cross geographical lines, and learn from places that seem to have figured out the keys to success. Though the show hasn’t officially been renewed for a second season, the four episodes that have been released are worth a stream. —Radhika Menon
Created by: Rose Matafeo and Alice Snedden
Stars: Rose Matafeo, Nikesh Patel, Minnie Driver, Emma Sidi, Sindhu Vee
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“He’s a famous actor, and you’re a little rat nobody.” It’s a tried-and-true fanfiction scenario, the inverse plot of Notting Hill, and now, the premise of HBO Max’s truly delightful Starstruck. Premiering first on BBC Three in April, the London-based romantic comedy follows Jessie (New Zealander comedian Rose Matafeo) after she has a drunken New Year’s Eve one-night stand with Tom (Nikesh Patel), only to learn the next day that he is a famous actor. Anyone who’s seen a rom-com can probably guess what happens next: a will-they-or-won’t-they flirtation, a disastrous fight, an eventual reconciliation. But while Starstruck riffs off a familiar fantasy, it stays grounded in its approach, playing with genre tropes with great aplomb.
Starstruck is clearly the product of people who unabashedly love rom-coms. Inspired by the genre’s classics, the short six-episode series provides a light-hearted modern update with a protagonist who toys with expectations. I’ll keep it vague, but the season’s final moments are so lovely and understated that the tenderness took my breath away. (And it has been renewed for Season 2). Clocking in right over two hours, Starstruck makes for a quick summer watch that leaves you wanting to linger in the escapist joy for a little longer. Just like a good rom-com should. —Annie Lyons
Created by: Aaron Guzikowski
Stars: Amanda Collin, Abubakar Salim, Winta McGrath, Niamh Algar, Travis Fimmel
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There are no wolves in Raised by Wolves, but the ambitious HBO Max series from writer/creator Aaron Guzikowski (Prisoners) raises a handful of kids, plenty of hell, and the bar for meaty sci-fi TV. Starting simply enough—with two factions of survivors, whose religious war has demolished Earth, landing on the only other inhabitable planet the species knows about—Raised by Wolves builds out an in-depth sci-fi world through the language of a survival story and the inherently human question of the soul. Even if Ridley Scott (Alien, Blade Runner) only directed the first two episodes, his maverick touch is felt throughout the confident show.
There might not be a bloody battle or alien confrontation in each episode, but the drama is compelling and built of character-driven moments. That makes the action, when it does happen, intensely exciting and anxiety-ridden. With such finite scope, each moment of possible loss is heavily weighted and gorgeous to look at. While rustic and detailed in its production design, the variety of visuals go from Tatooine’s desert starkness to hyper-glitchy simulation interfaces to war-torn Earth cities in flashbacks. Each new development, nicely metered-out in doses of mystery, plotting, and payoff, is a natural occurrence cropping up as we run our hands through the series’ dense texture. Don’t worry, that’s all part of the Scott/Guzikowski vibe: honestly-performed, slow-burn devotion to themes nestled into a pulpy shell.
Smart and crunchy rather than sleek and slick, Raised by Wolves won’t be for everyone. It’s tragic, thought-provoking sci-fi that works through its problems rather than relying on big flashy twists. But for those itching for something unabashedly weird and devoted to its own rules, the show won’t disappoint. Deceptively intimate, the story of repopulation—and the war for humanity’s future—is a family drama living inside a honed genre universe. It’s a world built to last and a show built for fans of Scott’s particular brand of imperfect, muscly fence-swings. —Jacob Oller
Created by: Steve Yockey
Stars: Kaley Cuoco, Michiel Huisman, Zosia Mamet, T. R. Knight, Michelle Gomez
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The Flight Attendant, based on Chris Bohjalian’s 2018 novel of the same name, is a taut, crisp whodunit, darkly comedic and wildly suspenseful. The eight-episode series is also a true star turn for Kaley Cuoco (The Big Bang Theory), who shows off a much broader range than she ever had the opportunity to on her long-running CBS comedy. A bubbling, popcorn thriller, the cliff-hanger ending to each episode entices you to keep going; it’s HBO Max’s best reason yet for subscribing to the streaming platform.
Cuoco stars as Cassie Bowden, who jet sets from international destination to international destination. When she’s not in the sky for Imperial Airlines, she’s flying high as a party girl who drinks to the point of blacking out, is fond of one-night stands, has a gold lamé dress at the ready in her carry-on luggage, and sustains herself on a breakfast of Diet Coke and pickles. She’s a train wreck, but a train wreck who gets to work on time, is kind to children and animals, and loved by her friends. And after a whirlwind encounter with the dashing Alex Sokolov (Michiel Huisman) on a trip to Bangkok, might be on the hook for murder.
The entire story truly rests in Cuoco’s capable hands. Her knack for comic relief is securely intact, but she also easily dives into the depths of Cassie’s terror and uncertainty. Her journey is our journey. Her terror is our terror. She may be an unreliable narrator, but she’s a highly entertaining one. —Amy Amatangelo
Created by: Russell T Davies
Stars: Olly Alexander, Omari Douglas, Callum Scott Howells, Lydia West, Nathaniel Curtis
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From the beginning of It’s a Sin, the show’s ending is foreseeable. And yet it’s impossible to resist hoping for a different outcome: in a 1980s London plagued by AIDS, maybe these gay men we’ve come to know and love can make it out of the epidemic unscathed. Maybe government officials—and, inherently, the rest of the world—will take notice of the crisis as it unfolds and try to do something to help these men. But, no; Russell T. Davies’ limited series is a tragic, albeit masterful, retelling of the AIDS epidemic.
The main group—including the fashionable Roscoe (Omari Douglas), sweet Colin (Callum Scott Howells), guardian angel Jill (Lydia West), and lanky Ritchie (Olly Alexander) at the forefront—forms in and around London, at clubs, bars, apartment parties, becoming a larger and larger group of friends as they do. Then they’re crashing in an apartment together, tossing around witty nicknames and cups of tea.
It’s a Sin explores the HIV/AIDS illness as it unfurls in gay clubs and communities around the city—though it never villainizes or blames them for the crisis. Despite being a series almost entirely about the HIV/AIDS epidemic, It’s a Sin does not dawdle in statistics or tragedy. By energizing the show with a spirited cast, a storyline about growing up, and plenty of scenes that follow the joy of their kinship, Davies has created a tale that can entertain while still spotlighting an imperative point of discussion. —Fletcher Peters
Created by: Chriss Kelly and Sarah Schneider
Stars: Heléne Yorke, Drew Tarver, Case Walker, Ken Marino, Molly Shannon
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Comedy Central’s (now HBO Max’s) charming, hilarious series The Other Two follows adult siblings Brooke (Heléne York) and Cary (Drew Tarver) as they try to figure out their own lives in the wake of their 13-year-old brother Chase (Case Walker) becoming an overnight YouTube sensation. Though Brooke and Cary support Chase (who is not, yet, an obnoxious internet star) they want to have careers that stand on their own. But they can’t help but get pulled into Chase’s orbit, making sure others aren’t taking advantage of Chase for their own gain while acknowledging they might be doing that very thing. The Other Two is darkly funny and real, as Brooke and Cary struggle to find success and exist on the outskirts of the vapid world that wants to make Chase an industry unto himself. It is one of the funniest series on TV as well as one of the smartest. Creators Chris Kelly and Sarah Schneider understand the modern fame machine better than most, exposing truths in some of its most hilariously audacious scenes. It also has coined one of the best and most useful catchphrase: “In this climate??” —Allison Keene
Created by: Lucia Aniello, Paul W. Downs, Jen Statsky
Stars: Jean Smart, Hannah Einbinder
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Hacks follows 25-year-old writer Ava (Hannah Einbinder) as she tries to get her comedy career back on track after losing her job due to a bad tweet. Her journey takes her to Las Vegas, where she reluctantly starts writing material for Deborah Vance (Jean Smart), a comedy veteran whose life is much like the china she collects: beautiful to behold, but cold and empty within. Deborah fills her life with work due to the absence of a personal life, which she’s eschewed ever since her husband left her for her own sister decades ago.
The show is a traditional odd couple pairing. Ava is bisexual, a Bernie supporter, and a chronic oversharer—in essence, your classic media depiction of a Millennial. Deborah is brash, saying whatever she likes regardless of how others feel, and surrounds herself with gaudy opulence. Over the course of the series, they realize just how similar they are. Both of them are career-obsessed, more than a little self-centered, lack a personal life and, in the words of one side character, they’re “both psychotic bitches.”
Smart and Einbinder deftly pull off this two-hander thanks to their respective talent and excellent chemistry. Smart is at her peak here, moving from hilarious in one scene to quietly heartbreaking in the next. Deborah can be truly unlikable at certain moments, but the sensational Smart plays her with such subtlety and warmth that you still care about her—even though she has live fish pumped into her man-made lake.
With a strong cast and some stellar directorial choices, Hacks is a necessary addition to your watch list. —Clare Martin
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