HBO (AKA Home Box Office) is an American television network that’s built a reputation for producing some stellar TV shows over the past few decades. The late 1990s was when its popularity as a premium network really took off, thanks to early shows like Oz and The Sopranos, with a spectacular run into the early 2000s and beyond giving TV viewers shows like The Wire, Six Feet Under, and Deadwood.
Beyond producing and broadcasting iconic shows that ran for numerous seasons, HBO has also been behind numerous films, documentaries, and miniseries. The quality of its miniseries has been particularly high in the last 20 or so years, with the best of them feeling truly cinematic, and almost like 5 to 10-hour-long films, in a way. The following are the highest-rated HBO miniseries according to IMDb ratings, ranked below from lowest to highest.
10 ‘Angels in America’ (2003)
IMDb Rating: 8.1/10
The first thing that jumps out about Angels in America is its absolutely phenomenal cast of Hollywood talent. Few movies could boast of having such an impressive cast, which here includes Meryl Streep, Patrick Wilson, Emma Thompson, Jeffrey Wright, and a typically theatrical and bombastic Al Pacino.
It’s a miniseries split into six parts, running for about six hours in total. It follows a large group of characters who are all dealing with the AIDS crisis during the mid-1980s, and blends its serious dramatic storyline with some light fantastical/magical realism elements. It’s heavy-going but absorbing, and benefits hugely from its sharp writing and very engaging performances from its large cast of actors.
9 ‘Watchmen’ (2019)
IMDb Rating: 8.2/10
In 2009, Zack Snyder directed a feature film adaptation of the graphic novel Watchmen. It wasn’t fantastically received overall, but it still stands as a visually bold, exceptionally dark, and overall unique take on the superhero genre. 10 years later, Damon Lindelof put his own spin on the renowned graphic novel with a well-received miniseries that runs for almost nine hours in total.
In a way, it serves as something of a sequel series to the original story, and largely follows a different set of characters within the world of the original. It remains dark and explores similar themes to the first Watchmen, but in many ways feels like its own thing, making for an interesting series that still proves worthwhile viewing for those already familiar with the original.
8 ‘The Pacific’ (2010)
IMDb Rating: 8.3/10
Just as 2001’s Band of Brothers depicted the European side of World War Two from an American perspective, The Pacific follows American soldiers taking part in the Pacific Theater. It’s interesting, because Band of Brothers captured a similar energy/style to Saving Private Ryan (1998), which had come out three years before, and then The Pacific feels somewhat reminiscent of Letters From Iwo Jima/Flags of Our Fathers, a Clint Eastwood duology from 2006 about the Pacific side of WW2.
That’s not to say it’s identical to WW2 movies that preceded it, as The Pacific does find interesting angles to explore, and benefits from spending over eight hours with its characters instead of the 2–3 hours offered by a standard movie. It’s an intense war miniseries that effectively showcases the horror of combat in the Pacific, and is a worthy sequel of sorts to Band of Brothers.
7 ‘The Night Of’ (2016)
IMDb Rating: 8.5/10
The Night Of has a simple premise that it explores expertly throughout its eight episodes, each approximately an hour long. The miniseries follows a young man named Nasir (Riz Ahmed) who wakes up one morning after a night of partying to find that the girl he took back to his place has been brutally stabbed to death.
He has no memory of anything violent happening, and is subsequently arrested and charged with her murder. The rest of the show deals with the complex criminal proceedings where he maintains his innocence, and gets a small-time lawyer (John Turturro) to fight the difficult case on his behalf. It makes for an engaging miniseries, and it keeps the tension high throughout, thanks to its sharp writing and strong acting.
6 ‘John Adams’ (2008)
IMDb Rating: 8.5/10
Playing out over seven episodes that total approximately eight hours, John Adams follows the life and times of its title character, the second President of the United States. It uses its epic runtime to cover over 50 years of history, beginning around 1770 and ending during the 1820s.
Like many high-rated HBO miniseries, it attracted a strong cast of actors often seen in large-scale Hollywood movies, here including the likes of Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney. It’s also notable for having all its episodes directed by Tom Hooper, who two years later would tackle another historical story with The King’s Speech (2010) to great acclaim and awards recognition.
5 ‘Generation Kill’ (2008)
IMDb Rating: 8.5/10
Movies and TV shows about the 2000s war in Iraq are still quite uncommon, all things considered, and were even less prominent in the 2000s themselves, when the conflict was still ongoing and particularly divisive. Generation Kill is groundbreaking in that way, on the TV side of things, and 2008 also saw the Iraq War get a prominent film depiction with the Best Picture-winning The Hurt Locker.
Generation Kill is specifically set in 2003, right at the start of the American assault on Baghdad. It captures the war and the people involved with it in a gritty and authentic way, following a reporter who joins a squad of Marines to chronicle what goes on during the conflict’s early days. It’s naturally intense and confronting, but expertly made and acclaimed, as demonstrated by its positive reception on IMDb.
4 ‘The Corner’ (2000)
IMDb Rating: 8.6/10
A couple of years before the large-scale (and perfectly cast)The Wire began airing on HBO, its creator, David Simon, co-created and co-wrote a comparable miniseries called The Corner. Naturally, with its six episodes and six-hour-long runtime, it wasn’t nearly as expansive as that later show, but it was a very strong test-run of sorts for The Wire.
The Corner is a more personal series, focusing on a single family who lives in West Baltimore, struggling with poverty while finding themselves affected by the ongoing war on drugs in America. It’s down-to-earth and gritty, with a level of authenticity rarely seen on TV. Beyond the writing team, it’s also notable for having some cast members who’d later appear in The Wire, like Clarke Peters and Reg E. Cathey.
3 ‘From the Earth to the Moon’ (1998)
IMDb Rating: 8.6/10
From the Earth to the Moon is notable for being a highly-acclaimed HBO miniseries that was released before the start of the 21st century. It’s a docudrama series that aims to be as historically accurate and authentic as possible, telling the story of the Apollo space program and its various missions from a variety of viewpoints.
To some extent, it may have been riding off the success of 1995’s Apollo 13, as it even features Tom Hanks as a host for the show (he also produced, and even directed the show’s first episode). It goes for over 10 hours, and is told over 12 episodes, being an extensive and highly acclaimed series about America’s history of space travel.
2 ‘Band of Brothers’ (2001)
IMDb Rating: 9.4/10
Band of Brothers is considered something of a gold standard for the miniseries format. It’s one of the most cinematic and visually jaw-dropping shows even aired on television, and it gives an extensive look at the real-life members of Easy Company of the U.S. Army 101st Airborne Division, and their experiences while fighting in Europe during WW2.
Beyond delivering movie-level visuals and scope, it’s also got a remarkable cast of actors who weren’t particularly famous in 2001, but have gone on to have fruitful careers. It’s also an incredibly emotional series, partly thanks to the way it splices in documentary-style interviews from the real-life veterans who are depicted in the series, many of whom were still alive when Band of Brothers was in production.
1 ‘Chernobyl’ (2019)
IMDb Rating: 9.4/10
One of the most recent HBO miniseries is also considered to be one of its very best by the users of IMDb. That miniseries is Chernobyl, and while it’s particularly brief at just five episodes that play out over five-and-a-half hours, it’s incredibly impactful and memorable, portraying the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster (and its aftermath) in hauntingly vivid detail.
It’s relentlessly paced and often devastating to watch, but needs to be if it’s to properly capture the horror of the real-life situation it depicts on-screen. It was created and written by Craig Mazin, who’s also gone on to have success with developing The Last of Us adaptation, also produced and broadcast by HBO.
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