At Tom's Guide, we believe that the best HBO Max shows go a long way to make it the best streaming service right now. For example, I was able to easily make a list of five of my favorite HBO Max shows without even naming a classic HBO show. Yes, The Sopranos is great — but everyone knows The Sopranos is great.
Yes, we regularly update a roundup of just that — all of the best shows on HBO Max. But that roundup is a team effort, and rather long. And speaking from experience, I know people sometimes want a list that's more personal and digestible.
That's how I've sketched out this list. I looked at the series section of HBO Max, then crossed off all the Euphorias, Houses of Dragons and Westworlds because they're too obvious. I then thought about the shows that I remember watching for the first time. The shows that became conversation immediately after they aired — and the shows that I don't think got enough attention.
So, I've selected a range of shows that I think shows off a fair bit of what I love about HBO Max. This batch includes one phenomenal drama, a pair of sitcoms that breathe life into the mockumentary format, the weirdest reality TV show I've ever seen.
And they're not all "from" HBO Max: this batch has two Max Originals, one import, one ABC series and a recent HBO show. And each has my personal stamp of approval.
Wellington Paranormal is the hilarious sci-fi show that's under your radar
Wellington Paranormal takes the axiom that "anyone can get a spinoff" from the Star Wars and Marvel Disney Plus shows and takes it to the weirdest conclusion. Some, and I don't think there are many, may remember Mike Minogue's Officer Kyle Minogue and Karen O'Leary's Officer O'Leary from the end of the excellent cult classic film What We Do In The Shadows. But since that show already spun-off its own Americanized version, creators Jemaine Clement, Taika Waititi and Paul Yates decided on another series — one that stays in the original's locale of New Zealand.
I personally love Wellington Paranormal because it asks the question "what if the X-Files, but with local buffoons, in the style of COPS?" That peculiar equation gets spread out in four seasons of snack-sized 22-minute episodes, and each is a new delight. Sometimes a water demon is on the loose, then the cops meet weirdo farmers. And later, well, there's a bird-woman.
Seasons: 4 (10 episodes)
Watch it on HBO Max
Abbott Elementary is the best sitcom of its generation
Abbott Elementary is a mockumentary-style sitcom that will remind some of Modern Family or The Office. Except Abbott Elementary does what most shows don't: it takes place in an underfunded elementary school. Here, rookie teacher Janine Teagues (showrunner Quinta Brunson) is too inexperienced and well-meaning for her own good. Her colleagues — most notably the hard-nosed Melissa Schemmenti (Lisa Ann Walter) and Barbara Howard (Sheryl Lee Ralph) — have no idea how to handle her earnest energy, and often just let her make her own mistakes.
Janine's got friends at work, though, including Jacob (Chris Perfetti), a teacher whose students roast him with insults like they're stand-up comics and he's their audience. Then there's the substitute teacher Gregory (Tyler James Williams), who Janine seems to have feelings for.
All of the Abbott teachers will earn your respect, though, because they're just like us: they suffer under an inept boss. Ava Coleman (Janelle James), a principal more focused on growing her TikTok followers count than increasing school funds — and who doesn't really understand what her teachers do. Ava redeems herself on occasion, but she's a great piece of the Abbott class.
Abbott Elementary may have garnered more conversation had it been a Netflix show, or an HBO Max original. Instead, it's from ABC — and broadcast shows just don't seem top drive the conversation as much as they used to.
Station Eleven is one of the best dramas of the last year
One of those absolutely perfect and heartbreaking shows, I'm almost tearing up just thinking about Station Eleven. Possibly too soon for some, Station Eleven arrived in Dec. 2021 with a story about a version of our world that's been ravaged by a flu. And, no, this show wasn't prescient — but the 2014 book of the same name by Emily St. John Mandel that it's based on, was.
Station Eleven tells stories of life before, during and after a pandemic, and how the mysterious disease changed already broken lives. This may sound too raw a show for some, but there are more than a few things that should compel you to persist. First of all, Station Eleven is filled with magnetic performances that you will glom onto. Mackenzie Davis (Halt and Catch Fire, Black Mirror's San Junipero episode) leads the ensemble as Kirsten, a woman who was just a child at the start of the pandemic.
Station Eleven is also, oddly, about a traveling group of actors, who put on the plays of William Shakespeare. Through art, they try to rebuild culture. Throughout its 10 fantastic episodes, Station Eleven shows how the people that young Kirsten met during the start of the pandemic, as well as those they loved, all had their lives changed forever.
Station Eleven is a series about how we process grief, how relationships fray and how fear erodes the mind. While it might be too on-the-nose right now, it's the show that we truly need.
Seasons: 1 (10 episodes)
Watch it on HBO Max
The Rehearsal is the weirdest show ever — in the best ways
OK, now that we've all felt our feels about Station Eleven, it's time to zag in the completely different direction. The Rehearsal is the latest project of Canadian comedian/actor/writer/trouble-maker Nathan Fielder, and finds the man behind Comedy Central's Nathan For You switching from bonkers business advice to life coaching.
In The Rehearsal, Fielder finds folks who are very nervous and concerned over some upcoming conversation or life event. One man has a confession he needs to make about a fib he's told at trivia night. Another guest is dealing with a debate over inclusion in a will. And then there's Angela, who seems to want to prepare for having a family.
Fielder then attempts to (arguably) help these people by preparing them for every single possible outcome. How else would you be able to get the result you want if you didn't rehearse every possibility? Through the rehearsals, you will begin to question everything, including everyone's intents. All while Nathan is the most awkward man to ever live.
Watch it on HBO Max
Our Flag Means Death is a pirate show you shouldn't pirate
Taika Waititi's other show on this list, Our Flag Means Death, is all about an oxymoron on the high seas. Bored with aristocratic life, the fancy Stede Bonnet (Rhys Darby) carves out the phrase "gentleman pirate," finds a crew and starts to fail.
That is until he meets Ed (Waititi), a pirate with some actual experience under his beard. Speaking of, Ed is actually the famed pirate Blackbeard. And while other pirates look at Stede like a cornish game hen they should be roasting, Ed sees something in him. The two get along so well that you can tell something might be afoot.
Our Flag Means Death, though, isn't just about the possible romance of its stars. The crew of the good ship Revenge are a lovable bunch of weirdos, and you'll want to protect at least one of them. The cast even includes Game of Thrones' Hodor himself, Kristian Nairn.
Next: These are the 7 best HBO Max movies to watch before they leave in November 2022. Also, HBO Max is missing a very obvious feature — and it's driving me nuts. And the White Lotus Season 2 finale is almost here and these are the most popular finale theories on who dies and who is the killer.