HBO Max has some of the best collections of crime dramas that constantly flex their creative depth, with Barry‘s continued success into season 3 being one of the most recently celebrated examples. The HBO brand in general has garnered acclaimed status as the face of premium TV across genres, but this subgenre is one of its particular strengths.
HBO Max has done well to put all of that content together in one package, as well as throwing in some original streaming programming. True Detective has been overall praised for its approach to the subgenre, and the more recent hits like Mare of Easttown and Tokyo Vice have continued to strengthen the brand’s creative muscles.
True Detective (2014-)
Though season 2 might have been a step down compared to what came directly before and after, the anthology series True Detective is an overall acclaimed crime show for HBO. It’s relentless, cerebral, and incredibly addicting to watch, with some impressive star power to back up the leading roles.
Season 3’s duo of Mahershala Ali and Stephen Dorff made for a great dynamic with a mind-bending mystery at its core. Still, season 1’s pairing of Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson is arguably the show’s crowning achievement. It’s the best encapsulation of True Detective‘s engrossing brand of grit and trippy psychological elements.
Mare Of Easttown (2021)
Where True Detective is darkly psychological, HBO’s limited crime drama series Mare of Easttown gets emotionally intimate. Kate Winslet leads this show in one of the strongest performances to date, playing the role of a famous local detective in a small town as she tries to piece together the murder of a teenage mother.
The use of the small-scale setting as a quiet town where everybody seems to know each other emphasizes that intimacy, and it makes the grim mystery at the center of the story become more investing as it unravels. Mare of Easttown also earned widespread acclaim, among the honors being an Outstanding Lead Actress Emmy for Winslet.
The Wire (2002-2008)
Often regarded as one of HBO property’s all-time greats, The Wire is one of the most gripping crime drama and police procedurals available. It ran for five seasons, centering around a vast and diverse cast of characters across law enforcement institutions and local gangs. Across those seasons, The Wire tackled issues of the illegal drug trade, porting system, city government, the education system, and the public media.
On top of the aforementioned standout cast of characters with unique personalities, motivations, and backstories, the series was lauded for its shockingly accurate and raw portrayal of the plagues on societal politics, as well as the bureaucratic red tape that stunts police and detective work behind the scenes.
Tokyo Vice (2022-)
An original series for the streaming side of the HBO brand, Tokyo Vice was a highlight of this TV genre within the last year. It may not have the same punch as the likes of True Detective or Mare of Easttown, but Tokyo Vice succeeds in being an enthralling and stylish brand of crime drama.
The story is a dramatized version of American journalist Jake Adelstein’s ventures in uncovering the world of Japanese organized crime. It stars a well-rounded cast of characters with intriguing motivations to fit into the larger story, with actor Ken Watanabe and the rest of the Japanese cast shining the brightest. Should the show keep up the pace, it’ll likely go down as one of the best HBO Max originals and an enticing slice of neo-noir crime as well.
Boardwalk Empire (2010-2014)
Boardwalk Empire is an HBO original that takes the crime drama genre and sets it against the backdrop of a period piece. Taking place mostly in Atlantic City, New Jersey, Boardwalk Empire follows the exploits of the fictional criminal kingpin Enoch Thompson, a corrupt politician of Atlantic County during the Prohibition era.
The series spanned five seasons and was consistently acclaimed for its stylistic portrayal of the era and top-tier cast of characters and their associated talent — including the lead played by Steve Buscemi. It’s another engrossing mob-themed drama that is sure to satisfy fans of Martin Scorcese gangster movies, especially since the filmmaker directed the first episode.
The Sopranos (1999-2007)
When it comes to mobster TV dramas, The Sopranos is another HBO classic that’s a must-see for fans of the subgenre. It was one of the late James Gandolfini’s best performances and arguably the most iconic one. Focusing on Gandolfini’s lead character, Tony Soprano, the series serves as a psychological deconstruction as it goes through Tony’s day-to-day life as a leading mob boss in New Jersey.
The Sopranos is brilliantly framed as a deconstruction of the character’s life through his psychiatric sessions with Dr. Jennifer Melfi. Often dubbed one of the best shows in TV history, The Sopranos achieved emphatic acclaim for its inventive, grounded take on the mobster genre — while showing all of its ugly brutality.
We Own This City (2022)
A more recent HBO endeavor, We Own This City was another praised crime drama miniseries that touched on thematic elements from The Wire. Based on the non-fiction book of the same name, this series chronicles the deep-rooted corruption surrounding the Baltimore Police Department’s Gun Trace Task Force. It mainly follows Jon Bernthal’s role as Sergeant Wayne Jenkins, who was one of the police officers convicted on various corruption charges.
Like other police dramas of similar premises, We Own This City is a brutal look into the corruption in law enforcement institutions, except even more scathing and cynical than even The Wire‘s. Bernthals’ performance was a particular highlight, with critics citing his superb and convincing terrifying performance.
Big Little Lies (2017-2019)
Though not a crime drama in the traditional sense, Big Little Lies is still a darkly riveting story built around a bleak premise. Big Little Lies follows the story of five upper-class women and mothers living in California with kids at a prestigious elementary school. However, things take a serious turn when the five become entangled in an active murder investigation.
Based on the novel of the same name and supplanted by a studded cast of actresses, Big Little Lies earned high praises across the board, mainly for its compelling characters, smart writing, and masterful balance of dark humor with intense drama.
Barry is one of the most inventive crime dramas in recent years. The HBO original series starts as a crime drama mixed with a healthy dose of dark humor, telling the story of the titular down-on-his-luck hitman who finds a new passion in the form of acting. As Barry gets further into his acting class, he ends up feeling conflicted over his criminal life as a hired gun.
Its three seasons have all achieved celebrated critical receptions, with Bill Hader’s leading role being especially well-received. Critics and audiences particularly cited the show’s seamless use of cleverly bleak humor to complement the underlying nuanced themes that carry its character drama, even when season 3 leaned harder into the drama than the comedy.
Shifting into the superhero realm, HBO and showrunner Damon Lindelof’s take on Alan Moore’s landmark Watchmen comic book became one of the most decorated TV series in the genre. A sequel to Moore’s comic, the Watchmen limited series takes place 34 years after the events of the original story and hones in on a white supremacist resurgence in Tulsa, Oklahoma, with the detective known as Sister Knight investigating the police chief and the murder of her friend.
Dirty secrets unravel as the plot progresses, and Watchmen was praised for its nuanced social commentary on racial violence and prejudice, as well as for staying true to the source material while expanding its world.
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