At launch, HBO Max, the brand new streaming service from WarnerMedia, is offering 10,000 hours of content. That's an eye-catching number, even if it's not a third of what Netflix offers. But unlike the steady stream of total junk that Netflix spits out every week, HBO Max has many shows and movies that are actually worth watching.
From popular recent movies to a vast classic film library, from Friends to every show regular old HBO has produced (Sex and the City, the Sopranos, Game of Thrones, Succession, etc.), the number of options is kind of staggering. If you aren't already signed up (if you have HBO, you probably have this too), definitely check it out.
The website's infrastructure has been largely carried over from HBO Now, HBO's existing standalone streaming service, so it's pretty smooth and easy to use. The organization of all the content is solid, if not spectacular. Emphasized are what are called "HBO Max Hubs," which are dedicated pages for certain brands. It's a smart way to highlight the number of brands that are collected under one roof (Disney+ has a similar feature), but it's unclear how it was decided which brands were important enough to warrant a hub. The current hubs are for HBO, DC, Sesame Workshop, Turner Classic Movies, Studio Ghibli, Cartoon Network, Adult Swim, Crunchyroll, and Looney Tunes. Some of those hubs have hundreds of titles within them, some only a handful. And 5 of those 9 hubs are for cartoons, which strikes me as a little odd. I'm worried about titles that don't fall into any of those categories getting a little lost in the mix.
To aid the discovery process, there should be a "Similar to" tab when you click on a title, so that related shows and movies are easy to find. And the names of actors and directors in the descriptions should be clickable, so that you can see everything from those people in one place. HBO Max currently has neither of those features.
As I've said before, I feel the name was the mistake as it will undoubtedly cause brand confusion and regular confusion. A lot of people will be confused by the differences between HBO Max, HBO Go, and HBO Now. A lot of people probably woke up this morning having no clue that they already have access to this new service. That's something they are going to have to work on.
The reason HBO is able to successfully rival Netflix when it comes to counting Emmys year after year despite having a fraction of the original content is because HBO is known for quality control. Almost everything HBO puts on the air is at least pretty good. The idea behind HBO Max is to broaden the appeal by throwing all sorts of content out there, quality be damned. When asked about diluting the HBO brand, HBO Max original content chief Sarah Aubrey replied, "Everyone talks about HBO viewers like they're rich librarians. HBO viewers do not just watch HBO. They also watch The Bachelor." Which, fair. Sometimes I'm in a prestige mood, sometimes I'm in a popcorn mood. HBO Max has both.
Aside from niche services like the Criterion Channel, HBO Max is shaping up to be the best streaming option for true film fans. It launched with nearly 2,000 movies and has a dedicated hub for Turner Classic Movies. It's supposedly a "curated" collection from TCM, but to me it just looks like a long list of random titles. But I'm grateful nonetheless for the variety, which ranges from all-time classics like Casablanca & The Wizard of Oz to lesser-known gems like the sensational Katharine Hepburn starrer Summertime to great directors beyond Hollywood like Bergman, Fellini, and Fassbinder.
A large part of Disney+'s successful launch was The Mandalorian, a high-profile event series tied to a huge franchise that could only be viewed on the new service. HBO Max does not have a Mandalorian-style blockbuster show at launch. Partly due to the pandemic shutting down all production, only six original shows are currently available, none of them that exciting. There's one scripted series aimed at adults (Love Life, which I'll discuss later), a couple of reality competition shows, an Elmo-hosted talk show for kids, and some new Looney Tunes Cartoons. The Looney Tunes have long been the unofficial mascot of Warner Bros., and you'd think their popularity might have been leveraged more in the marketing and branding of HBO Max. Either way, the new cartoons are very faithful to the spirit and format of the classic ones. I'm not a Looney Tunes purist, the slapstick humor gets a little boring after a while, so these new shorts aren't really my thing. I like when the characters are taken in weird directions, like on The Looney Tunes Show, a sitcom where Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck are roommates. That show is available on HBO Max, too! As are many '70s and '80s Scooby Doo cartoons (I am a Scooby Doo purist).
So, while there are a couple tweaks to be made, and more original shows are needed, HBO Max is already off to an impressive start.
Looking for something to watch? Here are some recommendations:
Love Life - The most attractive original offering is this nice romantic comedy that charts all the romantic relationships of a woman, played by Anna Kendrick. It's not the most inspired concept or the best writing, but I'm recommending it on the strength of Kendrick's performance. She's as funny and charming as she's ever been.
Run - A very funny and cleverly plotted HBO comedy. The excellent Merritt Weaver and Domnhall Gleason star as exes who made a pact to travel across America together should they both text each other the word "run", which they do at the start of the show. I haven't finished watching it yet, so if it goes off the rails in the second half of the season, don't blame me.
Juliet of the Spirits - A very weird and interesting Fellini film from 1965 about an Italian housewife who suspects her husband of cheating on her. Read a review I wrote of it recently for ScribersHive here.
Search Party - A sharp and satirical dark comedy about millennial malaise. The first two seasons aired on TBS years ago, and a third is finally premiering on HBO Max next month.
Woman of the Year - HBO Max has 6 of the 9 films that Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy made together and the best of those is George Stevens' classic comedy Women of the Year about a woman trying to balance having a successful career with having a marriage. Though in some ways it's clear that it was made in 1942, it's a highly enjoyable watch.
Thanks for reading!