Do you need to get HBO Max? Our TV critic weighs in
This week brings us HBO Max, which is HBO, like, to the max. Born of the age of corporate consolidation and intellectual property wars, it is designed, with its deep well of content, as a rival to Disney+ and its Marvel and “Star Wars” franchises, setting against them an agglomeration of series and movies from Warner Bros., DC, New Line, the Turner networks (including TBS, Turner Classic Movies, Cartoon Network and Adult Swim) and plain old HBO, among others, and adding some new shows of its own.
The new content is, of course, a pig in a poke, but subscribers will mostly be signing on at this point for the poke itself, a fancy thing stitched together from more hours of back catalog than anyone can watch in a lifetime. “Lord of the Rings” movies. “Batman” movies. Reruns of the never-yet-streamed “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” seem to be a selling point among a certain generation, from what I’ve overheard, and that the New Streamer in Town paid a reported $425 million for rights to “Friends” reminds us that people want what they know.
That’s not to say that what’s new on HBO Max isn’t worth watching. Indeed, the handful of series premiering this week all have something to offer, a variety pack seemingly calculated to appeal to viewers from 3 to, like, 45 — but what isn’t? In no particular order, here’s a quick critical look at original series available when the platform opens for business Wednesday.
What is HBO Max? Video-on-demand service has HBO originals, Warner Bros. shows and movies
“The Not-Too-Late Show With Elmo”: There are Muppets and there are Muppets. Disney owns what might be called the “Muppet Show” Muppets — Kermit and Piggy and Beaker and Animal et al. — while HBO is in business with the “Sesame Street” Muppets: Big Bird and Oscar and that crew. Disney’s (ab)use of the brand reached a nadir with the 2015 ABC mockumentary series “The Muppets,” centered around a late-night show hosted by Miss Piggy and saddled with “adult” psychologies and situations.
Well, little red monster and perennial toddler Elmo has a talk show now, which he hosts between dinner and bedtime, and it is completely in the “Sesame” spirit while nailing the look and rituals of late-night television — note the sippy cup on Elmo’s desk — and in its mix of backstage and onstage scenes (Cookie Monster as co-host, Bert and Ernie in the director’s booth), it is very much a child of “The Muppet Show.”
The Jonas Brothers make goofy faces; John Mulaney is challenged to a tricycle race; and Elmo duets with Lil Nas X. All grown-ups know that a little of Elmo can go a long way, but the episodes are only 15 minutes long and this isn’t about you, anyway. (But, yes, Elmo loves you too, and you are special, whoever you are.) And this is my favorite HBO Max original.
“Love Life.” The appealing Anna Kendrick — who may also be seen in Quibi’s short-form series “Dummy,” as a woman who befriends her boyfriend’s sex doll — stars here in a more conventional saga of 21st century relationships, a rom-com conscious that it exists in a world of rom-coms. (“You could be the first-ever real-life person to chase someone to the airport,” a friend suggests at one critical point.) A chirpy, impersonal British narrator (Lesley Manville) lends a sheen of sociological import to the story with statements like, “By the time the average person ends up with the love of their life, they will have been in seven relationships” and “Every 36 seconds a marriage will end in divorce,” making Kendrick’s Darby a bit of a case study as well as a character.
The overall plan of the show — an anthology, created by Sam Boyd, that seems to promise a happy ending at the end, and will move on to a different story in Season 2 — means that Darby, tracked across a decade and change, will fail or be failed repeatedly, as the scripts drag her through less and more committed relationships of shorter and longer duration with a variety of men who resemble one another only in their being unsuitable and childish. (Though Darby is not always without fault, she is played by Anna Kendrick, and so we are going to mostly take her side.) For similar reasons, we get more of messy friend Sara (Zoë Chao) than we do of well-adjusted friend Mallory (Sasha Compère), and a mother (Hope Davis, always good and good to see) whose relationship with Darby is fraught rather than sympathetic.
One would like to be less conscious of the fact that Darby is living a lie, or a series of them, or indeed is a character in a TV series; nevertheless, anyone who has has been in a relationship of any length will find some behavior here to accuse themselves of. As a 34-year-old who can easily pass for a recent college graduate, Kendrick is well cast, and as an excuse to hang out in her company, “Love Life,” frustrating as it sometimes is, will do.
HBO Max boasts 10,000 hours of programming, including “Game of Thrones,” “Friends” and “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air”
“Legendary.” Fictionalized in the Ryan Murphy series “Pose” and captured in the wild in Jennie Livingston’s 1990 documentary “Paris Is Burning,” ballroom gets a splashy competition show, natural enough for a performance already framed as a contest. (The widescreen format and alternation of black and white and color photography suggest Madonna’s “Truth or Dare” — “Vogue” was her notable takeaway from the scene.) What is moving about “Pose” and “Paris” remains moving here: self-expression as healing and the House, something more than a team, as elective family. “Legendary” feels like a celebration, just by existing.
Given ballroom’s historical use-what-you-have, gold-from-straw invention, it is a little disappointing to find the Houses working with designers and stylists and choreographers, industry professionals enlisted to industrially professionalize their presentations, as in movies where a producer tragically commercializes what is raw and original in an artist. (This sort of mentoring and assistance is standard practice in television performance contests, of course.)
If “Legendary” is not quite mainstream, that the ballroom community has grown beyond the LGBTQ black and Latinx street kids who created it is a point judge Leiomy Maldonado, a ballroom veteran, states explicitly and the range of competitors demonstrates. (Though they do still own its cultural core.) Some “controversy” attended the series when TV star ringer Jameela Jamil, a judge, was incorrectly identified as an emcee.
“Looney Tunes Cartoons.” Cartoon characters, being immortal, are endlessly exploitable. Developed by Peter Browngardt (“Uncle Grandpa”), “Looney Tunes Cartoons,” a collection of shorts one to six minutes in length, means to reanimate classic intellectual property from the Warner Bros. animation department — Bugs and Daffy and Porky and Tweety and Pepé and the like — taking the franchise into the future by way of the past. Inspiration is drawn from older Warners cartoons (the 1940s, broadly speaking) with the old cartoons studied so closely, and so closely followed, that, references to “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and modern sports shoes notwithstanding, what results is more of a pastiche than a reboot.
Indeed, some poses might have been traced from the originals; the musical track is pure Carl Stalling; old gags are replayed (TNT, evergreen); and sound effects are in boinging antique order. One can argue whether this approach is good or bad. It seems both to me somehow, honoring tradition, and yet, in attempting to recreate the past, unavoidably inauthentic. There may be no good answer, or the answer may be that you can’t go home again. (And that you don’t have to, when the original still exists, and may be endlessly replayed. I grew up on the Warners cartoon catalog, most of it made before I was born.) Ultimately the new shorts will stand on their own merit. What I have seen so far is not bad.
We asked networks and streaming platforms of all stripes to tell us what we can expect to see on TV during our coronavirus summer. Here’s what they told us.
“Craftopia.” YouTube crafting guru (8.9 million subscribers) and Instagram glamour girl (49 million followers) Lauren Riihimaki hosts this make-it-under-pressure competition in which young crafters display their skills, taste and imagination in an array of media. (Gaze in open-mouthed wonder at “crochet prodigy” Jonah, hooking stitches — is that a term? — at hummingbird speed.) The show moves too fast to be really moving — there is tension, as there always will be when a clock is ticking, but little drama. Yet as someone whose childhood model-making was marked by getting glue everywhere but where it was supposed to go, and who still has trouble keeping his shoes tied, I stand impressed by these self-possessed young maestros of papier-mâché, scissors and construction paper. A caveat at the head of the show warns that “power tools, hot glue guns and tools with sharp blades are very dangerous,” the mixed message being, don’t do this at home — but do do this at home.
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