Tuesday 1 September 2020

HBO to the Max

HBO Max is the new exclusive home for all things Doctor Who (since 2005) in the US. As Sky has signed a new first-run deal with Warner Bros.; the studio's nascent streaming service won't be available in the UK for the foreseeable future.

So, that's where Nick Smith, our US-based stellar scribe, comes to the rescue once again.

Guest post by Nick Smith

There is such a thing as doing your job too well. Just ask Netflix. They pioneered effective online streaming of movies and TV shows, and had a date line named after them. But an offer to ‘Netflix and chill’ doesn’t sound so fancy now that there are serious competitors – Amazon, Disney+ and Hulu [majority owned by Disney - Ed] amongst them. Will anyone be uttering the words, ‘hey baby, wanna have an Apple and chill?’ [you had me at Apple - Ed]

US-based studios, in particular, want a piece of that Netflix pie. More subscription money means more profit. One of the latest is HBO Max, which not only streams new HBO shows but also has ‘collections’ from Cartoon Network and Adult Swim, Looney Tunes, DC Comics, Turner Classic Movies (TCM), Sesame Street, Studio Ghibli and Crunchyroll.

It’s those collections that really have potential. Imagine an archive of all Ghibli’s output, Cartoon Network’s classics, DC Comics series and HBO specials all accessible from one screen? TCM’s offerings are problematic because the current collection is slim (like the old ones you can find on regular telly every Christmas) and it has a rep of paying its actors and filmmakers poorly. I’m just sayin’…

At first blush, there are plenty of shows and movies to ogle over, including the Max Original Doom Patrol. This glossy series initially features Brendan Fraser and Timothy Dalton, although they don’t appear in all the episodes. It captures the out-of-the-box imagination of Grant Morrison’s comics and name-drops DCU elements like STAR Labs and ARGUS. Also available: last year’s gorgeous Watchmen, where the police wear masks as well as superheroes, which takes on a whole new connotation in today’s COVID culture.

Other delights include DC Comics' animated movies; 21 Studio Ghibli flicks; Genndy Tartakovsky’s Samurai Jack and Primal; the ubiquitous “not dirty” Harry Potter and blockbusters like Doctor Sleep, Birds of Prey, Ad Astra and Midway. The DC Comics section provides the first season of The CW’s Batwoman (although the rest of the Arrowverse has yet to follow her). Diversity is partly acknowledged with a small ‘Back Superheroes’ collection, which includes Watchmen, Doom Patrol and Freedom Fighters: The Ray.

Batman is heavily represented, as well as the Superman live-action movies up to Superman Returns. As Max absorbs DC Universe’s content (per CCO Jim Lee, who recently confirmed the migration to The Hollywood Reporter), we’ll see more goodies. But in the meantime, this is your big chance to rewatch George Clooney starring as the dark knight [Batman & Robin is the only movie I've walked out of during a press screening - Ed].

HBO Max also has all the 21st Century Doctor Who series up to Jodie Whittaker’s premiere season (up to 2019’s New Year special Resolution), plus all of Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adventures. What, no K-9?

The shows are bare-bones, with no behind-the-scenes clips or minisodes, but it’s nice to see each season laid out in rows so you can jump to your fave.

Max’s interface is one of its big draws – think Amazon Prime Video with a cool black background and a lot less content. There’s also an attempt at offering pick ‘n’ mix clips in sections like Sesame Workshop, where there’s currently a row about getting through a storm (in the eye of Laura), another one about making friends (for the new school year?) and one highlighting famous musical guests like Nick Jonas, OK Go, Elvis Costello and Jason Deruuuuulo.

So, lots of goodies are on offer. But are they enough to keep monthly subscribers coming back for more, or will they disappear like Mr. Snuffleupagus? [Snuffy gave me nightmares as a child - Ed]

I’m no technical genius, but it took me over a week to figure out how to watch Max! It isn’t compatible with many brands of TV. I finally figured out, after my free trial had expired, that I can only watch it via my PS4; switching from one to another isn’t a terrible chore but why restrict access when you’re trying to hook entertainment addicts on a new service?

The loading of shows is slow. It took me 4 minutes to pull up the Batwoman pilot. This seems like slow going compared to the immediacy of Netflix, Amazon Prime and Apple TV+.

Max’s price point - $15 a month in America – is a lot more than, say, Starz (available for as little as $20 for 6 months) or Disney+, which seems to have a lot more content to offer. HBO has always been a pricey caviar-and-coitus service and apparently it aims to stay that way.

Despite the frustrations, the offerings are good, with the kind of solid acting and production values HBO’s known for [HBO's hitting it out of the park with His Dark Materials, Watchmen, The Plot Against America and Lovecraft Country - Ed]. But Max is one a la carte too many for me and I won’t be renewing after my first month [this so-called cord-cutting malarky is an expensive hobby - Ed].

Subscribers with deeper pockets will enjoy the refreshing change from other streaming services, and the different collections are an amusing way of sifting through viewing suggestions.

As this new rival grows in strength and content, remember: Whatever job you have, slow down a little. Sip on your tea. Take an extra break or two. Never mind what the boss says. Don’t be a Netflix.*

*Note: Generation Star Wars takes no responsibility for the consequences of following bad advice.

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