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HBO Max Launch Reveals Impressive Library, Potential Netflix Challenge (Analysis)

HBO Max slate
HBO Max

It seems like every other week brings a new streaming service with it, but the May 27 launch of HBO Max is, indeed, a potential watershed moment. While presented as a branch of the existing HBO brand, it’s more accurately a WarnerMedia behemoth effort that unites the conglomerates many properties (plus a few original efforts) in one convenient place — that is, if you can figure out how to get it, let alone whether or not you already have access to it.

On its debut day, Variety’s chief TV critics Caroline Framke and Daniel D’Addario took a look through the new service to discuss its library, interface, and overall potential. 

Caroline Framke: The first thing I did this morning was figure out how, exactly, to access HBO Max at all. In the months, weeks, days leading to this moment, the seemingly simple question of “how do you get HBO Max?” has somehow been the hardest for the service to answer. HBO subscribers get it, but only through certain cable providers; Apple TV owners can download it, but as of this writing, Roku customers can’t; and so on, and on. (I, a Verizon Fios customer with an HBO subscription, got lucky.) It’s a surprisingly labyrinthine situation that I can’t imagine will help it in the long run if the HBO Max team can’t get a handle on how to more simply communicate these basics. 

Once you manage to sign up or log in — and get past the many, many reminders that the entire “Friends” run is back at your streaming disposal — the HBO Max interface is impressively user friendly. It has a solid search function and several “hubs” with more in-depth catalogs, from Turner Classic Movies and DC to Studio Ghibli and Crunchyroll. The curated “collections” of movies and shows range from the basic (“Family Movie Night”) to the sublimely silly (“HBO Max Book Club,” featuring onscreen adaptations of books like “The Wizard of Oz,” The CW’s sexy “Nancy Drew,” and “The Art of Racing in the Rain”).

Browsing around, I quite accidentally stumbled upon some British offerings I was pleasantly surprised to see included, like “Coupling,” “The Thick of It,” and the BBC’s 1995 “Pride and Prejudice” adaptation. I was frustrated, on the other hand, not to see DC Universe’s new “Harley Quinn” series in the DC hub. It’s exactly the kind of fun, smart show that could really break out when given a bigger platform, and an original series unlike any other HBO Max so far has on offer. Eventually, I ended up hanging out in the Looney Tunes hub, which features some new iterations made just for HBO Max, but of course all I wanted was “The Rabbit from Seville” (which is, thankfully, there for the sampling). All this led to my biggest takeaway from poking around HBO Max: while there are some originals available, they’re far from the main attraction. This service, unlike Apple TV Plus, is all about the depth of its library.

Dan, what did you make of it? Do you think the back catalog is enough to keep you — and millions of others — subscribed and intrigued?

Daniel D’Addario: As an HBO subscriber who watches most of the network’s programming through my computer, my sign-up process was very (perhaps enviably, given the oddities of this launch) smooth, and I immediately got to clicking around. The service seems particularly built for desktop browsing: I admire the way they’ve made the overwhelming diffuseness of their catalog into something of a strength, with the “Hub” setup as well as various groupings for movies and series. There’s also an evident attempt to make the site feel like the product of thought and care despite its breadth: Sure, the HBO series on the homepage are some of the network’s biggest hits ever, but they’re labeled with “Editor’s Picks,” as though they were chosen for you! 

Notably, though, that list of “Editor’s Picks” comes lower down the homepage than a “Featured Series” list that includes “The Big Bang Theory,” “Rick and Morty,” and “Impractical Jokers.” Similarly, the system of hubs and curated lists of movies lie below a list of “Featured Movies” that includes not just “Wonder Woman” and “Joker” but also recent big-screen misfires “Stuber” and “Dark Phoenix.” It’s impressive how much content is here, but on launch day, HBO Max seems to lean more toward the maximalist half of its name than the HBO. 

As to whether I’ll stay on, sure, but less due to enticement than old habits. There’s still all the raw materials of what makes HBO a great network — I was an HBO subscriber before, so I’ll stay on here — but for me in very particular, there isn’t a massive value add. (Caveats apply: I’m not a “Harry Potter” or Ghibli guy and don’t watch “Friends” as much as other sitcoms from its era, and my mixed feelings about flagship new HBO Max original “Love Life” are on the record.) If anything feels genuinely exciting to me, it’s — like you — the “Looney Tunes” back catalog, which I’ve never seen on streaming. It’s that more than “Dark Phoenix” that feels both like a coup for me as a viewer and a win for what we might call the old-school HBO curatorial impulse, though I know it takes both to win the volume game.

CF: As much as you can learn about any new venture on its first day, it already seems clear that HBO Max is, more than anything, gunning for Netflix’s crown. Netflix also started as a library before branching out into originals, which have now largely taken over; if HBO Max can beef up its originals, expand its international presence (it’s currently only available in the US), and maintain its sprawling back catalog, I can see a world where it mounts a more significant challenge to Netflix’s perpetual domination. Its emphasis on older content — whether “Looney Tunes,” “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” or a huge swath of Charlie Chaplin’s film career — certainly is a point in its favor contra Netflix, which has had an increasingly short memory for film and TV history.

What I’ll be curious to see is how HBO Max expands and/or deepens its content. Will its TCM hub become even more complete, or stay stagnant? Will it ever find a way to get more classic “Sesame Street” movies online? (My kingdom for “Don’t Eat the Pictures”!) How will its originals slate evolve, and will they ever come to encompass an HBO Max-specific brand? The answers to those questions require time and patience, and I’ll be interested to see if subscribers grant HBO Max either.

DD: I do think not launching with a huge scripted original offering — which “Love Life,” which has its charms, is not — has the potential to habituate viewers into thinking of HBO Max as a catalog-first offering. What’s impressive about it on day one is just how many corners of the entertainment universe it draws upon rather than its collaborators making original content. That pretty much reverses the recent launch of Apple TV Plus, which began with a Jennifer Aniston comeback vehicle but no catalog at all.

But Aniston on “Friends” may provide every bit as much value, if not more. The battle against Netflix — plainly HBO Max’s perceived competition — is to be a marathon, and there’s time enough for HBO Max to find its way toward an original that pops more, especially as it launches more programming over the summer and, eventually, sees production resume. (“Orange Is the New Black” and “House of Cards” were not available on Day 1 of Netflix streaming, after all.) And a catalog-heavy approach may be the right one for a distracted and nostalgia-hungry moment. The service lacks the buzz of a new hit and, at times, an impulse towards putting its most impressive stuff forward; even still, after a series of less impressive launches, its mass of something-for-everyone content seems fearsome, and undeniable.