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HBO Max has been released onto the world and it was a service I was personally looking forward to, mainly because of what I saw as a really solid idea: to have all of HBO’s content hosted in one place alongside most, if not all WarnerMedia content, licensed content like Studio Ghibli and South Park, and original content such as the branded Max Originals (Adventure Time Distant Lands, Looney Tunes Cartoons, Close Enough) with all of it costing the same amount as a standard HBO Now subscription. This sounded like an incredible service, but does it live up to those expectations?
The HBO Max service was first talked about back in October 2018 when WarnerMedia confirmed they were working on a new streaming platform to compete with not only Netflix, but Disney’s newly announced streaming service (which was later titled Disney+). The name for the platform was not revealed that year so questions were raised as to what the service would be called, how much it would cost, and what would be on it. It took until July of 2019 for WarnerMedia to fully unveil HBO Max in a press release and a small video teaser about the service. There were still questions as to the cost and the titles coming to the service beyond HBO’s own titles and certain expected titles like Friends. Only a few months later in October 2019, WarnerMedia hosted a live stream which laid out the groundwork for HBO Max. The live stream itself was mediocre, featuring lots of cut-aways to trailer clips for upcoming shows on HBO Max as well as trailers for legacy titles, which weren’t actually streamed to the livestream audience but only shown to in-person attendees of the event. While it is somewhat understandable that they would choose not to showcase trailers of their upcoming exclusive shows in favor of bigger, specialized reveals of them later to hype people up for the service, it seems baffling that they would cut out creators talking about their upcoming projects. However, while their reasoning for the new titles being blacked out can be explained to some extent, blacking out trailers for legacy titles is inexcusable. Shows like Friends and The Big Bang Theory have been available to the public for years and I think showcasing a short, ten second clip to the audience wouldn’t be the end of the world. Regardless, it wasn’t awful, but equally, it didn’t leave a lasting impact. The best parts of the presentation were discussions of content and curation, along with the brief overview of the interface. It is clear that the presentation was mainly aimed at investors and journalists, considering the first half focused mostly on statistics and numbers, featuring a plenty of charts and graphs. Yet, the presentation could have been better by spacing out the technical talks or holding it until the middle of the presentation and putting a stronger focus on content and price, which ended up being the strongest part of the presentation. Their announcements of original productions and highlighting upcoming shows from HBO and WarnerMedia to premiere on the service in its first year were exciting enough Warner’s strong focus on established brands like Ghibli and Looney Tunes was great to see as well. In all, while not the best presentation, the fact remains that we finally had a good idea of titles that’ll be on the platform, and it was only a matter of time until more info would be released on the launch date and full slate of titles available.
While it ended up taking many months for that info to be revealed, on April 21st, 2020, WarnerMedia announced that HBO Max would launch May 27th, 2020 and revealed the slate of originals that would be launching on day one. The MAX Originals titles are Legendary, Love Life, Craftopia, On The Record, The Not Too Late Show with Elmo, and Looney Tunes Cartoons. A few weeks later on May 7th, 2020, WarnerMedia announced via press release that seventeen select titles from Crunchyroll’s catalog would be available to stream at launch with additional titles coming in the future. More additions to the lineup were neat to see but we still didn’t have a full picture of the Day One launch titles, leaving most potential users with one big question: will HBO Max be worth it?
Now that the service has launched, I’ll be breaking down each section of HBO Max with focuses on original content, overall content, and user experience. For the shows, commentary won’t be full comprehensive reviews but more focused on first impressions, especially since HBO Max releases new episodes of their original titles on a week-to-week basis rather than releasing them all at once as Netflix does. Additionally, I won’t be going over everything for MAX Originals, only a select few. Without further hesitation, let’s begin with:
At launch, we have a total of six MAX Originals, which may seem sparse compared to Disney+’s launch of ten original projects, but that felt more of a product of quantity rather than quality since the only worthwhile show on the platform was The World According To Jeff Goldblum, with The Mandalorian in a close second. While the offerings on Disney+ at launch weren’t bad per se, they didn’t really have a lot of variety with their lineup, feeling like a collection of titles that were originally planned for broadcast and cable networks like ABC and National Geographic that were simply thrown onto Disney+ without much thought put into it. Meanwhile, the launch for HBO Max and the originals has something for everybody, but does it make them good? Well, that’s a mixed bag. Looney Tunes Cartoons (LTC) would certainly be the highlight, feeling a bit like a late response from Warner to Disney’s new Mickey Mouse cartoons. However, completely calling this a “late response” doesn’t paint the whole picture, as Warner had previously released Wabbit (later retitled New Looney Tunes), a collection of shorts that I found to be mediocre at best. Some of them were amusing, but generally felt like they were made with a young audience in mind and didn’t have the same all-ages appeal that other entries did. The character redesigns seen in Wabbit also didn’t appeal to me, and while the simplified designs may have made it easier to design and animate, they made the animation feel cheap and makes the slapstick comedy feel like there’s no weight to it. Regardless of the prior relaunch, the latest take we’re seeing with LTC really feels like a return to classic Looney Tunes.
(Source: HBO Max)
There’s a good amount of cartoon violence and a wide variety of hilarious gags. While I haven’t been able to see the entire season of LTC even though the entire first season is available at launch with more coming in the future, what I have seen has been amazing and I feel these new shorts stand toe-to-toe with the original 30s & 40s shorts. However, when I call these “shorts”, in some cases, that’s more accurate than you may think. Runtimes on some installments are very brief, but in some cases, it works very well. “Wet Cement”, a short starring Porky Pig and Daffy Duck, is just a few minutes long and is a classic “silent film” style short that allows the characters to be themselves without any dialogue. It shows the people behind these shorts have a wonderful understanding of the Looney Tunes ensemble when they can make a short like that and it not only works, but is good. The structure of an episode as a whole is also done well, set up as twelve-minute episodes, but an individual short within might only take a few minutes, so in order to fill the full episode length, they include smaller bite-sized shorts between the larger main shorts. In a way, these feel like TV bumpers, but still stand on their own as a bite-sized experience. The overall handling of this is really quite ingenious.