HBO Max: A Beginner’s Guide

From+Cult+of+Mac.

From Cult of Mac.

Dean Robbins, Allegheny Campus Editor

With the recent news that every single 2021 Warner Brothers release will go to HBO Max the same day as theaters, the nascent service will be getting quite a few new subscribers. I have had HBO Max since day one and it is easily my favorite streaming service thanks to its diversity and quality of original and library content. In this article, I would like to recommend ten films or shows on the service, divided into the same “hubs” the service has.

Best HBO Show: HBO has many incredible series from Game of Thrones to Rome to Treme to Boardwalk Empire. However, I would like to recommend a lesser-known series. The Brink stars Jack Black and Tim Robbins among many others as they navigate an impending foreign policy disaster.

Black plays low-level Foreign Service agent Alex Talbot who finds himself needing to negotiate with military dictators and terrorists. Robbins plays philandering Secretary of State Walter Larson who must navigate a series of increasingly uncomfortable deals and meetings. The writing is hilarious and every episode leaves you on a cliffhanger. Unfortunately, the series only ran for one season. At least it will be a quick binge!

Best HBO Film: As HBO’s name “Home Box Office” implies, this section has a fantastic selection of new and old films. I am going to cheat here and recommend two movies from HBO’s large library. First is Richard Linklater’s wonderful Before Sunrise. The film follows two strangers who meet and fall in love over the course of one night.

The movie is relatively short and one of the most beautiful romance films ever. My other recommendation is John Schlesinger’s Best Picture winner Midnight Cowboy (1969). This was a key moment in film history that pushed the envelope on what was acceptable in the mainstream. It won several Oscars and played at the White House for it. A heart-wrenching film about two men lost in the big unforgiving world of 1960s NYC.

Best DC Show: I am sure many will recommend the DC Universe Original turned HBO Max original show Doom Patrol but I have not seen that one yet. Instead, I recommend this year’s Stargirl. Stargirl follows Courtney Whitmore, a teenager in small-town America, who discovers her new step-father was part of a secret superhero society. This show hails from Greg Berlanti who has produced many DC Comics shows at the CW from Arrow to The Flash. I enjoyed those shows but they can be quite cheesy and soapy. Stargirl has a similar charm but with a higher budget, quick pacing, and a fantastic cast. Especially later in the season, actors like Luke Wilson give really strong emotional performances. A second season is on the way for 2021, as well!

Best DC Film: The DC film selection on HBO Max will be growing over the next year or so as the separate DC Universe streaming service will be converting to comics-only in January of 2021. Of the selection currently available, there are some great blockbusters like last year’s Joker or Wonder Woman (watch it in preparation for WW84!). If you have not seen those, definitely give them a watch. However, my recommendation is actually Zack Snyder’s Watchmen. While the film misses a few key thematic points of its graphic novel source material, Watchmen is a stylistic tour-de-force and a primer for Snyder’s later DC work on films like Man of Steel and Batman v. Superman.

Best of Sesame Workshop: Sesame Workshop is geared towards preschoolers and young children with shows like Sesame Street, The Electric Company, and Esme & Roy. My recommendation is to either watch some classic 1970s Sesame Street with the kiddos (or by yourself) or to watch the delightful HBO Max original The Not-Too-Late Show With Elmo. This is the Sesame Street take on late-night television and it is funny and cute for all ages.

Best of TCM: TCM is easily my favorite “hub”, comprising the best streaming film library of any mainstream streaming service. Listen to just a few titles: Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Citizen Kane, Rebel Without A Cause, Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times, and Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless. There is so much to choose from the film school classics to the obscure (original Japanese Godzilla films and Carl Theodor Dreyer’s silent masterpiece The Passion of Joan of Arc).

Many of these films are essential viewing for film fans. But if there was one film I could recommend (but seriously watch the ones I mentioned), it would Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964). This film is a French romance tragedy where every single line of dialogue is sung. It is stunningly beautiful from the singing to the story to the brightly-colored cinematography. If you are a fan of the musical La La Land that released a few years back, this movie heavily inspired that film. There are subtitles but I think the film is so good it should transcend any issue with that.

Best of Studio Ghibli: Studio Ghibli is another section where it is hard to go wrong. Studio Ghibli is essentially the Pixar of Japan. Every film they have released is at least worth watching and several are commonly considered to be some of the greatest films of all times (see Spirited Away). Besides the obvious essentials, I would recommend one of the studio’s newer films The Tale of The Princess Kaguya. This is a somber fairy tale with an animation style that departs from other Studio Ghibli’s projects. It is also a good gateway for some of the studio’s weirder films. Of note, all or most of their films should have dubbed dialogue as well as subtitles if don’t like subs.

 Best Cartoon Network Show: Cartoon Network primarily caters to middle schoolers with their absurdist cartoons like Uncle Grandpa and Steven Universe. While those can be great for all ages, there is one show that is a must-watch for all: Over the Garden Wall. Over the Garden Wall is a ten-episode animated miniseries that can be digested in a relatively short span of time. It touches on themes of death, depression, animation history, and philosophy. It is one of the finest pieces of television animation ever and its off-kilter supernatural vibes should appeal to anyone. A must-watch.

Best Adult Swim Show: Adult Swim is essentially Cartoon Network for adults, which makes sense since it airs on the same channel. While HBO Max is missing some key Adult Swim shows (though the lineup is slowly expanding), there are still several great shows here. Robot Chicken is a stop-motion animated parody of everything pop culture. HBO Max has ten seasons so there is a lot to watch. You can also check out the over-the-top absurdist Informercials (Broomshakalaka is a genuine masterpiece) or the Hanna-Barbera parody Harvey Birdman: Attorney At Law.

However, there is one show I recommend above all: Joe Pera Talks With You. The show follows a heightened version of comedian Joe Pera as he lives with his mother in small-town America. Pera’s act is being an old man in a young person’s body. Episode topics range from taking a fall drive to the best selections at the local diner to the Rat Wars of Alberta, Canada. While there is a hint of irony, Joe Pera Talks With You is one of the most heartfelt and wholesome shows to come around. While Adult Swim can be known for absurdist and cruel cartoons, Joe Pera Talks With You is live-action comfort food.

Best Crunchyroll Show: Crunchyroll has an anime streaming service but they are also providing a seasonal selection to HBO Max. To be frank, I have not seen any of these shows with the exception of Food Wars. Food Wars, which is great, only has its fourth and fifth seasons on HBO Max. Based on my knowledge, I would recommend a classic show like Rurouni Kenshin or InuYasha. I have also heard great things about Mob Psycho 100 and Kill la Kill. Unfortunately, Crunchyroll is a weaker section on the service, especially when compared to Netflix’s anime selection.

Best of Looney Tunes: The last hub is Looney Tunes. This hub has a limited selection in terms of the number of titles. However, it contains most of the original Looney Tunes cartoons. Of those classics, my highest recommendation goes to One Froggy Evening. There are no recognizable characters like Bugs Bunny here but this short is one of the finest ever made.

Miscellaneous Recommendations: There are a few films and shows that do not fit into a specific hub. These include the Lord of the Rings/The Hobbit films, The LEGO Movie, and others. Of these hubless films or shows, I would like to direct your attention to the overlooked Hanna-Barbera selection. There are so many Hanna-Barbera shows and films that I am surprised it can not get its own hub. These shows include The Flintstones, The Jetsons, Scooby-Doo, and Jonny Quest among others. There are no deep cuts here like Magilla Gorilla or even Huckleberry Hound but the most recognizable classics are here. I don’t have a specific recommendation but I think more should know about this side of the service.

I hope I have given some satisfactory recommendation and even convinced you to get the service if you have not already. 2021 is going to be a wild year with Godzilla vs. Kong, The Suicide Squad, Zack Snyder’s cut of Justice League, and more coming to the service.