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HBO Max launch offers not-too-late Elmo, mediocre 'Love Life' — and unanswered questions

Hopefully consumers can figure out the differences among HBO Max, Now and Go quickly enough to make it a streaming contender.
"The Not Too Late Show With Elmo" may be HBO Max's first real hit.
"The Not Too Late Show With Elmo" may be HBO Max's first real hit.HBO MAX

When Apple TV+ arrived back in November, it ushered in a new era of vertical integration. Now, production studios could cut out the distribution middleman, taking their entertainment product directly to the masses. Apple TV+ was quickly followed by Disney+; last month, NBCUniversal (the parent company of NBC News THINK) did a soft launch of its streaming service, Peacock. Now, just in time for summer, the last of the major streamers has arrived, HBO Max. By far the most comprehensive in terms of content, HBO Max unfortunately but somewhat surprisingly also struggles with identity.

The problems begin with that name. HBO Max arrives in a landscape where HBO, HBO Now and HBO Go already exist. For the uninitiated, HBO Now and HBO Go aren't separate from cable's HBO, but merely apps to access it. HBO Now is an app for those who don't have cable but still wish to subscribe to HBO. HBO Go is for those who do subscribe to HBO via their cable services and are just trying to watch via laptops or mobile devices. For many, it's not clear how this differs from HBO Max. If one already gets all the HBO programming via HBO Now or HBO Go (or just subscribing to cable), why would one need yet another HBO app?

By far the most comprehensive in terms of content, HBO Max unfortunately but somewhat surprisingly also struggles with identity.

But HBO Max isn't HBO at all. It would be more precise to call it "WarnerMedia Max" (or WarnerMedia+, perhaps). WarnerMedia is the parent company of HBO; it went with the more recognizable branding for obvious consumer recognition reasons. HBO Max has all the HBO programming, documentaries and movies one finds on the cable channel. But the streamer carries far more than just that. WarnerMedia's major holdings also include Warner Bros. (both the movie and the TV studios), Turner TV, CNN, TruTV and Cartoon Network. In short, HBO Max is like Disney+, an umbrella streamer with several distinct sub-brands within. Max has access to Warner Bros.' library of classic TV shows (think the "Looney Tunes" brand) and films ("The Wizard of Oz"), not to mention Turner Classic Movies and the Criterion Collection, giving HBO Max one of the largest classic film libraries on streaming. And the Cartoon Network includes both Boomerang and Adult Swim, providing animated fare for children and adults alike.

But HBO Max goes even further. Whereas Disney+ is a walled garden, featuring only TV and movies made by Disney-held subsidiaries, this streamer has opened its arms to all comers, providing streaming homes for programming from smaller networks like BBC America, whose parent companies aren't going to have a company-branded streaming service any time soon. This is all in service of enticing viewers to pay a baseline fee of $14.99 a month, which, compared to the much lower baselines of Disney+ ($6.99), Apple ($4.99) and Peacock's "free with ads" program, makes it the priciest service to date. (Even Netflix is only $12.99 to start.)

Moves are being made to make it easy for those who already pay for HBO via their cablers or HBO Now to access the new app for free. I subscribe to HBO via Fios and qualified for free HBO Max (although it took a full day to get the TV app to work). This seems to be part of HBO's plan — not only were most cable subscribers qualified to sign up, but many HBO Now apps were simply converted into HBO Max. In short, WarnerMedia automatically converted a large chunk of HBO Now's 8 million users within the first day. (For comparison's sake, Disney+ boasted 10 million signups on Day 1.) It's not clear how many of those people knew to take advantage, though; Bloomberg reports that only about 90,000 new users downloaded the Max app for the first time on mobile, an embarrassingly small number.

Saddled with the “HBO” moniker, HBO Max also arrives with certain expectations when it comes to original programming.

But saddled with the "HBO" moniker, HBO Max also arrives with certain expectations when it comes to original programming. And that's where the identity problem crops back up. HBO Max chose to start its own brand instead of leaning on its subcategories. While there are hubs for regular series found on HBO, Turner, Cartoon Network and so on, the new programming doesn't easily lend itself to this sort of breakdown. Instead, it offers a muddle of originals stuck between HBO favorites like "Westworld" and "Watchmen" and a flagship series that's dead on arrival.

"Love Life" is that flagship show. It's an anthology series, focusing on one person per season, with each episode a different relationship over the course of their lives. It sounds clever on paper. Season 1 stars Anna Kendrick as Darby, and the first episodes are as much about her getting to know herself as they are about her romantic misadventures.

But the actual product is as flat as each of the romances, a series of banal dramas featuring yet another pretty white girl with vague hopes of a career in the arts, with relationships as clichéd as the version of New York she's living in. Perhaps a second season focusing on less stereotypical plots would help. But if HBO Max thinks this is putting its best foot forward, subscribers should be concerned.

Thankfully, some of the other shows are better. The brand new "Looney Tunes Cartoons," created by Warner Bros. for HBO Max, is exactly what it promises, and it is still mostly as timeless as the originals. "On the Record," a thoughtful and provoking #MeToo documentary set in the music world, is much closer to the type of thing one expects when firing up an app labeled HBO. There's a pair of reality shows, of which "Legendary" is the better series — a "Dancing With the Stars" meets "Pose" ballroom competition celebrating gay and transgender people of color. "Craftopia," on the other hand, is merely fine, the sort of bland HGTV knockoff one finds on Netflix. And as for that much-heralded "Friends" reunion special? Hopefully, it will turn up whenever the pandemic eases enough to allow filming.

Hilariously, the best series of all is "The Not-Too-Late Show With Elmo." After watching Disney struggle for years to capitalize on Kermit et al., HBO Max has beaten them to it, making the first intelligent programming Jim Henson's A-List Muppets have had literally in decades. Having them put on a show, even if it's in the last 15 minutes before Elmo's bedtime, is always a winning formula. Jimmy Fallon even turns up as the first guest, as if to admit that his throne has been usurped by the good monsters of "Sesame Street." Sorry, Stephen Colbert, but you finally have real competition for my not-so-late-night viewing.

It's commendable that HBO Max is trying to create its own brand. And while its original programming may not have a hit outside of Elmo right now, the streamer will be rolling out more, including DC Comics-branded series like "Doom Patrol," Cartoon Network's "Adventure Time" spinoff, "Distant Lands," and the TBS series "Search Party" — all promised for June releases. Hopefully, consumers can figure out the differences among Max, Now and Go quickly enough to make it a contender.