When HBO Max launches on May 27, those who rush to subscribe will likely do so for access to WarnerMedia’s enormous catalog. The service will include beloved TV shows (Friends, The West Wing, Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown), classic (Citizen Kane, 2001: A Space Odyssey, When Harry Met Sally) and contemporary movies (the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Crazy Rich Asians, the entire DC filmography) and the most impressive trove of children’s entertainment (Sesame Street, Studio Ghibli, Cartoon Network) this side of Disney—on top of everything that’s already available on HBO’s preexisting subscription sites. Dozens of HBO Max exclusives are also slated to arrive in the coming months. And though the initial list of originals feels a bit slight, there are a few things worth your time. Here’s what to watch, what to skip and what’s strictly for the kids.
Queer nightlife is all over TV, from RuPaul’s Drag Empire to the golden age of the ball scene as recreated on FX’s Pose. But three decades after that show takes place, ball culture ain’t dead—and Legendary brings it to the masses in a competition hosted by ballroom vet MC Dashaun Wesley, with a panel of judges that includes rapper Megan Thee Stallion, stylist Law Roach, “Wonder Woman of Vogue” Leiomy Maldonado and (somewhat controversially) actor Jameela Jamil. A group so diverse it includes an entire house of cisgender women from Europe and Asia dress to the nines and vogue their hearts out in themed categories for a chance to win $100k. Now, is the idea of taking a fully formed subculture built as a haven from racism, homophobia and transmisogyny and turning it into mainstream entertainment inherently suspect? Oh, yes. Do I wish Maldonado wasn’t the only ballroom luminary among the judges? For sure. Will the show spark heated debate around cultural appropriation? Almost certainly. Could we, in the two episodes sent for review, have heard more on that topic from the participants themselves? Absolutely. The thing is, the performances are spectacular, each house gets ample opportunities to tell its unique story and, however you feel about her, Jamil maintains a pretty low-key presence. Thanks more to the contestants than to the celebs (though Tyson Beckford is a fun guest judge), Legendary might live up to its name.
On the Record
“It’s been nearly three years since the fall of Harvey Weinstein forced the gates of the #MeToo movement wide open, instilling courage in untold numbers of women to tell their own stories about inappropriate or illegal behavior in the workplace,” writes TIME film critic Stephanie Zacharek in her review of HBO Max’s debut documentary feature. “Now it may be time to focus a little more on what we lose, as a culture, when women have no choice but to abandon work they love because the behavior of a male superior has made a job untenable. On the Record, directed by Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering, takes positive steps in that direction, suggesting that modern music itself might have been vastly different if the music business of the 1990s had been less hostile to women.” [Read the full review]
As neither an Anna Kendrick detractor nor a full-on rom-com Grinch, I was not prepared for how much I disliked early episodes of this show about a woman in her 20s looking for love in New York City. It’s a familiar premise, with the twist that it follows Kendrick’s 20-something everygirl Darby from relationship to failed relationship over the course of several years, on her path to finding the love of her life. That tweak is not exactly original, either—we did just get a High Fidelity reboot—but it could have worked with strong scripts. Instead, showrunners Sam Boyd and Bridget Bedard (backed by a team of executive producers that includes Kendrick and Paul Feig) spend much of the season leaning on worn-out romance tropes and overplaying the lead’s adorkable charm. It’s all too expected. We’ve seen Darby’s boyfriends before: the older guy with excess baggage, the guy who’s too self-involved to appreciate her, a cartoonish working-class hookup who gave me Moonstruck flashbacks. The dialogue can be overly expository. The “things that never happen in real life but always happen on TV” quotient is high. And when, to its credit, the show finally heads for novel territory about five episodes in, it’s too little, too late.
Looney Tunes Cartoons
Looney Tunes has been a part of American childhoods—not to mention the Warner stable—since the 1930s, when you had to go to the cinema to get your Bugs Bunny fix. Every generation gets its own update; in the early ’90s, I watched a lot of Tiny Toon Adventures. I wouldn’t dream of begrudging whatever cohort comes after Gen Z their version. And yet, I’m not convinced we need more shorts just like the hundreds of brilliant, kinetic, mildly sadistic ones we already have. HBO Max’s new 11-minute episodes don’t feel overly sanitized—there’s still plenty of cartoon violence, and the absence of racist caricatures like Speedy Gonzales is inarguably for the best. But besides being fresher, more inspired and more in sync with the culture that produced it, the old Looney Tunes has an endearing handmade feel that contemporary animators are just too slick to replicate. Better, I think, to revisit the classic cartoons and make sure kids understand how and why things have changed since they first aired.
Strictly for Kids
The Not-Too-Late Show With Elmo
HBO Max is going hard on children’s programming in its original slate, and you can see why: with Disney+ among the service’s biggest competitors, it seems like a smart bet that where the tots go, the whole family will follow. So a talk show capitalizing on Warner’s most recognizable kiddie brand, Sesame Street, makes perfect sense. In the 15 minutes before his parents tuck him into bed, Sesame’s resident mini-monster opens with an extremely short monologue, interviews guests like Jimmy Fallon and the Jonas Brothers, and hands over the mic to musicians who put their own spin on the Sesame canon (Kacey Musgraves emotes her way through “Rubber Ducky,” Lil Nas X remixes “Elmo’s Song”). It’s easy to imagine toddlers watching episodes on repeat. For adults, however, only the occasional guest—like John Mulaney, who’s shaping up to be his generation’s premiere good-with-kids comic—can make such a concentrated dose of Elmo’s high-pitched squeal worth enduring. The Muppet Show this ain’t.
Lauren Riihimaki—better known to her nearly 9 million YouTube subscribers as LaurDIY—hosts this game show, which is essentially MasterChef Junior for crafters. The half-hour competition pits creative tweens against one another to “shop” their way through an art-supply superstore’s worth of supplies and use what they find to make pet beds, runway-worthy fashion ensembles and more. Riihimaki, with her candy-colored aesthetic and seemingly endless store of energy, makes a perfect host. The kids are fantastic, too; one boy is a crochet prodigy, while a girl from South Africa crafts a sweet tribute to her beloved lions. But parents might cringe at how stylized the ultra-bright show is and how coached the contestants can sound in on-camera interviews.