Tag Archives: HBO Max

Binge Watching in the New Normal

Pandemic restrictions have been lifted, but just last week I was buying some KN-95 masks because I live in California where things are just on fire for months at a stretch.  There was a brief conspiracy theory about why we all had masks on hand when Covid hit, and then we reminded people it was literally raining ash over most of the state during the summer of 2019 so we needed them to breath.

All of which is just another reason to stay inside and watch TV.

The show is about an aging stand up comedian, Deborah Vance, who was an early female presence in the genre (think Joan Rivers) and who has been doing a Las Vegas show for many years running on the same material.  Her agent sends out a 25 year old female comedy write who was just fired from her last gig for being too controversial on Twitter in an effort to get Deborah’s act to appeal to a younger demographic.  The two meet, don’t like each other, and the usual generational sniping begins which ends with grudging acceptance than a genuine relationship.

This could have been a very predictable show.  In fact, it often is very predictable.  I am not spoiling anything in my description above because you’ll see it coming a mile away.  But Jean Smart’s performance as Deborah Vance manages to make it rise above what could have been another throw away series about show business and the generation gap.  I don’t want to sell the rest of the cast short.  There are plenty of good performances, but Jean Smart is the anchor that sells it.

In the air flight 828 experiences some severe turbulence.  When they land in New York the passengers and crew find that five years have passed since their flight departed.  They have been missing, presumed dead for most of that time.  The government wants to know what is going on, a shadowy defense contractor is very interested in the passengers, a scientists fringe theories seem to be born out by the event, and a semi-religious following starts obsessed with the people who disappeared and were returned with flight 828.

Meanwhile, the lives of the passengers all moved on while they were away.  Kids grew up, spouses found new partners, jobs and technology and science went along without them.  And some of the passengers start hearing voices in their heads, giving them vague instructions or showing them visions.

There is a lot of possible content there to mine to drive a story.  But the writers try to have it all, and in trying to cover all the possible angles, end up with a show that feels like it doesn’t deliver fully on any front.  The episodes jump around, dealing with relationship issues, the NSA investigation of the passengers, the defense contractor’s odd motives and experiments, seeded with plenty of Walking Dead-like flash backs to make sure we know everybody’s store.  The whole thing just didn’t jell for us and we stopped after the first season.

The show follows the aging Sandy Kominsky (Micheal Douglas), a one time aspiring actor from New York who ended up in LA and never quite made the cut.  So he became an acting coach and opened his own school of acting, which he runs with his daughter.  He has still lived the LA lifestyle, has been married three times, has slept with numerous stars, and tends to favor much younger women.

The show begins by contrasting him with his best friend, Norman Newlander, who came out from New York with Sandy and who found great success as an agent and runs a major talent agency in LA.  He is also Sandy’s agent, but never finds Sandy any work.  Norman is played by Alan Arkin in that very typical cranky, cynical character that has worked for him for so much of his career.

The show is very good and we burned through all three seasons pretty quickly.  It does remind me a bit of Brockmire in form, if not in content, as it starts off as a pretty light show about two cranky old guys complaining about their prostates and Norman chiding Sandy about who he is sleeping with, and then develops into a much more serious show about death, children, and one’s legacy.  But it remains funny and and not too heavy.

This has been floating around in my periphery for a while.  Netflix kept pushing it at me as a recommendation for years, and it has a reputation as a show with a cult following, but the show’s description on the service did not spark any interest, nor did the title card featuring Ken Jeong dressed as Napoleon.  Not that I dislike him, but a little bit of Ken Jeong can go a long way.

And then I found out that Rick & Morty season five wasn’t going to be on any of my streaming services until the season was complete… looking at you HBO Max after you made a big deal about how you now have the show… you can get first run movies but can’t get an Adult Swim cartoon until it has been aired elsewhere I guess… and started looking up Dan Harmon to see what his problem was and made the connection with Community, which is basically the show he did before Rick & Morty.  So I started to watch it.

The basic, first episode premise, is that now ex-lawyer Jeff Winger, having be caught out lying about having a bachelor’s degree, enrolls at Greendale Community College in an effort to find the shortest path between him and a degree so he can get back to what he is good at.  His plan involves finding a study group that he can use to help him along.  He lies to them about being a professional tutor to get them to join him, but they somehow become a solid group.

While Jeff is the main character and the de facto leader of the group, it is TV and movie obsessed Abed who is their soul as well as being the wink towards breaking the 4th wall as he describes their situations in movie and TV tropes and cliches which the show often then embraces.

Anyway, I am through season two and am hooked.  It is a show that I laugh out loud at regularly, as my daughter can attest.  My main problem is that I started watching it on my own, and now I wonder if I should go back and rewatch the first two seasons with my wife, get her to just pick up in season three, or simply keep the show to myself.

Pandemic Binge Watching and HBO Max

Last month HBO and Roku worked out whatever it is that was keeping me from being able to access the service on my Roku Stick, so I now have access to all the wonder and majesty that is HBO Max.  And it is a bit of a mess.

It is fairly obvious what the plan for HBO Max is in the evolution of HBO overall.  Back in the day, HBO was a service that let you watch a few movies that had recently been in the theaters along with a haphazard selection of older movies.  Then they started producing some original content with things like comedy specials and shows like The Wire and The Sopranos.   With Game of Thrones their original content was clearly the biggest draw for the service.  And now, in the world of the pandemic and theaters being closed, HBO has leveraged the situation to get some films to open on their services at the same time as their theatrical release.

Also, Netflix and Hulu have been doing pretty well with a bunch of old but popular shows, so HBO wanted to jump on that bandwagon as well, which brings us to HBO Max, which attempts to bring all of that together into a single user interface.

As I mentioned, it is a bit of a mess.

That doesn’t mean it is bad.  They have added some features that they were lacking when compared to other services.  You can now have a user profile, something I think Netflix has had for a decade at this point, so if your kid binge watches Sesame Street you don’t have that polluting your recommendations.

You can also skip over ads for other shows or the opening credits or the series summary with a press of a button now.  And these are good things.

But, at its heart, HBO Max is an attempt to have a lot more content without making finding something you want to watch any easier.  This is a problem every service has, so it is a matter of where it stands in the hierarchy of channels we use.  HBO Max does this a bit better than Amazon Prime or Hulu, but not as well as Disney+ and not nearly as well as Netflix.

Which is odd, because HBO Max was clearly trying to emulate Netflix in their own way.  But despite the fact that a lot of the same categories are up at the top of the page when you open the service… just added, popular, continue watching, items from your list… and despite my occasional annoyance at how brazenly eager Netflix is to start rolling video the moment you pause on some title… Netflix just does it better.

Part of this is that Netflix is easier to read from across the room on the couch.  They have titles in big bold print, while somebody at HBO decided that the title card for a show or movie has the name on it and that is good enough, forgetting how often that text can be tiny, in a frilly script, or made otherwise unreadable to older eyes.

And part of this is that HBO Max just doesn’t run very well on the Roku.  It is slow to load and slow to respond to inputs, which is a bad look next to Netflix, which is light and nimble and responsive even as it is more active and throwing video at every turn.  How can Netflix be so smooth with dynamic responses to selections and streaming clips on the fly as you move through a list while HBO Max, which is relatively static, chugs along, responding eventually to your inputs?

But there is also just the simple ability to find something to watch.  Maybe because my Netflix account is now about 20 years old, counting the old disks by mail era, they know what to serve up to me as options.  Maybe their algorithms are more sophisticated.  Maybe they just have better content.  But if we sit down on a Friday night and I pull up Netflix I am generally able to find something for us to watch on which we can both agree.

And, in the end, finding something to watch is the most important thing.  HBO Max promises more movies coming with their theatrical release dates, while Netflix has been telling me they’ll have a new movie every week this year.  We shall see how these two services compare over time.  While we are currently subscribed to both, I have to give the nod to Netflix at the moment.