Should You Subscribe to HBO Max? A Guide to TV’s Most Expensive New Streaming Service
Yes, another new streaming service is here. We surveyed all the platform has to offer—”Friends!” A mediocre Anna Kendrick series!—to figure out if you should cough up the dough.
Television. It’s a pandemic.
OK, maybe that’s a little crass in light of things, or is at least a bit of a false equivalency. But it could be fair to say that television has become... annoying? Stressful? A nuisance?
It is wild to think about how recent the existence of streaming services is. You would think that such a radical disruption of not only how television is made and billions of Hollywood dollars are spent, but how the global population spends their time, would have happened gradually.
But the speed at which Hulu begat Netflix which begat Amazon Prime which begat Disney+ which begat too many other things to list without this paragraph becoming endless—Cord-cutting! Flatlining ratings! Reese Witherspoon talking about female hyenas’ pseudo-penises on a $2 billion content app!—is alarming.
It was only in 2014 that articles were written detailing what this “binge-watching” phrase meant, like this one I reported out for this very website. Now not only is the concept of bingeing an everyday part of our vernacular, we very well might be full.
So it’s an auspicious time for the new platform HBO Max to arrive, along with it movies from the Warner Bros. archive, classic films curated by TCM, series from networks including TNT, TBS, Cartoon Network, and CNN, and the entire libraries of series like Friends, The Big Bang Theory, and, eventually, South Park, Gossip Girl, and The West Wing. That’s in addition to new series featuring Anna Kendrick, Amy Schumer, and Elmo.
It’s a whole damn lot. It’s kind of a crisis. Not on a disaster level, but on an overwhelming one. What do you get if you pay for HBO Max? What do you miss out on if you don’t?
That old “200 channels and nothing to watch” joke people used to make about their cable and satellite subscriptions has evolved. Now the situation has changed to “everything to watch.” Nothing is filler anymore. It’s all worth watching. How do we, with a budget, curiosity, and a finite amount of time in our days, reconcile that?
Any debate over whether there is value in subscribing to what I consider the Big Three—Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime—is barely visible in the rear view mirror at this point. The question now is which new ones, if any, are worth adding to that bill.
Two major plays came earlier this year: Disney+ and Apple TV+. The former sold itself on a massive library of content consumers already know and love, with some original content as a sweetener but not the selling point. The latter, on the other hand, announced itself with new, original content only. They were distinctly different approaches, which makes the arrival of the next wave of two huge platforms all the more interesting.
Both HBO Max and Peacock are coming with vast libraries of existing content, but with titles that maybe aren’t as intrinsically identifiable with their brand as Disney properties are with theirs; you don’t need to research to find out what you’re getting when you subscribe to Disney+. In other words there’s nothing that screams “HBO Max” about Friends the way that Frozen 2 signals Disney+. No one thinks about a movie and assumes “that’s a WarnerMedia title so I can find it on HBO Max.”
So without any proof of this hunch, I’d estimate that the original offerings of these new streamers matters more than before when deciding to subscribe. Case in point: For all the hullabaloo when Friends and The Office left Netflix, subscribers seem to have shrugged off their outrage and happily binged Tiger King, Love Is Blind, Never Have I Ever, and Dead to Me instead.
Yes, this is a lot to think about before even attempting to answer the question of whether HBO Max, which is out today, is worth it. But that’s because the question is almost as complicated as the answer.
Here are the necessary facts about HBO Max.
It is the most expensive new streaming platform, with a subscription costing $14.99/month.
That is what it costs to subscribe through HBO through cable, but do you get HBO Max if you already subscribe to HBO? That is perhaps the most important subset of the “Is HBO Max worth it?” question, which makes it all the more exasperating how difficult it is to answer. It takes an article that is thousands of words long to answer. This one is very good.
Making matters more confusing is that the answer is different if you subscribe to HBO Now, the cord-cutting standalone HBO service, or if you subscribe to HBO and HBO Go through another provider.
(Yes, HBO Max is now a fourth platform with HBO in its name, but is not exclusively a HBO service and does not necessarily come with a HBO subscription. Excellent branding all around! Not a bit confusing, guys!)
Here are the broad strokes, both helpful and unhelpful because there are exemptions to everything and it could not apply to you:
- If you subscribe to HBO Now and pay through HBO Now, Apple, or Google, your app will automatically update to HBO Max.
- If you have HBO through select cable providers—Charter/Spectrum, Verizon, Cox Communications, Altice, NCTC—through Hulu or YouTube TV, or through DirecTV/AT&T TV you get HBO Max for free. For how long depends on the service.
- If you subscribe to HBO Now through Amazon Prime, Comcast TV, or Roku, you do not get HBO Max for free.
The maddening caveat is that the previous information may not apply to you even if you fall under one of those umbrellas, so again, check out this article for more information or contact your provider. What fun!
Now, what do you get if you do finally figure out if you have HBO Max and/or subscribe to the new app?
The big news is the library of series that come with it: Friends, The Big Bang Theory, The West Wing, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, CW dramas (including Riverdale and Batwoman), Gossip Girl, Doctor Who, and the British Office.
Is it worth it just for those shows alone? If you desperately need to watch Friends, then probably.
Completist series fans used to spend between $50 and $150 on DVD box sets of their favorite shows, to have them for watching in perpetuity. A $15 price tag seems like significantly less, though after four months you’re already spending more than you would have on a box set. That’s when you start considering if everything else there is to offer is worth it.
Obviously there is everything HBO programs, plus all of its past series. Do you already pay for HBO? Then obviously HBO Max is worth it.
A major tentpole of the launch is its massive library of movies, which will eventually total 18,000, according to the service. That will include DC Films (Joker, Wonder Woman, etc.), Studio Ghibli anime films (the first time they will be available for streaming in the U.S.), a selection of classic films (The Wizard of Oz, Singing in the Rain, Casablanca, and more), and a bunch of recent hits that you would ordinarily find on HBO, like Crazy Rich Asians and A Star Is Born.
It is a lot of movies, but also not every movie—if you’re like me, every time you log onto Netflix, inevitably there is no sign of the movie you want to see. If you’re in it just for the movies, then maybe it makes more sense to continue to rent them a la carte from Apple, YouTube, Amazon, or On Demand.
Then again, you probably are not in it just for the movies, in which case perhaps a deciding factor it is the slate of original content that you want to make sure you don’t miss. Personally, it is the really good original series like The Crown or The Great, to stick to a royal milieu, that I subscribe to Netflix and Hulu for. I don’t want to feel like I’m missing out on the next great new series, which is the same reason so many people subscribed to a premium channel like HBO in the first place: to see The Sopranos or Sex and the City or Game of Thrones.
To that end, there is nothing “must-watch” about the launch slate of HBO Max’s original series. That’s not to say that won’t change in the future; the original pre-coronavirus plan was for the service to have 51 original series by 2022. But none of the six offerings it is premiering with make a screaming case to subscribe. None are bad. Not at all. But the fact that they are so aggressively fine is maybe the most frustrating part.
The strongest of the bunch is Legendary, a reality TV competition series set in the LGBT+ world of ballroom, in which some of the best “houses” in the world compete in various voguing, dancing, fashion, and posing competitions. It is thrillingly shot, and a glorious showcase for the ballroom scene.
There was pre-premiere controversy when actress and activist Jameela Jamil was hired in a host/judge role, unleashing floodgates on the debate on LGBT+ representation and how subsets of that acronym are treated in the community. It’s important to acknowledge that controversy, but not hard to brush it aside when you watch, as the judges as a whole aren’t very impactful and their decision-making is fairly arbitrary—at least in the screeners that I watched.
What you’re left with is a very good reality TV competition. But does a very good reality TV competition justify $15 a month?
HBO Max’s first scripted series, the Anna Kendrick-starring Love Life, certainly does not. The bland, inoffensively mediocre romantic dramedy will have people who instinctively like that kind of thing, no matter the quality, happy to watch, but will win over no new fans.
You could say the same thing about the crafting reality series Craftopia—it’s OK, if you like crafting reality series—and new Looney Tunes cartoons: Yep, they’re Looney Tunes.
The two offerings that merit more consideration, for very different reasons, are The Not-Too-Late Show with Elmo and the documentary On the Record.
The Not-Too-Late Show is as charming as it is baffling. It is an adorable Sesame Street-style interpretation of late-night TV, with Elmo interviewing celebrity guests like Jimmy Fallon and Kacey Musgraves integrated with a Larry Sanders Show/30 Rock-esque satire of how the show is made.
But...what is the point? What is the point of an Elmo late-night show? Do preschoolers recognize the satire, or is it more for their parents? Or is it to merely indoctrinate children at an early age to accept this genre and format as an important type of entertainment? I could discuss this for hours and still have no answer.
There is certainly an important point to On the Record, which chronicles the allegations of sexual abuse and misconduct against mogul Russell Simmons as well as the larger issue of systemic sexual abuse and misogyny in the hip-hop music industry.
The documentary premiered earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival amid controversy surrounding Oprah Winfrey pulling her involvement when an accuser’s credibility was called into question. Those headlines nearly managed to drown out the powerful accounts of the many women who come forward against Simmons in On the Record, but whose stories are too loud to be silenced. The biggest issue with the film is its lack of focus. Its attempt to broaden the charges against Simmons into a conversation about the industry as a whole doesn’t go deep enough, ultimately diluting the film’s impact.
What’s more exciting about HBO Max’s original content, then, is what it has coming down the pipeline: a docuseries from Amy Schumer, new seasons of the excellent formerly TBS series Search Party, its first original film American Pickle from Seth Rogen, the Kaley Cuoco series The Flight Attendant, new projects from Issa Rae and Mindy Kaling, whatever comes from the J.J. Abrams mega-deal, and much, much more.
One has to assume that some of that content will be worth subscribing for. But that in itself sort of outlines a problem with positioning a major rival to Netflix, at a time when Netflix already has so much content—and these are just two platforms in the greater landscape.
It’s almost too much to keep track of, too much to rule if any of it is worth it. There’s even a certain irony in that: HBO Max is both a product of the streaming wars’ race for more content and is stuffed with so much content itself that many people are confused over what it even offers.
“Is it worth it?” has become something more existential than just a question about services rendered at a certain price point. Each time it’s asked of each new content platform, we may be closer to a breaking point, where there will be no content in the world to justify the cost because there will already be too much.
When we reach a point of terminal exhaustion with asking the question if yet another streaming service is worth subscribing to, do we just stop asking it altogether and never subscribe to a new one? Or do we just start instinctively subscribing to all of them? Believe it or not, but I actually think the answer might be closer to the second option than we might expect. At least, I predict that’s where we are now.
So sure, subscribe to HBO Max. It’s basically just subscribing to HBO, plus a wider library of offerings.
That the answer is ultimately so simple when the question itself has become so complicated and significant is ridiculous. I think that speaks to the biggest problem with where the streaming wars is heading. But at least you can watch Friends now while pondering it.