In the months since HBO Max launched, a majority of the attention given to the platform has centered on what’s available. (Or, in the case of the service’s absence from some major streaming devices, how it’s available.) That has often meant sifting through the vast HBO Max library, mainly the relative strength of its haul of animation, classic film, and comics-centered offerings.
Amidst all of the questions about what films might make the jump from theatrical to streaming, the HBO Max Originals brand has included a handful of TV series as well. Those shows getting the full bus stop ad/billboard push have been a mixed bag at best, ranging from wildly ambitious heady sci-fi gambits to aggressively safe star-driven romantic dramedies.
But much like its competitors’, HBO Max’s definition of what constitutes an “Original” is flexible, combining those aforementioned streaming tentpoles with a collection of overseas imports and co-productions. They may not have broken through to the general pop culture consciousness (or made their way to the app’s homepage) in quite the same way of their hyped counterparts.
So as the calendar year winds down and the TV world turns its attention to the year’s best, here’s a crash course in some of the underseen gems that may take a few extra clicks to find on HBO Max, but are certainly worth your time. (And while this list is focused on the service’s scripted series, IndieWire’s Jude Dry has plenty of reasons why you’ll probably enjoy “Legendary,” too.)
It was true when the service launched in the spring, and “Trigonometry” still has a solid claim to being the best of the HBO Max Originals so far. Originally a BBC Two production, this eight-episode season brings together a couple trying to make ends meet — Gemma (Thalissa Teixeira) is running her own bakery while Kieran (Gary Carr) works as a paramedic — with new flatmate Ray (Ariane Labed), a recent London transplant. As time passes, the show gives their collective emotional entanglement enough time to grow, following how each navigates their evolving feelings for one another. Featuring some stellar directorial work from Athina Rachel Tsangari and a trio of finely calibrated performances, this captures all of the excitement and terror that new and unexpected love can bring.
Read our full review of “Trigonometry” here.
“Pure” is another show that, on paper, is far from a guaranteed success. Drawing from Rose Cartwright’s memoir, the series tracks Marnie (Charly Clive) as she tries to control a vivid, intrusive imagination. Beginning with a disastrous experience giving an anniversary toast to her parents, Marnie tries to escape the explicit sexual thoughts that start to ensnare strangers, crushes, and family members alike. Without a strong anchor at the center and a vivid way to connect the viewer’s perceptions of the world with Marnie’s, this show would feel more like a storytelling experiment. But Clive really makes this sing, and “Pure” skillfully captures the anxieties of Marnie’s encroaching visions and her feelings of isolation when her various relationships start to crumble. The lack of a Season 2 on the horizon is huge disappointment, but the strength of these episodes help them stand on their own.
Read our full review of “Pure” here.
Should Be Next
An oafish narcissist, a budding romance, business rivals, bewildered customers: “Stath Lets Flats” has plenty of the ingredients that have made other workplace comedies TV institutions. With creator and co-writer (and Stath himself) Jamie Demetriou leading the way, there’s a different energy to this ongoing look at the employees of a family business London real estate firm. (It technically isn’t an HBO Max original, but it’ll still make you laugh, so it goes on the list.) The often-doomed viewing segments have the feeling of an HGTV show gone horribly awry, while the parts in the office have the nervous crackling that comes with Stath’s uneasiness around his co-workers and his boss. “What We Do in the Shadows” co-star Natasia Demetriou, Jamie’s sister in real life, also plays Stath’s sister Sophie on the show.
“I Hate Suzie”
Suzie Pickles (Billie Piper) finds her life starting to crumble after intimate photos of her are hacked and released online. “I Hate Suzie” finds strength in its story by focusing on the fraught emotional consequences for its title character instead of the cheap salacious shortcuts its premise might imply. There’s plenty here about the pitfalls of celebrity and still more about what can happen when someone’s support system slowly melts away. The longer the season goes on, the more the stylistic boundaries around the story start to soften. The challenges of marriage, friendship, and parenting all blend together as Suzie is forced to not only reevaluate what led to her time in the tabloid spotlight, but what came before.
Read our full review of “I Hate Suzie” here.
“Valley of Tears”
Vered Adir/HBO Max
As with many war stories, survival is the key motivating factor for the central characters in this drama. The series, which first aired on the Kan 11 network in Israel, is set during the monthlong battle between the Israeli military and a group led by Syrian and Egyptian forces that look place in October 1973. The early episodes are told from a distinct side of these battles, with IDF soldiers as the main protagonists. But instead of framing their experiences as a victorious triumph, “Valley of Tears” shows the brutal consequences of war and how easily it can divide even those with the same fundamental objective of staying alive.
Read our full review of “Valley of Tears” here.
Worth Checking Out
Some ensemble comedies get so unwieldy that it becomes impossible to do justice to them. “Ghosts” avoids that from the start, having a set of skilled comedians who know just how to add their character’s defining trait into the mix. When a married couple (Charlotte Ritchie and Kiell Smith-Bynoe) move into a withering family estate, they find that a handful of the spirits of those who’ve died on its grounds haven’t quite left yet. Whether the issue of the day requires the help of a caveman, a lusty politician, or an accused witch, there’s a packed menu of experiences to filter any modern problem through. It takes a few episodes for the show to fully lock into the rhythms of the undead interacting with the living, but things really breeze along once it does. (In a fun bit of intershow crossover, Smith-Bynoe and Katy Wix also play fellow employees on “Stath Lets Flats.”)
Another for the “main character tries to piece their life back together” subgenre, this show starring and written by Sarah Kendall sees a London socialite move back to her rural Australian hometown after the death of her husband and the loss of her former lavish lifestyle. Raising two kids and trying to patch up rocky relationships with her own mother and brother, Sammy also has to deal with crossing paths with her old high-school boyfriend. If that’s not enough, “Frayed” is worth watching for the scenes at Sammy’s eventual new job, where her co-worker Fiona (Diane Morgan) steals every dang scene.
Read our full review of “Frayed” here.
Cartoon Network Studios, Inc.
HBO Max’s collection of 2020 animated series makes for a nice complement to the formidable animation catalogue already on the platform. The new “Looney Tunes” shorts feels as close to the DNA of the originals as you can get with nearly nine decades’ distance, J.G. Quintel’s “Regular Show” follow-up “Close Enough” arrived right at a time when plenty of families were similarly baffled by brand-new living arrangements, and another round of “Infinity Train” crossed the bridge from Cartoon Network.
Maybe the most promising new animated series on the platform is this Stephen Neary-created series about a group of mushroom-like and plant-adjacent creatures who go on plenty of all-terrain adventures in their backyard environment and beyond. The elastic character design lets the show tinker with the rules of this anthropomorphized universe in fun ways. And while there’s plenty of problem-solving for this crew to work out, the anatomical teamwork keeps things from getting repetitive. With 40 episodes of “The Fungies!” now available to stream, that’s maybe its biggest feat.
The Best of the Rest
While they may not be surefire solid hits, there are a few other shows in the greater HBO Max assortment that you might end up enjoying. “The Not Too Late Show with Elmo” lives in that odd zone between parody and tribute — even if it can’t be as subversive as its Muppet-centered counterparts, it’s a breezy mapping of late-night rhythms and tropes onto the greater Sesame Street universe. The guests and bits are a little hit-or-miss (Lil Nas X looks genuinely thrilled to take part and the Jonas Brothers…rap about brushing teeth?), but it’s a stroke of genius to have Cookie Monster be the McMahon/Richter to Elmo’s host.
Filling both the true crime and detective series requirements, “The Murders at White House Farm” is an ’80s-set drama that might work for those inherently drawn to either of those genres. It’s as bleak as it is methodical, which again might be a selling point to some audiences. But the grim subject matter makes awfully hard to jump in without a strong emotional shield.
And if you’ve ever wondered what “Hanna” might look like if it was a self-aware comedy, “Two Weeks to Live” is about as close to an answer as you’ll get. There might be a bit too much apocalypse talk to handle under current circumstances, but for those who are looking to really turn into the skids, this show does give both Maisie Williams and Sian Clifford the chance to show off their action/comedy skills in new venues.