Last updateMon, 20 Apr 2020 1pm

If you were an HBO Now subscriber prior to last month, you may have noticed that it somehow became HBO Max overnight. Or maybe it didn’t—it’s sheer confusion in the land of HBO streaming. Maybe you still have HBO Now, which is just HBO. Meanwhile, as of the end of the July, HBO Go will be HBO gone.

Anyway: HBO Max is the New Hotness, because it streams all the HBO shows, plus some exclusive originals, though the only one worth mentioning is Doom Patrol, the greatest series ever—seriously, you need it in your life. The rest are just HBO Meh.

The real draw of HBO Max is its deep library of classic shows from HBO and corporate parent WarnerMedia, which is owned by AT&T, which in turn is owned by … 5G Satan? Could be, but they don’t pay me enough here for that kind of investigative journalism. We’ll never know.

Here are nine series from HBO’s past and present worth discovering, or revisiting, on HBO Max (or regular ol’ HBO). Then watch Doom Patrol—have I mentioned how fan-damn-tastic Doom Patrol is?

Los Espookys (Season 1, 2019): A group of 20-something friends run a business staging supernatural illusions in an undisclosed Latin American country, with support and wisdom from their stateside uncle (show co-creator Fred Armisen). Los Espookys is a loveably weird comedy that packs 60 episodes’ worth of story and dialogue (almost entirely subtitled Spanish) into six, establishing a distinct set of quirky characters immediately. Don’t be put off by the subtitles; you’ll be laughing too hard to notice.

A Black Lady Sketch Show (Season 1, 2019): Another new series from last summer, A Black Lady Sketch Show is more than just a female version of Key and Peele or Chappelle’s Show: It’s the first-ever TV show acted, written and directed entirely by black women; it’s not just a clever name. Co-creator Robin Thede leads the cast and numerous guest stars through benign to brutal sketches from a fresh (read: usually overlooked) perspective. It’s “edgy” without even trying, and universally hilarious.

Boardwalk Empire (Seasons 1-5, 2010-2014): Everyone’s lists of HBO prestige dramas—The Sopranos, Deadwood, The Wire, Carnivale, Watchmen, etc.—always seem to gloss over Boardwalk Empire. The sprawling 1920s period piece about Atlantic City mobster-politicians, fronted by Steve Buscemi at peak cragginess, is more relevant today than ever; at least the elected criminals of Boardwalk Empire were subtle. A 56-episode masterpiece that’s among Terence Winter and Martin Scorsese’s best.

John From Cincinnati (Season 1, 2007): Speaking of acclaimed showrunners, David Milch closed up Deadwood and jumped right into John From Cincinnati, a single-season “surf noir” series that immediately confused the hell out of everyone. JFC is more of a “vibe” than a coherent drama, like Twin Peaks set against the backdrop of Imperial Beach. Is mystical newcomer John an alien? Jesus? Insane? Doesn’t matter. The scenery is stunning, as is the surfing—just go with the flow, bro. (Yeah, sorry.)

Bored to Death (Seasons 1-3, 2009-2011): Before he stole the show in The Good Place, Ted Danson swiped Bored to Death from Jason Schwartzman and Zach Galifianakis. A Brooklyn writer (Schwartzman) begins moonlighting as an unlicensed private eye, occasionally dragging his editor (Danson) and comic-artist friend (Galifianakis) along on cases. Bored to Death is charming, smart, droll and all the other adjectives that get series canceled, but these actors have yet to top it. Where’s the movie?

Enlightened (Seasons 1-2, 2011-2013): Another lauded actor who arguably peaked with an HBO series, Laura Dern absolutely owns every second of Enlightened, even if no one noticed. Dern plays Amy, an office drone whose destructive lifestyle leads to an ugly meltdown and a stint in a holistic-therapy center. She emerges ready for positive change, but her world is still negative AF. (We’ve all been there … or currently reside there.) Enlightened isn’t really a comedy or a drama, but it is all heart.

United Shades of America (Seasons 1-4, 2016-2019): Comedian W. Kamau Bell was on the journalistic racism beat four years ago—the first episode of United Shades of America was a friendly-ish hang with the KKK! Bell’s docuseries also places deep focus on prisons, gangs, gentrification, megachurches, gun owners, LGBTQ rights and, in a prescient 2016 episode, policing tactics. But United Shades isn’t a downer, thanks to Bell’s quick wit and hopeful outlook. Good luck the next couple of seasons, W.

Arli$$ (Seasons 1-7, 1996-2002): The Sopranos wasn’t the first HBO original, and neither was Oz: In the olden days of 1996, there was Arli$$. HBO funded 80 episodes of sports agent Arliss Michaels (Robert Wuhl) sitcomming it up with real-life jocks and celebrities, and at least half of ‘em turned out funny—not a bad return. Arli$$ is mostly notable for being the first steady gig for an already-sharp Sandra Oh, as well as calling out Donald Trump’s bullshit before it was cool/civic duty.

Dane Cook’s Tourgasm (Season 1, 2006): Just a sobering reminder that Dane Cook was once a thing.

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Jason Bateman stars in and directs the first two episodes of HBO’s The Outsider, the latest miniseries based on a Stephen King novel. Man, does King ever walk away from the keyboard?

Terry Maitland (Bateman) is arrested by Ralph Anderson (Ben Mendelsohn) while coaching a Little League game—and the charges against him are shocking: Terry has allegedly killed a small boy, with witnesses placing him at the scene of the crime. There’s also surveillance video and forensic evidence that seemingly confirm his guilt. Yet Terry proclaims his innocence and has a solid alibi, including witness accounts and video confirmation that he was many miles away when the crime occurred.

The first two episodes of the 10-part series offer a good setup, with Bateman doing a nice job both behind and in front of the camera. There’s no question I will be tuning in for more as the story continues on a one-episode-per-week basis. (Yes, HBO is doing it old school!) It’s a crime story, but there are hints at something much more, including a supernatural angle—and the first two episodes act as nice hook.

Some future episodes are directed by Andrew Bernstein, who works with Bateman on Ozark. So, there’s no final verdict yet on whether this will be good as a whole or not. I can only speak about the first 20 percent, which I liked.

The Outsider is now airing on HBO and its streaming services.

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

I was 18 years old in 1986 when the whole Chernobyl thing went down. If you think the anti-Russian sentiment in the United States is at a fever pitch today, it’s nothing compared to what it was in the mid-1980s—especially when the nightmare occurred.

I confess that my teenage self—worried about my first year in college and the fact that I had to drive a Volkswagen Rabbit through the Adirondacks—didn’t pay enough attention to what was going on in Russia. I knew that there was an accident, and that some radiation escaped. It wasn’t until years later that I started to understand what really happened: The planet was almost irreparably altered.

HBO’s excellent five-episode series about the Chernobyl disaster, which concludes tonight, does a heart-wrenching job of showing the human toll and sacrifice it took to keep Russia and the planet safe. Jared Harris is superb as a scientist sent in to figure the whole mess out, as is Stellan Skarsgard as the government stooge sent along with him. It’s grueling, scary stuff, and it’s educational.

I’m four episodes in, and I’m convinced TV will have a hard time topping this series this year.

Chernobyl is now airing on HBO, and is available on HBO’s streaming services.

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Childhood innocence, my ass. Michael Jackson was a certified creep, a sick dude with a strange agenda when it came to spending way too much time with other people’s young, impressionable children.

I already felt that way about MJ going into Leaving Neverland, a two-part, four-hour documentary featuring interviews with Wade Robson and Jimmy Safechuck, two men who knew Jackson when they were young boys—and who now both claim Jackson molested them, after years of public denials.

The two men share explicit details about their nights with Jackson at his Neverland Ranch and other properties. Also featured are their mothers—two dummies who allowed their kids to sleep in the same bed as a grown man, a man who prohibited each of these women from sleeping in the same room as their child when they all stayed over. Yeah, there was nothing going on. It was all innocent.

Look … there are other kids who spent time with Jackson who could describe Jackson’s private parts and blotchy buttocks. That alone, in my mind, convicts Jackson of inappropriate behavior.

As for Robson and Safechuck, I can see why some find their stories a little suspect; they denied Jackson molested them for years. But after watching this (admittedly one-sided) documentary about their experiences with Jackson, I can tell you their time with him was seriously messed up, even if you remove the alleged sexual encounters. The faxes, videos, weird voicemails and expensive jewelry gifts are enough to alleviate any doubt that Jackson had some kind of unhealthy power over these boys. That power lasted well into their adulthoods.

If you think Jackson was a creep, this film will fortify that opinion. (Jackson’s coy, flirty birthday-wish video to one of his young friends is stomach-churning.) If you are a fan, this might cause you to reconsider. Leaving Neverland is further proof that this man was deranged, delusional and irredeemably ill.

Leaving Neverland is now airing on HBO.

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Al Pacino does haunting work in HBO’s Paterno as Joe Paterno, the former Penn State football coach who was a cowardly liar when it came to the case of Jerry Sandusky, one of Paterno’s assistants—and now a convicted pedophile.

The film, directed by Barry Levinson, starts with Paterno on top of the world, about to win a record-setting football game. But behind the scenes, a story is brewing—one that will derail Paterno and others who led at a university that chose to cover up Sandusky’s acts in order to protect a legendary football program.

That, of course, was disgusting, and Levinson’s film drives that point home in what amounts to a horror show. Jim Johnson, who plays Sandusky in a few chilling scenes, looks a lot like the real guy—so much so that your stomach turns when he’s onscreen. Sorry, Mr. Johnson.

Pacino portrays Paterno as he appeared during his final days: completely lost and at death’s door. Pacino’s Paterno comes off as being in a bit of a haze, but the actor shows us something behind Paterno’s confused eyes. It’s that slight glint of knowing everything, and remembering everything—the look of lying.

Riley Keough (Elvis’ granddaughter) is excellent as Sara Ganim, one of the first reporters to break the story. Benjamin Cook is heartbreakingly good as one of Sandusky’s victims.

It’s a hard movie to watch, and it should be.

Paterno is now on HBO and streaming on HBO Go.

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Sarah Jessica Parker returns to TV (well, HBO) with this nasty-funny take on a drawn-out divorce co-starring Thomas Haden Church and Molly Shannon.

Parker plays Frances, who is sick of her husband, Robert (Church), and having an affair with Julian (a sleazy Jemaine Clement). She asks Robert for a divorce, and things quickly fall apart for her from that point on.

The show is five episodes in, and I have to say this is one of the TV season’s better new series. It’s often ugly, but considering the subject matter, ugly makes sense. It’s also very funny, with Shannon and Church both scoring good laughs. (Shannon plays a family friend who almost shoots Robert during a drunken rant.) Church does a great job of playing a douche who has moments of sweetness that leave you conflicted over whether he’s a good guy.

It’ll be interesting to see if this one goes beyond one season. It’s not getting a lot of good buzz, and the story line might feel drawn out a bit after the current 10 episodes. Still, it’s good to see Parker and Church in a show worthy of their talents.

Divorce is available via HBO Go.

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Larry Kramer’s semi-autobiographical The Normal Heart, based on his play with the same name, offers up some of the best acting you will see in any movie or TV show.

Mark Ruffalo plays Ned Weeks, a character Kramer loosely based upon himself. He’s a gay journalist with a blasé attitude about love and life. When visiting a party at Fire Island in 1981, one of the revelers falls to his knees, coughing, on the shoreline. In this moment, Ned and his friends are introduced to AIDS.

What follows is a history-based dramatization of what happened to a group of men and doctors trying to raise AIDS awareness against a backdrop of citizen indifference and political blocking. The film addresses the controversial stance taken by New York City mayor Ed Koch, with the Weeks character proclaiming that their (allegedly) closeted gay mayor and politicians like him were essentially out to murder the gay population.

Ruffalo is astoundingly good here, as is Julia Roberts as a lone doctor screaming in the wilderness for people to identify the illness and find a cure. Both performers have moments in this movie that are better than anything else they have ever done.

The same can be said for the likes of Taylor Kitsch, Jim Parsons, BD Wong, Matt Bomer, Alfred Molina and Joe Mantello. Kitsch is especially good as Bruce Niles, a friend of Weeks who essentially becomes his adversary as Weeks’ protesting tactics become more and more controversial.

HBO was already a leader in gay cinema with And the Band Played On (1993) and the amazing Angels in America (2003). This further establishes them as a leader in bold, important cinematic projects.

Who needs movie theaters, right?

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Director Steven Soderbergh has said Behind the Candelabra, based on the memoirs of Liberace’s former lover Scott Thorson, would be his last film. If so, he’s going out on a great note. (I find it hard to believe that Soderbergh will never direct again but, hey, you never know.)

Michael Douglas plays the legendary pianist and will certainly be in contention for an Emmy after this, one of his best performances. He captures that funny, overly happy, flamboyant personality that many of us who lived through the 1970s remember so well. He gives one of show business’ greatest caricatures a soul.

As Thorson, one of Liberace’s last boyfriends, Matt Damon is as good, if not better, than Douglas. The two—with Soderbergh’s help, of course—make Liberace and Thorson one of the more compelling screen couples this year.

I was surprised at how funny the film is. Rob Lowe is terrific as Dr. Jack Startz, the facial architect who masterminded Liberace and Thorson’s plastic surgeries. One of the film’s more nightmarish elements is how freaky Liberace, Startz and Thorson look after these procedures. Thorson, who was a very young man when he began his relationship with Liberace, got many unnecessary surgeries, allegedly to achieve a look Liberace found most attractive. For example, he got a dimple put in his chin for the hell of it.

Soderbergh wanted this to be a theatrical release, but has publicly stated that the major studios turned down the film because it’s “too gay.” What a shame. It contains some work that would’ve qualified for Oscar contention. Not only are the performances stellar; the costumes are worthy of accolades as well. Those fur coats and capes are to die for.

Kudos to HBO for backing the project when others wouldn’t. This is a great story for cinema, and it’s good that it found a venue. 

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