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The Best Original Series on HBO Max You Should Be Watching

The Best Original Series on HBO Max You Should Be Watching

The world is changing. You can feel it in the water. A week of upheaval around the future of the nation’s buzziest streaming service finally got a little bit of clarity following a Warner Bros. Discovery Q2 earnings call. According to them, HBO Max and Discovery+ will be rolled into one big streamer next summer, as detailed in some Power Point slides that must be seen to be believed.

We don’t know what this service will be called, how much it will cost or exactly what the future is for HBO Max content, some of which has been quietly erased in recent days (while more has been loudly and shockingly dragged to the trash). But we do know that for the time being, HBO Max has been one of the more successful streamers in the wake of Netflix, offering a mix of old and new films, some of the best TV ever made, the entire Studio Ghibli catalog and plenty of rousing superhero beat-em-ups. And in addition to all that, the mix of original content is the envy of the streaming world, with some shows you should definitely have on you watchlist — while you still can.

Here are some of our favorites.

Heaven’s Gate: The Cult of Cults

Here’s one for the documentary fans. The mother of all cult scandals got a four-part docuseries on HBO Max that put Heaven’s Gate under the spotlight with the sort of nuance and intelligence missing from other “get a load of these weirdos!” type investigations. The filmmakers behind Heaven’s Gate don’t just want to tell the story. They want to understand what the appeal to Heaven’s Gate was, and how such a bizarre organization was able to hoodwink so many people to their ultimate end. It’s a level of empathy other documentaries would do well to emulate.

Tokyo Vice

The headlines around this one was the involvement of Michael Mann, the guy behind some of the best crime dramas in American history. But while the show benefits enormously from Mann’s verve, it also becomes very much its own thing thanks to the international talent on both sides of the camera, including the always magnetic Ken Watanabe. It’s the true story of Jake Adelstein (Ansel Elgort), an American reporter at a Tokyo newspaper who descends deep into the bowels of Japan’s organized crime syndicate, the Yazuka. The pace is measured but never dull, and the brief moments in which the tension finally breaks are thrilling both visually and emotionally.

Doom Patrol

A third-rate DC Comics property familiar only to the most devoted nerds, Doom Patrol‘s creative team use their characters’ obscurity to have a lot of fun with them. The show can let its rambling cast of colorful characters really breathe outside the bounds of an episodic universe, giving them room to be real people instead of cogs in a grand machine. The result is strange, silly, sometimes a little sad and frequently sublime, with terrific acting from Alan Tudyk, Timothy Dalton, Bethany Anne Lind and, especially, Brendan Fraser.

Search Party

Your mileage on Search Party will largely depend on how willing you are to see it through its very strange evolution. Season One starts simply enough, with an aimless Dory (Alia Shawkat) finding some meaning in rallying her friends to help look for a missing college acquaintance none of them even liked that much. The dark humor and satire of millennial malaise bites at just a strange enough angle to be refreshing while staying grounded, but this show goes on quite a journey over the course of its run, veering from psychological thriller to whodunnit to courtroom drama to zombie apocalypse. It’s a strange trip, but our core cast is game enough to hold it altogether and it’s ultimate investigation is on Dory’s relentless self-justification and manipulation — something often explored in Peak TV’s bad men, but rarely in its women.

Our Flag Means Death

“Pirate workplace comedy.” Three words so tantalizing they almost can’t miss, but Taika Waititi’s off-kilter sensibilities take even that bulletproof concept and elevates it pleasingly. Call it Flight of the Concords on the high seas or What We Do in the Shadows with buccaneers and you’re getting warm, although Our Flag Means Death has more dramatic cohesion and character development than either. Rhys Darby stars as a posh aristocrat who takes to piracy to soothe his midlife crisis blues. The show’s funniest moments come from his attempts to bring some emotional intelligence and 21st century workplace ethics to his crew of scallywags, but its best come from the unlikely bond he forges with Blackbeard (Waititi).

The Flight Attendant

Kaley Cuoco stars as a deeply self-destructive jet setter who disembarks from every international flight with every attention of squeezing every ounce of party from whatever location she’s in. Her rootless lifestyle takes an exceedingly dark turn when she blacks out over the course of a whirlwind romance with a passenger and wakes up as a suspect in his murder.

Cuoco cut her teeth on The Big Bang Theory, but that show only hinted at her abilities here, where she navigates a delicate characterization as the self-destructive, frequently alienating but ultimately good-hearted Cassie. The show can be a lot of fun and has plenty of real laughs, but knows just when to veer into more substantial territory, following both Cassie’s attempts to stay ahead of the law, sort through just what happened that night and deal with her own personal trauma. While the show’s hook is the juicy murder mystery at its center, its real attention is on the dangers of refusing to grow up.

Station Eleven

Station Eleven‘s pilot episode is daunting, following the fast evolution of a new virus from news junkie curiosity to global pandemic. It’s Covid-19 ratcheted up exponentially, as huge chunks of the world’s populace quickly die off while a lucky few sequester themselves in airports, apartment complexes and shipping containers. It would feel on the nose if it wasn’t based on an eerily prescient 2014 novel that moved into television adaptation ahead of the real thing.

But after setting the table, Station Eleven moves into its real concerns: How do survivors relearn how to truly thrive? It weaves a strange, time-hopping tale of people who have devoted their lives to art in a world where art seems to have very little meaning. But the creativity becomes an avenue for grace, empathy, justice and even survival, with moments of catharsis so beautiful they were break your heart. It’s more than just the best show on HBO Max. It’s one of the year’s best shows, period.

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