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The Best HBO Max Shows Of 2021

Launched in May of 2020 and already successful beyond the wildest dreams of AT&T executives who willed it into existence, HBO Max has quickly risen to the top of the streaming television platform hierarchy. While it's too soon to celebrate anything but short-term success, the fact that nobody we know is screaming for the return of HBO Go portends well for the streamer's future, especially considering the increasingly competitive and expensive battle for humanity's eyeballs.

But for HBO Max to justify its $15 per month subscription fee, it cannot simply re-circulate pre-existing TV shows and movies to which AT&T already owns the rights and call it a day. Over the course of the last decade, Netflix and Hulu have both cultivated their own distinct brand identities with original content. While not quite two years old yet, Disney+ has already cranked out a pair of watercooler conversation starters in the form of The Mandalorian and WandaVision

So can HBO Max compete in the realm of new, exciting, dynamic programming, or will it have to coast on viewers who absolutely have to rewatch Game of Thrones and/or The Sopranos once a year? Well, let's see what they've already pulled off in 2021....

Search Party

Within weeks of Search Party rolling out its fourth season, HBO Max announced it ordered up a fifth go-round for this brutal send-up of aimless, privileged young urbanites. Though we lack access to viewership numbers, the quick renewal seems to indicate Search Party has crossed the threshold from a cult hit to a regular ol' hit. It's about plucking time. 

The gist is that Dory Sief (Alia Shawkat) is recently graduated from NYU, can't find meaningful employment, and secretly loathes her doting boyfriend Drew Gardner (John Reynolds). Upon discovering otherwise-forgettable college acquaintance Chantal Witherbottom (Clare McNulty) has gone missing, Dory dedicates herself to solving the mystery surrounding a person to whom she feels little-to-no organic emotional attachment. 

And then a whoooole bunch of other stuff happens. 

By the time you get to season four, Search Party feels like a completely different, but ultimately superior television program. Because you can't make a show about now-thirtysomething millennials without a sense of irony, disingenuous glory hounds Elliott Goss (John Early) and Portia Davenport (Meredith Hagner) each provide an unchanging presence that allows the rest of the show to pull off its wild tonal shifts. No matter what else happens — maybe a kidnapping, a murder, arson, a movie deal, who can say? — Elliott and Portia remain adorable, awful sociopaths.

It's a Sin

It's probably safe to assume Looper readers who recognize the name Russell T. Davies know him principally from his work as head writer on Doctor Who and creator of Torchwood. But the acclaimed showrunner has also tackled his fair share of earthbound topics. With It's A Sin, Davies takes us back to the London of the 1980s where, evidently, the British government handled the AIDS epidemic about as effectively as their American counterparts. It's a profoundly unpleasant situation, to put it mildly.

Considering the significant brutality and misery baked into the subject matter, the trailer denotes a joyfulness that sets out to keep the five-episode affair a step or two ahead of the abyss. And as of this writing, It's A Sin enjoys a 100 percent certified fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, so maybe fans of Davies's other shows should consider giving this a gander. Maybe it's a little like Doctor Who, except instead of Daleks, systemic homophobia exterminates a large swath of the human population.  

The Bridge

Is it possible reality television has quietly entered a second golden era? 

Those of us who watched cable 15 years ago remember reality TV as an exploitative genre where attractive young people drank heavily and violently competed for the affections of even more attractive, much drunker, and sometimes more famous people. It was actually pretty terrible! Some of the folks who appeared on those shows wound up saddled with real nasty substance abuse and emotional problems! A few of 'em died! It's super sad! 

At least a smidgen of that chaotic, trashy spirit carries on elsewhere, but isn't it nice to see reality shows that reward attributes beyond looks and capacity for impulsive life choices? 

Take a wholesome, comforting saga like The Great British Bakeoff, for instance. Or for a more germane example, there's The Bridge, an intuitively-titled program where the first of the 12 competitors to build and traverse a 250-meter bridge across a lake heads back to their otherwise unglamorous existence £100,000 (around $139,373 in U.S. dollars) richer. James McAvoy narrates, but a famous attached name hardly feels essential here. This is a reality show that understands all the accolades in the world will never be as rewarding or fulfilling as cold, hard cash.   

Last Week Tonight With John Oliver

With the 2020 election finally behind us, we could all use a little less politics and current events in our media consumption diets. That is, of course, unless it's the kind of politics and current events that comes with a punchline. In that case, we're gonna slam all that politics directly into our eyeholes and earholes.

It's been John Oliver's job to think of amusing things to say about awful circumstances ever since the George W. Bush administration, and society needs talking heads with his type of experience on our television screens even more today. At the launch of season 8 in February, Oliver lamented the depressing reality of the U.S. Senate, and had a somehow equally-depressed chuckle at the expense of a few particularly unhinged state-level officials. How do abject maniacs and cretins continue to find their way into positions of power? Who knows? But at least their terrifying incompetency keeps John Oliver gainfully employed.

That's not to say Oliver couldn't find lucrative work on any number of other television shows. He's a very well-established entertainer, after all. It's just that being a funny news guy is kind of his "thing," y'know?

Allen v. Farrow

Although we reside in a post-Harvey Weinstein world, one could argue that entertainment consumers still have a responsibility to ask if we should continue to engage with media produced by unrepentant predators, even when it's media we really enjoy.  

Whether this question applies directly to writer/director Woody Allen almost feels like a moot point. Even without the unsettling allegations regarding his personal and family life that have persistently circulated since the early '90s, his zenith of professional and creative relevance ran its course decades ago. Unfortunately, Allen may have issues that exceed far beyond being washed up. 

Created in secret over the course of three years by Oscar-nominated filmmakers Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering, the four-episode docuseries Allen v. Farrow takes a deeper look into the writer-director's possible misdeeds. Hopefully, it explains why major movie studios continue to hire an alleged child molester (who married his ex-partner's adopted daughter, a woman 35 years his junior) to direct films that cost tens of millions of dollars. We like Annie Hall 'n all, but there are plenty of other filmmakers out there who don't carry the same horrifying baggage, and they might have some good ideas, too.

The Lady and The Dale

Here in 2021, most of us can relate to the experience of receiving an inaccurate blood test result from our Theranos machines, or arriving in the Bahamas with premium-tier tickets to see Blink 182 at Fyre Fest, only to head home disappointed and in need of a tetanus shot. But Elizabeth Holmes and Billy McFarland didn't invent scamming. In fact, scamming has existed since at least the 1970s.   

A four-episode mini-series, The Lady and The Dale uses animation and interviews to chronicle legendary grifter Elizabeth Carmichael, who garnered a degree of fame for marketing a three-wheeled, fuel efficient car. If three-wheeled cars could cut down on fuel costs, and slash approximately 25 percent off our new tire budgets, why don't we see more Dales in driveways todays? Guess we'll have to watch this series to find out.

Taken at face value, the Lady and The Dale trailer — which includes mention of embezzlement, fraud, transphobia, and murder — tells us Carmichael's life could have been secretly written by Joel and Ethan Cohen. The Cohen Brothers don't have anything to do with this documentary though; it's directed by Zackary Drucker and Nick Cammilleri.

Sesame Street

Let's be honest: Would any of us have ever learned how to read or do basic math without Sesame Street? Of course not. We can only string together semi-coherent sentences like this to create internet content because of Sesame Street, which explained to us what the alphabet is and how we can use it to our advantage. Without Sesame Street we wouldn't be able to do our taxes, because we would not understand the fundamental concept of numerical symbols that represent static quantities.

With no television show to teach basic comprehension skills to children, none of us could grow up to become public officials, or businessmen, or scientists, or law enforcement officers, or even functional individuals with the ability to drive cars and shop for our own food. Without Sesame Street, American civilization would have collapsed decades ago. 

Each of us owe everything we have to Elmo, Bert, Ernie, Mr. Snuffleupagus, Big Bird, and all the other puppets. Since the late 1960s, the Sesame Street crew has been singing, dancing, learning lessons, meeting celebrities, and never ever growing older. HBO snatched up first-run access to new episodes as of 2015, so if you need your Cookie Monster fix nine months ahead of when public television offers it, HBO Max is your best option. 

Looney Tunes Cartoons

We almost published a blurb about how the entertainment industry should chill out on rebooting and relaunching established properties. Then we watched a few of the new Looney Tunes, and laughed so hard our sides literally split. Now we're in the hospital where our sides are being sewn back together. Of course, for Looney Tunes Cartoons to count as a reboot, Bugs Bunny and his many associates would have had to cease operations at some point. But they've been continuously cultivating hijinks since the early 1930s. 

Animation has come a long way since then, and perhaps the necessity of Looney Tunes diminishes somewhat in a world with Rick and Morty, Fancy Nancy, and countless other shows falling somewhere between those two polarities. What's the point of an all-ages cartoon when several cartoons cater to each specific age, from wide-eyed babies to cynical old people? 

The point is hilarity, dagnabbit, and to propagate the knowledge the Yosemite Sam cannot tell the difference between a rabbit and an adult human woman if that rabbit puts on lipstick and a dress. Yosemite Sam is not that sharpest knife in the drawer, as the saying goes. 

The best upcoming 2021 HBO Max shows we can't wait to watch

If we had to select a piece of upcoming HBO Max content to immediately jam directly into our eyeballs, we'd pick the second half of The Vow in a heartbeat

For some of us, alleged cult leader Keith Raniere quietly overtook Joe Exotic as the premiere villain of pandemic-viewing documentaries. The first nine episodes of The Vow chronicle the rise and fall of the NXIVM organization, along with its DOS subgroup that manipulated its adherents into sexual servitude and self-mutilation. In part two, we've been promised interviews with Raniere and alleged behind-the-scenes NXIVM ringleader Nancy Salzman. Do either of them feel guilty about brainwashing Smallville star Allison Mack, among many others? Maybe we'll find out.

As far as the rest of the year goes, HBO Max has a little something for everyone. There's a third season of Titans on deck for those of us who yearn for more of the potty-mouthed iteration of the JV Justice League. HBO's supposedly rebooting Gossip Girl, and if Netflix's Gilmore Girls: A Year In The Life is Mario, then an HBO Max Gossip Girl reboot is clearly Wario. The Mindy Kaling comedy series The Sex Lives of College Girls is definitely not softcore porn, and is therefore doomed to disappoint legions of teenage boys whose parents figured out how to block certain family-inappropriate websites. And at some point, The Boondocks is tentatively scheduled to make a long-overdue return.