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How Netflix's Pretend It's a City Reveals an Annoying Flaw of HBO Max

You'd think "HBO Max" would mean a comprehensive HBO catalog, and yet…
  • Fran Lebowitz in Public Speaking . (HBO Documentary Films)
    Fran Lebowitz in Public Speaking . (HBO Documentary Films)

    As a public personality, Fran Lebowitz has managed to turn her early years as a magazine writer and essayist into a decades-long career as a professional opinion-haver, on everything from politics to social norms to — most prolifically — life in New York City. In other words, Fran Lebowitz has been a professional complainer for the last forty years or so. Which is what makes the new Netflix series Pretend It's a City — in which director Martin Scorsese spends seven episodes engaging his subject in conversation on any number of irksome topics, interspersed with clips of Lebowitz giving various talks through the years — such an appropriate gift to its viewers, because now it's given us something to complain about.

    No, I'm not complaining about the series itself, which does an excellent job getting its viewers into the mindset of a woman who clearly adores NYC as much as she's irritated by it.

    My complaint is with where I was left after the finishing the series, because as soon as it was done I wanted keep the Fran party going and immediately jump back into into Public Speaking. That was the 2010 movie that was produced by (and aired on) HBO that marked the first time Scorsese and Lebowitz sat down for an extended conversation. Pretend It's a City is the sequel.

    Only Public Speaking isn't available to stream on HBO Max. Or anywhere else, for that matter.

    Infuriating! For several reasons. Firstly, the failure to properly counterprogram another network's successes is a weird pet peeve of mine. HBO could easily be drafting off of Netflix's success right now, and they're missing the opportunity. More selfishly, it being 2021 I've become accustomed to pretty much everything being available to stream in some form or another, particularly now that these giant entertainment conglomerates hae set up their own streaming services. HBO Max seems to promise, by the very fact of its existence, that it will provide the comprehensive bounty of everything HBO has produced. Not so, apparently.

    Even more irksome is the fact that this is the second time this has happened in the last few months. Back in November, Netflix premiered David Fincher's feature film Mank, about 1940s screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz and his struggles to write the screenplay for Citizen Kane. It's a fascinating story, and Fincher's telling leaves the viewer wanting to know even more about Kane's production history. Aha! I remembered just the thing that might make for interesting supplemental viewing: RKO 281, the HBO Original Movie from 1999 about Orson Welles trying to make Citizen Kane while William Randolph Hearst tried to destroy him. Liev Schrieber played Welles, James Cromwell was Kane, Melanie Griffith played Marion Davies (the role Amanda Seyfried just might win an Oscar for this year), and John Malkovich was old Mank himself. I was dying to compare and contrast the two approaches. But nope, HBO Max didn't have RKO 281 either.

    I'll concede that neither Public Speaking nor RKO 281 are the kinds of signature HBO productions that customers sign up for HBO Max to see. But they're not exactly dust to be swept out of the HBO archives, either. Public Speaking is a film directed by Martin Scorsese, after all. How many of those do we we have in this world? RKO 281, forgotten though it may be today, was nominated for 13 Emmys. These are also far from the only blind spots in the HBO Max catalog, as anyone who's gone searching for a specific HBO comedy special from the '80s or '90s can tell you (or my own personal holy grail, the complete HBO YoungArts Master Class series). Of the 104 HBO series listed in Vulture's master ranking of every HBO series, a full 25 are not available to stream on HBO. This includes niche faves like Summer Heights High, Doll & Em, and the odd George Clooney-produced curiosities K Street and Unscripted, but also memorable cornerstones of HBO formative years like Dream On, Tales from the Crypt, Tracey Takes On, and Extras. Also not available is the acclaimed miniseries The Corner, which many credit with laying the groundwork for The Wire.

    HBO Max's shortcomings in these areas are a personal frustration, to be sure, but it also points a deficiency in the idea that these seemingly comprehensive media platforms will deliver what they promise. HBO Max purports to be not only the streaming home for the HBO universe but also the larger Warner Bros. universe, select films from the Criterion Collection, Cartoon Network/Adult Swim, Studio Ghibli, TCM, and the Looney Tunes archive. Particularly with Warner Bros., HBO Max seems increasingly interested in choking off other means of distribution (like, say, theatrical films) in order to burnish their standing at the main destination for all things WB. Which is its own argument, to be sure. But if the end result of everything getting swallowed up by HBO Max is that they don't actually make everything available, what are we doing here? What good is an all-encompassing platform that isn't all-encompassing?

    In a way, these frustrations with HBO Max also point an arrow towards what a platform like Disney+ is doing right, or at least how they've set themselves up for success. From the launch, Disney+ has sold itself as being the comprehensive streaming platform for a handful of specific properties: Disney original animation, Pixar, Star Wars/Lucasfilm, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Four well-defined and specific cultural buckets in which Disney+ is able to a) live up to its customers' expectations, and b) build out exponentially into this terrifying future we're being promised with dozens of new Star Wars and Marvel series every year. Yes, Disney+ also tacitly promises to be a comprehensive Disney vault just like HBO Max promises to be a comprehensive HBO vault, but seeing as they've honed their brand into those four specific pillars right now, they're delivering on their promise. HBO has worked very hard over the decades to establish itself as a brand ("it's not TV," et cetera), and while it's worked in that the name "HBO" is synonymous with quality television, the brand is still diffuse enough that it's hard to deliver a comprehensive HBO experience without actually being comprehensive.

    Perhaps this is all a process. Perhaps, much like the New York City of Fran Lebowitz's observations, HBO Max is an ever-changing work in progress. But for the moment, they've given me and everybody else who's feeling their inner Fran at the moment, something to bitch about.

    Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: Pretend It's a City, HBO Max, Public Speaking, Fran Lebowitz, Martin Scorsese