The best shows on Max in 2023

Vector collage showing a still from Succession of Matthew Macfadyen in a play button symbol.

The streaming service formerly known as HBO Max completed its magical girl transformation this year, dropping arguably the most recognizable part of its name to just become Max. The questionable rename came at the conclusion of the merger between WarnerMedia and Discovery and, according to WarnerDiscovery executives, was meant to signal to subscribers that the new Max has content for the whole family to enjoy.

Immediately post-merger, Max lost 1.8 million subscribers (that WarnerMedia attributes to simple attrition). But the great mushing together of libraries means that highly polished dramas like The Sopranos and Oz appear alongside the highly popular (what’s a polite way to say ‘schlock’?) like 90 Day Fiance and Property Brothers that, in the long run, will appeal to prestige TV snobs and families alike.

In the age of streaming, appointment television has largely gone away with more people watching shows at their own pace in their own time. But Succession was a show that defied this convention. Social media has a tendency to make entertainment events seem bigger and more widespread than they are, and Succession took advantage of that. Though it had a relatively small audience peaking at 2.9 million viewers, it became the Sunday night show on Twitter. Its final season was no exception, managing to do what Game of Thrones could not with its own final season: finish in a strong, satisfying way. Succession’s final season delivered as many emotional, discourse-inspiring moments as its earlier seasons. It’s the show you subscribe to Max for and hopefully there will come along another that makes watching TV together fun again.

Screenshot from Max show Barry featuring Bill Hader as the character Barry a caucasian man with a grim expression wearing a fadded blue t-shirt.

Screenshot from Max show Barry featuring Bill Hader as the character Barry a caucasian man with a grim expression wearing a fadded blue t-shirt.

Barry is one of those shows that you have to watch through your fingers. Its final season premiered this year and was a spectacular send-off for a series that disarmed you with comedy so it could get in close enough to shatter your kneecaps with an aluminum bat. 

Barry’s (Bill Hader) series-long obsession with being a good person has turned him into a paranoid and highly violent version of himself. His inability to accept any responsibility for his actions leads him on a path that ironically gives him exactly what he wants but with no way to enjoy it. And that inability to own mistakes infects others around him, making their lives just as miserable. Barry exposes the artificiality of Hollywood, both as its own entity and how that fakeness is internalized by the people who live there. The show’s characters will ironically commit the most heinous crimes in order to avoid either looking or feeling bad about themselves.

Barry’s ability to make you laugh while terrifying you with menacing performances from Bill Hader, Sarah Goldberg, Anthony Carrigan, and Henry Winkler made it TV that hurt to watch. 

BattleBots has become an institution in my house. My husband loves this show with a zeal he only has for Ohio State football, and his enthusiasm has infected me. The key to a good competition show is investing viewers in the competitors, and though in BattleBots’ case the competitors are inanimate objects, the show has done a fantastic job building narratives for bots and their teams. 

It’s fun seeing all the different kinds of bots, learning the mechanisms and strategy behind their weapons, and witnessing the lengths their teams go to make them stand out. There’s a bot named Ripperoni with a spinning disk weapon made to look like a pizza and a chassis that looks like a pizza box. As a part of the gimmick, Ripperoni’s builders dress up as pizza chefs with fake mustaches to match. There’s another bot that’s essentially a giant forklift named Free Shipping and another team that dresses in LMFAO-inspired, eye-watering shades of neon, while adopting a “Sorry For Party Rocking” attitude to match. 

And the matches themselves make for exciting entertainment. I have a hard time watching football because I can’t watch humans take hits like that. But nobody’s getting hurt when two bots crash into each other with bits of metal shearing off. If you’ve ever wanted to watch professional wrestling but don’t have a person in your life to explain the intricacies of wrestler rivalries, history, and behind-the-scenes drama, give BattleBots a shot.

The Last of Us inspired a deluge of “video game adaptations are good now” hot-takes exacerbated by The Super Mario. Bros movie’s billion-dollar box office. Even though Arcane, Castelvania, The Witcher, two Mortal Kombat movies, Werewolves Within, Street Fighter, and Angelina Jolie’s two Tomb Raider movies all proved that quality video game adaptations were possible long before anno domini 2023.

When you take a game with a familiar well-worn premise, give it the budget and showrunners of an HBO prestige drama, then cast it with an actor known for being a stoic father figure with a heart of gold alongside an endearing fiery youth, no matter what, you’re gonna get entertaining television. Combine all that with a willingness to let the show do its own thing and not hew too closely to the game’s canon; now you’re really cooking with gas.

Despite my annoyance with the idea that game adaptations only recently got good, I can’t fault using The Last of Us as the bellwether between the days of BloodRayne and today. 

Screenshot from Max show The Righteous Gemstones featuring Danny McBride (left) as Jesse Gemstone and Walton Goggins (right) as Uncle Baby Billy.

Screenshot from Max show The Righteous Gemstones featuring Danny McBride (left) as Jesse Gemstone and Walton Goggins (right) as Uncle Baby Billy.

To be honest, the third season of The Righteous Gemstones is nowhere near as strong as the first two. There was something incisive about the show’s willingness to parody the uniquely American phenomenon of the charismatic, mega-rich, megachurch pastor, and the level of cognitive dissonance required to run a church like a money-making enterprise. The third season, though, chose to give up that kind of invective to dig into the Gemstones’ personal and familial drama to its detriment. It was interesting, though, to see the Gemstones take on a parody of another unique (and fighting) example of American spiritualism: the bible beating, gun-toting cult leader. It was like watching the two worst people you know get into a fight. No matter who wins, everybody loses anyway.

Despite not being as fond of season 3, I can’t stop watching The Righteous Gemstones mostly because the Gemstone family — Danny McBride, John Goodman, Edi Patterson, and Adam DeVine — are hilarious and the show is personally cathartic. I briefly spent time in that kind of church and The Righteous Gemstones gives me the opportunity to mock something deeply fucked up but also so normalized. 

Also it’s really entertaining watching the horror unfold on people’s (my husband’s) faces when they assume something on the show is an exaggeration — like pastors descending to the stage via wires or being ferried through the aisles on horseback — are actually real things that were normal occurrences at your own church. 

Also! The third season of The Righteous Gemstones did give us Baby Billy’s Bible Bonkers and for that alone, it gets added to the list.

After being thoroughly entertained by the first season of The Gilded Age, I firmly resigned myself to the eventuality that the show would only get the one season. I never heard about it again, didn’t hear news about it being renewed, and I just assumed it joined the pile of entertaining, well-done, but niche shows only meant for this world for a single season. Imagine my surprise when The Gilded Age season 2 practically stealth dropped earlier this year with absolutely no fanfare or advertising on Max.

The Gilded Age is an immaculately costumed historical drama examining the lives of the upper and middle class of New York City in the 1880s. It was created by Julian Fellowes of Downton Abbey fame, so if you’re familiar with and entertained by such low-stakes drama as ensuring your lavish dinner party has the appropriate number of footmen, then The Gilded Age won’t disappoint. It stars Carrie Coon as the fantastic Mrs. Russell, who artfully and tastefully plots, schemes, and maneuvers to increase the prestige of her new money family in old money New York. She and her supporting cast are so good and so fun to watch you almost, almost forget that you’re rooting for literal robber barons.

Max is the most-watched streaming service in my house simply because its got an unbeatable backlog. I didn’t grow up with cable and didn’t pay for it as a young adult, so all the prestige dramas that made HBO — The Sopranos, Oz, The Wire — are things I missed out on. Now I can watch them at my leisure, occasionally getting my mind blown and spirit disturbed when I see beloved actors like J.K. Simmons playing a violent AF white supremacist in Oz, then learning that was one of his breakout roles. 

On the other side of the content line, after the Discovery merger closed, a flood of Discovery media was added to Max. This included a healthy dollop of Food Network shows affectionately known in my household as “bullshit television.” There is nothing better on Earth than turning on an episode of Cutthroat Kitchen or Guy’s Grocery Games and zoning out. If you’re ever in that weird gray space of wanting to have something entertaining on that you don’t really wanna pay close attention to, everything the Food Network offers is perfect. 

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