TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Our TV critic David Bianculli says that to get the most out of your TV viewing experience these days, you have to think outside the box, sometimes literally. Last week, three exciting options were added to the mix - one from an existing streaming service, one from a brand-new streaming service and one from an old-fashioned broadcast network. David reviews them all.
DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: The existing service is BritBox, which you can download as an app or access through Amazon Prime and elsewhere. Last week, BritBox scored a major coup by releasing, all at once, the entire run of the BBC Shakespeare plays, which haven't been available collectively since they were produced in the 1970s and early '80s and shown here on PBS. I'm thrilled about this and can't wait to see them again. Start with Helen Mirren, who was fabulous in two of the lighter ones, "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and "As You Like It." Or go right for the rarities and the darkest of the dark and watch "Titus Andronicus," which basically was William Shakespeare's blood-soaked version of a splatter film.
The brand-new streaming service, which also started last week, is HBO Max. Subscribers who already have HBO Go or HBO Now should get the new service as a free swap, but it's complicated and varies from city to city and system to system. But like Disney+, which began last fall, and NBC's Peacock, which launches in mid-June, its biggest strength is its backlog of inventory, old movies and TV series which people are willing to pay to see. With HBO Max, that roster includes not only most of your favorite HBO shows but also now is the exclusive streaming home of the sitcom "Friends." And it's got everything from David Attenborough nature documentaries to movies ranging from "Lord Of The Rings" to "Chicago" and "The Neverending Story."
It's got original TV series, too. For kids, it's got newly produced episodes of the classic "Looney Tunes." They aren't as fluid or as funny as the old ones but still have the likes of Porky Pig and Daffy Duck. Another new kid show on HBO Max comes from The Muppets and, similar to Kermit hosting "The Muppet Show" so long ago, imagines Elmo as the host of a TV show in this case of "The Not Too Late Show With Elmo." It's not that great, either.
BIANCULLI: But after months of at-home isolation, any new diversion for young kids should be put in the plus column. You'll have to decide for yourself whether the programs on HBO Max, which include selected anime offerings as well, are worth the monthly $12 to $15 price tag. But for starters, it's clear that the backlog inventory far outshines the new stuff.
The best of the new HBO Max shows, by far, is one that's aimed at adults, absolutely at adults because it's got lots of sex scenes, nudity and expletives not deleted. It's called "Love Life," and Sam Boyd, who wrote and directed the premiere, envisions it as an anthology comedy-drama, with each season following the romantic relationships of a different individual. The narrator, actress Lesley Manville, explains the focus of this first season.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LOVE LIFE")
LESLEY MANVILLE: (As Narrator) Our love lives can quite easily be reduced to data. For instance, by the time the average person ends up with the love of their life, they will have been in seven relationships. Of those, two are often long-term relationships, while the rest are a mix of short-term flings, casual dating and one-night stands. The average person will also fall in love two of those times and have their heart broken twice as well. Yet behind all of those numbers, there is always a much bigger story. This is the story of Darby Carter.
BIANCULLI: Darby Carter lives in New York City, confides everything to her closest friends and falls in and out of love while pursuing her own identity and career. This new HBO Max production is very much an updated "Sex And The City." And Anna Kendrick, who plays Darby, is a wonderful series lead. As Darby, she's believable and vulnerable, and she draws you in, as when she learns that Augie, a reporter who is her first real boyfriend, is about to leave town to cover politics on the campaign trail. Jin Ha plays Augie.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LOVE LIFE")
JIN HA: (As Augie) Darby, I love you.
ANNA KENDRICK: (As Darby) You don't have to say that. You don't.
HA: (As Augie) You're not going to say you love me back?
KENDRICK: (As Darby) I do. But what's the point of...
HA: (As Augie) Why does there have to be a point?
KENDRICK: (As Darby) OK. I love you.
HA: (As Augie) Really?
KENDRICK: (As Darby) Yeah. You know I do.
HA: (As Augie) Awesome. That's great.
KENDRICK: (As Darby) Yeah, it is. It's great. It's great. Love you. Bye forever.
HA: (As Augie) Oh, come on. Stop. That is not fair.
BIANCULLI: Finally, there's the newly arriving treat from broadcast TV. It's a pledge break documentary special which PBS member stations can televise in a window that began last Friday and runs through June. So watch for it. It's called "An Accidental Studio," and it tells the delightfully improbable history of HandMade Films. That's the studio that began when the members of Monty Python's Flying Circus lost their financial backing for the "Life Of Brian" and George Harrison started a film studio just so he could produce and see the movie. Here are Python members Eric Idle and Terry Gilliam, followed by the former Beatle himself, explaining that genesis.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "AN ACCIDENTAL STUDIO")
ERIC IDLE: It was like selling Springtime for Hitler.
TERRY GILLIAM: Well, thank God that George Harrison was a big Python fan. That's really it. And that Eric had gotten, over the years, quite close to George.
IDLE: Because I met him out here at a screening of " The Holy Grail." Partied for days (laughter). He was good fun. I kept calling him and saying, we're looking for this money. And he said, no, don't worry; I'll get it. And I said, yeah, sure, sure, yeah.
GEORGE HARRISON: So I said, no, as a Python fan, I'd certainly like to see it made. I asked my manager, can you think of how to get them the money? And he came back to me in a week. He said, I think I know how we can do it. We'll be the producers (laughter).
BIANCULLI: Necessity was the mother of invention then, and that's even more true today. Entertainment is where you find it. These days, you just have to look a lot harder and wider.
GROSS: David Bianculli is editor of the website TV Worth Watching and professor of TV studies at Rowan University.
Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, our postponed interview with science writer Sonia Shah. She's the author of the 2016 book "Pandemic," which warned about viral outbreaks. In her new book, "The Next Great Migration," she draws on history and science to examine preconceptions about migration and immigration. I hope you'll join us.
We'll close today's show with a recording featuring drummer Jimmy Cobb, who died last week of lung cancer. He was 91. Among the many jazz recordings he's played on is the Miles Davis album "Kind Of Blue," one of the most popular albums in the history of jazz. Here's a track from it.
(SOUNDBITE OF MILES DAVIS' "SO WHAT")
GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Joel Wolfram. Molly Seavy-Nesper is our associate producer of digital media. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF MILES DAVIS' "SO WHAT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.