An American Pickle: HBO Max’s First Entry Into The Streaming Wars

An American Pickle

HBO Max has officially entered the world of original content with the new Seth Rogan film An American Pickle.  HBO will always have a warm spot in my heart because it has always had original programming that seems to hit at just the right time in my life.  I loved watching The Sopranos even when I was far too young to understand what was going on, Flight of the Conchords defined my sense of humor when I was a young teenager, Game of Thrones ruled pop culture throughout my college years, and the unbelievably funny The Righteous Gemstones is more than worth the price of an HBO subscription today.  HBO always produces great content, and I’m very excited to see what will happen with HBO Max.

An American Pickle seemed like a great place for HBO Max to start from the moment that I heard about the film.  A loveable household name like Seth Rogan attached to an absolutely bizarre story?  That’s pretty much a guaranteed success.  The streaming wars have continued to heat up over the past few years, and with already popular shows like The Office being snatched up for $500 million dollars, it seems that some streaming services have decided that their money is best spent on original programming instead.  When original programming is done correctly you get content like Stranger Things, Ozark, and Handmaid’s Tale.  When original programming is done poorly you get catastrophes like The Cloverfield Paradox.  (Remember how excited you were to see that ad during the Super Bowl a few years ago?)  With An American Pickle, HBO Max seems to be betting its success at least partially on original content.

An American Pickle is certainly not going to spin off into HBO’s next big franchise, and it’s probably not going to make waves large enough that we start seeing Seth Rogan’s face in “For your consideration…” awards season campaign ads.  But An American Pickle is a very fun film that will spark conversation between families and provide a blueprint for future HBO Max programming.  

The story may seem completely ridiculous, but there is a comfort in its self-awareness.  Herschel Greenbaum (played by Rogan) moves to America, falls in a vat of pickle brine, gets sealed inside for 100 years, and is awoken without missing a single beat.  The following scene immediately leans into the absurdity of what has happened.  Herschel finds himself sitting in front of a press room surrounded by scientists and being berated by reporters about the authenticity of his story.  A narrator then explains that the scientists went on to do such a good job explaining how Greenbaum is still alive that no one had any other questions and decided to move on.  I found this to be a clever way of saying, early on in the movie, “if you aren’t willing to be flexible with the storyline then this is not the movie for you.”  

I am almost always on board for a completely ridiculous movie.  Even if the plot makes absolutely no sense I will most likely still be interested as long as there is some element of self-awareness.  My main gripe with An American Pickle isn’t how ridiculous the overall story is, or that it isn’t self-aware, but that there were too many stories that the filmmakers wanted to tell at the same time.  The overly ambitious bonkersness ended up taking away from the overall message.  It’s first and foremost a fish-out-of-water (or pickle brine) story, but it also ends up being a satirical take on Trump’s use of social media, a meditation on Rogan’s true feelings about how he has strayed from his family’s path in Judaism, and a heartwarming family reconciliation movie.  The fact that the film had been in development since 2007 probably contributed to the cluttered nature of the end product.  It’s honestly a well-made comedy movie, but although there is a resolution to each plot thread, it could have been more streamlined and intentional.

Overall, however, An American Pickle is a fun watch and a good showing for HBO Max.  There are jokes that will make you laugh and moments that will stick with you long after you watch it.  It’s not a top film in the Rogan filmography, but it doesn’t need to be.  The streaming wars are about getting big names to attract as many people as possible to click on their original programming.  Think of Adam Sandler and his Netflix deal.  I can’t even name any of his last five films (and I am sure that they are all terrible), but I do know that by signing a deal with Sandler, Netflix is making money.  So maybe An American Pickle came out exactly as intended.  It’s a few decent ideas wrapped around a big name and released for immediate consumption.  It may not have been what I expected, but it was enough to make me excited for any future releases from HBO Max and the Point Grey team.

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