To The Max: An Ode to Netflix’s Failed Recommendation Game

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Netflix Max

Netflix (Screenshot)

See that box above? The one insinuating that you smell bad? That’s Max. Max is (or was) a kooky talking game show on Netflix that would pick out movies for you.

Netflix quietly rolled out Max in June 2013, exclusively for the people who watch Netflix on Playstation 3 (and later, Playstation 4). And at some undisclosed point this June, Netflix will give its current site a complete design overhaul, and when that happens, the last coded remnants of Max will probably blink out of existence forever. I would much prefer that didn’t happen. But hey, it’s not like I have any say in the matter.

Here’s how Max works (err… worked). Click that button (the one that says you smell), and Max’s quippy disembodied voice would guide you through three quiz games, engineered to sleuth out exactly what movie you felt like watching at that exact moment. Except not really. Max sucked at his job; if you wanted something light and breezy, he’d probably end up tossing you Hotel Rwanda. But that was half the fun.

The average Max experience started with some kind of Pick Two. For example: “Celebrity Mood Ring.” Two actors’ faces pop up onscreen. Would you rather watch something starring Samuel L. Jackson… or Dakota Fanning? Click a face and Max would cue up a movie starring the winner. The problem: any movie. The kind where adorable CGI Samuel L. Jackson can’t find his supersuit, or the kind where Samuel L. Jackson bellows the entire Racial Slur Dictionary and scrubs brain chunks out of car upholstery. Kind of a crapshoot.

Or perhaps “One Simple Question.” Max sifts through Netflix’s most ridiculous genre tags and offers you a choice of two. Dinosaurs or Interpretive Dance? LGBT Docudramas or ’80s Cartoons? The best answer (both!) was unfortunately never an option.

If the first round ended without a pick, Max would launch “The Ratings Game.” Rapid-fire suggestions of movies that one algorithm or another has decided you’ll love. Rate them to give Max a clearer idea of what you want, or pick one that looks promising. Or hit “skip” twenty times, because that 2 AM malaise has set in and a one-click commitment is asking way too much of you right now.

When that fails, Max’s last-ditch effort was the “Final Five Countdown.” Five movies. Dramatic music. Max practically begging you to just watch something already. No picks, and Max would admit defeat and slink off with a couple of quips. He’d semi-seriously insult you, probably (Max was a master of mom-like passive-aggression).

Here’s Max in action, in one of the few available video clips not marred by useless, shitty Let’s Play voiceover:

If you noticed that Max looks, plays and sounds like a Netflix-ier You Don’t Know Jack, take a bow. Max was masterminded by Jellyvision, the production company formerly known as Jellyvision Games, which produced You Don’t Know Jack way back when (these days, the former Jellyvision Games is two companies- the corporate-leaning Jellyvision and the gaming-focused Jackbox Games).

And because I didn’t own a PS3, my only experiences with Max came at the home of one friend who did (and those experiences were exclusively “It’s late and there’s nothing to do… let’s find something on Netflix”). Even so, we sparred with Max a good 50+ times and only once can I remember actually watching something Max recommended: Silverwing, a French-Canadian cartoon about bats. It was a little like Watership Down. Wasn’t great.

But Max’s utter incompetence (especially with his obvious target demographic: indecisive twentysomethings) just added to the allure. He was unveiled with almost zero fanfare (not much more than the video above), and as someone in a social circle with 6,000 Max-less Netflix gadgets and precisely one PS3, Max was an unexplainable enigma. It was like living in the part of Ohio where fast food companies test their bizarre menu prototypes, only instead of the Quesalupa (quesadilla + chalupa), we had a sassy talking version of Netflix.

Max’s debut blog post came with a goal for the future: “If Max performs at the level he promises, we’ll expand his repertoire and make him available on other devices in the future, likely the iPad next.” Whatever kind of performance Max was promising, he couldn’t hack it. Ipad Max never came to fruition, and Netflix eventually scrubbed Max off the PS3 for good. According to a smattering of comments and message board posts, probably sometime last fall (a text from my PS3-owning friend confirms it: Max is no more).

If it took Max a year to convince a couple of bored college kids to try even one bat cartoon, then yeah, he probably deserved to die. He was a thousand times more entertaining as a game to futz around with than as an actual tool to sift through your queue, anyway. Even if Netflix learned nothing from their brief venture into game-based queue-browsing, Max’s spirit lives on: Jellyvision also has Alex, an identical sassy disembodied voice that “[helps] employees make better-informed decisions about their health insurance.” The next time I need to make a decision about my health insurance, it’s going to be hilarious.