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This HBO Max hidden gem is awesome — and I can't stop watching it

HBO Max
(Image credit: Shutterstock)

We here at Tom's Guide love HBO Max for its consistently high-quality programming (which helps it keep its spot as the best streaming service). It always offers new movies and shows to watch every weekend. But ever since the new year began, and HBO Max lost its "day 1" movies (The Batman will be a theatrical exclusive) I've been wondering how HBO Max will keep me watching.

Then I discovered something in the service that renews my faith in the service, and practically ensures I won't cancel it any time soon.

And the funny thing is that I'm not talking about some prestigious new HBO series that will rank up there with The Wire. I'm not raving about a new talk show that can rival Desus & Mero (who set the bar over on Showtime). I'm talking about something I would never associate with HBO, and something I'd expect to find over on YouTube. 

Even better, it's the kind of thing that I believe all the other streaming services can learn from when it comes to stopping subscribers from leaving. Sure, I canceled my Netflix and found other streaming services to watch in the mean time, but my value in those services came from shows I don't plan to rewatch. HBO Max has hit upon something different here.

And it's called Ambient Swim.

HBO Max's Ambient Swim is amazing

A still from the animated series Ambient Swim depicting Beth from Rick and Morty in a VR headset.

(Image credit: HBO Max)

As you might have guessed from its name, Ambient Swim is an Adult Swim joint with ambient music (a perfect match, given the quasi-channel's obsession with music over the years).  

But as much as I love Ambient Swim (which came out on Dec. 25, 2021, as a Yule Log alternative), I had a hard time thinking of how to categorize it. It's not exactly a show, though HBO Max organizes it as one, presenting the five-part project as a 5-episode long season (available to all who pay HBO Max's $15 monthly subscription fee).

In blunt terms, though? Ambient Swim is art. And very trippy art at that, with each episode providing 22 to 30 minutes of relaxing or mind-bending animations paired with excellent Lo-fi music (more on that below).

My favorite episode is "Tradigital," the first episode, which pairs hand-drawn digital animations with relaxing tunes. Most of the times those animations are chill, such as a red and pink fire in a very blue forrest. Other times, they're a little more intense, such as the spinning head that gets a little rubbery. But even though Ambient Swim looks like it's made for a drug trip, it has seeped into practically every free moment of my day, including while I work. 

Enjoy a free taste below:

Each "episode" of Ambient Swim has its own unique unifying topic, such as the very meta second episode "LoFi Beats to Relax/Study With." This episode is filled with content that is likely heavily familiar to Adult Swim fans, as its visuals are very similar to those in a YouTube video that Adult Swim previously released. 

This time, the music's changed to songs from the venerable indie Warp Records. But if you want to see the animations for yourself, check it out below:

Episodes 3 and 4, "The Electronic Art of Sound and Light" and "Prism Break" are the more abstract editions, and probably the most relaxing for that same reason. There's little to follow along with, or think about.

Lastly, there's "Relaxing Old Footage With Joe Pera" featuring the titular comedian who is behind the Adult Swim series "Joe Pera Talks with You." This is probably my least favorite episode, as it's a bit too engaging, as Pera narrates nature footage, and talks about a fictional network called TreeTV. 

For me, Ambient Swim exists in the background, as something going on while I write, I am looking for audio and video that are pleasing enough to keep me focused and going, and not too engaging so I don't get distracted.

HBO Max wins when it takes risks

I get why streaming services may not be rushing out to make their own Ambient Swim-like projects. The competition is strong, and they're playing in markets that nobody expects them to be in.

While Lo-fi music isn't new, by any means, the current Lo-fi music video boom took place on YouTube, its primary home. Now synonymous with the Lofi Girl — the 'star' of a YouTube channel where mellow beats play under a looping animation of a child of an indeterminate age writing at a desk — Lo-fi is something you can get for free (with ads). It's also popular on TikTok, and Lo-fi playlists are big on Apple Music and Spotify as well. But Ambient Swim gets to stand out by switching up its visuals frequently, and by using some exclusive intellectual property. 

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A still from the animated series Ambient Swim with a claymation man looking at his hands

(Image credit: HBO Max)
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A still from the animated series Ambient Swim featuring Morty lounging on a planet

(Image credit: HBO Max)
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A still from the animated series Ambient Swim featuring Morty Smith in bed looking at a laptop.

(Image credit: HBO Max)
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A still from the animated series Ambient Swim with many Morty Smith heads rolling around.

(Image credit: HBO Max)
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A still from the animated series Ambient Swim featuring a melting head

(Image credit: HBO Max)
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A still from the animated series Ambient Swim with a black and white design

(Image credit: HBO Max)
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A still from the animated series Ambient Swim featuring Rick Sanchez watching TV.

(Image credit: HBO Max)
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A still from the animated series Ambient Swim zoomed into an insect on a plant.

(Image credit: HBO Max)
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A still from the animated series Ambient Swim depicting Beth from Rick and Morty in a VR headset.

(Image credit: HBO Max)

All of that adds up to why Ambient Swim's mere existence is so thrilling. HBO Max didn't need to do this. Someone probably saw it as an unnecessary risk for a small audience. But it's stuff like Ambient Swim that helps build a strong connection with your audience. Netflix can try to stake out its own version of this, and I bet it will, but Ambient Swim is so good that I've already developed a strong connection to it (and will see imitators as just that). 

Netflix has plenty of digitized yule logs, enough to keep people happy during the winter. And, eventually, Netflix will likely make its own Lo-fi project, and probably swap in characters from its own intellectual property, just how Ambient Swim features Joe Pera and the cast of Adult Swim's Rick and Morty.

But right now? I don't have any interest in Netflix's imitation. Ambient Swim is the kind of stuff that shows that streaming services shouldn't just try and follow Netflix's model of buzzy originals. Ambient Swim shows that you need more.

Because just like how HBO loved to say "it's not TV, it's HBO," HBO Max is more than just Originals. And that's exactly what it should be. 

For more about what's going on in the world of streaming entertainment, read our explainer on the first big canceled show of 2022. and check out the one thing you should watch if you loved Jackass Forever.

Henry T. Casey
Henry T. Casey

Henry is a senior editor at Tom’s Guide covering streaming media, laptops and all things Apple, reviewing devices and services for the past seven years. Prior to joining Tom's Guide, he reviewed software and hardware for TechRadar Pro, and interviewed artists for Patek Philippe International Magazine. He's also covered the wild world of professional wrestling for Cageside Seats, interviewing athletes and other industry veterans.