It’s fitting that in the year we were all made to stay home, the entertainment industry unleashed its deluge of new content platforms. And it’s perfectly 2020 that, despite such a hospitable environment for this rush of entertainment, the end result was so damned frustrating.
It’s not that long ago that “cord-cutting” was a trend meant to save money. Now we’re all in group text messages sharing passwords because we can’t rationalize how much money it costs to subscribe to all the new streaming services. And, dear god, there are so many.
Both Apple TV+ and Disney+ launched in November 2019, which means they’re as much of a new entry to the streaming rush as the rest of the 400 services that arrived this year. That’s only a modicum of an exaggeration.
There was HBO Max, Peacock, and Quibi (LOL), plus the announcement that CBS All Access is getting a revamp as Paramount+ and the impending launch of Discovery+ and its roster of programming from the likes of Food Network, HGTV, and TLC—specifically 90-Day Fiancé content—next month. And that’s all in addition to Hulu and Amazon, and, no matter how many platform options there may be, the only one any of us watch anyway: Netflix.
Is it the year that birthed exciting new streaming options, or the portending of the streaming apocalypse? After spending countless hours consuming content and screaming at our remote while trying to figure out all these wonky interfaces, we’ve selected some superlatives for the year in streaming.
Best Service You May Not Know You Have: HBO Max
HBO Max happens to be the most expensive of the streaming services at $15/month for new subscribers, but even that comes with a laundry list of caveats. Suffice it to say the streamer epically bungled its launch. People who automatically got it because they subscribed to HBO through their cable packages had no idea, and then there were those who actively wanted to watch, but couldn’t because it originally wasn’t available on Roku or Amazon Fire. But that confusion, in a strange way, speaks in part to why the service is so great: You get HBO with it.
The name HBO Max couldn’t be dumber—it’s not only HBO, but it has HBO—but the point is you can watch the entire catalog of HBO series on it, which sells itself. And that’s in addition to the impressive library of movies—including the best collection of classics available on streaming—popular TV shows like The Big Bang Theory and Friends, one of the winter’s best new movies (Steven Soderbergh’s Let Them All Talk), and the buzziest new show of the winter, The Flight Attendant. Then there’s the pandemic bonus: Warner Brothers will debut its entire 2021 film slate on the service.
Best Service You Don’t Think You Need: Peacock
The last to arrive in the streaming race, Peacock has been confusingly overlooked—at least when it comes to a platform named after a bird known for ruffling up attention.
Not helping matters is the inscrutable tiered pricing system that determines what a subscriber has access to, and with how many ads. (The running theme of the streaming wars: buyers’ utter confusion.) But the service is a sly gem. You get next-day airings of NBC shows, should This Is Us still be your thing. And there’s a huge library of network hits, from Law & Order: SVU to Parks and Recreation to classics like The Rockford Files. (But not the NBC hit Friends, which is on HBO Max...like I said, confusing!)
Peacock is the service I’ve been most consistently surprised by. I’ve stumbled on original series that I really enjoyed. (Saved By the Bell is legitimately brilliant, and Brave New World should have gotten way more attention.) Plus, you get access to pretty much every episode of Saturday Night Live ever, which itself is a treasure trove worth the price of subscription.
Best Service For New Movies: Netflix
There’s no accounting for taste, something I must reckon with each time I scroll through the Netflix Top 10 and see one of its absolute garbage original movies at the head of the list. It’s a shame because, when you look at the list of legitimately great movies the service premieres, it’s an embarrassment of riches.
This could prove to be a watershed year for Netflix at the Oscars, with Da 5 Bloods, Mank, The Trial of the Chicago 7, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, and Pieces of a Woman all major contenders. That’s in addition to critical favorites like The 40-Year-Old Version, His House, and I’m Thinking of Ending Things, legitimately great Broadway-to-film adaptations The Boys in the Band and The Prom, and just plain fun movies like The Old Guard and Eurovision Song Contest.
It’s interesting to note how the service that ushered in the age of bingeing TV shows is now most worthwhile for its original movies.
Best Service For Original TV Shows: Hulu
Hulu would earn this title just for PEN15 alone, a TV series that makes me emotional when I talk about how good it is. But the real saving grace is just how unique its slate of original options is in comparison to the rest of the TV landscape. A service that hosts Ramy, Shrill, Normal People, Little Fires Everywhere, and High Fidelity is remarkable enough when it comes to diversity of perspective and storytelling style. When you add the “FX on Hulu” partnership, which, in the spirit of all this being hella confusing, I don’t really understand, you also get stellar limited series like Mrs. America and A Teacher. That’s a murderer’s row of excellent television in a year that didn’t even have new episodes of Hulu’s most acclaimed show, The Handmaid’s Tale.
Best Service to Talk About at Cocktail Parties: Disney+
Baby Yoda and Hamilton: I just described the year in pop culture to you—and also the two biggest selling points of Disney+. And brace yourself; the service announced so many new series and new installments of movie franchises—everything from more Star Wars and Marvel films to long-overdue Hocus Pocus, Sister Act, and Enchanted sequels—that it will soon be cultural negligence not to subscribe.
Best Service When You Need a Good Laugh: Quibi
Every once in a while, I remember that Quibi happened this year and I chuckle to myself. Many people have already reported out the tick-tock of how a $2 billion service that lured the most successful and famous people in Hollywood and sought to revolutionize how we consumed content instead became a buggy app I watched a documentary about sneakers on while taking a shit. So I will instead parse out a lesson: Maybe it’s time to chill on the new streaming services.