We're firmly in the streaming era now.
These days, buzzed-about new shows are probably more likely to debut on Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon Prime than HBO, Showtime or FX. Whether you're a cord-cutter or not, the streaming service is very much where the action is these days.
Here’s a look at the best things available on each, but remember: You'll never, ever have time to catch up on everything you want to watch, and that’s OK. Start here.
Netflix is the leader in streaming, having spent billions on original programming, and in a lot of cases making certain projects available to audiences who may not have seen it otherwise. For a monthly subscription fee, you can get access to some of the best original shows today, as well as the best standup comedy specials and a steady flow of documentaries.
The best stuff that's debuted on Netflix this year includes the transcendent sketch comedy series "I Think You Should Leave," Ava DuVernay's limited series "When They See Us" and the 1970s Bob Dylan concert film "Rolling Thunder Revue." Coming later this year is "The Irishman," the latest gangster epic from Martin Scorsese.
The oft-mentioned downsides? Netflix has very few movies streaming that were made before 1975, not a lot in terms of foreign fare and large swathes of film history are missing from its endless categories. A few of us have retained the one-DVD-at-a-time plan because a lot of that stuff is available via mail.
Prime, in addition to the free shipping, gives customers streaming access to a lot of original shows and recent movies, plus a great deal of older TV series.
One Amazon show, “Fleabag,” is an obsession of just about every writer I know, or of those “extremely online” types. Those who are neither may have never heard of it. The outstanding “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” is on the service and coming back for a third season, while the streamer's first breakout "Transparent" will return with a musical wrap-up movie later this year. Amazon will make a foray into stand-up comedy later this year with a new special from Jim Gaffigan.
The downside to Prime? Its interface is terrible, and finding the Prime screen from your Amazon home page is damned near impossible.
Hulu began life about a decade ago as a "YouTube killer," backed by the owners of the major TV networks. Now, it's mostly owned by Disney and combines an extensive library of old TV seasons with some stellar original programming. Hulu also offers a "Hulu With Live TV" option for cord-cutters, including that "Hulu Has Live Sports" feature that Joel Embiid makes funny commercials for.
"The Handmaid's Tale," aka the one that wins all the awards, recently started its third season. Earlier this year, Hulu debuted a couple of very strong new shows, "Shrill" and "Pen15," and it also features one of last year's best documentaries, "Minding the Gap."
Still, Hulu can't quite compete with HBO or Amazon when it comes to the sheer volume of essential programs.
This, much like the Showtime service that's called simply "Showtime," features all of the current programming on those channels, as well as every episode of every season of all of the older shows. People used to gladly drop $100 a pop for DVD sets of single seasons of “The Sopranos.” They can now pay a fraction of that monthly for constant streaming access to the entire series and 50 other shows on every device. Is that fee still worth it, post-“Game of Thrones?” I'd say that it is, mediocre as that "Euphoria" show has looked so far.
CBS All Access:
Eventually, every TV network will have its own streaming service, but CBS got out of the gate first as the exclusive home of "Star Trek: Discovery" and the upcoming sequel series about Patrick Stewart's Jean-Luc Picard. Between those, "The Good Fight" and Jordan Peele's version of "The Twilight Zone," All Access is assembling a strong core of original shows.
The Criterion Channel:
FilmStruck, a streaming service that focused on curated collections of older movies, folded last year, following the AT&T/Time Warner merger, saddening legions of cinephiles. In its place rose the Criterion Channel, which replaced FilmStruck as the streaming home for Criterion’s vault of classics.
Other ones, like Sling TV, PlayStation Vue and AT&T Watch TV, are more about replacing cable than pushing original programming. There are some that are even more niche, like WWE Network, ESPN+ and Shudder.
If you think the current services aren't enough, there are a half-dozen more new streaming offerings coming online in the next two years, including Disney+, Apple TV Plus and upcoming services from Comcast/NBC and WarnerMedia. The Comcast service announced this week that it has grabbed streaming rights for "The Office" from Netflix starting in 2021, while the Warner one is said to be eyeing a similar coup for "Friends."
But there's one important thing to note. The streaming service battle is not a zero-sum game. Most people who subscribe to them are going to subscribe to more than one, and it's unlikely that most new subscribers to, say, Disney+ will do so at Netflix's expense. How will it shake out? To get all the shows you want, you'll have to subscribe to six or seven or eight services, and doing so will end up costing almost exactly what cable costs now.