Is Peacock worth your time and money? Our TV critic weighs in
If television‘s many platforms and networks and channels were not already confusing and taxing enough, now we get Peacock, from the Comcast-owned NBCUniversal. (The name references NBC’s longtime logo, born at the dawn of color TV.) It is all Clash of the Titans nowadays, as one enormous mega-corporate conglomeration of banked, acquired or original intellectual content battles another for your time and attention. Cower before them, humans.
Content is king, and the success of Peacock, as with HBO Max, Disney+, CBS All Access and so on, will, of course, largely depend on its offering shows — old ones, new ones — you can’t see anywhere else. This has always been the story of television, of course — having HBO never got you a single Showtime series, just as NBC and ABC and CBS have always been walled-off fiefdoms. (On the surface, at least; it all gets mixed up when you start to look at who actually produced or holds the licensing on any particular show.)
One day there will be just one channel to rule them all. But for now, you have decisions to make about where to put your eyes and your money. Indeed, the argument for not subscribing is essentially the same as the argument for subscribing. How much television can you, should you, do you really want to watch?
What does Peacock promise? Like its competitors, it is built upon a mountain of old content, available on demand, sprinkled on top with a little bit of new stuff. (There will be more of that eventually.) There will also be live sports — the Olympics were meant to be a torch to light this flame — and linear subchannels you will watch, or so is the idea, just like old-fashioned television. To further complicate things, or perhaps to simplify your choice, it comes in three flavors: an ad-supported free version of Peacock, along with two levels of subscriptions: The ad-supported middle tier ($4.99/month) comes with more programming, including originals — because you have got to have that original programming if you want to look serious in this medium — and the top tier ($9.99/month) has the same offering as the middle tier, minus the ads.
Peacock, NBCUniversal’s new streamer, launches Wednesday. Here’s what you need to know, from the prices of its tiers to what TV shows and movies will be on it.
It’s true too that Peacock can’t bank its prospects entirely on the world’s desire to watch “Law & Order” or “Frasier” from start to finish. (Or, on the movie side, the “Fast & Furious” franchise and “Jurassic Park” movies — which I suppose might make a sale or two but promise nothing like the infinitely expandable, exploitable world of Disney+'s “Star Wars” or CBS All Access’ “Star Trek.” Although “Fast & Furious: Lego Babies” is a show I might watch, if anyone cares to make it.) And if the streamer is not setting out a particularly rich or wide-ranging or newsworthy array of new programs at launch — the biggest flag it has to fly is the the return of David Schwimmer to series comedy — it’s a decent showing.
Apart from three children’s series — “Cleopatra in Space,” new “Curious George” cartoons, and “Where’s Waldo?” brought over from Universal Kids — there are six new shows available at launch: three scripted series, two of them British imports/co-productions, one just mostly set there; a feature sequel to the 2006-2014 USA series “Psych”; a presumably redemptive documentary about the Olympic swimmer Ryan Lochte; and a series exploring abandoned racetracks, hosted by Dale Earnhardt Jr. Other big ships include yet another “Battlestar Galactica” reboot, this time from Sam “Mr. Robot” Esmail; “Girls5Eva,” a Tina Fey comedy reuniting a pop group; revivals of “Punky Brewster” (in the tradition) and “Saved by the Bell” (ironic); an Amber Ruffin “late-night” show; and a Kevin Hart talk show.
A brief rundown, in no particular order:
“Intelligence.” This British workplace comedy centering on a cyber-crime unit is clearly not from around here, notwithstanding its starring a star of “Friends.” Schwimmer plays an American NSA agent sent to liaise with his U.K. counterparts, arriving in a cloud of heedless Yankee self-approval. “I think we can learn a lot from each other — especially from me,” he says, by way of introduction. (That is about as political as the show ever gets.) Dryly funny, rude in a polite way, restrained even when it gets grotesque or slapstick, the show is kept from brittleness by the fretful, the hangdog — the Ross — that Schwimmer’s character hides inside, and his growing dependence on Nick Mohammed’s sweet, slow, hero-worshiping computer analyst.
The streaming service, which was already available to Comcast customers, could struggle without Roku and Amazon partnerships. But Peacock’s strategy is different.
“The Capture.” This British conspiracy thriller with a “deep fake” theme hits the points that make British conspiracy thrillers such tasty candy, balancing the convoluted or unconvincing elements of its plot with homey detail and naturalistic performances by actors you wish would invite you over for dinner sometime. Callum Turner (“Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald”) is a soldier acquitted of a war crime who is then accused of the murder of his barrister. Ron Perlman is the visiting U.S. intelligence agent in this one.
“Psych 2: Lassie Come Home.” James Roday Rodriguez and Dulé Hill are back in “Santa Barbara” — the feature, like the series, was shot in Vancouver, and looks like it — from San Francisco, where a previous “Psych” feature found them. Apart from the work of time, all in this oddball detective show is as it ever was — fast, goofy, old-school double-act comedy that seems modern only in that it is sometimes a little rude. That the game is understood by the players is evident, as an argument ensues after Rodriguez‘s Shawn introduces Hill’s Gus with an unacceptable nickname, rattling the fourth wall. Shawn: “We can’t just stop doing bits we’ve been doing for 10 years; we have fans, they have expectations, there’ll be a huge backlash.” “Sean, we are two dumbasses, we do not have fans.” (They have fans. There will be no backlash.)
“Brave New World.” Aldous Huxley’s 1931 novel of a future marked by genetic engineering, drugs and nonattachment gets a series. The elements of the novel and something of its daffiness are here, though new paths open the way to a presumable second season. It’s the familiar business of the individual versus the herd, and the question of whether you can be happy if being happy is not what makes you happy. Alden Ehrenreich, the lead in “Solo: A Star Wars Story,” is John, an old-school human from the Savage Lands of New Mexico, who travels to New London’s anti-monogamous, orgiastic, sated, sedated sextopia, where every night’s a rave, with predictably upsetting results. Jessica Brown Findlay as hatchery nurse Lenina and Harry Lloyd as middle manager Bernard have questions of their own. Frequently obvious but nicely designed and acted, with a thoughtful Nina Sosanya a welcome presence as the woman at the top.
Times TV critic Robert Lloyd on the HBO Max original content available at launch, including Elmo, ‘Legendary,’ ‘Love Life,’ ‘Looney Tunes’ and ‘Craftopia.’
“Lost Speedways.” I have no interest in motor sports, but this involving series, hosted by racing driver Dale Earnhardt Jr., feels deep and friendly to me. Each episode visits a derelict track, a ruin of relatively recent history, reclaimed by nature; stories emerge that go beyond the cars and the drivers (though they’re in there too) to involve community and family, secrets and legends and the unpredictable workings of time. Quite beautiful, in a melancholic way.
“In Deep With Ryan Lochte.” The many-medaled swimmer — who threw his career into an empty pool when he concocted a story, quickly debunked, to cover a bit of drunken vandalism and a run-in with security at a gas station in Rio during the 2016 Olympic Games — is the willing subject of a documentary clearly meant to make us reconsider any negative opinions we may hold of him. (Patton Oswalt, who narrates folksily, says exactly that in its closing seconds.) Its original arc bends obviously toward Tokyo and an aging, contrite, newly serious Lochte’s last chance for a scandal-free Olympics; things being what they are, it turns toward pandemic, lockdown and What Really Matters. (It’s family — though a daughter’s birthday party with not a mask in sight and adults practicing whatever the opposite of social distancing is took a little of the shine off that story line for me.) A little too programmatic not to be annoying, but, still, good luck in 2021.
And good luck to you too, television viewers. They are not making this easy on you.
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