SCREEN TIME: Streaming in the time of coronavirus

Which streaming services are the best value in the days of social distancing?

DEVS 108 0580 Copy
Photo credit: Courtesy of FX
KILLER APP: Nick Offerman and Sonoya Mizuno in “Devs.”

The deadline for this column falls a couple of weeks before the publication date, so I can only speculate as to what the landscape for film and video will look like you read this. With Mayor Bottoms having closed down bars, restaurants, and theaters as of March 19, will delayed theatrical releases like The New Mutants debut online? Anything could happen.

Streaming services like Netflix are some of the few winners during the pandemic, since self-quarantining subscribers have more chance for viewing. But the increased scrutiny can also reveal some limitations.

Disney+ is a good example. If you’re cooped up with young children, its library of family classics and superhero films is a godsend. But if you’re an adult who already keeps up with the latest installments of the Star Wars, Marvel, and Pixar franchises, the deep cuts of the Disney Vault may not hold much interest. “The Mandalorian”’s first season offered an imaginative riff on Western tropes and America’s new sweetheart, Baby Yoda, but so far the rest of the original shows aren’t nearly as compelling. (Especially since Marvel shows like the Atlanta-shot “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” will reportedly have delayed productions.)

At $6.99 a month, Disney+ is reasonably priced, but signing up for multiple services can add up, especially when some offer one or two must-see shows per year. Here are some thoughts about when it’s prime time to subscribe.

Netflix ($15.99/month): Last October through December saw Netflix’s ongoing investment in feature films come to fruition with the rollout of Oscar contenders like The Irishman and Marriage Story. But in early 2020, its original comedy and drama shows have seemed pretty thin, as if it lavished so much time and money on prestigious movies, there was little left over except reality shows like “Cheer.” 

Netflix clearly has an enormous amount of content, including the newly dropped third season of the Atlanta-shot “Ozark” and interesting acquisitions like the South Africa-set spy series “Queen Sono,” whose black female operative upends the tropes of James Bond. But with a thin catalog of classic movies, the end of “BoJack Horseman”’s run, and apparently no third season of “Mindhunter” to come, Netflix can seem hard to justify at almost $200 a year.

Hulu ($5.99/month with commercials): On the other hand, Hulu’s reasonable rate is even more appealing due to its new partnership with FX, which has quietly become one of most interesting producers of original series. “FX on Hulu” launched last month and in the upcoming weeks will roll out the second season of the vampire comedy “What We Do in the Shadows” and the fourth of “Fargo” (with Chris Rock starring in a storyline about a Kansas City gang war in 1950). Both shows are movie spinoffs that do justice to their source material while building their own identities.

Alex Garland, director of Ex Machina and Annihilation, has created FX’s new miniseries “Devs,” which proves both remote and intriguing. Sonoya Mizuno plays a young coder who suspects her boyfriend’s disappearance is tied to a tech company’s secret project called “Devs” (for “developers”). Nick Offerman provides a knotty dramatic performance as Forest, the company’s obsessive owner, and the show features some haunting images: The company’s high-security lab looks like something out of “Blade Runner” while a colossal statue of Forest’s dead daughter literally looms over the corporate campus.

“Devs” might warm up as it goes along, as it promises to be a conspiracy thriller that questions our assumptions about reality, like the fiction of Philip K. Dick. It could just use more humanizing irony or quirks, like the way Garland’s Ex Machina had that meme-able moment of Oscar Isaac disco dancing with Mizuno.

Hulu also includes some surprisingly hip documentaries and indie films, with the Oscar winner Parasite debuting April 8. The show I may most recommend for the self-quarantined is “Travel Man,” hosted by “The IT Crowd”’s Richard Ayoade as a reluctant but wisecracking guide to short vacations. Each episode features a different guest, arch narration, and a snappy pace, leaving all other travel series in the dust.

HBO Max ($14.99 a month): The venerable cable channel is in a state of transition after the popular, divisive final season of “Game of Thrones,” but probably sustains TV’s strongest track record of original shows. Its streaming component is scheduled to relaunch in May as “HBO Max” and directly challenge Netflix, with the addition of films curated by Turner Classic Movies and the animated classics of Studio Ghibli. Major watches coming up include the third season of Bill Hader’s superb dramedy “Barry” and a documentary series, “Atlanta’s Missing and Murdered: The Lost Children.” 

The Criterion Channel ($10.99): Not one of the cheaper services, but in the absence of the late Filmstruck, it may have the best selection of movies thanks to its voluminous catalog of U.S. and international classics and select recent releases. It’s smartly curated but can require close attention: February scheduled a great program of 1970s sci-fi, but most of them left the channel at the end of the month. Criterion offers a great chance to fill gaps in your film knowledge, as long as the movies don’t disappear on you.

With the likes of NBC’s Peacock still to come, there are too many choices to keep up with and not enough worth keeping year-round. Perhaps people will start subscriptions on a rotating basis: signing up for, say, CBS All Access for a month, catch up with “Star Trek: Picard,” then tapping out and taking up Netflix once “Stranger Things” returns for its fourth season, and so on. Someone should start a service just to help people manage all the other services.

The Show Must Go On-Line: For years, Dad’s Garage Theatre has maintained a YouTube Channel for its original video content, which has included comedy shorts, a backstage soap opera called “The Garage,” and more. Earlier this year, Kevin Gillese, director of Dad’s Garage TV, announced that the theater plans to produce its own Christmas movie, How to Ruin the Holidays, with a goal of releasing in 2021 (though it now seems the coronavirus has disrupted those plans Link:

For home-grown viewing now that large gatherings are discouraged, the playhouse has announced The Dad’s Social Distancing Spectacular, putting live shows, podcasts, improvised comedy and more on-line at —CL—