Photo-Illustration: Photo-Illustration by Vulture; Photos from CW, CBS and HGTV
During the pandemic, I finally bought a television. Maybe you did too. It’s not that I didn’t watch things all the time before that – “I didn’t clean a TV ”went from being a simple snobbish thing to say to a diagnosable marker of sociopathy years ago – but colleagues who review content for a living have said it’s unthinkable that I watch everything on my 13 inch laptop screen. So, because my 40s was a period of improvement, I found a used flatscreen smart TV on Craigslist and set it up in my bedroom like a real muckety-muck.
The point is, many of the major streaming services operate on Cheesecake Factory logic: they offer expansive menus of mostly mediocre options, and all of that leads to decision paralysis. I ended up rarely turning on the TV. I was afraid of TV. I missed the time when it was my friend and not my enemy, when I had unlimited access to free cable by being a dumb child living with my parents. I didn’t want to pay for cable or even any of those live TV cord cutting alternatives that end up being as expensive as cable, and I didn’t want to sign up for streaming services anymore due to the cheesecake dilemma. I should have known that because there is a streaming service for everything, there would be a streaming service that offered exactly what I was looking for.
It’s called Pluto TV, and it’s the best streaming service you don’t use. (Unless you are, in which case let’s start some sort of fan club.)
Launched in 2014 and acquired by ViacomCBS in 2019, Pluto is a streaming service that mimics the experience of channel browsing. The first thing you’ll notice when downloading it to your smart TV or opening it in your browser is its best feature – it doesn’t require you to create an account. No login, no password sharing, no newsletters that spam your inbox with recommendations you didn’t ask for. It’s, quite simply, the smoothest streaming experience today – a no-obligation affair. With so many hurdles in place for online experiences these days, accessing streaming video content without a connection feels like a FastPass. To activate it and immediately be greeted with some sort of ongoing content – maybe it’s Pawn stars, perhaps this is Urban legends 2 – really feels like a cable.
It’s also free. This is the part that seems to come with a catch. It’s ad-supported, but the ads only add to the likelihood of the adjacent cable experience. Pluto’s commercials are halfway between the repeat you find on Hulu or YouTube (the algorithm seems convinced I own a slew of homes and cars in need of insurance) and local spots that aren’t. far from what you’d expect on cable, including plenty of campaign spots for the NYC mayoral race. And I, for my part, welcome these advertising breaks during my Survivor: Cook Islands marathon runner.
It doesn’t matter if everything was free, or if you didn’t need to reset a password every few months, if the content was insane. But reader, this content is anything but. Pluto TV’s roughly 200 channels are broken down by genre, with sections including News, Sports, Movies, Reality, Comedy, and Home / DIY, making it easy to navigate. And because it’s owned by ViacomCBS, the content bank runs deep. Each day, Comedy Central will air episodes of Kroll Show, Nathan for you, and Key & Peel; IFC will have Portlandia and Comedy Bang! Snap!; and one of the reality TV stations will be running a The next American top model season, one episode after another. Could you search for any of these shows individually on another streaming service? Sure. But there is a joy in meeting them in the middle of the episode and riding them. To actively search and press play on season two of ANTM is a chore. But just to get through? It’s a gift.
There are plenty of heartwarming obscurities that lend themselves to background viewing as well. There is an entire channel dedicated just to Little House Nation. Another only offers shows on wedding cakes and bridal gowns. Do you know how many reality shows are done about backcountry fishing? More than you might think. At the rate that other streamers are releasing new anime series, you may feel like you constantly have to keep up with a bunch of original shows that are only a 6 out of 10 at best. (Is The Queen’s Gambit actually everything is good, or is it just new and expensive?) Pluto TV, on the other hand, has an entire channel devoted to Naruto. There is no pressure to follow a constant deployment of new prestige series; Pluto is just vibrations.
And where other streaming services lack pre-21st century programming, Pluto benefits from Paramount’s library of classic movies. There is a Paramount movie channel, a cult movie channel, a classic movie channel, a 70s movie channel, and dedicated channels for every genre you can think of. On the Black Cinema channel, I watched everything from I’m not your nigga at Eddie Murphy Gross. Another time I tapped into one of the movie channels just in time for Elaine May’s Milaga Cooler scene A new leaf. I had intended to look at him, and suddenly he was there. Channel browsing, as opposed to a flow of algorithms, leads to a joyful and spontaneous discovery that makes you feel like a more participatory viewer.
There are nearly 20 distinct classic TV channels, including one that broadcasts wall-to-wall Carol Burnett Show, and a TV Land stream where I personally watched Conceiving Women all day long to teach me about Jean Smart’s Integral Integral Completeuvres. It’s not just a free substitute for cable, maybe it’s an improvement: there are four distinct niche MTV channels here, and all of them have music videos and a much-needed lack of Ridicule. (If music videos don’t speak to your personal MTV nostalgia, there’s quite a bit too Jersey Shore channel).
For those times when you find that there really is nothing on tv, Pluto also has an On-Demand tab, and while you’re browsing you can continue to watch whatever you’re watching. Why more streamers don’t have a window in the window, we don’t know. There are no DVR or pause functions, but that only adds to the pre-TiVo nostalgia.
If there’s one downside to Pluto, it’s that you can find the far-right Newsmax, Blaze, and OAN outlets among its news offerings. Why would a streaming service named after the cutest planet provide a platform for such mischief? Why would Pluto TV’s hot and nostalgic tide make our streaming experience like this? How come, ViacomCBS?
I am worried about the future of Pluto TV. Now that ViacomCBS has its new Paramount + streamer adjacent to the Cheesecake Dilemma, I’m afraid this rambling and weird free option gets lost in the shuffle. Enjoy it now, as it will feel like you are surfing a channel before the days of content exhaustion, and it will never try to make you believe that a iCarly the reboot is worth watching. If you’re a cable cutter in the real sense, with no live-streaming TV substitute, Pluto will fill a hole in your weary heart with screen time that you didn’t even know was there.