The official launch of Peacock today marks the fourth high-profile streaming service to debut in nine months. Disney+ had a fantastic launch, and the July 3 debut of Hamilton has kept its momentum going strong. Less fantastic was Apple TV+, which has had a few nice shows but seems to mostly be a vanity line for celebrity fluff. Somewhere in between these two is HBO Max, which has the advantage of HBO but has also created a lot of brand confusion, since it has a ton of content that isn’t HBO at all.
Peacock’s launch won’t be perfect, either. For one thing, as I write this, it hasn’t worked out a deal to be carried on either Roku or Amazon, which between them serve 80 million U.S. households. (Neither has HBO Max.) There's also some potential for confusion because Peacock has decided to offer three tiers — free, premium with ads, and premium without ads. Peacock Premium with ads is $4.99/month, without ads $9.99/month — except if you’re a Comcast customer, in which case ad-supported Peacock Premium is free. Got that? If not, my colleague Josh Zyber has more in his Peacock primer.
I honestly doubt cost is going to be much of a barrier to entry. With the great cord-cutting transition now in full swing, streamers like Peacock — which is owned by Comcast NBCUniversal — are going to make it worth your while to check out what they have and hope it’s enticing enough to keep you from cancelling your free trial. To that end, Peacock Premium has been making some aggressive deals in recent weeks to beef up its library. A bunch of ViacomCBS content was licensed, meaning that Peacock will be the first major streamer to carry Yellowstone, the one essential TV drama that until now was only on cable. And just last week Peacock announced it will be giving a sports-starved world 1,500 hours of Premier League football matches this season. It’s not the Olympics, but it’s not Korean baseball either.
That’s in addition to the 20,000 hours already on Peacock Premium’s shelf: The Office (which arrives on the service in January 2021), the non-blackface episodes of 30 Rock, all the Law & Orders, all the Kardashians, Jimmy Fallon and Seth Meyers three hours before they air on NBC, quality blockbuster films like E.T., The Fast and the Furious, The Godfather trilogy, Jurassic Park, and much more.
Last but certainly least, it will have a slate of “Peacock Originals,” starting with Brave New World, a limited series that begins today. Let’s be clear — nobody buys a streaming service for the originals. Even after the sensational debut of The Mandalorian, I read comments online like, “After the season’s over, I’m cancelling.” Hamilton, which I look forward to enjoying with my grandkids this weekend, is three hours long. People need more than one or two reasons, preferably several hundred, to keep a streaming service because it’s way too easy not to.
Peacock doesn’t have a killer show like Mandalorian or Hamilton — but it does have many distinct yet complementary television brands. They may pale next to Disney+ with its Marvel, Lucasfilm, and Pixar holdings, but Peacock’s catalog is nothing to sneeze at. This helps their brand proposition, especially at $4.99 a month. Let’s say that while catching up with all the NBC, USA, SyFy, Bravo, and E! shows you never got around to watching, you get hooked on Yellowstone — and then you also wind up enjoying Brave New World or the Battlestar Galactica reboot or the Psych 2 movie or even the new comedy from Tina Fey. Add it all up and it’s a pretty good deal. You might even miss it if it weren’t there. That’s Peacock’s bet, anyway.
Brave New World is a reimagining of Aldous Huxley’s classic dystopian novel, and is pretty clearly aimed at the Syfy slice of Peacock’s audience. Huxley wrote the book in the 1930s in part as a satire on utopian novels that were popular back then. Books like Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward and H.G. Wells’ Men Like Gods were the Big Pharma fantasy ads of their day, celebrating the role of technology in making everyone healthy and harmonious while downplaying minor side effects like the complete loss of personality, individual freedom, and critical thought.
In the New London of the future, a bureaucrat named Bernard Marx (Harry Lloyd) and an attractive worker bee named Lenina Crowne (Jessica Brown Findlay) decide to hook up — in Brave New World this is an event on par with choosing a new flavor of jam — and they decide to fly off to the Savage Lands, aka New Mexico, for kicks. Things go sideways there, and Bernard and Lenina are rescued by a free spirit named John (Alden Ehrenreich), who follows them back to utopia. There, John can’t believe what he’s seeing — a rigidly hierarchical society enforced by genetic engineering and mellowed out by mood pills called soma that people pop whenever they’re feeling, well, feelings.
I haven’t watched all nine episodes, but what I’ve seen is pretty true to the novel, with some nudity and F-bombs dropped in to remind you that this isn’t basic cable. The ending is different, but it’s not a jarring, Plot Against America kind of different. With its small cast and heavy reliance on CGI, Brave New World has the look and feel of a modestly-priced Syfy miniseries. It will appeal strongly to some but not to most.
The sheer size and scope of its library tells me that Peacock is aspiring to be more than an Apple TV+ or a CBS All Access (whose future is a bit cloudier now that ViacomCBS has sold Yellowstone and other shows to its rival). And yet, I don’t see Peacock trying to grow into the next Netflix or even Disney+. This feels more like the next Hulu — an on-demand TV rerun service with some originals and some movies. After all, NBC was one of the original investors in Hulu before Disney took over. Streaming may be the brave new world of TV, but there’s still a lot of old-school TV worth watching, and Peacock is betting it’s worth five bucks a month to you.
Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.