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Amazon Freevee Is This Year's Biggest Streaming Success Story

As once-dominant streamers struggle, Freevee is gaining serious momentum.
  • High School; Sprung; and Bosch: Legacy. (Photos: Amazon Freevee)
    High School; Sprung; and Bosch: Legacy. (Photos: Amazon Freevee)

    2022 marked an interesting inflection point in the Streaming Wars. After years of unfettered growth and unchecked spending, the streamers were brought back down to earth by Wall Street and budget-conscious executives. Netflix and HBO Max, in particular, spent months battling bad publicity, and they enter 2023 on shaky ground as questions continue to swirl about the future of the television business.

    Amid all this negativity, there was one streaming success story this year: the rise of Amazon Freevee. What began as a rebranded version of Amazon’s IMDb TV has transformed into a platform with distinctive, high-quality shows, giving the ad-supported service its own singular identity at a time when the rest of streaming feels beholden to the algorithm.

    To say that Freevee launched under inauspicious circumstances would be an understatement. When Amazon announced in April that it was changing the name of IMDb TV to “Freevee,” a move designed to emphasize the service’s no-subscription-required offerings and distance itself from the IMDb website, the rebrand was met with widespread mockery on Twitter. Users pointed out that the new name sounds like “a practical joke” from the early 1990s, while others were critical of the bare-bones, color-block logo. As one person said of the name and logo change: “It looks and sounds stupid.”

    But Amazon Freevee wasn’t the butt of the joke for long. Just one week after the name change went into effect, on April 27, Freevee premiered Bosch: Legacy, a spinoff of Titus Welliver’s long-running Prime Video crime drama. True to its subtitle, the sequel continues the saga of Welliver’s Harry Bosch, now working as a private investigator after leaving the Los Angeles Police Department in the Bosch series finale. Legacy also expands the roles of Bosch’s daughter Maddie (Madison Lintz), a rookie police officer, and Honey Chandler (Mimi Rogers), the attorney who functioned as both an adversary and an ally to Bosch over the course of the original show’s seven seasons.

    Save for the addition of tech wizard Mo (Stephen A. Chang) and a few new mysteries, there’s very little that differentiates Bosch: Legacy from its parent series, a move that seems intentional on Amazon’s part. The sense of continuity between the shows established a connection between Prime Video and Freevee — which IMDb TV, as a name, never quite managed to do — that brought people in the door who might have otherwise stayed away. Welliver’s familiar presence also helped shift the public’s perception of the ad-supported service: While IMDb TV was seen as a place where Amazon sent its lower-priority titles to languish among classic films and TV shows, Freevee was pitched as a natural extension of the Prime Video service, with big-name stars eagerly hopping from one to the other.

    If Bosch: Legacy preyed on viewers’s expectations, Freevee’s next major release, Sprung, complicated those entirely. The comedy serves as a reunion for Raising Hope creator Greg Garcia and stars Garret Dillahunt and Martha Plimpton, who play small-time crooks in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. Released from prison after 26 years, Jack (Dillahunt) is determined to stay on the straight and narrow, but when his former cellmate Rooster (Phillip Garcia) and his mother Barb (Plimpton) invite him to join their criminal enterprise, Jack agrees, provided that they only target members of the community abusing their power, Robin Hood-style.

    As Primetimer’s Mark Blankenship wrote in his review, Sprung plays “like a sitcom version of Breaking Bad,” combining the cinematic qualities of acclaimed dramas with “totally infantile” comedy, as when the crew goes after a man selling toilet paper at an extreme mark-up. With its distinct visual style and pointed pandemic-era critiques (not to mention an uproariously funny performance from Plimpton), Sprung feels like nothing else on television — and with the way things are looking for comedies of a smaller scope, it’s difficult to see how it would get made at Netflix, HBO Max, or even Peacock. In this way, Garcia’s comedy offered a model for Freevee shows to come, establishing the service as a home for thoughtful, genre-bending shows with a unique point of view.

    But the high point of Freevee’s inaugural campaign came in October with High School, a coming-of-age drama inspired by the life of indie pop duo Tegan and Sara Quin. Adapted from Tegan and Sara’s memoir of the same name by Clea DuVall (But I’m a Cheerleader), a queer icon in her own right, High School follows twins Tegan and Sara (Railey and Seazynn Gilliland) as they navigate their sexuality and emerging adulthood in 1990s Canada. The series alternates between the perspective of Tegan and Sara, who embark on a journey of self-discovery through music, and that of their mother Simone (Cobie Smulders, How I Met Your Mother), and Duvall weaves a narrative that’s at once hyper-specific and universal in its themes.

    Given the nature of the industry, it will always be difficult for Freevee to compete with its SVOD counterparts, but High School gave the service its first real taste of prestige. The sensitive, wonderfully rich drama remains one of the most well-received shows of the year, featuring prominently among Best Of lists — and in more than one instance, it’s the only Amazon title represented.

    Looking ahead, Amazon Freevee shows no signs of slowing down, even as the ad-supported field gets more crowded, with Roku beefing up its original content slate and Netflix and Disney+ experimenting with cheaper, commercial-heavy subscription plans. The service has broadened IMDb TV’s unscripted offerings into the home renovation and cooking competition space (Hollywood Houselift with Jeff Lewis and America’s Test Kitchen: The Next Generation) and continues to release new episodes of Leverage: Redemption Season 2, a spinoff of the TNT drama. Freevee also saved Jeff Daniels and Maura Tierney’s American Rust after it was canceled by Showtime; in a statement, Daniels said the drama is “built for streaming,” adding, “The movies they don’t make anymore are being made as series at places like Amazon Freevee. It’s where I want to be.”

    Daniels and Tierney are just a few of the A-list stars joining the Freevee party in 2023. Procedural legend Dick Wolf is currently developing half-hour police drama On Call, while Norman Lear’s Clean Slate, starring Laverne Cox and George Wallace, was picked up to series in September. Also coming down the pipeline is Primo, a coming-of-age comedy from The Good Place boss Mike Schur and author Shea Serrano, plus a second Judy Sheindlin court show, and a new season of beloved Australian soap Neighbours.

    Of course, for all its recent success, Freevee isn’t exactly The Little Ad-Supported Streamer That Could. The service is in a unique position among its competitors, as Amazon’s creative ventures are funded by Prime subscriptions, which number over 200 million globally. (Amazon is notoriously stingy with Prime membership statistics, but Bezos revealed the 200 million figure in April 2021). Between Prime subscription fees (currently priced at $15/month or $139/year) and revenue from retail sales and Amazon Web Services products, Amazon will always have more money to burn on original content than Netflix, Warner Bros. Discovery, or even Apple. Investing in a smaller platform like Freevee thus becomes less of a risk for Amazon than it would for other tech or media companies, but as a result, programming executives have a bit more leeway to experiment with idiosyncratic and unconventional stories, resulting in something like Sprung or High School.

    Still, at a time when many streaming services find themselves trending downwards, or at the very least treading water, Amazon Freevee has positioned itself to reach new heights. Its new name and logo once inspired days of Twitter ridicule, but a mere eight months later, the joke’s on us. Dismiss Freevee at your own risk.

    Claire Spellberg Lustig is the Senior Editor at Primetimer and a scholar of The View. Follow her on Twitter at @c_spellberg.

    TOPICS: Amazon Freevee, Prime Video, Bosch: Legacy, High School, Sprung, Streaming TV