Paramount+ isn’t the Netflix killer you’ve been waiting for – yet

·8-min read
New kid on the block: Paramount+ - Paramount/Getty/AP/Alamy
New kid on the block: Paramount+ - Paramount/Getty/AP/Alamy

“To survive, I had to be reborn. To evolve, I had to step into a new skin.” So says Faraday, Chiwetel Ejiofor’s lead character in The Man Who Fell to Earth, one of the marquee series on the latest service to join the TV streaming party. Paramount+, the new iteration of the legendary Hollywood studio responsible for the likes of The Godfather, Saturday Night Fever and Beverly Hills Cop will launch tomorrow with a clutch of fresh shows and some 8,000 hours of archive content (ranging from Top Gun and Mission Impossible to Cheers and The Good Wife) – a back catalogue far superior to those of Netflix, Amazon or Apple, and surpassed only by Disney. Much of this will be plundered for future reboots and spin-offs, while the service’s heavy presence in live sport in America (where it launched last year) also opens up intriguing future possibilities. But what of the present?

The number of stars who were scheduled to attend a press launch last night suggests the company means business: Kevin Costner, Michelle Pfeiffer, Jessica Chastain and, er, Joey Essex were all on the bill. But with Netflix’s financial plans in apparent disarray, Apple TV+ expected to raise prices and Amazon’s future ambitions likely to hinge on the fate of its billion-dollar bet this autumn, The Lord of the Rings, entering a saturated market amid a looming recession is a gamble.

For viewers, it is a gamble not worth taking – yet. The monthly pricing is competitive (at £6.99, the same as basic Netflix, cheaper than Amazon, Disney+ or Now TV, pricier than Apple TV+) but, while the launch slate may be ambitious, it is also dismayingly testosterone heavy (the fun, Graham Norton-fronted X Factor-meets-Drag Race competition Queen of the Universe being an honorable exception), while its two most high-profile launch shows are big misfires.

There isn’t enough to have their rivals worrying at this stage, but it’s worth remembering that Netflix launched in the UK with no original shows (House of Cards came a year later, in 2013), while Apple and Amazon launched with a handful of series most viewers have already forgotten (sorry, Dickinson and Transparent). And even after 10 years, Netflix still doesn’t have a vast treasure trove of brand-name franchises sitting there ripe for exploitation. Paramount, however, does: if Tom Cruise ever relaxes his anti-streaming stance, as he surely will, spin-offs of Top Gun or Mission: Impossible may even be on the horizon.

For now, Paramount+ is an added bonus rather than essential, although well worth taking the seven-day trial to wallow in the archives. There are also some very promising shows coming up.

Chiwetel Ejiofor as Faraday and Naomie Harris as Justin Falls in The Man Who Fell to Earth - Paramount
Chiwetel Ejiofor as Faraday and Naomie Harris as Justin Falls in The Man Who Fell to Earth - Paramount

The new shows

The Man Who Fell to Earth revisits the themes of both Nic Roeg’s era-definingly odd David Bowie vehicle and Walter Tevis’s source novel, and has interesting ideas, but, like ITV/AMC’s ill-starred remake of The Prisoner, labours ponderously in the shadow of its predecessor’s inimitable weirdness. Ejiofor is excellent and funny in a way he has rarely been before as Faraday, the alien-turned tech god arriving on Earth mid-climate crisis with big plans and a difficult past; Bill Nighy is characteristically louche in the Bowie role of Thomas Newton, and Naomie Harris tightly coiled as a scientist-turned-reluctant ally for Faraday. But characterless direction and a wobbly tone mean it never quite justifies its existence.

Ditto The First Lady, a self-conscious attempt to create a prestige series in the style of The Crown. With a cast purpose-built for the Emmys, it tries and fails to penetrate the public images of Michelle Obama (Viola Davis, lost in impersonation), Eleanor Roosevelt (Gillian Anderson, offering a variation on her clenched, imperious Thatcher) and Betty Ford (Michelle Pfeiffer, heartbreakingly vulnerable) as they face down racism, misogyny and societal hypocrisy over addiction and disease, respectively. The chronological tomfoolery is tiresome, while the shallow dialogue groans under the weight of exposition and aphorism. The superb Pfeiffer deserves a better showcase than this extravagant soap opera.

Paramount+’s most expensive-looking show is also its most successful: Taylor Sheridan’s 1883 is a prequel to Kevin Costner nouveau western Yellowstone (also on Paramount+), largely unsung over here but the most-watched cable TV show in America. Stately, sweeping and giving a rare lead role to human Mount Rushmore Sam Elliott, it has chases and shootouts, bandits and smallpox as Elliott leads a wagon train on the Oregon Trail. Every cent of the rumoured $100 million (£82 million) budget is on the screen, and 1932, a further prequel starring Harrison Ford and Helen Mirren, is also in the works.

Sheridan’s other new show, Mayor of Kingstown, is doomed to be unfavourably compared with Mare of Easttown, despite being entirely unrelated. Well, more or less. It too foregrounds an ailing rust belt metropolis with compromised, desperate characters, although its women are notably underdrawn, being either mothers, wives or sex workers. The story of two powerbroking brothers – Kyle Chandler (underused) and Jeremy Renner (dour, low key) – who get their hands dirty to improve the lot of a town overshadowed by its many prisons, it sinks under the weight of its brooding aesthetic.

Matthew Goode as Robert Evans in The Offer - Paramount
Matthew Goode as Robert Evans in The Offer - Paramount

Paramount is also plundering its cinematic archives: not just for the films themselves (as of 2024, all new Paramount features, including the Mission: Impossible franchise, will premiere on the platform after cinematic release) but for the stories behind them. The Offer concocts a broad, playful miniseries from the making of The Godfather through the life of producer Al Ruddy (Miles Teller), taken under the wing of Paramount boss and New Hollywood lynchpin Robert Evans (a strutting, show-stealing Matthew Goode). The stakes feel low and there are a lot of walk-and-talks around Hollywood backlots, but its period trimmings and sheer energy are irresistible.

Just as fun and with even more swagger is Super Pumped, the story of Uber and its supremely irritating yet compulsively watchable CEO/founder Travis Kalanick (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). Season two pits Mark Zuckerberg against Sheryl Sandberg, which should be a blast.

Halo is another inglorious addition to the roster of game-to-screen transfers (Doom, Streetfighter, Super Mario Bros) and itself too often resembles a 20-year-old videogame with ropey effects and perfunctory narrative.

Far warmer and more appealing is Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, a welcome return to the sense of goofy charm and wonder that underpinned the early series, and one where foreknowledge doesn’t feel essential in its telling of the decade before Captain Kirk took the helm of the USS Enterprise.

Pablo Schreiber as Master Chief in Halo - Paramount
Pablo Schreiber as Master Chief in Halo - Paramount

Future Exclusives

Frasier
Expectations are sky high for the revival of one of the greatest ever sitcoms – even without the much-missed John Mahoney (not to mention Eddie’s canine actors Moose and Enzo).

Sexy Beast
Amid a welter of unlikely remakes (Love Story, Fatal Attraction), sequels (Flashdance, The Italian Job) and prequels (Grease), this prequel of one of British cinema’s most eccentric creative high points is intriguing in spite of Jonathan Glazer’s absence.

Tulsa King
Once with a physique, ego and star quality too big to be confined to the small screen, Sylvester Stallone stars in his first TV series as a Mafia don relocating to Oklahoma.

Jackass
After Jackass Forever showed there was life in both the concept and its ageing stars, the pioneering reality comedy will return for a full series of painfully funny stunts.

Victoria’s Secret: Angels and Demons
Documentaries are also on the horizon for Paramount+, with this three-parter on the rise, fall and cultural significance of the lingerie empire an encouragingly skewed subject.

From the archive

Twin Peaks
Enigmatic, influential and rewarding, David Lynch’s magnum opus has often been imitated but never equalled in its blend of surreal comedy, quotidian horror and cult casting.

Dexter
Like Twin Peaks, Dexter has been removed from NOW, and its taking of the trend for antiheroic protagonists to its natural conclusion (Michael C Hall’s forensics expert is also a serial killer) remains effective.

Nickelodeon's SpongeBob SquarePants - Paramount
Nickelodeon's SpongeBob SquarePants - Paramount

Star Trek
Trekkers are perhaps the only group likely to regard Paramount+ as essential from the outset, with every single Star Trek series ever made available on the platform.

South Park
Still available on Comedy Central, but Paramount+ will be the first place to see the new misadventures of Cartman, Kenny et al.

SpongeBob SquarePants
Paramount+ isn’t just for grown-ups: the Nickelodeon connection means kids’ series from the sublime (SpongeBob) to the inexcusable (Paw Patrol) will also be available.

What do you hope for the new streaming platform? Tell us in the comments section below

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