The Streaming Service That Does Just Enough

Seemingly out of nowhere, Discovery+ was upon us. A new direct-to-consumer platform that includes a smorgasbord of the Discovery portfolio’s streaming and linear networks (including HGTV, ID, Food Network, TLC, Discovery Channel, Animal Planet and OWN), it was announced seemingly out of the blue a month before its domestic debut (it has been available since March 2020 in India and is already in England, the Netherlands and several Eastern European countries). Discovery+, which is often, hilariously, abbreviated to D+ (in an attempt, perhaps, to drift off the goodwill of Disney’s streaming juggernaut), aims to provide low-impact comfort food — the kind of service where, for $5 (with commercials) or $7 (without commercials), you can lose an entire afternoon to one of the many 90 Day Fiancé iterations (including several that are exclusive to the new streaming service) without knowing it. And, for now at least, that’s okay.

Discovery+’s interface is clean and intuitive; it’s divided thematically at the top (for things like “relationships” and “true crime”) and then by the actual networks/brands below, making it very easy to jump to a certain brand or channel’s programming (did you know there were Australian, British, and “Bridesmaids” spinoffs of Say Yes to the Dress? Well you do now). There are also original programs on Discovery+ across the various brands, many of which ping off of existing Discovery portfolio properties. In that way, it’s not dissimilar from the approach other brands like HBO Max or Disney+ have trotted out – originally programming based on recognizable properties, a smattering of outwardly new (but still accessible) content, and a deep bench of catalog material to sift through.

What separates Discovery+ is how much it leans into those earlier properties and how little it attempts to even remotely rewire what already works. It’s just more of the same – high-calorie junk that you can spend all day shoveling into your mouth without ever truly being full. And, again, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

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Image via TLC

Most of the advertisements (and much of the pre-release buzz) has been centered on the expansion of the 90 Day Fiancé franchise which, during quarantine (and thanks to a wonderfully colorful bunch of misfits who starred in the most recent iteration) became a certifiable blockbuster. Clearly, there is a corporate emphasis on the series. TLC President Howard Lee recently referred to it as “our version of the Marvel Cinematic Universe,” which isn’t far off. It’s become a series of interconnected series, starring characters that appear on their own shows and in spinoffs, sometimes in a completely different context, but all share a similar theme and aesthetic, built around the messy international quest for love.

Of the new 90 Day spinoffs on Discovery+, 90 Day Diaries is clearly the best. It revisits some of your favorite (or maybe infamous is the right word) participants on the main show and delivers entire segments specifically from their POV. So you get to see people like David and Annie talk to their cellphones as they deal with the pandemic and increasing boredom/frustration levels. It’s charming and shifts the formula just enough to feel fresh and intimate.

Another of the spinoffs that is meant to feel more intimate, but comes off as gross and weird, is 90 Day: Bares All. Shaun Robinson, the incredibly patient host of the reunion specials that typically cap the season, is back to host this new show, which positions itself as going deeper into territory that they couldn’t or wouldn’t go into on the main show. In the inaugural episode, this means that she sits with Brandon Gibbs (a goodie two-shoes mama’s boy who ran into trouble with his conservative parents over his new girlfriend) and grills him about whether or not they had sex in the bedroom next to the parents’ room. They then showed footage, captured for the show but too racy for broadcast television, that essentially shows him getting a hand job. (Elsewhere in the episode, Southern loudmouth Angela Deen shows up to give advice and screams the word “cock.”) There’s pushing the boundaries for censorship-free streaming and then there’s whatever icky nonsense this is. Perhaps even more awkward: a clumsy musical number by Tarik Myers, who refers to himself as “the Black Anthony Bourdain.”

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Image via Discovery+

And keep in mind these are just two of the spinoffs for the new streamer – there’s also 90 Day: Journey (a sort of clip show/recap of entire couples’ relationships) and The Other Way Strikes Back! (where participants of the latest season react to social media analysis). The decision to make so much of this content exclusive to a premium platform has angered some fans but all of this new material should delight those choosing to shell out for Discovery+.

Discovery+ offers a comforting mixture of new and old; I quickly slipped into a marathon of Celebrity I.O.U. (what, am I not going to see the bold living room remodel engineered by Alison Janney for her longtime assistant?) and got a kick out of Frozen in Time, a Discovery+ exclusive home renovation show co-hosted by Brady Bunch cast member Maureen McCormick (it doubles as a pseudo-spinoff to last year’s A Very Brady Renovation HGTV event). And, of course, there’s a new UFO show called UFO Witness. The truth is out there. And by “there” I mean “Discovery+.”

Initially, the prospect of Discovery+ seemed like a weird cash grab. But watching it for a few hours, its genius emerged. The Discovery stable of channels and shows are rarely something that you’ll sit down and watch. Outside of 90 Day Fiancé, does anyone even know when the first-run episodes of these things actually run? True to its name, Discovery series are ripe for discovery. You’ll be flipping channels on a groggy Sunday morning and come across Hoarders, unable to leave the couch until the packrats on screen have gotten rid of their antique teapot collection. Discovery+ invites that kind of accidental viewing patterns, and a phenomenon I can only describe as “hey, what about …?” (This is how I tragically learned that I had, indeed, watched every episode of kooky, Texas-based home design show One of a Kind.)

The question will be whether or not Discovery+ can maintain interest once you’ve watched every episode of House Hunters and Forensic Files on the platform. Will there be enough new programs and legacy content (why aren’t there more episodes of Unsolved Mysteries and Ancient Aliens?) to warrant the price? That answer is, as of yet, still undiscoverable.

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