Streaming services are big business – Netflix alone has almost 200 million paid subscribers worldwide. They can also be confusing and overwhelming, so below you'll find a breakdown of the five biggest paid platforms available in Ireland to snap you out of your choice paralysis.
The Netflix juggernaut ploughs mercilessly onward. Not only is it the largest streaming service on the planet, it has become (for better or worse) a hugely influential TV and film production studio in its own right. The biggest advantage Netflix has over its competitors is the sheer volume of content on offer. There are currently more than 6,000 titles available to stream, so whatever your tastes, you’re sure to find something good to watch.
Price: Plans range from €7.99 to €17.99 a month (depending on how many screens you want to stream simultaneously).
Pros: As mentioned above, the number of titles available to stream is by far the biggest advantage over other platforms. The ability to create five profiles for each account is another bonus; it's an excellent way to keep recommendations tailored to your own tastes. And, after years of honing and refining, the interface is as good as it's ever been – intuitive and simple.
Cons: You really do have to sift through a lot of rubbish before you get to the good stuff. No live sports could be a deal-breaker for some.
WHAT TO WATCH:
Bojack Horseman (six seasons)
If you haven't seen Bojack Horseman yet, just know that it's not what you think. After a middling first season, it quickly evolves into one of the best shows Netflix has produced: a sprawling and surprisingly moving study of loneliness, depression and disillusionment. Don't worry, it's also hilarious. The sheer quantity of jokes, wordplay and sight-gags per episode is up there with early Arrested Development.
Mindhunter (two seasons)
Netflix is riddled with tawdry tales of real-life murderers; David Fincher's dark psychological thriller is one of the few programmes to treat the subject with the gravity it deserves. It's a fascinating twist on the police procedural in that no crime is being solved; instead we are faced with a far more challenging problem: trying to figure out why serial killers kill.
Godless (one season)
An outlaw trying to escape his former gang ends up in La Belle, New Mexico – a town run by women after most of the men were killed in a mining accident. Managing to subvert plenty of tropes while remaining an excellent western in its own right, Godless is a thrilling slice of character-driven action. To resist bingeing is quite impossible.
Russian Doll (one season)
It's a bittersweet thing to watch a show like Russian Doll in lockdown. Natasha Lyonne plays a woman stuck in an existential (and very literal) time-loop, reliving the same New York party night after night. It's great and everything, but all you can think watching it is, "I would kill to be stuck in a never-ending party right now."
Call My Agent! (four seasons)
With season four currently in the cultural spotlight and garnering rave reviews, now is the perfect time to get on board this brilliant French comedy. Following the chaotic antics of a Parisian talent agency, it's the type of show that makes you feel ever so slightly more sophisticated just for having watched.
Wet Hot American Summer (two seasons)
It might not be everyone's cup of tea, but if you're on board with the brilliantly stupid (or stupidly brilliant) humour, this is the gift that keeps on giving. Seeing the incredible ensemble cast of Elizabeth Banks, Jason Schwartzman, Paul Rudd, Amy Poehler et al dive head-first into the nuttiness is, quite frankly, hilarious.
Studio Ghibli's back-catalogue (21 films)
Why waste money going to a fancy day spa when watching the films of Studio Ghibli offers the same deep sense of therapeutic relaxation? Let the beautifully hand-drawn animation and themes of youth, memory and our lost connection with nature slow your pulse and melt your stress.
Maybe it’s the oozing proliferation of the Amazon brand into our everyday lives, but it’s hard not to feel slightly cynical about Amazon Prime. The fact that one of the major selling points of signing up to the service is free next-day delivery from the main site makes the whole enterprise feel like a sordid gateway drug to more Amazon products. Having said that, there is a lot of great stuff to watch here, from some of the best TV dramas in recent years to long-forgotten 1980s slasher films.
Price: £5.99 (€6.89) per month. Also available as part of Amazon Prime membership, which costs £7.99 per month or £79 for an annual subscription. This includes access to Prime Delivery and Amazon Music (will be charged in sterling).
Pros: Besides the ever-growing library, Amazon Prime enjoys a lot of interesting advantages over its rivals. For starters, it is now dipping its toe into the warm, lucrative waters of live sports broadcasting. In Ireland it shows regular live tennis and NFL matches, with Premiership football on the way. It also has an excellent "X-Ray" feature that links to IMDb and allows you to pause what you're watching and find out anything from actors in the scene to trivia and character backstories. Plus, a lot of the older films have their original trailers attached, which comes as a very welcome shot of nostalgia.
Cons: A poor recommendations system combined with a staggeringly inept search function means it can often be hard to actually find what you want to watch. Another minor quibble: the images chosen for title thumbnails are universally atrocious. It's almost impressive how they manage to make even the most brilliant shows seem desperately unappealing.
WHAT TO WATCH:
The Americans (six seasons)
Ostensibly a spy thriller about two KGB agents posing as a married couple in 1980s Washington DC, The Americans is so rich, multilayered, densely-plotted and clever, it's hard to sum up in a synopsis so neat. One of the very best shows of the last decade and worth the subscription alone.
Documentary Now! (three seasons)
You don't have to be a fan of documentaries to enjoy Fred Armisen and Bill Hader's superb send-up of the genre, but it helps. Every episode is a spot-on spoof of a well-known documentary, with such attention to detail and aesthetic verisimilitude it's hard not to marvel. If you're still unconvinced, start with the Grey Gardens or The Thin Blue Line episodes. Absolute perfection.
The Looming Tower (one season)
A brilliant adaptation of Lawrence Wright's Pulitzer prize-winning book, The Looming Tower examines in forensic detail the failures of US intelligence in the lead-up to 9/11. Focusing on the bureaucratic infighting and failure of co-operation between the CIA and FBI, it pulls no punches in its assessment that the attacks could have, and should have, been prevented.
Too Old to Die Young (one season)
This bizarre crime series from Nicolas Winding Refn (Drive, Only God Forgives) is pure Marmite. You'll either love it or hate it. It is languid to the point of parody; everything from the purposefully stilted delivery to the beautifully hypnotic tracking shots invokes a strange dream-like quality. It is also upsetting, stomach-churningly violent, nasty and completely unlike any other TV show out there.
Tales From the Loop (one season)
Another slow burn, Tales From the Loop is a science-fiction show set in small-town Ohio where a huge facility known as "the Loop" is used to "make the impossible possible". Inspired by the paintings of Swedish artist Simon Stålenhag, it is a beautiful and meditative series that will leave you with a lot more questions than answers, but at least they're questions worth thinking about.
The most recent challenger to the Netflix crown, Disney+ is off to a flying start. To its credit, and unlike some of the other streaming services, it has a clearly defined vision and some huge exclusives. As you'd expect, all the Disney classics are there, from Bambi right through to Frozen II. They also have the rights to multibillion-dollar franchises such as Marvel, Star Wars and Pixar, all but ensuring the platform's growth in the coming years. If you're looking for a family-friendly streaming service, Disney+ is a no-brainer, and its new Star channel, launching on Feb 23rd, promises a broader range of grown-up drama from Hulu, FX and ABC in the US for European audiences, plus a much broader movie catalogue. Star's highlights include Dopesick, a drama starring Michael Keating and Rosario Dawson, and The Old Man, a new TV thriller starring Jeff Bridges. But all this comes at a higher cost.
Price: €6.99 per month, or €69.99 for an annual subscription (until Feb 23rd, after which the price will increase to €8.99 per month or €89.90 for an annual subscription).
Pros: Having genuinely quality content for the kids to watch is a huge boon. The joy and satisfaction of never having to sit through another Paw Patrol really can't be overstated.
Cons: Apart from The Mandalorian, the newly-produced TV shows have been pretty underwhelming, but Star should change that. On a technical level, the default volume setting is far lower than other apps, for some reason. It's possible this is done on purpose to protect sensitive little ears, but in reality it just means you have to crank the volume of your TV far higher than you generally do.
WHAT TO WATCH:
The Mandalorian (two seasons)
It's hard to know what younger audiences would make of it, but for fans of the original Star Wars trilogy, The Mandalorian is a triumph on every level. The aesthetic, humour, music, creatures and planets are so spot-on it's impossible not to grin like a child the whole way through. Puts all those prequels and sequels to shame.
WandaVision (one season)
Even if you haven't seen any of the Avengers films, there's still plenty to enjoy in this off-kilter entry in the sprawling franchise. Presented like a classic sitcom with a mysterious twist (so far; each new episode streams weekly), it is the strangest and most intriguing entry in the Marvel catalogue yet.
Soul (1h 47mins)
Pixar's latest is every bit as good as you'd expect, continuing their incredible knack of gently introducing kids to life's big questions. Here we follow Joe, a music teacher who gets stuck in the afterlife following an unlikely accident.
Gravity Falls (two seasons)
It's rare to find a TV show parents can genuinely enjoy alongside their kids, but Gravity Falls can consider itself one of the hallowed few. Twins Dipper and Mabel spend the summer with their uncle in Gravity Falls, a Twin Peaks-type town with a lot of weird stuff going on.
Despite a slick interface and a few excellent titles, Apple TV+ is easily the most underwhelming of the big streaming platforms. The problem is it almost exclusively streams Apple-produced content and at the moment there is just not enough available. Only about 40 shows and films are available to stream; most of them not that great, but Apple is clearly playing the long game – it has invested $6 billion into the venture, with plenty more shows and films in the works.
Price: €4.99 per month, after seven-day free trial. If you have recently bought an Apple device you may be eligible for one year free.
Pros: At least it's on the lower end of the price scale.
Cons: Extremely limited library. On top of that it is often difficult to discern which titles are available as part of the Apple TV+ package, and which ones you have to pay extra for. Also, it may be expected, but it's a shame you can't install the app on Android devices.
WHAT TO WATCH:
The Morning Show (one season)
Apple TV's flagship programme received a lukewarm response on release, but in retrospect that only goes to show the folly in scoring a show based only on the first few episodes. It gets a lot better as it goes on. Ignore the critics and the fact it cost about $300 million to produce (seriously – how?) and enjoy it for what it is – a compelling and timely drama with standout performances from Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon.
Wolfwalkers (1h 43mins)
Is it ridiculous to call Cartoon Saloon the Irish Studio Ghibli? Probably, but with each new film they release it becomes less so. In their distinctive style now synonymous with the studio itself, they again meld myth and history beautifully in this tale set in 17th century Kilkenny.
Boys State (1h 49mins)
Who hasn't been fascinated by the blazing dumpster-fire that is American politics over the past few years? In Boys State, we see 1,000 Texas teenagers enter into a sort-of political boot-camp and attempt to form a mock government. It is a brilliant documentary – absorbing, alarming and ultimately quite depressing.
Visible: Out on Television (one season)
A five-part documentary examining the history of LGBTQ+ representation on television, from the medium's earliest days right up to the present. Shows like this can often feel phoned-in and superficial, but Visible is a thoroughly researched and fascinating look at how TV can shape (and is in turn shaped by) the wider cultural landscape.
Streaming content from premium channels such as Sky Atlantic or Sky Cinema, Now TV has a very flexible subscription plan (or expensive, depending on how many you sign up for). So if you have no interest in films, just go with the entertainment pass, which gives you access to hundreds of TV shows and box sets. For sports fans, the ability to purchase a day pass is great for those unmissable matches.
Price: Individual passes are renewed monthly – Entertainment (€15), Sky Cinema (€15), Kids (€7), Sports (€34, with 50 per cent off first three months); each (other than Sports) has a seven-day free trial. When you cancel any pass you'll be tempted back with a cheaper offer – worth checking out even if you don't want to cancel.
What to watch: The Good Lord Bird, Deadwood, Moonbase 8, Succession, Escape at Dannemora, Bad Education
With a focus on arthouse and classics, Mubi’s big draw is a superb and thoughtfully-curated monthly rotation of worthwhile films. If the film nerd in your life has a birthday coming up, a gift subscription could be just the ticket.
Price: €9.99 per month. An annual gift pass costs €69.99.
What to watch: In the Cut, Meshes of the Afternoon, Heat, Ratcatcher, Toni Erdmann
Curzon Home Cinema
UK cinema chain Curzon have been ahead of the curve for a while now; they have been releasing films simultaneously in cinemas and their own streaming platform for almost a decade. They have a brilliant catalogue of films available on a very easy-to-navigate site.
Price: Rentals vary from about €4.50-€17. Memberships are available, but many of the perks are tied up in actual visits to UK cinemas.
What to watch: Saint Maud, Slalom, Barb and Star Go to Vista del Mar, Babyteeth, Rams
A Sunday matinee in the IFI, followed by a beer in their cafe to discuss the film is one of life’s great, uncomplicated pleasures. Although currently off the cards, we now have the next best thing – their entire library available to stream from home.
Price: Rentals vary from €3.99-€9.99.
What to watch: Possessor, Assassins, Relic, Grizzly Man, Tokyo Story
Celebrating Irish cinema first and foremost, there’s plenty of international films to enjoy on Volta, besides. With some great collections such as The Films of Ken Loach, Irish Women in Film, and Palme d’Or Winners, you’ll get your culture fix in no time.
Price: Rentals vary from €2.99-€5.99
What to watch: Calm with Horses, Jihad Jane, Extra Ordinary, What Richard Did, Shirley
Yes, this old thing is still knocking around. In fairness, the app is in a lot better shape than it used to be. You’ll have to sit through a good few ads, but it’s a small price for free access to some great boxsets.
What to watch: Seinfeld, The West Wing, Line of Duty, Fleabag, The Terror, Normal People, Frasier