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Saturday, April 13, 2024

Pluto TV and the Nostalgic Joy of Drop-In Television

Every night after bath, my 3-year-old and 5-year-old are allowed to pick one show before bed. We have subscriptions to Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Hulu, CuriosityStream, and the PBS Kids app, so this can take a while.

Sometimes, as my 3-year-old ponders whether or not he’s in more of a Dino King or Dinotrux mood or the 5-year-old mimes swiping to indicate which exact Paw Patrol episode she wants out of the bajillions available online, my head starts to melt. They’re all the same, kid. Every Paw Patrol is exactly the same!

It’s hard to sustain the upset, though, when the experience is universal. Twenty minutes after they’re in bed, their dad and I will do the exact same thing, only with the addition of silently Googling multiple reviews on our phones. We have two precious hours before we collapse from exhaustion. Why am I wasting this time reading Netflix roundups? Why is this so hard?

Surfer's Paradise

In this endless loop of quarantine time, this repeating scenario is why I have become mildly addicted to Pluto TV. It's a free streaming service that you can watch either in your web browser or through an app on any streaming device. Programming is presented live, just like broadcast TV. You scroll through different categories—news, sports, music—and whatever’s on, is on.

It’s advertiser-supported, so the quality of content is surprisingly high. At least, I think so, given that I mostly have Pluto on in the background. The sports section has constant soothing replays of Major League Soccer games, or professional anglers wildly excited about tigerfish, or surfers in endless green barrels on the Action Sports channel.

My other recommended channels are British TV for the anglophiles, MTV, and the cult movies channel, which seems to exclusively play movies that were popular during my formative years (this morning, it’s Memento and Donnie Darko). There’s also a 24/7 kitten and dog channel in the Home section!

Watching random things seems like a hard sell. There’s a lot of really great TV and movies on demand, a lot of fascinating podcasts (including our own). Every day is an endless, circular discussion. Everything has to be intentional.

But considering your options takes time and energy. My day is filled with dozens of draining, tiny time sucks. It’s the 10 minutes that I stand at the door, my dog waiting not-so-patiently at my side, scrolling through podcasts to find just the right one to listen to on our walk.

It’s the 15 wasted minutes out of the 40 minutes I have earmarked for a run, all because I wanted to add a few more songs to my playlist. “Weren’t you going to go on a run a while ago?” my husband asks, as I finally head out the door. “Dinner’s almost ready.”

Pluto TV erases those minutes lost to decision-making. There are only a few channels in every section, so picking a groove is easier and faster. It turns out that I don’t always miss having The Perfect Thing on all the time. In fact, watching The Perfect Thing used to be an event, like watching The X-Files every Friday night with my mom. Those times were special.

Most of the time, broadcast TV was just what happened to be on. I miss that—broadcast’s oddly specific rhythms. I like popping into the middle of a show and shouting, “Whoa! What are they doing to those wildebeests!” I miss the hilarious associations, like choosing to make out to Clear and Present Danger with my high school boyfriend in the basement because it had the loudest background noise.

Also—and I realize this may be an unpopular take—I miss commercials. I miss having little built-in breaks to get up, make a comment, go to the bathroom. I also just really like the ads themselves. I know we now pay to get rid of them, but they’re fascinating cultural artifacts that I would otherwise never come across on my own.

I mean, are most peoples’ cars as smelly as Febreze seems to think they are? Is it weird that my daughter will never hear a Chihuahua say, “Yo quiero Taco Bell?” I miss it! (Now seems like a good time to mention that you can also always watch QVC live, where I also love to learn about kitchen devices and mukluks).

Quicker Picker

Choice is a MacGuffin. You think you want a show, or a podcast, or some specific form of entertainment. But the odd, unstoppable binge aside, you don’t really want a specific show—you want a feeling, an experience.

Watching my kids waffle over whether or not to pick one episode of Leo the Truck or the other clarified that for me. They know they’re supposed to want something. They know they’re supposed to make a decision, and that this decision will have consequences, and one will be better than the other, even when it’s clearly not, even when the only purpose of TV is to get them to stop moving their little bodies long enough for me to wrestle them into their pajamas.

Likewise, does it really matter if you spend tonight watching My Octopus Teacher or Killing Eve? If you’re spending more than a few minutes deciding what to watch, just give up. Maybe what you want is to not watch TV, but to spend a precious evening hour with your partner, or turn your brain off from a hard day at work. In that case, let me suggest 15 minutes on Pluto TV’s cult movie channel and take one less task—the task of deciding—off your mental plate.

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