By Mike Murphy
Planning on a Frugal February ? A dearth of big-name streaming series next month may make that task a bit easier for budget-minded consumers.
Don’t worry, though — there’s plenty to watch for everyone still stuck at home, but it wouldn’t be a bad idea to mix things up and cut some extraneous expenses during a slow month. Case in point: While this column usually tries to keep the monthly cost of recommendations in the $30-$40 range, in February you could be very happy while spending just $18 on streaming (or even less if you’ve recently bought an Apple product).
As we’ve previously mentioned , consumers can take full advantage of a cord-cutting strategy by capitalizing on the ability to add and drop streaming services each month, and all it takes is good planning. Keep in mind that a billing cycle starts when you sign up, not necessarily at the beginning of a month.
Consumers who dig around can also take advantage of free trials and cost-saving bundles, but those deals won’t last forever.
Free and bundled possibilities aside, when it’s time to decide where your subscription dollars should go, What’s Worth Streaming is here to help. We rate each major streaming service every month as a “play,” “pause” or “stop,” similar to investment analysts’ ratings of buy, hold and sell, and pick the best content to help you make your monthly decisions.
Here’s a look at what’s coming to the various streaming services in February 2021, and what’s really worth the monthly subscription fee.
Apple TV+ ($4.99 a month)
The vast majority of Apple TV+ viewers are watching on free trials, according to a recent report , but in February the service will actually be worth paying for.
That’ll be thanks to new episodes of the delightfully offbeat second season of “Dickinson,” new episodes of the darkly absurd “Servant,” and the launch of the second season of “For All Mankind” (Feb. 19), the ambitious alternate-history drama about the space race, in which the U.S. is playing catch-up after the USSR is first to land a man on the moon. Season 1 was hit-and-miss, at its best moments reminiscent of “The Right Stuff” with a twist. Season 2, taking place in the Reagan years, raises the stakes further, with the moon now at the forefront of the Cold War, and with a militarized NASA bracing for space combat with the Soviets. The cast, led by Joel Kinnaman, Michael Dorman, Sarah Jones and Sonya Wagner, is fantastic, as is the creative team, led by Ron Moore (“Battlestar Galactica”). The pieces appear to be in place for a second-season leap toward becoming one of the more compelling, interesting dramas out there.
The problem with Apple’s (NAS:AAPL) streaming service has been its lack of depth, but that’s becoming a lesser issue, thanks in part to a pair of recent — and excellent — Israeli imports: the spy drama “Tehran” and the Hitchcockian psychological thriller “Losing Alice,” which debuted in January. And if you still haven’t seen it, there’s always “Ted Lasso,” one of the best shows of 2020.
February will also bring “The Snoopy Show” (Feb. 5), a new animated series starring everybody’s favorite beagle, and “Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry” (Feb. 26), an intimate documentary about the young singer-songwriter’s rise to fame.
Who’s Apple TV+ for? It offers a little something for everyone, but not necessarily enough for anyone.
Play, pause or stop? Play. If you’ve bought an Apple device in the past year, take advantage and watch for free. For everyone else, there’s finally enough on to justify the admittedly low price.
Hulu ($5.99 a month or $11.99 with no ads)
While no big-name original series are on tap for February , Hulu at least will have a pair of Oscar-contending movies: “Nomadland” (Feb. 19), starring Frances McDormand as a woman who sets out to explore the American West after losing everything in the recession, and “The United States vs. Billie Holliday” (Feb. 26), starring Andra Day as the iconic blues singer who was targeted by a government smear campaign.
Hulu will also debut a pair of FX series — Season 4 of the ’80s drug drama “Snowfall” (Feb. 25) and the new documentary series “Hip Hop Uncovered” (Feb. 13) — streaming a day after they air on cable, and will add all 11 seasons of “Modern Family” (Feb. 3) as part of a unique deal where it will also stream on Peacock.
But, really, the best watch of the month is a show that’s two decades old and dropped in January: “Freaks and Geeks,” one of the shows that originally sparked the description “brilliant but canceled.” The outstanding high-school dramedy, which originally aired from 1999-2000, features a veritable Who’s Who of future stars (Seth Rogen, Jason Segel, Linda Cardellini, James Franco and Busy Phillips, among many others) and retains its original soundtrack (which is a big deal in the licensing world). If you haven’t seen it before, watch it. If you’ve already seen it, watch it again. It’s that good.
Who’s Hulu for? TV lovers. There’s a deep library for those who want older TV series, and next-day streaming for many current network and cable shows.
Play, pause or stop? Play. While there aren’t a ton of new additions, what’s there is, for the most part, really good.
Disney+ ($6.99 a month)
The lack of “The Muppet Show” has been a glaring hole for Disney+ since it launched, but that will be soon be rectified, with all five seasons of the beloved family-friendly variety show, which ran from 1976 to 1981, finally becoming available to stream starting Feb. 19.
February will also have fresh episodes of the reality-bending Marvel spinoff series “WandaVision” and the debut of the Disney (NYS:DIS) original movie “Flora & Ulysses” (Feb. 19), about a young girl who befriends a squirrel that has superpowers. But there’s not much new more beyond those releases.
Who’s Disney+ for? Families with kids, and hardcore “Star Wars” and Marvel fans. For those not in those groups, its library can be lacking. FYI, the monthly price will rise by $1 in March, so this is your last chance to lock in a cheaper price if you want to get an annual subscription.
Play, pause or stop? Play. “The Muppet Show” and “WandaVision” alone are enough to justify a subscription.
HBO Max ($14.99 a month)
AT&T’s (NYS:T) HBO Max will debut a pair of wildly different Warner Bros. movies in February on the same day they’re released in theaters.
“Judas and the Black Messiah” (Feb. 12) stars Daniel Kaluuya as iconic Black Panther leader Fred Hampton and LaKeith Stanfield as a conflicted man infiltrating the revolutionary group on behalf of the FBI in 1968. It looks gripping and is generating some Oscar buzz. The other big release features a more straightforward pair of antagonists, “Tom & Jerry” (Feb. 26), in another animated adaptation of the classic Hanna-Barbera cartoon. Both will be available on HBO Max for 31 days.
Max also has “Earwig and the Witch” (Feb. 5), a new movie from the legendary Japanese animators Studio Ghibli, about a young orphan who ends up living with a selfish witch. Ghibli releases are usually must-sees, but this one has already drawn fan outrage for its dramatically different style of animation .
On the series side, look for the welcome return of “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” (Feb. 14); “It’s a Sin” (Feb. 18), an AIDS drama set in the 1980s that debuted in the U.K. to rave reviews in January; and the surprise addition of “Chewing Gum” (Feb. 1), the hilarious and filthy 2015 series from Michaela Coel (“I May Destroy You”) that’s moving over from Netflix. There are also the documentaries “Fake Famous” (Feb. 2) and “There Is No ‘I’ in Threesome” (Feb. 1), fresh episodes of the reality show “Haute Dog” (Feb. 4), and the Swedish small-town drama “Beartown” (Feb. 22).
On top of that are the additions of some pretty decent movies, including Errol Flynn’s “Captain Blood” and Dustin Hoffman’s “The Graduate” (both Feb. 1), “Dunkirk” (Feb. 12) and “Blade Runner 2049” (Feb. 26).
Who’s HBO Max for? HBO fans and movie lovers.
Play, pause or stop? Pause and think it over. In terms of sheer quality, HBO Max is easily the best streaming service, with some good additions next month. But if you’re really looking to save money, you might be better off spending that $15 in another, more stacked month instead.
Netflix ($7.99 a month for basic, $13.99 standard or $17.99 premium)
For the second month in a row, Netflix (NAS:NFLX) has a surprisingly unimpressive lineup on tap . Whether the result of coronavirus-related production delays or just a seasonal lull, it may be enough for some to re-evaluate just how necessary Netflix is.
That’s not to say there’s nothing to watch. These are the times when Netflix users can fall back on its massive library of shows and find things they overlooked or haven’t had time to watch. At the top of that list should be “Lupin,” a breezy, fun French series about a charming “gentleman thief” that’s become a global phenomenon since its release in early January. The first batch of five episodes ends on a cliffhanger, but another five eps will drop this summer, Netflix says.
Netflix has at least 17 original movies coming in February, but most look forgettable. The most likely hit should be “To All the Boys: Always and Forever” (Feb. 12), the final installment in the popular but bland teen rom-com trilogy, starring Lana Condor and Noah Centineo. The relationship drama “Malcolm & Marie” (Feb. 5) had once been seen as a late-breaking Oscar contender, but some reviews have been harsh . Other movies of note include the crime thriller “I Care a Lot” (Feb. 19), starring Rosamund Pike and Peter Dinklage; and “Space Sweepers” (Feb. 5), a South Korean sci-fi thriller that’s getting decent buzz as a “Guardians of the Galaxy”/”The Fifth Element”–type of adventure.
Among new series, Katherine Heigl will make her return to TV with “Firefly Lane” (Feb. 3), co-starring Sarah Chalke, in a story about best friends whose relationship spans decades of trials and tribulations. Kevin James has a new sitcom, “The Crew” (Feb. 15), about a NASCAR pit crew, and Nadiya Hussain — one of the most beloved “Great British Baking Show” competitors ever — has a new series, titled, appropriately enough, “Nadiya Bakes” (Feb. 12). There’s also “Ginny & Georgia” (Feb. 24), a drama about a free-spirited mother and her teenage daughter, that a cynic might say sounds like a “Gilmore Girls” ripoff.
Who’s Netflix for? Fans of buzz-worthy original shows and movies.
Play, pause or stop? Pause. Suddenly, Netflix doesn’t seem so essential. If you subscribe, maybe it’s a good time to dive into its library to catch up on shows you’ve missed.
Amazon Prime Video ($12.99 a month)
It’s a slow month, too, for Amazon Prime Video , which has had an impressive run of original movies in recent months. The best of the bunch for February may be “Bliss” (Feb. 5), an off-kilter romantic drama starring Owen Wilson and Salma Hayek as a couple who are increasingly convinced that they’re living within a computer simulation. The trailer, at least, looks interesting, which is more than can be said for “The Map of Tiny Perfect Things” (Feb. 12), a rom-com about two teens trapped in a day that endlessly repeats, “Groundhog Day”–style, which sounds suspiciously like a version of last year’s Hulu hit movie “Palm Springs.”
More intriguing is “Top Class: The Life and Times of the Sierra Canyon Trailblazers” (Feb. 16) on Amazon’s free IMDb TV, a docuseries co-produced by LeBron James, following a high-school basketball team that’s stacked with talent (including James’s son, Bronny, and Dwyane Wade’s son, Zaire).
Amazon (NAS:AMZN) will also debut “Tell Me Your Secrets” (Feb. 19), a psychological thriller that TNT finally cut loose after it had been sitting on the shelf for two years. That is not a good sign.
Who’s Amazon Prime Video for? Movie lovers, TV-series fans who value quality over quantity.
Play, pause or stop? Stop. There’s a good library if you have a yearly subscription, but nothing that’s must-see this month.
Peacock (free basic level, Premium for $4.99 a month with ads, or $9.99 a month with no ads)
Peacock is short on originals in February but will add all 11 seasons of “Modern Family” (Feb. 3), in a unique sharing deal with Hulu. But there’s a twist: Only 12 episodes at a time (they’ll rotate) will be available on Peacock’s free tier; you’ll need to pay to get access to all 250 episodes.
Update: Peacock does have an original after all: The reboot of “Punky Brewster” (Feb. 25), with Soleil Moon Frye reprising her now-grown-up role from the popular ’80s sitcom. Her character is now a divorced mom whose shoes still don’t match.
Who’s Peacock for? If you like network and basic-cable TV and don’t mind ads, the free version of Peacock is great. If you’re eligible for Premium through a Comcast (NAS:CMCSA) or Cox cable subscription, it’s also a perfectly fine free addition.
Play, pause or stop? Stop. By all means check out the free version, but the paid tier will be unnecessary for most people (with the exception of soccer fans, since Peacock Premium is the exclusive streaming home of the English Premier League).
CBS All Access ($5.99 a month or $9.99 with no ads)
It’s a quiet end for CBS All Access, which ViacomCBS (NAS:VIAC) will rebrand as Paramount+ at the beginning of March. There aren’t any originals launching in February, though sports fans will be able to stream Super Bowl LV (Feb. 7) as well as a full slate of UEFA Champions League soccer matches. There’ll also be a smattering of promising new shows from CBS, such as Queen Latifah in “The Equalizer” (Feb. 7), the “Silence of the Lambs” spinoff “Clarice” (Feb. 11) — which is legally forbidden from mentioning the name “Hannibal Lecter” — and Season 2 of the Phil Keoghan–hosted reality competition “Tough as Nails” (Feb. 10).
Who’s CBS All Access for? Cord cutters who miss live sports (especially the NFL and UEFA Champions League soccer) and familiar broadcast and cable shows.
Play, pause or stop? Stop. There’s still not enough here to justify the price.
Discovery+ ($4.99 a month, $6.99 ad-free)
Discovery Inc.’s (NAS:DISCA) one-stop shop for all your unscripted-series needs is planning on more than 1,000 hours of original content in its first year, and February’s lineup reflects that, with about two dozen new shows on tap, including “Puppy Bowl Presents: The Dog Games” (Feb. 7), a pair of “90-Day Fiance” spinoffs (both Feb. 14, of course), “Chopped Sweets” (Feb. 9) and “House Hunters: Comedians on Couches Unfiltered” (Feb. 17).
Are any of those essential watching? No. But are they — and the rest of Discovery+’s massive library — perfectly fine for background watching as you fold laundry? Yep. And there’s something to be said for comfy, familiar programming that feeds that sweet spot where you don’t have to think much.
Who’s Discovery+ for? Cord cutters who miss their unscripted TV or who are really, really into “90-Day Fiance.”
Play, pause or stop? Stop. As addictive as “Chopped” or old episodes of “MythBusters” are, it’s very much a niche service, and most people won’t need it. (Besides, many of the shows are also available on Hulu.)