Friday, March 11, 2016

Streaming Showcase: Amazon Prime

I got another free month earlier this year, so what the hey. I don't want to spend 100 bucks for a year of Prime, even with Amazon raising its free shipping threshold for peons minimum to 50 bucks, so you have to take what I say with that in mind. I realiaze there are tons of benefits beyond "just" the video, but for the purposes of this review, I am pretending Amazon Prime is an SVOD service that costs 8 bucks and change per month and not factoring in the shipping, the Kindle library, the free foot massages, and whatever else they bundle in with an annual subscription.

And when I look at it that way, Amazon Prime is just not a great service. It offers a lot of content, but it continues to make it difficult to isolate content you actually want to watch. I remember being frustrated during my previous free trial that it was so hard to browse for certain types of programming. I also disliked the jumbling of Prime content with material that was NOT included with membership but which required a separate rental fee.

Well, that aspect of Amazon Prime is now even worse. Amazon offers a bunch of add-on subscriptions to the likes of Showtime and Starz, which might make purchasing and billing more convenient for customers, but it makes the actual viewing experience much harder. When I subscribe to something like this and go to my main interfaces, I want to see content that I paid for, not content that I don't get, and Amazon throws in a lot of those extras into a confusing mess without giving you the option to strip all that crap out. If I DID subscribe to Starz through Amazon, that would be fine, but I don't need to see the Starz movies when I'm trying to navigate the already poor Prime pages.

I give Prime credit for not having commercials and for offering closed captioning on virtually everything, plus I experienced few if any troubles once something actually started playing. Unfortunately, the hassle of searching through the catalogue negates much of those technical strengths. I guess on one hand it's a "good" thing: It's so hard to find something on Prime that each time you log in, you're liable to be surprised by a new item you didn't know was there. That seems to me a terrible way to run a video on demand service, though. I'd like to see better watchlist functionality as well.

The acquired content isn't enough to make Prime an attractive alternative to something like Netflix just yet. There's no real unified strategy; much of the good stuff is non-exclusive, and the content that IS only on Prime doesn't have a coherent theme. It's just a bunch of shows. "The Good Wife," "The Americans," "Justified," "Downtown Abbey"...OK, a lot of people like those series, but can Amazon accumulate enough of these pieces to make some kind of quality whole? So far, it has not, but then again, this is the danger with my approach. I suspect most Prime subscribers aren't looking at the video as a standalone component like I am and are happy for what they get as long as they get just enough to remind them they like it.

The limited HBO content is a nice extra, but is less relevant now than when it first arrived. HBO Now is expensive, but when you can add it to your Roku and get instant access to just about everything HBO-related, the trickle of seasons licensed to Prime doesn't seem like such a big deal.

Unless something radical changes--and with Netflix's continued de-emphasis of catalog TV and movies, I won't be surprised if Amazon gets more aggressive about making broad library deals with major studios--Prime may live, as a video service, on the strength of its originals. Here's the part of the post in which I confess I didn't care for what I saw of "Transparent" on a previous free trial. I do acknowledge it is a critical favorite and prestigious tentpole for Prime going forward.

I did watch 3 different Prime originals during this trial and enjoyed them all. "Red Oaks" is a bizarre concoction, an homage to 80s comedies that often plays like an 80s comedy without the comedy, but I got hooked on it despite never understanding why. Paul Reiser and Richard Kind are gold in just about all their scenes, so I should point out there is always something funny on the show, but it's notable that they stand out so much on a show focusing on the youth who work at a 1980s country club.

"Catastrophe" is a pleasant surprise, a charming but never cloying romantic comedy about a couple who enjoy a one-night (more or less) stand but become linked when she becomes pregnant. Complicating matters: She lives in England, and he was only there for business. The cast is likable, the situations are relatable if the circumstances are extreme, and best of all, it's very funny!

Amazon's adaptation of the Phllip K. Dick novel "The Man in the High Castle" quickly became a must-watch for me. It shows a universe in which World War II ends differently, with Nazi Germany taking over the Eastern U.S., Imperial Japan seizing the West, and a tenuous "Neutral Zone" existing in the middle. The show is flawed and often focuses more on atmosphere and setting than on solid storytelling, but I love the atmosphere and setting. Based on the first season's finale, I'm very concerned that future seasons will go in a direction I don't prefer, but the point is I'm invested and want to see where it DOES go.

So like other SVOD services and, really, like many cable channels right now, Amazon Prime is trying to develop some standout hits that make people reluctant to step away. I hate the idea of paying 100 bucks for a year of anything like this, and even a month-to-month option won't grab me until Amazon improves its usability and boosts its content. Yet the originals I watched this time around were good enough to at least make me think about it.

Grade: C-

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