During the pandemic, I finally bought a television. Maybe you did too. It’s not that I didn’t watch things constantly prior to this — “I don’t own a TV” went from just a snobbish thing to say to a diagnosable marker for sociopathy years ago — but co-workers who review content for a living declared it unthinkable that I watched everything on my 13-inch laptop screen. So, because quarantine was a time for betterment, I found a used flat-screen smart TV on Craigslist and set it up in my bedroom like a real muckety-muck.
Thing is, so many of the major streaming services operate on Cheesecake Factory logic: They offer vast menus of mostly mediocre options, and it all leads to decision paralysis. I ended up rarely turning on the TV. I feared the TV. I missed the days when it was my friend and not my enemy, when I had unlimited access to free cable by dint of being a dumb child living at my parents’ house. I didn’t want to pay for cable or even one of those live TV cord-cutting alternatives that end up being just as expensive as cable, and I didn’t want to sign up for any more streaming services due to the Cheesecake Dilemma. I should’ve known that because there’s a streaming service for everything, there’d be a streaming service that offered exactly what I was looking for.
It’s called Pluto TV, and it’s the best streaming service you’re not using. (Unless you are, in which case, let’s start some sort of fan club.)
Launched in 2014 and snapped up by ViacomCBS in 2019, Pluto is a streaming service that mimics the experience of channel surfing. The first thing you’ll notice upon downloading it to your smart TV or opening it in your browser is its single best feature: It doesn’t require you to make an account. No log-ins, no password sharing, no newsletters spamming your inbox making recommendations you didn’t ask for. It’s, quite simply, the most frictionless experience in streaming today — a no-commitment affair. Considering how many barriers are set up for online experiences these days, to access streaming video content without a log-in feels like a FastPass. To turn it on and be immediately greeted with some sort of content in progress — maybe it’s Pawn Stars, maybe it’s Urban Legends 2 — really feels like cable.
It’s also free. That’s the part that feels like it comes with a catch. It’s ad-supported, but commercials only add to the verisimilitude of the cable-adjacent experience. Pluto’s ads strike a middle ground between the repetition you find on Hulu or YouTube (the algorithm seems convinced that I own a multitude of homes and cars in need of insurance) and local spots that aren’t far off from what you’d expect on cable, including plenty of campaign spots for the New York City mayoral race. And I, for one, welcome those ad breaks during my Survivor: Cook Islands marathons.
It wouldn’t matter if it was all free, or if you didn’t need to reset a password every few months, if the content was ass. But reader, this content is anything but. Pluto TV’s 200-odd channels are divided by genre, with sections including News, Sports, Movies, Reality, Comedy, and Home/DIY, which makes for easy navigation. And because it’s owned by ViacomCBS, the bench of content runs deep. On any given day, the Comedy Central channel will be running episodes of Kroll Show, Nathan for You, and Key & Peele; IFC will have Portlandia and Comedy Bang! Bang!; and one of the reality stations will be running a top-tier America’s Next Top Model season, one episode after the other. Could you seek out any one of these shows individually on another streaming service? Sure. But there’s a joy to happening upon them mid-episode and riding them out. To actively search for and hit play on season two of ANTM is a chore. But to just happen across it? That’s a gift.
There are plenty of comforting obscurities that lend themselves to background viewing, too. There’s an entire channel dedicated just to Tiny House Nation. Another only has shows about wedding cakes and wedding dresses. Do you know how many reality shows are made about backcountry fishing? More than you’d think. At the rate other streamers release new, buzzy series, you can feel constantly pressured to keep up with a bunch of original programming that’s really only a 6 out of 10 at best. (Is The Queen’s Gambit actually any good, or is it just new and expensive?) Pluto TV, on the other hand, has an entire channel devoted to Naruto. There’s zero pressure to keep up with a constant rollout of new prestige series; Pluto’s just vibes.
And where other streaming services have a dearth of programming from earlier than the 21st century, Pluto benefits from Paramount’s library of classic films. There’s a Paramount movies channel, a cult movies channel, a classic movies channel, a ’70s Cinema channel, and dedicated channels for every genre you can think of. On the Black Cinema channel, I’ve watched everything from I Am Not Your Negro to Eddie Murphy’s Raw. Another time, I tuned in to one of the movie channels just in time for the Milaga Cooler scene from Elaine May’s A New Leaf. I had been meaning to watch it, and suddenly there it was. Channel surfing, versus an algorithm feed, leads to joyful, spontaneous discovery that makes you feel like a more participatory viewer.
There are close to 20 separate classic TV channels, including one that plays wall-to-wall Carol Burnett Show, and a TV Land feed where I’ve personally been watching Designing Women all day to educate myself about the Complete Unabridged Works of Jean Smart. This isn’t just a free substitute for cable, it’s possibly an improvement: There are four separate niche MTV channels on here, and all of them have music videos and a much-needed lack of Ridiculousness. ( If music videos don’t speak to your own personal MTV nostalgia, there’s also an entire Jersey Shore channel).
For those moments when you find there’s truly nothing on TV, Pluto also has an On Demand tab, and while you browse, you can keep watching whatever it is you were watching. Why more streamers don’t have window-in-window we don’t know. There aren’t DVR or pause functions, but this just adds to the pre-TiVo nostalgia.
If there’s any downside to Pluto, it’s that you can find far-right outlets Newsmax, Blaze, and OAN among its news offerings. Why would a streaming service named after the cutest planet provide a platform for such malice? Why would the warm nostalgic tide pool that is Pluto TV harsh our streaming experience like this? How come, ViacomCBS?
I worry about the future of Pluto TV. Now that ViacomCBS has its shiny new Cheesecake Dilemma–adjacent streamer Paramount+, I fear this scrappy and strange free option may get lost in the shuffle. Enjoy it now, because it feels like channel surfing before the days of content burnout, and it won’t ever try to gaslight you into thinking that an iCarly reboot is worth watching. If you’re a cord-cutter in the real, no-live-TV-streaming-substitute sense, Pluto will fill a hole in your screen-time-tired heart that you didn’t even know was there.