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Arts and Entertainment Thursday, Jul. 8, 2021 3 months ago

Binge Blog: Pluto TV is your new nostalgia hit

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Plus, a Sarasotan lands on a CBS reality show, and is competition show "The Mole" being revived?
by: Ryan Kohn Sports Reporter

Normally, I do not talk about non-streaming service TV shows in this space, but I have to make an exception for this news: There's a Sarasotan on the next season of CBS' 23rd-annual summer bonanza of a reality show, "Big Brother," which began Wednesday. (If you missed it, don't worry; you haven't missed much, and there's a recap before each episode.)

Alyssa Lopez will represent Sarasota on the next season of "Big Brother." Photo via CBS.

Alyssa Lopez, 24, will compete alongside 15 other "house guests" for a chance to win $750,000. "Big Brother" is my favorite garbage pile of a TV show. It is nothing. That is not necessarily a criticism of the format so much as a plain truth. The contestants do some challenges and form alliances and vote each other out based on, well, whatever criteria they want, but they mostly lounge around a big house and crack jokes and do ridiculous things and sometimes make out.

For some reason, I watch it every year and chat about it with my sister. It's oddly addicting, and it helps that it's on three nights a week on CBS. (It's on 24/7 on the Paramount Plus live feeds. And I do mean 24/7; the "Big Brother" name comes from the fact that the cameras in the house are never off, and the lapel mics are always on, making sure that every conversation is recorded, even ones had between pillows. Things can get weird.)

Anyway, we here at Binge Blog are throwing our support behind Lopez, a swimwear designer who, fun fact, also has a drone aircraft license. Neat! For more info on Lopez or the other contestants, EW's got you covered

Pluto TV

An example of Pluto TV's listings.

Once again, me taking a few weeks off from this column has led to me getting beat to a topic by someone else. This time it's Vulture's new streaming-centric vertical Streamliner. But you have to pay to read Vulture (as good as its stuff typically is), and this is free, so who's the real winner here?

Anyway, what I want to talk about is Pluto TV. In all likelihood, you have seen the Pluto TV logo while scrolling through an app store but have never given it a second thought. You have certainly never considered learning more about it. Why would you? The logo looks like something from the 1970s, and the name is generic enough to assure you that you are not missing anything by not having it. You would be sort of right, if this is the case. Pluto TV is not essential in the way a service like Netflix or HBO Max is, assuming you think any streaming service can be essential. (If you don't, why are you reading this?) 

It is, however, interesting, and in a time when very few streaming services could be given that adjective — be honest with yourself: When is the last time you flipped on Hulu and found something unique? — being interesting is not Nothing. It is in fact Something, and so Something we will discuss. 

The first thing you should know about Pluto TV is that it is free. Not free with a paid, ad-less tier or free with pay-to-rent newer films. Just … free. Aah yes. Doesn't that make you feel relaxed? When I hear that a streaming company doesn't want to gobble my money, I feel like a dog sleeping in a pool of sunlight coming through a glass door. It is heaven. 

"But Ryan, oh, Ryan," I hear you saying. You're whispering for some reason, perhaps because you're about to drop the dreaded C-word.

"What about the c-c-c-content? A free service is great, but only if I want to use it." 

I agree. I'm getting there. First, though, we have to discuss the service's delivery methods, which is really what makes it stand out. Pluto TV works like — you're not going to believe this  — television. There's something like a billion channels (a ballpark figure) for you to scroll through, and they air "live," meaning if you come across something you want to watch, you can't start from the beginning. You just have to start watching wherever it's at. The thing is, Pluto TV's offerings aren't traditional channels like ABC or CBS. They're Frankensteins. There's one channel entirely devoted to "CSI" and its many offshoots. There's a "Narcos" channel. There are channels for classic shows like "The Addams Family" and "Happy Days." These shows play in order; one episode goes canonically into the next.

There's a whole channel dedicated to "The Addams Family" on Pluto TV.

There are also channel cocktails like "Showtime Selects," which seems to be episodes of various Showtime offerings, and "Paramount Plus Picks," the same thing but with, well, Paramount Plus. There are movies, too: There are genre channels including action, comedy, drama," etc. — as I write this, I'm watching a bit of the underrated "Junebug" on the drama channel — but also movies on demand. Those you can start from the beginning, and yes, they're still free. They include major releases like the "Hunger Games" films and schlock like whatever this is, but beggars, choosers, you know the drill. 

Even if you don't end up using Pluto TV much, I really do recommend trying it and seeing if anything catches your eye, especially if you don't have a hankering to watch anything in particular. I recently railed against Netflix's Play Something feature because it is a mark against intentionality in art consumption, and I stand by that. Pluto TV feels like a nice compromise, though. Whereas Netflix only wants you to watch its flavor of the week, Pluto TV curates options and meets you in the middle. You want to watch a comedy movie? Great, tonight you're getting "Kingpin." In two hours, it'll be "Surfer, Dude." No extra thought necessary and certainly no skips. You don't need an account, either. Just download the app, or visit its website, and turn it on. 

I'm not going to say I use Pluto TV every night. I don't. But there are times when I get sick of scrolling through endless Netflix menus and want to be surprised. I've been drawn to Pluto TV's classic offerings, watching a few minutes of "The Addams Family" before flicking over to catch the end of an "American Gladiators" episode. Maybe you'll be that way with the "Degrassi" channel, or the cult classic movie channel, filled with stuff you've been meaning to watch but never have. (To that end, I have now flipped on the Jamie Lee Curtis slasher "Prom Night.")  Or, get this, there's an MTV channel entirely devoted to … music videos. What a concept! 

Could I simply turn on actual TV and flip around the channels there? Yes. But there's something about Pluto TV that feels more at home to me. It's more eclectic. It features more forgotten gems. It makes channel surfing fun again, like when you were a kid just home from school. That alone is worth feeling. 

"The Mole"(2001-???)

Netflix, TV-PG, two seasons, 22 episodes

It's "The Mole," baby!

Hell yes. Finally, the best reality show ever devised is available to stream. 

"The Mole" ran for five seasons on ABC, but only two are available on Netflix. That's OK because the two available are the two best ones. (There were two celebrity seasons — never as good or fun an idea as you think! — and one regular fifth season, which was a sham because it had a different host. More on that in a second.)  If you've never heard of "The Mole," I know what you're thinking: What is this, a show about dermatology? Think again, rookie! 

The titular mole refers not to skin blemishes, nor to pesky mammals that love gardens, but to moles of the espionage variety. Here's how the game works: Ten contestants work together to complete missions given to them by the show. These could be things like tightrope walking across a gulch (while harnessed) or overcoming language barriers to find hidden objects in a given city. Each challenge successfully completed by the group adds money to a pot. Whoever eventually wins the show gets the cash raised. 

"But if everyone's working together, how does anyone actually win the pot?"

Great question, and it's where the show's ingenious premise comes into play. One person in the group is actually … the mole! The mole is playing a completely different game, having been paid beforehand to actively sabotage the group (in secret). If you want to win, you have to sniff the mole out. 

There is a quiz each episode, testing the contestants on how close they are getting to the mole's identity. These quizzes ask questions like "How old is the mole?" and "What did the mole eat for breakfast today?" The person who does the worst on each quiz is eliminated — or, in the show's terminology, "executed." Players have to constantly be taking note of other's actions. They're given journals to write down their thoughts, and smart players will even lean into the idea of people thinking they're the mole in order to make them score worse on the quiz. It's fascinating to watch people step into different roles. Viewers don't know who the mole is, either. Trying to guess their identity based on how each challenge goes adds to the fun. 

The cherry on top: "The Mole" is hosted by a pre-CNN Anderson Cooper, and he's so good in the role, bringing the show a unique gravitas. The show's aesthetic is peak early aughts, with lots of greens and blacks paying homage to "The Matrix." It's quite nostalgic. 

The show is good, and you should watch it. I know some people don't like to watch shows with only a few seasons, which is also why I bring you this: There are rumors going around that a new season of the show is filming in Australia this summer, under the code name "The Insider." Reading the casting notices for the show, it does seem to be exactly what "The Mole" was. And isn't it interesting that the rumors of a new season hit the web right around the same time the show finally hit Netflix and can rebuild its audience? Especially because the rumors say the new season will be for a streaming service? Someone play "Things That Make You Go 'Hmmmm... '" right now!

So now you have no excuse. You have to watch "The Mole." I'll know if you don't!

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I’m the sports reporter for Sarasota and East County and a Missouri School of Journalism graduate. I was born and raised in Olney, MD. My biggest inspirations are Wright Thompson and Alex Ovechkin. My strongest belief is that mint chip ice cream is unbeatable.

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