NBC's Peacock joins Apple+, Disney+ and HBO Max with mix of old and new. Will it be enough?

When it comes to its new dramas, the new streaming service does have one clear winner — but it’s not the one you might expect.
Image: 30 Rock
Fans will appreciate Peacock's wealth of comedies especially, including “The Office,” “30 Rock,” “Parks & Rec,” and “Brooklyn 99.” TJessica Miglio / NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images file
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By Ani Bundel, cultural critic

Peacock, NBCUniversal’s streaming service, technically launched back in April, but the app was only available to Comcast subscribers. (Comcast owns NBCUniversal, which means it is also the owner of NBC News THINK.) The April premiere was treated like a soft launch, with little fanfare and zero original programming available. Now, 90 days later, Peacock is ready to go live across the country, available on nearly every platform (Roku and Amazon are still holdouts as of this writing), with a bevy of original series arriving as part of the package.

The entertainment landscape was already shifting when Disney announced in 2017 it was pulling all content to launch its own branded standalone service.

The entertainment landscape was already shifting when Disney announced in 2017 it was pulling all content to launch its own branded standalone service. Netflix, Amazon and Hulu were the heavyweights among a pool of dozens and dozens of niche providers. Disney’s move inspired Apple, WarnerMedia (owners of HBO) and NBC to follow suit. But as the high-profile launches have piled up over the last few months, one key success factor has become clear. It’s not what you call the service or how many devices you can reach. As Netflix has been showing its competitors, it’s the wealth of content you provide that drives the eyeballs. Peacock arrives with a strong baseline of recognizable shows and nine new series. But will that be enough?

Like Disney, NBCUniversal has successfully positioned a bevy of shows from the last two decades as “NBC products,” and the service has all of them. Fans will appreciate its wealth of comedies especially, including “The Office,” “30 Rock,” “Parks & Rec,” and “Brooklyn Nine-Nine.” The service will also bring every season and special of “Saturday Night Live,” and old school favorites, like “Cheers.” Peacock has even come up with a clever concept to display this bounty for viewers: an old scrolling TV guide format, so fans can finally just put on the “Law & Order” channel like they always wanted. (This feature is unfortunately not quite ready for prime time though — I couldn’t access using my desk setup, which has multiple monitors. In fact, Peacock apparently doesn’t like multiple monitor setups at all, suggesting it wants to be only TV- or mobile device-based.)

This is a good start, but as Apple, Disney, and HBO Max have all learned, to make people pay a monthly fee (and keep paying), there has to be new stuff to watch. Peacock is attempting to circumvent this by making a free version of the app that only has the old stuff, and the occasional original series premiere episode to tempt viewers. But most markers of its success will still be measured in how many people choose to pay $4.99 for “Peacock Premium.”

This premium Peacock version launches with nine new shows: two dramas, two comedies, two sports-focused documentaries and three children’s shows. The kids shows, all from Universal’s Dreamworks studio, are mostly standard animations designed to not offend parents. The sports docs feel underbaked, although that may be because Peacock was banking on the real-life drama of the Olympic Games to anchor its sports content. (The games would have begun next month if not for the pandemic.)

Without the Olympics, Peacock is forced to lean on its comedies and dramas. Sadly the comedies are, by far, the biggest disappointments. The first is “Psych 2: Lassie Come Home,” based on the vaguely funny USA show, which may very well appeal to that fan base — but few others. And the leading title, “Intelligence,” starring David Schwimmer is, if not dead on arrival, extraordinarily awkward. The show is a mashup of the British version of “The Office,” except set at British intelligence headquarters with Schwimmer as the “American liaison” doing his best Michael Scott. On paper, it should work, and given more than six episodes, it might have gelled. But as it currently stands, the series feels less far too sketchy and lacks a coherent formula.

When it comes to its new dramas, NBC does have one clear winner — but it’s not the one you might expect. The streamer brings two to the table: “Brave New World” and “The Capture.” Since the first announcement of the Peacock brand, the service has pushed “Brave New World” as its flagship series. Starring Jessica Brown Findlay (“Downton Abbey”), Harry Lloyd (“Game of Thrones”), and Alden Ehrenreich (“Solo: A Star Wars Story”), it has an A-list cast. But while it looks pretty, it feels thin. Entire stretches are given over to PG-rated orgies instead of clearly explaining the plot. Moreover, a TV series where audiences are supposed to sympathize with the bored and unhappy one percent feels out of touch at a moment when unemployment has reached record levels.

Thus Peacock’s best show, by miles, is ironically one that’s already aired. It’s BBC co-production, “The Capture,” which debuted on BBC One back in 2019. A police procedural in the vein of “Bodyguard,” “The Capture” is a mystery driven by the concept of the deep-fake video, when an Afghan veteran, Emery (Callum Turner), is captured on CCTV assaulting and kidnapping his own barrister, Hannah Roberts (Laura Haddock) after being acquitted of war crimes.

As the detective inspector, Rachel Carey (Holliday Grainger), digs into the case, she discovers Emery doesn’t just claim innocence, but also insists the CCTV footage is faked. As Carey tries to work out who is telling the truth, she starts running into what seems like live CCTV footage, which does not match what eyewitnesses on the scene are seeing. Though the whodunit of Roberts’ disappearance drives the story, “The Capture” hits a nerve in terms of how much trust we as a society can put in technology that’s rapidly becoming less reliable. Do you believe what the camera shows you, or your own lying eyes?

To be fair to Peacock, not everyone can land “The Mandalorian” right out of the gate. Apple TV +, for instance, also pushed the mediocre “The Morning Show” as its flagship, only to have “Dickinson” quietly take off instead. The good news is that modest hits like “Little America” and “Defending Jacob” are slowly and steadily building a base for the streamer.

And NBC still has much to bring forth, including a “Saved By The Bell” reboot and a “Punky Brewster” sequel. Hopefully the postponed Olympics will also arrive next year, providing the app a significant boost. Until then, one can only hope Peacock learned the lessons of those who came before it and keep pushing out the titles until something sticks.