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Netflix is getting weird in battle with Disney Plus — here’s what we’re excited to watch

Netflix
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WHAT IS STREAM TIME?

Stream Time is where Tom's Guide senior editor Henry T. Casey dives into the big choices we make about streaming media. We tackle it all, from the best and worst streaming services and devices, to the never-ending list of shows to watch.

Earlier this year, we kicked Netflix down a rung on our best streaming services list, and with good reason. HBO Max was finally hitting its stride and getting our attention with a mix of classic and brand-new movies and shows we love. Disney Plus, too, has been taking oxygen away from Netflix on social media, with WandaVision and Loki, which have been must-see parts of pop culture, to be in on the conversation.

And then Netflix began to creep back into my streaming life in both typical and bizarre form. Its latest announced show, plus its most recent hit, are here to remind us that Netflix isn't just a place to wait on Stranger Things season 4 and Ozark season 4. Netflix is too big to stay boring — and that's a very good thing. 

Netflix lets comedy specials get surreal

I'm not a huge Bo Burnham fan, and I didn't even particularly love Inside, his newly released special — but I love that it exists. This 87-minute musical comedy is much more introspective and bizarre than the average standup special. And that's the point: it was shot by Burham himself, alone in the same room throughout the very weird year we all just went through.

It's the kind of experimentation that you may not always be in the mood for, but Netflix needs. In it, Burnham explores what we've all gone through, through the filter of how he's been creating and performing without a live audience. The Eighth Grade director dives into his own fears and self-loathing, as his on-screen personality starts to crack and show the fatigue we've all unfortunately experienced in one way or another.

Inside is a sort of show you should at least watch, to have an idea of what the heck comedy is becoming. Check out this song from it:

There's also an extremely meta level to the special, as you start to wonder what's real and what's fake, especially when Burnham ends the process in a very Truman Show-like manner, walking out onto a stage where he's greeted with applause. 

Inside isn't a total risk, of course, as Burnham brings a serious following with him. His YouTube channel has 2.17 million subscribers at the time of publishing, and the clips related to the special, promoting it, garnered 815,000 to 2.4 million views each in their first weeks of release.

But what makes Inside truly great is the (apparent) lack of interference from Netflix. They seem to know that they should just give Burnham a platform to be weird, and that the people will come. Netflix doesn't release numbers about its viewership, but we can point out that the critics and audiences sure seem to love Inside, as it's got a Certified Fresh sticker with a 97% critics score on Rotten Tomatoes (where audiences rate it at 94%).

This is the kind of special that maybe HBO or Comedy Central would have run, but Netflix got it. And while Disney Plus may have big huge hits like its live recording of Hamilton, specials like Inside are clearly Netflix's answer: providing something more personal that will truly connect with some, even while others don't "get it."

From Tiger King to Sexy Beasts: weirdos rule

And then there's this whole Sexy Beasts thing that Netflix just announced. It's the oddest dating show concept we've seen in a moment, and the kind of thing that almost defies description. A bunch of singles test each others' abilities to judge someone on their personality alone ... by dressing up in high-budget animal costumes. 

Yes, they made a dating show where people are temporarily furries. We need it now. Check out the trailer for yourself: 

Again, this isn't the strangest bet. Both Netflix's Love Is Blind and Fox's The Masked Singer are top properties for each. It's just that combination of both is the kind of thing most people would only think about, but never say aloud.

But Netflix, though? Netflix is going for it. And it ordered two six-episode long seasons. And by acquiring shows like Sexy Beasts, which looks like it will be utterly gif-able for social media, and earn a lot of word of mouth buzz, Netflix is making sure it plays in the weirdo reality TV pool that all the traditional TV channels (from broadcast TV to TLC) are known for.

And so thinking about this, I called up Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Comscore, and we talked about how Netflix is trying to own the online conversation. He said it's crucially important to Netflix, thanks to FOMO (fear of missing out), stating "if everyone's talking about a particular dating show or a particular talent or a brand, and you don't have access to that, guess what? You're left out of that conversation." And just look at that trailer, and try to tell me the GIFs won't dominate twitter, and the show won't go viral on TikTok. I dare you. 

Again, Disney Plus seemed to own online chatter with Mandalorian's Baby Yoda and the twists and turns of WandaVision, this is Netflix's way of going the same.

Netflix's niche and geeky picks build cult followings

The big headlines of Netflix Geeked Week showed that the streaming service is building on its success with The Witcher with more video game properties. Your parents may not know what a Cuphead is, but Netflix is bringing it to an animated series with voice work from Wayne Brady. 

The gaming news continued with a spinoff of Netflix's anime Castlevania series. Plus, there's going to be a live-action Resident Evil show starring Lance Reddick. 

Oh and then there's news of Shadow and Bone season 2, as Netflix ordered more of the popular YA adaptation. Remember horror author R.L. Stine? His Fear Street books are going to be a trilogy of movies this fall. 

Cowboy Bebop Netflix

(Image credit: Netflix)

Also, we got our first look at some of the casting elements in the live-action Cowboy Bebop series Netflix ordered. A series, that I might add, nobody was asking for before it was announced. A series that seemed more risky than guaranteed. A series that I now really need to see, based on the first glimpse at how John Cho's hair actually makes him look like Spike Spiegel. 

All of these announcements on their own might seem a little scatterbrained and weird. But when Netflix rolls it all out in a big package, it shows a macro-scale attack. Netflix doesn't have the titans of pop culture and sci-fi IP (Marvel, Star Wars) that Disney Plus has, but it's going to bring up something for practically every geek in the coming years. 

This all builds a series of fan loyalties, as Dergarabedian explained, saying "I think what Netflix is trying to be, and maybe they're there, is a technology that you're emotionally tied to. It's a utility, in a sense. Yes. I love having electricity, but I'm not in love with the electric company, right?"

Netflix's weird bets show it's aiming high and wide

One colleague asked me if Sexy Beasts was going to be too niche. I challenged them with my belief that the opposite is true: this show looks like everything that keeps getting renewed on TV. And that's going to help Netflix eat away at the leads made by its biggest rivals.

The new Nielsen chart for TV and streaming usage shows that Netflix is the most watched streaming media service (tied with YouTube, including its live TV service), so it's probably not going to be attacking the upstarts. As noted above, Netflix can't steal the Marvel Cinematic Universe from Disney or decades of prestige programming from HBO Max. Instead, it needs to find ways to offer its own alternatives to Disney Plus, while also trying to tear eyeballs away from the bigger pieces of the pie: broadcast (25%) and cable (39%) TV. 

So, Netflix needs to give us more reasons to tune in (and not cancel it in favor of other services), hence it makes sense it's expanding beyond its library of originals and acquired movies and shows. 

This shows that Netflix is trying to be the Facebook of streaming services, a one-stop shop for what you want to watch (though it will need live sports to get there). Dergarabedian agreed, telling me that "Netflix wants to be the television set of the '60s, '70s, '80s, and '90s," though he also believes that's the goal of all streaming services. It's just that HBO Max and Disney Plus aren't as far along on variety.

Experimental comedy, wild reality TV and a treasure trove of geeky properties will go a long way to get them there. One just hopes they don't have too many Jupiter's Legacy-level failures that cost them $200 billion.

Be sure to check out my guides to the best streaming devices (and best streaming services) for more recommendations. Email me at henry.casey@futurenet.com or leave a comment below with anything you’d like to see me cover in the streaming world — I might just address it in a future installment.

Henry T. Casey

Henry is an editor writer at Tom’s Guide covering streaming media, laptops and Apple. Prior to joining Tom's Guide — where he's the self-described Rare Oreo Expert — he reviewed software and hardware for TechRadar Pro, and interviewed artists for Patek Philippe International Magazine. You can find him at your local pro wrestling events, and looking for the headphone adapter that he unplugged from his iPhone.