Discovery+ Streaming Service: TV Review

Joanna Gaines
Courtesy of Discovery+
Predictable — or, depending on your tastes, comforting — in its blandness.

Chip and Joanna Gaines headline the just-launched Discovery+ streaming service, which will host the revamped 'Fixer Upper,' along with a wide array of unscripted and nonfiction programming.

2021 began with a postponement of hope, the usual optimism surrounding the start of a new year dampened by the bleak reality that all of 2020’s biggest crises will be with us for a while longer.

Continued quarantine, combined with the winter chill, probably makes the January 4 launch of Discovery+ one of the best-timed debuts of a streaming service. Aspirational and makeover-heavy, with an unmistakable focus on home improvement (at a time when the luckiest of us are forced to stay home as much as possible), the service peddles the fantasies most alluring to us mid-pandemic: easy transformations, uncomplicated domesticity and (oof) housing stability.

Naturally, the faces that represent Discovery+ are those of Chip and Joanna Gaines, whose hugely popular HGTV series Fixer Upper, which ended its five-season run in 2018, will embark on a new iteration — subtitled Welcome Home — on the service starting January 29.

Discovery+ boasts a natural niche within the streaming wars: unscripted and nonfiction programming. Netflix has had a few breakout reality hits like Love is Blind and Selling Sunset, particularly in the last year, but the streamers have largely ignored or neglected unscripted series. By bringing in shows from HGTV, TLC, Food Network, Animal Planet, ID, OWN and Discovery Channel under one roof, the service will offer more than 2,500 series (totaling 55,000 episodes) in addition to original programming, rivaling Disney+’s catalogue in both its vastness and predictable (or comforting) mediocrity.

Access to the Gaineses (who appear in multiple shows beyond the upcoming Fixer Upper season), original 90 Day Fiance specials, BBC nature documentaries like Planet Earth, Blue Planet and the new five-part, David Attenborough-narrated A Perfect Planet — as well as select programming from Lifetime, A&E and The History Channel — will cost viewers $4.99 a month (or $6.99 a month for no ads), though some Verizon customers can enjoy 12 months for free.

Discovery+ did not allot press screeners of the new Fixer Upper to critics, but they did provide several episodes of Magnolia Table, a half-hour cooking show with Joanna, and Courage to Run, an hour-long doc intersecting Chip’s four-month training to complete a marathon with the cancer journeys of his inspiration and occasional coach, professional runner Gabe Grunewald. Joanna’s focus on “simple meals that bring people together,” like fettuccine alfredo or her grandfather’s fatayer (Lebanese meat pies), along with her unfussy demeanor and gorgeous, rich-people-rustic kitchen set, is probably catnip to fans of her young-mom relatability. But nothing here gives casual Fixer Upper viewers (like myself) much reason to tune into a 30-minute tutorial for familiar dishes we can probably scan in two minutes online.

Courage to Run is more involving, but that has less to do with Chip’s ill-advised stunt than Grunewald’s harrowing bouts of cancer, which began at the age of 20 and somehow didn’t interfere with her athletic ambitions.

The more interesting narrative here is the Gaines’ evolution from basic-cable hosts to emerging media moguls. Discovery+ is a launch pad of sorts for the Magnolia Network, which will replace the HGTV spin-off DIY Network later this year. So far, the Magnolia Network offerings, many of which will debut on Discovery+, are in need of personalities that can pop off the screen, or at least don’t disappear into the wallpaper. The newbie flippers in First Time Fixer, on which the Gaineses briefly appear, pull off an impressive condo makeover. But there’s something depressingly late-stage capitalist about millennials using trendy materials and Instagram-friendly tchotchkes to ultimately help raise prices in a housing market (Salt Lake City) that Redfin already describes as “very competitive.” Other offerings are less alarming (or, depending on your tastes, escapist), but strikingly niche, with shows devoted to profiling interior designers (Point of View) or transforming gardens (Homegrown) and backyards (Super Dad).

Other than proposing bottom-of-the-drawer HGTV ideas and 90 Day Fiance franchise expansions, Discovery+ has been marketing itself hard as a new destination for true crime. The splashiest original in this vein is the feature-length JonBonet Ramsey: What Really Happened?, a thoroughly pedestrian (i.e., unnecessarily grisly) revisiting of the 1996 case. But the most promising true-crime show on the streamer is Onision: In Real Life, a three-part doc featuring Chris Hansen (of To Catch a Predator fame) about the titular vlogger, whom a fellow creator calls “the R. Kelly of YouTube.” Despite the occasional sensationalism, the opening installment, at least, suggests a series that will explore how relatively new and under-regulated platforms like YouTube and social media, along with the intimate microcelebrity they engender, can enable the sexual exploitation of minors. Of all the programming I sampled on Discovery+, it was the only thing that seemed to understand audiences might want something they haven’t seen a thousand times before.