The first billboard I see as I exit my neighborhood right now features America’s first family. Actually, it shows the two rival clans competing for that crown: the Simpsons and the Kardashians – and I’ll leave it for you to decide which is the most cartoonish.
Their oversize presence was there to announce the arrival in Israel of Disney+, which launched here on Thursday (along with some 60 other countries in Europe, the Middle East and Africa).
Yet despite all the billboards featuring well-known figures from Pixar movies, the “Star Wars” world and the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Disney really could have just hired a plane and skywritten the three words to tell us what we already know: resistance is futile.
The worldwide success of Disney+ is all-but-guaranteed. I’ve already come to think of it as the in-flight entertainment system for the Death Star, and it’s destined to be the No. 1 player in the streaming market for decades to come – unless some careless Disney executives have overlooked a thermal exhaust pipe flaw the rest of us have yet to detect, anyway.
It was very telling that on the weekend Disney+ launched, Netflix’s two major new offerings were comedy series “God’s Favorite Idiot,” starring Melissa McCarthy – a show that generated as much heat as a popsicle in the Arctic – and a big-budget Chris Hemsworth movie, “Spiderhead,” which Variety described as setting “a new low for Netflix.” In fact, the entertainment trade bible doubled down on that insult and also called “God’s Favorite Idiot” a “low point for Melissa McCarthy and husband [and show creator] Ben Falcone.” Netflix, now coming to you from the Dead Sea.
It was also announced last week that McCarthy is set to star in Jerry Seinfeld’s directorial feature debut, “Unfrosted: The Pop-Tart Story,” alongside Amy Schumer and Hugh Grant – which seems to embody exactly where Netflix is right now: taking a lot of punts on big names whose best years are probably behind them (ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I am now holding up a photograph of Ryan Murphy). And what does it tell us when the streamer’s biggest show of the month is a Korean remake of its first international hit, “Money Heist” (aka “La casa de papel” in Spanish)? At this rate, we should expect a Spanish equivalent of “The Crown” by 2024.
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Netflix’s head of global TV, Bela Bajaria, recently described the streamer as being the “underdog” these days, after its rivals all developed platforms to steal away its talent and subscribers. It’s become the victim of its own success, suffering the same blows at the hands of Amazon, Apple and now Disney that it delivered to HBO and other U.S. cable companies about a decade ago. And now, of course, HBO is fighting back with its own streaming option, HBO Max.
When Disney bought Pixar in 2006, Marvel in 2009 and Lucasfilm in 2012, it’s unlikely its big thinking at the time revolved around very small screens and building platforms for its content in tiny markets like Israel. Yet these three purchases – and that of 20th Century Fox in 2019 – have allowed it to create the kind of high-profile shows with immediate brand awareness that Netflix can only dream of.
Surf through the Disney+ platform and you’ll see more “Star Wars” and Marvel characters than in a geek’s bedroom: Obi-Wan Kenobi, Boba Fett, Baby Yoda, Hawkeye, the Winter Soldier, Wanda Maximoff… The pandemic may have dented Disney’s cinematic hopes, but it did wonders for its small-screen ambitions – as witnessed by its straight-to-streaming U.S. releases of the Pixar films “Turning Red,” “Luca” and “Soul” (all on the Disney+ platform).
But beyond the glittery originals from Marvel and Lucasfilm, the really impressive thing about Disney+ is the wealth of material on there from Day One – from Pamela Anderson sex-tape comedy-drama “Pam & Tommy” and powerful Sackler family drama “Dopesick” ('both courtesy of Hulu, which has been full owned by Walt Disney since 2019) to comedy hits “Reservation Dogs” and “What We Do in the Shadows” (both courtesy of FX, which Disney screens internationally via its Hulu ownership).
Right now, Disney+ is probably the world leader in U.S.-generated streaming content (if you’ve never seen them before, Disney+ also has the wonderful “The Americans” and “Mrs. America”), but is weak on international shows – the opposite of Netflix.
That’s likely to change as Disney pours more money into its overseas originals, although it’s worth noting that its two French productions – “Weekend Family” and “Parallels” – are not yet available in Israel, months after premiering in France.
Something to watch out for will be how quickly new seasons or new shows from the likes of FX and Hulu make it to Israel. Season 1 of the Hulu smash “Only Murders in the Building” is on Disney+ globally, but will season 2 debut at the same time as in the United States (June 28)? Let’s hope so.
Of course, Disney+ arrives at a time when household pocketbooks are strained and budgets are being trimmed – just ask William Ackman, the U.S. investor whose hedge fund made a $400-million loss on Netflix stock just three months after buying it for $1.1 billion earlier this year. (Note to self: Pitch “Spill Bill: The William Ackman Story” to Disney, Amazon or Apple.)
Disney+ will doubtless be hoping its family appeal will differentiate it from the competition. And the exclusive offer for Yes TV subscribers – Disney+ free for six months – may likely prove a great way of establishing the brand in Israel. Still, Disney might want to consider adding Arabic and Russian to the list of languages the platform is available in, in addition to Hebrew and English, to maximize its potential audience here.
*I’ve just handed over 400 shekels ($115) for the year, meaning the amount I spend annually on TV subscriptions is second only to Benjamin Netanyahu’s legal fees as the greatest personal expenditure in the Holy Land. I just need HBO Max and Peacock to reach Israel and I can officially file for bankruptcy.
Are all the subscriptions justifiable? Based on the amount of television I actually watch, definitely not. But I’m a sucker for supporting things I love and clearly have more money than sense, as my mother is always telling me, so I won’t be canceling Netflix, Apple et al anytime soon.
If you’re contemplating signing up to Disney+ in Israel, here are 11 shows that may help seal the deal…
1. ‘Moon Knight’
The first episode of this Marvel adaptation starring Oscar Isaac as nebbishy Marc Spector is one of the most mind-blowing introductions I’ve ever seen, and the rest of the series does not disappoint. Turns out we do need more shows inspired by Egyptian moon gods.
2. ‘Ms. Marvel’
I’m not a big one for comic book adaptations as a rule, but the warm reviews for this series – about a Pakistani-American teenager in New Jersey discovering she has secret powers – have convinced me to add it to the “My Space” section. And yes, Disney+ calls its watch list “My Space.”
3. ‘Reservation Dogs’
Typical! You wait ages for a show about Native Americans, then three turn up at once (the others being “Rutherford Falls” and “Dark Winds”). Season 2 of this comedy set among a group of Native American teens on a reservation in Oklahoma begins in August, so catch up with the irreverent yet also charming first season now.
4. ‘Pam & Tommy’
You probably don’t associate Disney with sex tapes – other than that infamous Buzz Lightyear one, anyway, where it’s revealed just how he got his nickname – so kudos to the house of mouse for offering this Hulu comedy drama about partners Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee, and their 1990s brush with infamy.
5. ‘The Gloaming’
I’ve been trying to track down this Aussie thriller for a while, so thanks to Disney+ for obliging. The Tasmania-set series stars Emma Booth and Ewen Leslie as cops, with Leslie seemingly contractually obliged to appear in every single Australian series being made.
6. ‘Obi-Wan Kenobi’
I’ve not seen any of the “Star Wars” spin-off series – it’s a galaxy far, far away from what I’m interested in watching for fun – but feel I should at least try one of them. This one starring Ewan McGregor seems the most connected and relevant to the original films, so I’ll give it a go.
7. ‘The Ignorant Angels’
Another one on the ‘to-watch’ list, this Italian series is about a widower discovering the shocking truth about her late husband: he had a lover. And that’s seemingly only the start of the surprises as she delves into his secret life after reaching out to his other partner.
8. ‘The Beatles: Get Back’
It was Paul McCartney’s 80th birthday on Saturday, which seems as good an excuse as any to watch/rewatch Peter Jackson’s epic three-part documentary about the recording of “Let It Be” back in 1969. I’m not even the world’s biggest Beatles fan, but found this magical.
Another rare foreign-language series on Disney+, this four-parter recounts the murder of French-Algerian student Malik Oussekine in Paris in 1986, and its subsequent impact on French society. Nazareth-born Hiam Abbass (“Succession”) stars as Malik’s grieving mother.
10. ‘The Dropout’
The Hulu connection gives Disney+ this powerful drama about Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes (Amanda Seyfried) and her fraudulent blood-testing scam. Come for the startup scoundrel, stay for the brilliant supporting cast, which includes Stephen Fry, Laurie Metcalf and William H. Macy.
11. ‘Only Murders in the Building’
Was there a more purely pleasurable series in 2021 than this comedy thriller starring Steve Martin, Martin Short and Selena Gomez? A joy from beginning to end, with the theatrics of Short’s theater impresario delivering the biggest yuks. I just hope there’s a spin-off podcast, too.