I grew up in a TV household. When the chatter of school and outside play wrapped for the day, I had a watchlist of late afternoon and primetime television to unwind. I was doomed from the start in this department, as watching TV was pretty much all I saw my parents do for leisure. While we made a point to eat dinner together on Sundays, any other day of the week we could all be found eating dinner in front of our respective TVs . Whether it was watching a VH1 marathon of I Love the __’s, watching Survivor with my parents, or dutifully watching wrestling shows, television has always been escapism for me.
This is still very much the case in the modern day. In the Before Times (pre-COVID), when work and my hourlong commute home left me a puddle of exhaustion on the couch, all I could bear to do was watch TV. I’m somewhat of a unicorn Millennial in that I still have an extensive cable package in addition to several streaming services that I watch regularly. I’m also unique to my age group in that I cannot binge 10 to 22 episodes of a series in one day. I like to take time with my entertainment to fully absorb it; rushing through and finishing a series in a matter of days not only makes me prone to forgetting everything I’ve watched, but also leaves me feeling empty when it’s all over. I enjoy the anticipation of waiting a week for the next episode to air, as we did as kids. I revel in the slow burn and making the fun last. And as we’ve established, not having anything to watch is a big No in my household.
Like many Americans, I was laid off this year. Without warning, there was nothing to escape from, because the world became the four walls of my apartment. There’s only so much productivity you can squeeze into days filled with anxiety, dread, and existential crises about the state of the nation. So I did what any self-respecting person does when faced with these overwhelming emotions: I watched Netflix.
Only I didn’t just watch Netflix. I also watched Hulu. .And HBO Max. And YouTube. Though I could explore HBO and YouTube here, I want to focus on perhaps the two most ubiquitous streaming services among The Youth™️: Netflix and Hulu.
After 9 months of scientific exploration of both streaming apps, I’ve concluded that Hulu is the superior platform. She is the moment, and Netflix wishes she could stunt like Hulu does.
Let’s address the elephant in the room first: yes, Hulu has ads and Netflix doesn’t. Yes, ads are annoying. But do you know what’s more annoying? Not being able to read the description to a show or movie in peace because the trailer for that show or movie starts playing within one second of you hovering over its thumbnail. I cannot express how much I hate this feature when scrolling Netflix. My partner and I, on more occasions than I can count, have opened Netflix to find something to watch and played the stressful game of deciding within that one second before the trailer starts if we want to watch each thing before scrolling past it. We move at lightning speed and think just as quickly so the videos don’t start, and ultimately close the app in frustration. It is so jarring and disruptive to casual browsing. It’s like that overbearing department store clerk who walks up to you while you’re “Just looking, thank you” and launches into their two-minute spiel about the sales going on that day and how you absolutely need that foundation. I might have bought it, Carol, but because you were so obnoxious about it I’m leaving more quickly than I entered.
Hulu, on the other hand, has no such function. You can silently scroll, read more than a one-sentence description, and thoroughly assess if the show is for you. One of the other benefits of Hulu is that, largely because of the ads, you can pace yourself a lot better. You’re given a wee bit more time to decide if you want to go on to the next episode in a series, and the ads are a nice break for you to scroll your phone and fidget if you need to. Hulu encourages more balanced viewing, while Netflix prefers you to just barrel through shows.
Which leads me to the biggest difference between the two streaming juggernauts: their original series. Keeping it a buck, Hulu has better original content. It’s just a fact. This is mostly because Hulu actually gives their shows a chance to succeed when Netflix infamously does not. We’ve heard of countless Netflix originals with promising starts only to be cancelled because they didn’t receive enough mainstream buzz to “justify” their recurrence. The Get Down, Sense8, Iron Fist, Jessica Jones, One Day at a Time, GLOW — the list goes on and on.
When Netflix entered the television lexicon with such cultural icons as House of Cards and Orange is the New Black, they got ahead of themselves with the praise these shows earned, and began churning out original series at factory-like speed. The result was a lot of half-assed promotion to bring audiences to these shows in ways that could have supported longer runs. Many of the platform’s cancelled shows were beloved by dedicated fanbases, but since Netflix became spoiled by prestige-level recognition for their inaugural series early on, they could not recognize the micro-successes the shows that followed gave (often marginalized) audiences.
What’s left on Netflix now is an odd mix of abruptly-ended original series, a mediocre mix of film and network hits, and a lot of reality game show content. To the latter I’d say that I’ve watched a handful of entertaining shows this year — particularly The Circle, Too Hot to Handle, and Awake — but otherwise Netflix reality shows read as clumsy attempts at a genre that networks like Bravo, MTV, and TLC have long perfected. Scrolling through Netflix’s rolodex, particularly when looking for a new TV show to watch, proves very hit or miss when there are so many unfinished shows available to stream. Why get invested in something only to Google it and find out the show was never given a proper ending?
Not only that, but the shows that remain on Netflix lack depth. You can rely on a Netflix original to have immaculate set-pieces, stylish costumes, and enchanting imagery. It is very easy to get lost in the beauty of a Netflix show. The problem is, their original content doesn’t offer more in the department of substance. Originals like Emily in Paris, Enola Holmes, and The Queen’s Gambit (yes, The Queen’s Gambit, don’t @ me) are entrancing in their own ways to watch. But the problem with Netflix shows is that they offer very little in the way of interesting characters or plot to make them memorable. I often find myself watching something on Netflix one day and days later not remembering anything that happened throughout my watch. Outside of richly layered successes like The Crown and Stranger Things, Netflix rarely offers stimulating content.
By contrast, Hulu offers a robust mix of fan favorites, nostalgia, and original content. Hulu has a partnership with premium cable stalwart FX, and this connection to the “real” world of television on cable is evident in how their content is written. Hulu originals such as The Handmaid’s Tale, PEN15, Ramy, Little Fires Everywhere, Mrs. America, and Bad Hair have made waves in the last few years among critics for embodying innovative approaches to various established genres. Their foodie content, like Eater’s Guide to the World and Taste the Nation with Padma Lakshmi, isn’t just food-porn visuals, but rather curious explorations into various food cultures. Though there are some great food-based selections on Netflix, such as Salt Fat Acid Heat and The Final Table, Hulu is more intentional about their offerings to this genre. They don’t create content for the sake of content. If they make something, it’s because they have something to say about the subject matter. Hulu appears to have a firmer grasp on the stories they’re trying to tell with each original series or film, which leads to more interesting storytelling. Netflix seems more interested in simply holding your attention for as long as possible with shiny objects.
Comparing the tale-of-the-tape for both platforms, Netflix has Hulu beat when it comes to binging. Turning on The Great British Baking Show in the background of your day without ads is an intensely satisfying experience when watching Netflix. However, in just about every other way, Hulu is more gratifying. Their originals are more thought-provoking. Their catalogue is extensive without being overwhelming to navigate, unlike with Netflix’s dark and terribly cramped interface. Hulu has old favorites like Living Single and forever-faves like Grey’s Anatomy. It has riveting documentaries, such as Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am and Kiki. It has everything Netflix does, but with a better selection and more thoughtful writing. If you can look past the repetitive ad breaks, you might finally see Hulu as the towering streaming force that it is.