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Opinion: What’s worth streaming in May 2021? There’s almost too much to choose from

For the first time in months — maybe going back as far as pre-pandemic times — it’s time to really get excited for the bounty of high-quality shows about to hit streaming services. But now that many of us are vaccinated and can do things outside the house again, will anyone have time to watch them all?

The cutoff for Emmy nominations is May 31, so streaming services are launching some of their biggest prestige shows now in hopes that they’ll be fresh on Emmy voters’ minds. That creates a bonanza for viewers, who can pick between Amazon’s “The Underground Railroad,” Netflix’s “Master of None,” HBO’s “In Treatment,” Apple’s “Mythic Quest,” Hulu’s “Shrill,” Peacock’s “Girls5Eva,” among many others — not to mention buzzy April-premiering shows such as Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” HBO’s “Mare of Easttown,” and Apple’s “Mosquito Coast” that will still be dropping new episodes in May.

But rather than sign up for half a dozen services, it might be best to prioritize your watch list, balance it with how much less time you’re going to spend sitting on the couch, and plan accordingly.

So What’s Worth Streaming will try to make the hard decisions for you, capping the number of truly must-have services at three and keeping the total streaming bill under $35, because — come on — we’re all gonna want to go outside at some point and spend money on things we haven’t been able to do in a year.

As we’ve previously mentioned, consumers can take full advantage of cord-cutting by churning — that’s the strategy of adding and dropping streaming services each month — and all it takes is good planning. Keep in mind that a billing cycle starts when you sign up, not necessarily at the beginning of a month.

Also keep an eye out for free trials and cost-saving bundles. There are a lot of them out there, but those deals won’t last forever.

Free and bundled possibilities aside, when it’s time to decide where your subscription dollars should go, What’s Worth Streaming is here to help. We rate each major streaming service every month as a “play,” “pause” or “stop,” similar to investment analysts’ ratings of buy, hold and sell, and pick the best content to help you make your monthly decisions.

Here’s a look at what’s coming to the various streaming services in May 2021, and what’s really worth the monthly subscription fee.

HBO Max ($14.99 a month)

HBO Max has been a must-have streaming service (maybe THE must-have service) so far this year, and that’s still the case in May.

This month, it’ll be Angelina Jolie in “Those Who Wish Me Dead” (May 14) as the big Warner Bros. movie to debut on Max the same day it hits theaters. Jolie stars as a traumatized smoke jumper who ends up rescuing a lost boy in the woods, and then has to escape from both the assassins who are hunting him and a raging wildfire that the bad guys set to smoke them out. It looks dumb but pulse-pounding, and that’s perfectly fine for a summer movie. Max will also finally start streaming “Tenet” (May 1), last year’s overly complicated Christopher Nolan thriller, and “Wonder Woman 1984” (May 13), the lackluster superhero sequel that came out in December.

Among series, don’t sleep on the revival of “In Treatment” (May 23). The Emmy-winning therapy drama hasn’t aired since 2010, and Season 4 is a full reinvention, now set in Los Angeles, with Uzo Aduba (“Orange Is the New Black”) taking over for Gabriel Byrne as the therapist anchoring the show. Expect vulnerable, intimate performances as her patients navigate modern-world concerns — including the pandemic — and the good doctor tries to keep a handle on her complicated life.

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HBO Max is also premiering the six-episode topical comedy “That Damn Michael Che” (May 6), starring the “Saturday Night Live” veteran; “Hacks” (May 13) a dark comedy starring Jean Smart as a fading stand-up comedian; Season 2 of the fierce voguing competition series “Legendary” (May 6); the two-part documentary “The Crime of the Century” (May 10), as Oscar-winner Alex Gibney takes on Big Pharma and the opioid crisis; “Oslo” (May 29), a movie based on the Tony Award-winning play about behind-the-scenes drama at the historic 1993 Mideast peace talks, starring Andrew Scott (“Fleabag”) and Ruth Wilson (“The Affair”); as well as the midseason finale of the new fantasy series “The Nevers” (May 16) and the finale of the superb new cop drama “Mare of Easttown” (May 30).

All impressive, but the most exciting addition of the month has to be Season 4 of the Italian mob epic “Gomorrah” (date TBA), which first aired in Italy in 2019. The unrelentingly bleak and brutal series chronicles the ebb and flow of a Naples crime empire, and when it comes to telling such a sprawling story with a multitude of characters from rival factions, all with incredible depth and grim realism, “Gomorrah” may be rivaled only by HBO’s classic “The Wire.” It feels so gritty that you’ll want to shower after watching, but once you’re hooked you won’t be able to turn away.

Who’s HBO Max for? HBO fans and movie lovers.

Play, pause or stop? Play. Between HBO Max’s intriguing newcomers and its extensive and excellent library, one could argue this is the only streaming service you really need right now. Yes, it’s $1 more than Netflix, but absolutely worth it (also, a cheaper, ad-supported version is reportedly coming in June).

Netflix ($7.99 a month for basic, $13.99 standard or $17.99 premium)

Netflix has been hobbled in recent months by pandemic-related production delays that finally slowed its pipeline of quality shows (it’s not a surprise that new subscriptions plunged in the first quarter, since Netflix wasn’t offering many reasons to tune in). But for the first time this year, not only are there a ton of new series and movies on the way, but a whole lot of them look good.

In terms of quality, the surprise return of the Emmy-winning romantic-comedy series “Master of None” (May 23) — after a four-year layoff — is the highlight of the month. While the first two seasons focused on the love life of Dev, played by series co-creator Aziz Ansari, Season 3 shifts to London and centers around Dev’s friend Denise (Lena Waithe) and her relationship with her partner, Alicia (Naomi Ackie). It’s a bold move but understandable, in the wake of sexual misconduct accusations against Ansari in 2018. But the Denise-centric Thanksgiving episode in Season 2 was the most acclaimed of the entire series, so it’s probably a wise direction to steer into.

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also has the Big Dumb Movie of the month, with Zack Snyder’s  Army of the Dead” (May 21), a gleefully violent zombie/heist mashup starring Dave Bautista as the leader of a team of mercenaries out to rob a Las Vegas casino’s vault. The only hitch? Vegas is crawling with zombies. Honestly, this looks splatterrific, insanely over the top and awesome. Amy Adams’ “The Woman in the Window” (May 14) looks less awesome. The “Rear Window”-esque psychological thriller needed reshoots to patch confusing subplots, and suffered other setbacks that delayed its release by two years. That’s rarely a good sign. And for those who aren’t claustrophobic, there’s “Oxygen” (May 12), a French thriller starring Mélanie Laurent as a woman trapped in a cryogenic chamber desperate to escape before she runs out of air.

See more: Here’s what’s coming to Netflix in May 2021 — and what’s leaving

There are also a slew of notable series on the way: Part 2 of Season 5 of the supernatural crime drama “Lucifer” (May 28); and Part 2 of “Selena: The Series” (May 4), about the life of the late Mexican-American pop superstar; “Halston” (May 14), a limited series from Ryan Murphy and starring Ewan McGregor as the iconic fashion designer; the true-crime docuseries “The Sons of Sam: A Descent into Darkness” May 5); the superhero-comic adaptation “Jupiter’s Legacy” (May 7), starring Josh Duhamel and Leslie Bibb; the financial docuseries “Money, Explained” (May 11); “The Upshaws” (May 12), a sitcom starring Mike Epps, Wanda Sykes and Kim Fields; a new season of the Emmy-winning animated sci-fi anthology series “Love, Death & Robots: Volume 2” (May 14); Season 2 of the popular Mexican thriller “Who Killed Sara?” (May 19); and Season 3 of the comedy “The Kominsky Method” (May 28), starring Michael Douglas and Alan Arkin.

Who’s Netflix for? Fans of buzz-worthy original shows and movies.

Play, pause or stop? Hit play. Netflix is back.

Apple TV+ ($4.99 a month)

It’s also a great month for new-ish stuff on Apple TV+, even though there are only a couple of big May premieres.

One is “Mythic Quest” (May 7), which has thankfully shortened its name for Season 2. The workplace comedy set at a videogame company is one of Apple’s best series. Like “Ted Lasso,” “Mythic Quest” started as one thing — sort of a “Silicon Valley”-type satire — and over the course of its first season matured into something much more, showing a surprising amount of heart and emotional depth in its oddball characters. If you enjoyed Season 1 and haven’t looked back, do check out the two bonus episodes that have dropped since last year’s finale: one pandemic-themed ep, “Quarantine,” appeared last May while another episode — “Everlight” — which bridges the first two seasons, surprise-dropped in April. Both are satisfying, feel-good episodes, in a non-sappy, Lasso-esque way, and lay the groundwork for (hopefully) great things to come in Season 2.

There’s also “1971: The Year That Music Changed Everything” (May 21), an eight-episode docuseries featuring interviews and archival footage that examines the massive impact of pop music from that year, from artists such as Marvin Gaye, the Who, the Rolling Stones, Aretha Franklin, Joni Mitchell, Bob Marley, Lou Reed and more. Apple TV+ has a solid collection of music documentaries, and this looks like one of the better ones.

Meanwhile, the Justin Theroux-led drama “Mosquito Coast” debuts April 30, with new episodes coming every week in May. It looks like it could comfortably fit in the “Breaking Bad”/”Ozark” milieu of not-so-great dads recklessly leading their families into a life of crime. The catch-up binge of the month has to be “For All Mankind,” the alternate-history space-race drama that just concluded a strong second season. While Season 2 may have meandered in its early episodes, it came on strong at the end, and the finale — which centered around a Cold War crisis on the moon — was perhaps the most gripping episode of television so far this year. Not many shows have the ability to so deftly balance multiple divergent story lines and weave them all (well, most of them at least) together in such a thrilling and satisfying manner, but “For All Mankind” nailed it. Highly recommended.

There’s also Season 2 of the charming, if overly sincere, British comedy “Trying” (May 21), starring Rafe Spall and Esther Smith, who move this season from trying to conceive a baby to trying to adopt one.

Who’s Apple TV+ for? It offers a little something for everyone, but not necessarily enough for anyone.

Play, pause or stop? Play. Apple’s
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service doesn’t have enough to be essential every month, but it has enough to be worth paying for this month.

Hulu ($5.99 a month or $11.99 with no ads)

Hulu has been fairly quiet of late, but looks loaded for May.

For starters, there’s the fourth season of the popular dystopian drama “The Handmaid’s Tale” which premiered April 28, with new episodes dropping every week in May. It’s an intense show with a big fan base, but its misery-porn aspects just make it unwatchable at times.

On the much, much brighter side is the third and final season of “Shrill” (May 7), Aidy Bryant’s comedy about a proudly plus-size woman in Portland. The new season finds the newly single Annie plunging into the dating scene again. Balancing a fine line between hilarious, heartfelt and humiliating, it’s one of Hulu’s best original shows.

There’s also  the animated Marvel supervillain series “M.O.D.O.K.” (May 21), featuring the voice of Patton Oswalt; the six-part FX docuseries, “Pride” (May 15), about the decadeslong struggle for LGBTQ rights; a new season of Freeform’s dramedy “The Bold Type” (May 27″); the documentary film “MLK/FBI” (May 14); and the teen comedy movie “Plan B” (May 28).

Also: Here’s what’s coming to Hulu in May 2021, and what’s leaving

But the best series of the month could be one that’s far below most viewers’ radar — Season 3 of “Mr Inbetween” (May 26, streaming a day after episodes air on FX). The Australian hit-man dramedy stars Scott Ryan as Ray, a violent goon who would be a protagonist’s nightmare in another show. It’s a refreshingly different take on the well-worn antihero trope, as a violent guy who’s not all bad — the first two seasons saw Ray being a doting father to his young daughter and caretaker of his ailing brother — as he tries to find somewhat of a live/work balance. But the rage bubbling just below the surface can’t help but keep exploding, sometimes at the worst moments. There’s a sadness to Ray, and unexpected depth. The first two seasons were really dark, but mesmerizing, and viewers shouldn’t expect anything less for Season 3.

Of note: While FX will air the third and final season of the underground-ball drama “Pose” starting May 2, it’s one of the few FX series that won’t go to Hulu, due to producer Ryan Murphy’s overall deal with Netflix, where it’ll eventually stream.

Who’s Hulu for? TV lovers. There’s a deep library for those who want older TV series, and next-day streaming for many current network and cable shows.

Play, pause or stop? Pause and think it over — only because there’s exceptional competition this month. Hulu may be a splurge, but with a strong lineup of fresh shows to go with its extensive library, it’s also the best value in streaming.

Amazon Prime Video ($12.99 a month)

So in a month filled with very good shows, which will be the very best? The odds-on favorite has to be Amazon Prime Video’s “The Underground Railroad” (May 14). The 10-part limited series from Oscar-winner Barry Jenkins is based on the brilliant Pulitzer Prize-winning alt-history novel by Colson Whitehead, and follows the flight of Cora (Thuso Mbedu) from a slave plantation in the antebellum South to freedom in the North, via a literal underground railroad, all the while being chased by a determined bounty hunter. It looks spectacular. And its literal look is a big part of that, with a dreamlike visual style from director Jenkins (“Moonlight”) that plays off colors and shadows, creating a lush, vivid, cinematic canvas that demands to be viewed on the biggest screen available. The pieces are there for this to be the best, and most important, series on TV this year.

See: Here’s everything coming to Amazon Prime Video in May 2021

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also has “Solos” (May 21), a seven-part anthology series with a big-name cast, including Anne Hathaway, Helen Mirren, Uzo Aduba, Anthony Mackie, Constance Wu and Morgan Freeman. But aside from a nebulous description that it “explores the strange, beautiful, heartbreaking, hilarious, wondrous truths of what it means to be human,” Amazon has released few details. It might be good, or it might be a self-important mess, and it’s too early to hazard a guess either way.

Who’s Amazon Prime Video for? Movie lovers, TV-series fans who value quality over quantity.

Play, pause or stop? Pause and think it over. “The Underground Railroad” alone is probably enough to merit a subscription. But there’s just not enough else compelling enough on Prime Video this month.

Disney+ ($7.99 a month)

A month without new Marvel stuff? Gasp!

Yes, it’ll be a rare Marvel gap, between April’s end of “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” and the premiere of “Loki” in June. (“Black Widow” had been scheduled for a May release, but got bumped back to July.) But it’s not like Disney has an empty cupboard.

The big title of the month is  “Cruella” (May 28) a live-action “101 Dalmatians” spinoff starring Emma Stone, which will debut on Disney+ for an additional $30 fee the same day it hits theaters. For those wanting to save money and whose kids have patience, don’t worry, it’ll likely be available for subscribers for no additional fee in a few months.

May 4 (and May the Fourth be with you, too!) will bring the premiere of the animated “Star Wars: Clone Wars” spinoff “The Bad Batch,” about a rogue squad of clone soldiers getting into post-Clone Wars adventures.

There’s also the Season 2 premiere of the teen favorite “High School Musical: The Musical: The Show” (May 14); new episodes of “Big Shot” and “The Mighty Ducks: Game Changers” every week; and “Launchpad” (May 28), a new collection of live-action shorts.

Who’s Disney+ for? Families with kids, and hard-core “Star Wars” and Marvel fans. For those not in those groups, its library can be lacking.

Play, pause or stop? Stop, if your kids will allow it. It’s a rare lull for Disney+, so save a few bucks while you can, because the Disney
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content machine will soon be ramping up again.

Paramount+ ($5.99 a month with ads, $9.99 no ads)

Not a lot new here this month, but the best of the bunch appears to be “From Cradle to Stage” (May 6), an unscripted six-part series from Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl and his author mom, Virginia Hanlon Grohl, about the relationships between musicians (including Dan Reynolds of Imagine Dragons, Pharrell Williams and Brandi Carlisle) and their mothers.

Soccer fans can look forward to the second leg of the UEFA Champions League semifinals (May 4 and 5) and the Champions League final (May 29), and with the recent implosion of the Super League, fans can probably enjoy both of those a little bit more. Meanwhile, reality fans will have the season finale of “The Challenge: All Stars” (May 27) to look forward to.

Who’s Paramount+ for? Gen-X cord-cutters who miss live sports and familiar ViacomCBS 
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 broadcast and cable shows.

Play, pause or stop? Stop. Unless you’re a big soccer fan, there are not a lot of must-sees here.

Peacock (free basic level, Premium for $4.99 a month with ads, or $9.99 a month with no ads)

“Girls5Eva,” the pop-music comedy from Tina Fey (“30 Rock”) and Meredith Scardino (“The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt”), has been one of Peacock’s most anticipated new series, and all eight episodes will finally drop May 6.  Sara Bareilles, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Paula Pell and Busy Philipps star as the aging former members of a one-hit-wonder girl group from the ’90s who reunite for one last shot at pop-culture relevance. There’s some serious sitcom talent behind this show, and it has some seriously goofy potential.

There’s also a new series called “Intergalactic” (May 13), about which little is known other than the title, and Season 3 of the animated “Madagascar: A Little Wild” (May 27).

Who’s Peacock for? If you like network and basic-cable TV and don’t mind ads, the free version of Peacock is great. If you’re eligible for Premium through a Comcast 
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or Cox cable subscription, it’s also a perfectly fine free addition.

Play, pause or stop? Stop. By all means check out the free version, but the paid tier will be unnecessary for most people (with the exception of soccer fans, since Peacock Premium is the exclusive streaming home of the English Premier League). “Girls5Eva” and April’s affably amusing new sitcom “Rutherford Falls” will still be there to binge when there’s a more compelling reason to subscribe (say, for the upcoming Summer Olympics).

Discovery+ ($4.99 a month, $6.99 ad-free)

It’s the story of Discovery+’s young life: Lots of decent shows to binge, but not a lot that scream “WATCH ME NOW!” That’s the case again in May, as the undisputed leader in unscripted series rolls out even more.

The best of the bunch look to be “Queen of Meth” (May 7), a three-part documentary about a drug-dealing “queenpin” who happens to be actor Tom Arnold’s sister; “Meet the Meerkats” (May 8), a nature docuseries narrated by actor Rob Delaney; “Chopped Next Gen” (May 25), featuring Gen Z chefs (which is a bit weird because the regular “Chopped” has plenty of young up-and-coming chefs, but whatever); “90 Day Fiancé: Foody Call” (May 29), yet another “90 Day” spinoff, this one focusing on couples in the kitchen; “Citizen Penn” (May 6) a special about actor Sean Penn’s Haitian relief efforts after the devastating 2010 earthquake; and “Clipped” (May 12), a topiary competition series, because why not?

Who’s Discovery+ for? Cord cutters who miss their unscripted TV or who are really, really into “90-Day Fiance.”

Play, pause or stop?  Stop. Discovery+ is fantastic for background TV. But there’s not much there that’s essential viewing. It’s really only a good option for those who’ve cut the cord completely — if you still have cable or get Discovery
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 channels through a live-streaming service like YouTube TV or Hulu Live, it’s just not necessary. (Besides, many of its cable shows are also available on Hulu.)

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