Apple TV+ Hits Friday. Its Series (Mostly) Miss

October 30, 2019, 5:30 PM UTC
Courtesy of Apple TV Plus
Courtesy of Apple TV Plus

Netflix turned Hollywood on its head six years ago, or so the narrative goes.

As it shifted from mail-order DVD company to streaming-service behemoth, its series brought movie stars to television at a time when such a transition was far more attention-getting than it is today. Moreover, they did so while at least emulating a level of quality that propelled Netflix into the awards conversation.

It’s taken Hollywood time to catch up with Netflix’s disruption of its traditional entertainment channels. The streamer’s growth signified what economist Joseph Schumpeter called “creative destruction,” an industrial mutation that blew up one business model to force the formation of another in its image. Schumpeter called this “the essential fact about capitalism,” and the ongoing restructuring of TV around a subscription-streaming model is busily bearing out that theory.

Now with the launch of Apple TV+ this Friday, the streaming wars are beginning in earnest. By the time Disney+ launches mid-November, they will have escalated even further, with two of the biggest players in a still-unfolding space having made their splashy debuts. Next will be WarnerMedia with its HBO Max service, then Comcast’s NBCUniversal with Peacock—and that’s not to mention the host of streamers already live, among them Amazon Prime, Hulu, and plenty of more specialized offerings, like BET+, Shudder, and Quibi.

It’s notable that Apple and Disney, two titans of industry, are mimicking a thus-far unprofitable business model. However, unlike Netflix, both Apple and Disney can afford to throw money at their problems essentially forever. Apple, especially, is a novice in the entertainment space, and can’t have expected to nail Hollywood right away – but while Netflix could eventually stop convincing shareholders it will eventually turn a profit, Apple simply doesn’t have to.

Apple’s relative lack of experience in content creation, and pockets deeper than the Mariana Trench, were always going to make Apple TV+ an intriguing proposition. Its freshman-class five—series The Morning Show, See, For All Mankind, and Dickinson, along with documentary The Elephant Queen—certainly bear the mark of a company inexperienced in a realm it can theoretically spare no expense to conquer.

‘The Morning Show’

The Morning Show, the crown jewel of Apple TV+, is patient zero for this approach. Boasting a holy trinity of megastars who’ve thrived across film and TV—Reese Witherspoon (Big Little Lies), Jennifer Aniston (Friends), and Steve Carell (The Office)—it’s a Newsroom-style drama about life behind the scenes of a network-TV morning show in a rapidly shifting world. At its center is Alex Levy (Aniston), a legendary morning-show host who’s struggling to retain a foothold on her own program after her co-host (Carell) is fired for sexual misconduct and an enterprising young reporter (Witherspoon) is brought on to replace him.

Having cost Apple $300 million, The Morning Show certainly looks like prestige television, both in terms of its on-screen star power (which extends to supporting players like Mark Duplass, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, and Billy Crudup) and the slick professionalism with which The Leftovers‘ Mimi Leder directs the first three episodes (sent out to critics in advance). And there are little flourishes, from quick needle-drops (Don McLean’s “American Pie!”) to celebrity cameos (Mindy Kaling!), where Apple seems keen to show just how much money was poured into the series (already renewed for a second season).

But The Morning Show, polished as it is, also betrays Apple’s lack of expertise in putting together an exciting story. Behind the camera, there were showrunner shakeups (Kerry Ehrin, from Bates Motel, was brought in to replace a past writer after #MeToo broke, and those working on The Morning Show realized its repercussions necessitated serious changes to their show’s story). Perhaps that’s partly to blame for why The Morning Show is such a shapeless, strangely inert drama. Aesthetically mirroring Aaron Sorkin at every turn, The Morning Show has the self-serious, insidery feel of The Newsroom but lacks the crackerjack substance needed to jolt it to life.

That’s not to say that there aren’t reasons to watch. Witherspoon and Aniston going head-to-head is a rare and real kind of TV event in an era where such feats are increasingly hard to pull off. Crudup in particular shines as a smarmy TV executive cocksure about the future of a network he’s newly inherited. But The Morning Show itself feels dated even in its debut, despite working overtime with its focus on gender dynamics in the workplace, as well as Carell’s #MeToo-era comeuppance.

Part of the problem is that the show doesn’t earn most of the dramatic beats it so shamelessly reaches for. It’s hard to buy the “charged” on-air debates between Aniston and Witherspoon’s characters, about going viral and more overarchingly about accountability in modern journalism. Everything about the series—careful camera push-ins, meticulously dramatic scoring—signals that it’s about something, articulating something truly important, which makes the lack of actual rhetorical arguments in its writing all the more noticeable. Why should audiences heed a message series with nothing to say?

The Morning Show improves slightly in its third episode, the first one in which Witherspoon and Aniston are actually installed as on-air colleagues and rivals. But the series’ problems are systemic enough that it’s hard to imagine viewers fully investing in two seasons worth of something that, despite its budget and dramatic mass, could have aired on NBC a decade and a half ago.

The lack of vision showcased by Apple’s flagship drama could have been anticipated. In its early days of experimenting with TV creation, Apple had ordered a drama from Dr. Dre. Vital Signs, a semi-autobigraphical tale of the hip-hop mogul’s vice-fueled lifestyle, featured copious amounts of cocaine, an orgy in a mansion, and gun violence. As the Wall Street Journal reported, Apple feared the series would alienate potential customers with its explicit content and dark tone, and the show will likely never see the light of day. Apple’s TV expansion gradually took shape around broader goals of high-wattage star power and wide-reaching appeal—without excessive violence, sex, or profanity.

‘The Elephant Queen’

If you want further proof of this, consider that its first original movie, The Elephant Queen, is a nature documentary, that most clinically unobjectionable of genres, and one that goes a step further by centering not just on the animal kingdom but a traditional family unit striving to survive within it. Apple couldn’t ask for a safer, less adventurous title with which to launch its programming slate.


See, one of the more profoundly silly TV shows to come along in recent years, is Apple’s other big financial swing. A dystopian fantasy that reportedly cost Apple $240 million across two ordered seasons, it’s a blatant attempt to mimic HBO’s Game of Thrones, even carrying over Khal Drogo (Jason Momoa) himself to topline. Set in a far-off future where an epidemic of blindness has for somewhat unexplained reasons led civilization to regress into ultra-spiritual tribalism, it follows a mountaintop enclave of blind survivors whose way of life is threatened by the birth of two twins with the mythic ability to see. An evil queen, made aware of the twins’ existence, is determined to murder them and remove sight from the world once more, leading warrior Baba Voss (Momoa) to take up arms against her.

Hyper-generic and stretched miles beyond even the surface-level plausibility of other dystopian offerings, See is another instance in which Apple’s profligate spending has bestowed endless resources upon a rather short-sighted vision, resulting in a series that looks every bit the part of an epic, premium-cable series but refuses to behave much like one. Its dialogue is awful, and the performances are all over the place, from Momoa’s gruff Baba Voss to Alfre Woodard as an unintentionally goofy mystic and Sylvia Hoeks as a very intentionally goofy sovereign.

Contrastingly, the show’s action sequences are of a breathtakingly high-quality sort; in the pilot, a fierce battle along the mountainside finds Momoa delivering death blows to dozens of opponents with the brutal grace of an axe-wielding ballerina before he triggers a rockslide and crushes roughly 100 more. The series has a fairly bleak, grisly tone, while positing that lack of sight would be of little obstacle to crunching bones and slashing throats. See comes alive in these action sequences, which are even more thrillingly kinetic (and much-better lit) than what Game of Thrones was doing in its final season, but its dramatic scenes are often as unconvincing as community theater.

What See makes abundantly clear is that Apple TV+ has no set audience in mind so much as it wants to divide and conquer. See will appeal (at least at first) to Game of Thrones and Syfy fans. The Morning Show, comparatively, is the streamer’s serious-drama play, courting fans of prestige series led by reliably strong performers.

‘For All Mankind’

Funnily enough, alt-history space-race drama For All Mankind fits that description better. It’s the strongest of Apple’s first offerings, telling a genuinely enthralling story about how the Soviets reaching the lunar surface first (snatching away Neil Armstrong’s “one giant leap for mankind” speech in favor of a Russian’s “step for [his] people, [his] country, and the Marxist-Leninist way of life”) might have changed the course of the 20th century. Robbed of such a mighty achievement, For All Mankind‘s American astronauts and scientists double down and extend the space race into an interstellar Olympics. From Mars to the cosmos, no sight is set too high for a country determined to win back glory.

Throughout the first season, what emerges is a well-mounted, dramatically ambitious story that could move much faster than it does. There’s a sprawling cast of players led by Joel Kinnaman and Michael Dorman, and the series seems interested in giving dramatic arcs to almost a dozen other characters; widening its scope so much ultimately slows down the storytelling, though this one at least feels clear-eyed in where it’s going. And with its loving attention to detail in recreating the time period, with shiny red Corvettes and ticky-tacky houses, there’s plenty on the screen to hold your attention even when the dramatic engine pushing these characters steadily forward seems about ready to stall.


For All Mankind will attract few of the same audience members who’ll tune in for Dickinson, a reportedly riotous and radical take on a teenage Emily Dickinson (Hailee Steinfeld) that unfortunately feels like neither of those two things, at least in its early few episodes. All of Dickinson will roll out with Apple TV+ on Friday (unlike the other originals, which are taking a Hulu-esque approach of dropping three episodes then more in subsequent weeks), so it’s possible the series will grow more comfortable in its own unconventional voice and period garb.

But, as created by former Newsroom writer Alena Smith, Dickinson feels initially confused in its portrayal of Emily as a young woman out of time, who responds to the obligations and restrictions of 19th-century Amherst, Mass. with Liz Lemon-sized eye-rolls and very modern teenager-speak (“This is such bullshit!” Emily declares early on). That would all be well and good, but other young characters are written similar anachronisms (“Hella ripe!”), while characters played by Jane Krakowski and Toby Huss grimace through separately clunky, period-appropriate dialogue. Even more incongruous is the series’ feminism, which largely comes down to Emily being outraged she can’t attend scientific lectures then turning around and demanding her family hire more maids.

Dickinson shows its protagonist as rebellious and stifled by equal measure; she’s in love with Sue (Ella Hunt), her best friend betrothed to Emily’s brother, and bemoans that Sue’s entire family falling dead means they face another obstacle to being together. Though Steinfeld gives it her all, Emily isn’t that easy to root for; and knowing as we do that her poems were discovered after her death, it’s not entirely clear why audiences should invest in her as a brilliant writer already on the edge of discovery as a teen.

Dickinson‘s bigger problems, though, lie in its bizarre blend of tonal ingredients. Young people treat opium like a party drug and ballroom-dance to Carnage. Billie Eilish plays as Emily flirts with Death himself (played through a haze of weed smoke by Wiz Khalifa) in a magical horse-drawn carriage. And in scenes set against ones as comically outsized as those ones, Emily demands that her austere parents take her seriously, even after her father goes on a sexist and oddly placed rant about how she’ll “ruin the good name of Dickinson” by pursuing poetry. It’s all jumbled and chaotic in a way that’s sometimes audaciously entertaining and more often a bit of a head-scratcher.

Major takeaway: Apple TV+

The truth often has a price tag. In the case of Apple TV+, it’s $4.99/month, a nominal cost for what is at this stage a nominal service. Four series, especially ones of such scattershot quality as these, may not be enough for audiences to invest in Apple TV+ upfront, even with more offerings—like Octavia Spencer-led crime drama Truth Be Told or M. Night Shyamalan’s eerie puzzle-box Servant—set for the very near future.

It’s peanuts compared to what’s available on any competing streamer—and especially compared to what Disney+ will offer when it launches later this month, carrying with it the bulk of Hollywood’s deepest and most culturally beloved back catalog. That Apple TV+ will have to stake its brand on shows entirely of its own creation would be a daunting task for any streamer, let alone one with Apple’s inexperience. Some of its freshman entries, especially For All Mankind, show glimmers of promise, and whether Apple can course-correct any of the ones that need reshaping ahead of their season twos remains to be seen.

The streaming wars have never been more feverishly pitched, which means Apple TV+ is guaranteed little of the same wait-and-see good faith Netflix could exploit when pioneering this sphere six years ago. Looking back at that streamer’s first efforts—which included the forgettable Lillyhammer and awful Hemlock Grove along with a wonky Arrested Development revival—Netflix learned a fair share of its own lessons in more of a vacuum than Apple will be afforded. But even in its early days, Netflix stuck the landing (at least back in 2013) with House of Cards, a moody political thriller benefitting from two powerhouse performances, and Orange is the New Black, which ushered in a new age of representative storytelling with its sprawling, characters-welcome narrative. No swing in Apple’s first time at bat hits it so out of the park.

Adding to questions of Apple TV+’s identity are that each of its new series would seem to court a separate kind of audience member. But the “something for everyone” approach works best on a platform like Netflix, where a dense back catalog ensures that’s actually the case. If sci-fi fans can’t get into See, for example, there’s little reason for them to maintain an Apple TV+ subscription—even at $5-per-month. Still, you could call it an Apples and oranges situation, comparing the company to its streaming contemporaries, none of which have stepped quite so far outside their main business vertical to pursue making shows. The fact remains that Apple can keep building, undeterred, for as long as it wants, reaching for the kind of great drama that’s shown up sporadically on Netflix, Amazon, and more often HBO. It’ll get there eventually, even if this largely unexceptional freshman crop reveals a streaming service still reaching for the stars.

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