MCN Commentary & Analysis

AppleTV+ Lands…

So, tomorrow is arrival day for AppleTV+. And Apple is doing everything right… except for delivering on content.

“The Morning Show” has been the stalking horse, with TV superstar Jennifer Aniston, Oscar-winning movie star Reese Witherspoon, and the well-loved crossover star, Steve Carell.

And they should have thrown away the first two episodes and started from scratch.

I don’t know about the drama of production and I don’t really care. Nor will any non-industry viewer. What people care about is the show. And what they get is, mostly, confused. Some shows take time to evolve. This has become the norm on PayTV, Netflix included. “Watch three or four and then it gets really good.”

The problem with “The Morning Show” is that the show starts by folding in on itself. The Carell character, as you have no doubt heard or seen if you are reading this, is accused of sexual malfeasance right away. And unless the first season is about him coming back, there is nowhere to go with this. And that does not seem to be where the show is going, as the next big story beat is the arrival of Reese Witherspoon’s character, who will replace Carell on the morning show. Her angle is the fish out of water. Meanwhile, the center is Aniston’s veteran morning star… who is seen as being on the way out as well.

The show is, allegedly, based on and reflective of Brian Stelter’s book about the real morning shows, but very little seems remotely realistic. It’s as though they took real-life characters and incidents and put them in a blender.

For instance, Mark Duplass’ morning show producer seems to be a riff on the guy from Live with Regis and Kelly (or whatever it is now… and the guy’s name is Gelman), who is a throw rug for his stars and network. But is the producer of the top-rated morning show really that weak?

Episode 3 shows more promise. There is the first truly great sequence of the series, with Marty Short guesting as a pal of Carell’s character. But even after their intense conversation about #MeToo, it leaves me wondering where this is going, and not in the good way.

Episode 3 also lays down track for the romantic relationship that seems likely to come near the end of season one. And Aniston’s character has taken, since episode two, a real take charge attitude, which seems excessive and unlikely to stick as her new partner on air (Witherspoon) will surely overcome complete inexperience to be the more popular of the duo. And Carell seems getting set to take a second fall before the season ends.

But this three-episode launch is a mess and leans heavily on the fact that we so like these three actors. If the show gets better, they should be starting with more than three.

“Dickinson” is either the best-timed or the worst=timed gimmick series ever. It’s like someone saw that Greta Gerwig was doing Little Women and rushed this into production to take advantage. It’s iconoclastic Emily Dickinson, acting like a bright young woman in this era stuck in the past. There’s rap music. There’s open cursing. There’s a gay Asian kid. There’s opium. There’s cunnilingus!

“She’s insane!” “Of course she’s insane… she’s Emily Dickinson!”

Ya.

Is it a comedy? Is it a romance? Is it drama? Who knows? It’s a mélange of wacky 1850s fun! By Episode 5, I expected them to have the kids start a band, adopt a talking cat, and use brief clips of their groovy music as a bumper between every scene.

Maybe “the kids’ will love this show. Anything is possible. They love “Riverdale.” The cast is young and sexy and deliver quality TV acting. Great costumes. Oy.

“Servant” is the most interesting of the eight launch shows. M. Night Shyamalan to the core, it is a high-concept thriller with an intriguing central idea. Problem is, it feels like it should have been over after an hour, maybe two.

I greedily watched the four episodes that were available, anxious to get to the answers that would come (many don’t arrive in those four episodes). The first episode sets things up, using the full 35 minutes to do so. The second episode deepens the side characters and adds more questions to the leads. Episode three, more more more. And episode four starts a turn that seems likely to dominate the next few episodes.

You know the old saw that works expand to justify the time one has to do it? This feels like that. A movie that feels free to go really, really slow and to linger on everything, when it is not necessary dramatically. I am both a fan of the show and irritated by the show for that reason. Acting is strong. Lauren Ambrose is particularly strong, playing an apparently mentally ill mother while we also get to see her public image as a TV newsperson and the split between the two sides of this woman are a joy to watch. Toby Kebbell doesn’t get a ton to do besides be moody, but he does it well. Rupert Grint may finally have the career-changing role he’s been looking for. Terrific. And Nell Tiger Free, who I don’t recognize from “Game of Thrones,” but was there, is perfect so far as the mysterious nanny.

Food is a theme, as the lead male is a chef and consultant. But mostly, it seems to be a kink. At least until we find out that it’s not in the penultimate episode.

“Servant” and “Dickinson,” feel like shows that might work well for Netflix. So they may work out great for AppleTV+.

I have more serious disconnections with the three other series on offer at AppleTV+, “For All Mankind,” “SEE,” and “Truth Be Told.” They are all perfectly well-made TV. But that is the low bar. All of the shows being made by all of these companies are beyond competent.

“For All Mankind” is an odd hybrid of history and drama and projection that demands a level of granular attention to care about the material. It’s like every NASA movie you have seen, but cleaner, less gritty, and on the whole, less focused. There is a legitimate chance that this is going to connect with a loving core like other Ronald D. Moore shows. I was never onboard with “Battlestar Galactica” (2004 – 2009), although I spent time on that set and tried to catch up. Whatever was beloved about that show, I didn’t get. On the other hand, I found “Outlander” very accessible, even with its complications. I didn’t watch every episode. But when I dipped into the early seasons, it was clear and accessible. I was with those characters instantly.

“SEE” just drove me nuts. A show about everyone in the world being blind… but the most vivid photography and a level of action that made no sense at all to me. When blindness came up, it seemed like a manipulative gimmick every single time. But again, I can’t say that my taste is a match with the very passionate audience base for action dramas like this. Every scene is just a series of people who seem to be pretending to be blind by looking away from everyone else, except when they are fighting.

“Truth Be Told” grabbed me in the first episode. I love the cast. The idea of a crime podcaster reconsidering her role in defining the lives of others. Great.

But it got weird for me quickly. There is something naturally conflictual about listening to someone tell a story and the series then showing the story. The longer this weird combination continued, the blurrier it got. In great part, this was an issue of there being such a thin line between the story telling and the real life of the show drama. I get that no one watches TV to listen to radio. But after a while, every scene feels like a series of scenes and not a sharply defined part of a whole.

Again, performances are quite good. Aaron Paul is as good as I have ever seen him outside of Jesse Pinkman. Elizabeth Perkins has big moments. Lizzy Caplan as twins!!! Actors like Tracie Thoms, Michael Beach and Ron Cephas Jones who I never get enough of. And Octavia Spencer has more than enough juice to hold it all together.

But like other AppleTV+ shows, it feels like the freedom of the form led to an overreach of that freedom. Maybe it will seem different in a complete context of a season. But for now, a few episodes in, I tend to bail out on shows like these.

AppleTV+ also offers three movies—we’re calling these “movies,” right? The Elephant Queen is a charming wildlife documentary with highs and lows, life and death… if it sounds good to you, you are sure to like it a lot.

Hala is a Sundance pick-up from young filmmaker Minhal Baig. Very Sundance.

And The Banker is a Sam Jackson-Anthony Mackie-Nicholas Hoult movie, directed by George Nolfi, best known as a screenwriter. Good tale. Based on a real story. Two mismatched black men try to build a real estate empire in Los Angeles, but were thwarted by open racism, so they bring on a white guy to front them.

It’s not a world-beater, but it is the kind of movie you run into flipping through channels on a weekend afternoon and enjoy a lot more than you would expect.

And that is the AppleTV+ line-up.

What’s odd is that it is a lot of content to push out all at once for a new distributor. On the other hand, its dwarfed by all the other new streamers rolling out in November and next spring.

Whatever your tastes – assuming they are not exclusively for high art – you are likely to enjoy a some of these new shows. And there will be more. But this is really a quiet launch.

I don’t think that Apple is going to be in the TV business for long, really. There are theories about them buying Netflix and that is possible, if Netflix’s stock price keeps dropping. But if that doesn’t happen, AppleTV+ is the weakest entrant in this field. Even taking away the original content on Amazon Prime, there is a deep enough licensed library of content to make it a place where most viewers would spend more time than here. And there is no “Mrs. Maisel” or “Handmaid’s Tale” or “House of Cards” in this batch. Just isn’t. “The Morning Show” could become one, but they have to find their focus and stick with it before I can make that leap.

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