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Dan Barrett is an industry commentator & TV critic. He does radio - 4BC & ABC GC and co-hosts the Screen Watching podcast. He's a former Mediaweek deputy editor and content creator for SBS.
The critics are wrong. Apple TV+ (and its shows) is good.
Apple TV+ launched on November 1 2019 to what was mostly criticism. The shows were declared DOA - duds on arrival. And a lot of commentators weren’t happy that there was no catalogue of titles… just the handful of Apple original shows.
One week into using Apple TV+, I think most of the commentary has missed the mark. Expectations were set incorrectly and people reacted to it adversely.
What is an Apple TV+ show? What should one look like? What should one feel like? Until this week at launch, nobody knew how to answer that. Apple did a terrible job in articulating what it was that they were launching.
Critics didn’t have a framework to consider the shows. Instead, I think most critics approached Apple’s TV content as having similar ambition to Netflix originals or HBO premium content. Apple TV+ isn’t pitched at that level.
There’s no buzz surrounding the shows, yet, the rare times that I see a mention of Apple TV+ in my social media feeds, it is with people saying that they have been enjoying both The Morning Show and For All Mankind.
The critics didn’t think much of the shows…
En masse TV critics called the launch shows disappointing. The Morning Show, particularly, has a dog of a first episode.
But after three episodes, this tech company’s first venture into TV is good only at appearing to be good. It’s like something assembled in a cleanroom out of good-show parts from incompatible suppliers. Under the gleaming surface, as sleek and anodyne as an Apple Store, it is a kludge.
Every action or overheard bit of dialogue in crowd scenes is designed to catch the camera as it goes whizzing by. Key conversations take place only after one of the characters involved happens to see a historically relevant piece of information coming from their TVs. For a show built on the premise of unlimited possibility, “For All Mankind” moves in a stubborn straight line with full blinders on.
Now that Game of Thrones is over, what will fill the void? Definitely not See, a vapid, glacially paced attempt to woo fantasy fans in search of a new world to invest in. Despite containing several of the same elements that Game of Thrones fans found so enthralling — warring tribes; young people with special seeing powers; a scary, sexy, evil queen type; and even the presence of an angry, grunt-y Jason Momoa — See is missing the human drama and stakes that helped make Game of Thrones a juggernaut among a variety of viewers, even if they hadn’t read the source novels or cared about dragons before.
…so why do viewers like Apple TV+ shows?
The Apple TV+ shows represent a type of TV that has been missing for a lot of viewers over the past 10-15 years. It’s the next evolution of the US network TV drama.
It’s my assertion that the mid 90s represented the peak of what US broadcast TV could be. The storytelling on drama series became bolder and more sophisticated. Building on the promise of 80s shows like Hill Street Blues and St Elsewhere, the 90s delivered strong dramas that had artistic ambition - ER, Homicide: Life on The Streets, NYPD Blue, The X-Files, Twin Peaks, Picket Fences, Northern Exposure, Millennium, etc.
I feel like a lot of people don’t remember how progressive and mature a lot of the popular TV dramas of the mid-90s were. These were shows that had diverse casts (of varying levels of success, admittedly), adult storylines, and often took a lot of risks with form and function.
What they didn’t do, which is where The Sopranos, The Wire, and Mad Men really came to evolve the form, is bring literary depth to storytelling. Instead network dramas were accessible, very surface-level TV shows. A viewer wasn’t expected to take into consideration the past four seasons of character development to understand why Don Draper would tank an important pitch meeting and talk about his prostitute mother. A viewer didn’t need to remember that Tony Soprano once expressed admiration for Gary Cooper being a strong, silent type in order to understand his behavior 49 episodes later.
The literary HBO-style model of prestige TV replaced the middle-to-high brow quality dramas that used to populate the airwaves. Instead viewers were left with well-produced procedurals that offered viewers the same rote experience week-in, week-out.
On a recent episode of the TV’s Top 5 Podcast, ER showrunner John Wells was talking about the current state of TV:
It’s about the material that broadcast networks have been prepared to make over the last decade or so … There are notable exceptions… The Good Wife and things, but they’re exceptions. I would have never gotten the version of ER that was as revolutionary at the time as it was to get on NBC. I would never get that on a network now…
The writers and directors I want to work with are not interested in doing broadcast television… the people you want to work with are more interested not for the prestige necesarily, but for the freedom creatively to tell different kinds of stories, more defined stories. More specific stories.
And that is exactly the space that Apple TV+ shows operate in.
These are surface-level shows that are easy to consume, mostly nourishing TV. And it’s the sort of TV that has been mostly missing since that wave of mid-90s shows finished up.
If these shows had launched on broadcast TV, critics would have gone wild about them… “A return to form!”. Instead, most of the critics were disappointed by the Apple TV+ shows.
If Apple had come out initially and said that they want to stream the sort of high end drama viewers had enjoyed for years on broadcast TV, while also allowing creators the freedom to push the envelope on language and adult situations, I think a lot more critics would have been on board with what Apple TV+ is offering.
Because the Apple TV+ shows are good.
The Morning Show has a wonky first episode, but quickly finds its footing. There are legitimate laugh out loud moments on the show, along with moments when the viewer wants to cheer for the ridiculously named Bradley Jackson (Reese Witherspoon). For All Mankind was a little plodding with its first episode too, but by episode three I was shouting at the screen during a particularly surprising moment. There’s also a pretty good Snoopy cartoon series for the kids that I love.
And then there’s Dickinson - a really fun, cheeky young adult comedy that sticks its middle finger up at everything - including its own restrictive premise. I’m not quite the audience for it, but still found it super charming.
Let’s just ignore See. Not every show can be a winner.
But come on… $4.99US / $7.99AUS a month for just a few shows?
Fair call. Apple are launching with only a few new series, with new shows debuting on platform every month or so (dropping episodes weekly). There’s no extensive archive of older shows. As they release more shows, that will be the Apple TV+ library going forward.
But, if I’m to be honest, I’ve subscribed to other platforms for less. On Friday I was looking forward to going home and watching the new episodes of For All Mankind and The Morning Show. If I didn’t keep subscribing past watching the first two free taster episodes Apple offer, I’d feel like I was missing out. I’ve also been subscribing to Aussie streaming service Stan for access to The Circus and years-old episodes of The West Wing - Apple TV+ is half the price.
Let’s not forget the business model at work here too. Apple are using its streaming service as an enticement to get its users upgrading devices more frequently. If every year you upgrade either your iPhone, iPad, or Apple TV hadware, you’re going to get a free years worth of streaming. It’s an added incentive to refresh. Apple may be charging $4.99 / $7.99 a month, but they’re not expecting that most of its viewers are actually paying that.
I don’t want to come across like I’m in the pocket of Big Apple. That’s certainly not the case - I can’t even seem to get on their screener list. But, I’ve found myself drawn to the platform in a way I hadn’t expected. Anyone who listens to the Always Be Watching podcast will have heard me talk about how we need shows that are just entertaining, good and fun TV. For the first time in a long while I feel like there’s finally a streaming service that is offering that.
On HBO’s Watchmen podcast (a show that is a literary triumph), creator Damon Lindelof explained that:
I hate television that makes me feel dumb. I love television that makes me reach higher.
Apple TV+ is entertaining, good and fun TV. Like those great dramas from the 90s, the two flagship launch shows for Apple TV+ haven’t make me feel dumb - they make me want to reach higher.
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