With Planet of the Apps, Apple fails to crack the code for good TV [Review]

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When it comes to original programming, this isn't exactly Netflix's House of Cards.
Photo: Apple

With its new reality show Planet of the Apps, Apple didn’t try to reinvent the wheel. It slapped a new body on a well-worn vehicle — wannabe entrepreneurs pitching their precious ideas to a panel of questionable celebrity experts — and drove straight to “Meh-ville.”

Throughout its history, Apple rarely moved into a particular market first. Whether it’s MP3 players, cellphones, tablets or smartwatches, Apple jumps onto an established concept, and then — should all go according to plan — executes better than everyone else.

The reality-show format of Planet of the Apps, Apple’s first original TV show for Apple Music, is as nailed down as any market Apple ever dived into. Planet of the Apps is Shark Tank for app developers, with all the behind-the-scenes sob stories, sharp putdowns and would-be feel-good moments that 20 years of reality TV turned into an art form.

The question is whether Apple can do it better. The answer — at least based on the first episode, which debuted last night — is no.

Episode 1 of Planet of the Apps plays out in two distinct phases. At the beginning, developers get 60 seconds to pitch their idea to the Planet of the Apps team. If the concepts get approved, the coders get paired up with one of four mentors, who prepare them to pitch a second time to a room full of Silicon Valley venture capitalists.

Making a TV show about iPhone apps

Basing a reality show around apps proves both a strength and a weakness.

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In a goofy touch, contestants have to make their pitches will standing on a slowly-moving conveyor belt.
Photo: Apple

The good aspect? Apps lend themselves well to the format. A good app needs to be quickly explainable to an audience. Showing us developers with great ideas (or horrible ones) means we can buy into the “rags to riches” storyline that makes for compelling reality TV.

The downside? A total lack of variation.

Episode 1 of Planet of the Apps focuses on two apps: a safety-oriented, location-tracking app and an augmented reality platform. Compared to a show like Shark Tank, where wannabe entrepreneurs pitch a wild variety of products, focusing on apps feels extremely repetitive.

That’s particularly true when the devs graduate from showcasing their ideas to Planet of the Apps’ “experts” at the start of the show to pitching them to Silicon Valley execs toward the end.

The numbers they throw around — there’s lots of talk of seed funding rounds in the seven figures — also risk looking like funny money to an audience that might not know why in the world it would cost that much to build an iPhone app.

Planet of the Apps’ fatal flaw: Its ‘experts’

The biggest problem, however, is undisputedly the mentors Apple chose for the show. Jessica Alba, Gwyneth Paltrow, will.i.am and entrepreneur Gary Vaynerchuk aren’t the names you’d expect when Apple says it’s making a TV show pairing up-and-coming developers with experts.

We get that Apple execs like Eddy Cue and Craig Federighi are busy. But when three-quarters of the people on your expert panel are entertainment industry celebs, you know something is wrong. Vaynerchuk does his best to cosplay Simon Cowell, but he is the best of a mediocre bunch.

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Apple hopes you’ll get swept up in the developers’ personal stories.
Photo: Apple

Some of the early conversations they have, as they bandy about tech jargon like “disruption” and “democratization,” comes across more like a scene from HBO’s hilarious Silicon Valley than it does an attempt at reality TV.

At one point, Alba critiques a dating app by saying, “But what if there are three dudes who wanna holla and you’re, like, ‘I don’t want to talk to you?'”

In another choice interchange, we’re told that not only is augmented reality coming, it’s “super coming.”

Because most of the judges don’t belong in the setting, it’s difficult to take it seriously when the devs gush about how excited they are to work with one Planet of the Apps mentor in particular. I’m thinking they must be big fans of Alba’s lariat-twirling dance scene from Sin City or will.i.am’s song “My Humps.”

Planet of the Apps review in a word: ‘Meh’

Ultimately, Planet of the Apps comes across as bland, if mostly inoffensive, background noise. I’ll keep watching to see if it improves, but Episode 1 highlights the massive gulf between Apple’s original video content and the kind of groundbreaking productions Netflix and Amazon bust out on a regular basis.

Apple execs say they’re not trying to compete with the types of A-list content factories that fuel today’s golden age of TV.

Planet of the Apps underlines that point. Ultimately, it seems like a buzzy app you download and use once or twice before getting bored and forgetting it even exists.

Planet of the Apps is available to Apple Music subscribers, although you can check out the first episode (of ten) for free here.