Latest canceled Apple TV+ show might be bad omen [Opinion]

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Morgan Stanley thinks Apple TV+ could have 136 million subs by 2025
Tim Cook reportedly wants to make Apple TV+ shows aspirational in tone.
Photo: Apple

Cupertino’s costly decision to cancel an Apple TV+ series starring Richard Gere due to the show’s darker tone is the latest bit of evidence that Apple wants only family-friendly fare for its upcoming streaming video service.

A diet of uplifting, positive messages is certainly laudable. But that sort of high-minded approach could pose a major challenge for Apple. Should fans be worried?

Apple wants aspirational programming

Apple gave the green light to the show in question, based on Israeli series Nevelot, at the end of last year. The Americanized version, called Bastards, focuses on two elderly Vietnam veterans whose lives go off the rails after a woman they both loved 50 years ago dies in a car crash.

Their “lifelong regrets and secrets collide with their resentment of today’s self-absorbed millennials, and the duo then go on a shooting spree.” And presumably not a “Shot on iPhone” kind of spree, either.

Apple and the people crafting the show ran into insurmountable creative differences, according to
The Hollywood Reporter:

“Sources say [the showrunners] did not want to focus on the larger metaphor of friendship between the two vets and wanted to focus on the darker elements of the series…. Apple, which multiple sources note is looking for aspirational programming, wanted to ensure the series was focused on the heart and emotion of the central friendship. Apple and Gordon/Fox 21 could not come to a middle ground, and the tech company opted instead to release the project and pay a sizable financial penalty.”

Richard Gere won't be joining Apple's roster of TV shows
Richard Gere won’t be joining Apple’s roster of TV shows.
Photo: Francesco/Flickr CC

No guns, drugs or extended orgies

This isn’t the first time we’ve heard murmurs about Apple’s family-friendly TV and movie ambitions. Last year, The Wall Street Journal reported that Tim Cook made the call to cancel a semi-autobiographical drama about Dr. Dre. Called Vital Signs, the show included scenes with “characters doing lines of cocaine, an extended orgy in a mansion, and drawn guns.”

That probably shouldn’t be too surprising if you’re making a show about Dr. Dre. But while “extended orgy” scenes might seem off-limits, Apple’s objection to TV staples like “drawn guns” raised serious questions.

This wasn’t Apple’s only case of playing it safe, either. The company supposedly made M. Night Shyamalan dilute some religious themes in a show he’s working on. Meanwhile, original Amazing Stories showrunner Bryan Fuller left the series due to clashes with Apple. Fuller allegedly wanted a darker tone for the show.

Is family-friendly TV a good move?

From Apple’s perspective, making things family friendly makes sense. My esteemed colleague Lewis Wallace even suggested it might make Apple TV+ a pleasant antidote to toxic TV shows.

I can absolutely see the value in Apple being able to safely screen its shows to all audiences in the Apple Store. Heck, you can even applaud Apple for being true to its vision of being a “force for good” in the world by pulling back on profiting from entertainment glorifying certain things.

But will it work? That’s the part I’m less sure about.

Challenges for Apple TV+

Tim Cook has talked about wanting Apple to be a
Tim Cook talks frequently about wanting Apple to be a “force for good” in the world.
Photo: Saïd Business School, University of Oxford

Apple TV+ should arrive this fall at roughly the same time as a bunch of other new streaming services. The biggest of the newcomers, Disney+, will presumably sate many people’s appetite for family-friendly fare.

Carving out a niche for Apple TV+ in this crowded environment could mean counter-programming against Disney. Where Disney goes light, Apple could have gone dark. Cupertino’s enormous cash reserves give it the capability to take risks that few others can.

Some of the most popular shows of the past two decades dealt with topics that are most decidedly not family-friendly. Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, The Wire, House of Cards and others were frequently profane and violent. HBO’s unbelievably popular Game of Thrones upped the ante, packing its famous “sexposition” scenes full of nudity.

An alternative to ‘dark’ entertainment?

But it’s not just the surface-level adult content. Those shows presented a pessimistic, dark view of humanity. Breaking Bad showed us the transformation of a regular guy into a murderous antihero. The Sopranos focused on an irredeemable sociopath. House of Cards and Game of Thrones portrayed worlds in which corruption rules, with very few actual heroes.

The great thirst for such darkly themed entertainment does not seem to be going away. Heck, even Stranger Things’ most-recent season faced criticism for leaning too heavily into broad comedy.

I don’t think Apple TV+ will become a surefire flop. However, I do think Cupertino has its work cut out for it to make the streaming service a massive success. Apple TV+ presumably will launch this fall with a small catalog at a price point rumored to be roughly in line with a Netflix subscription. Apple owns no huge, recognizable properties like Star Wars or Marvel comics. At this point, the main calling card for Apple TV+ is big-name actors. And if the service gains a reputation for producing anodyne, safe content, that could become a huge handicap.

Do I think that grim and dark equals good? Not necessarily. But I also don’t know whether airbrushed, aspirational programming is the way to go at a time when the streaming landscape has never been more competitive.