First damning Apple TV+ reviews indicate an alarming lack of vision [Opinion]

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Morgan Stanley thinks Apple TV+ could have 136 million subs by 2025
Just what is the vision behind Apple TV+?
Photo: Apple

The first Apple TV+ reviews are out — and, broadly speaking, they’re not great. Critics generally slammed the marquee shows on the Apple TV+ slate. Anyone wanting to pull together a movie poster with positive pull-quotes would need to do some serious wading through bile to emerge with choice excerpts.

That’s a shame. And while it might seem easy to write off the bad reviews — based on the just the first few episodes of four shows, all shown to critics prior to the service’s launch — the poor reception might suggest deep-seated problems for Apple TV+. It sounds like a service that suffers from a lack of vision.

There’s a moment that speaks volumes in one of the first Q&A sessions Steve Jobs did after returning to Apple in the late 1990s. Jobs in on stage answering questions from developers at Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference. Given the mic, an audience member blasts Jobs. (Something about OpenDoc and Java that most people will have since forgotten.)

“You know,” Jobs said, after a long pause. “You can please some of the people some of the time …” He then goes on to explain that Apple makes hard choices to deliver the best possible products. He acknowledges that not everybody will appreciate every decision the company makes. But he also says Apple learns from its mistakes, which ultimately means better products in the future.

Apple TV+ could learn a lesson from Steve Jobs

Why do I bring this up? Because the lesson from Jobs’ speech really resonates when it comes to the early reviews for Apple TV+. Jobs acknowledged that not everyone was going to be happy with everything he did. Too bad. He was going to do it anyway if he thought it was the right thing. He had a knack for both knowing what the public would like, and not compromising on his vision. Why have iPhones in different sizes when you could have one perfect size?

Those values seem lacking when it comes to Apple TV+. To be clear, I haven’t seen the shows in question yet. I am basing this purely on early Apple TV+ reviews I have read. However, far too often in those reviews, the critics’ words offer some variation on “compromise,” “self-important” or, frankly, “just not all that much fun.”

For example, The Morning Show — Apple’s pricey, A-list newsroom drama — got slammed in one review as a “painful belly flop.” Multiple reviews make reference to the challenge of being both a comedy and also a zeitgeisty #MeToo drama. By not committing too much to either, The Morning Show flounders. Here’s The Hollywood Reporter:

“The pilot is an ungainly mishmash. There are the bland and conventional behind-the-scenes elements pointing to Brian Stelter’s Top of the Morning as a background source. That book came out before the original round of #MeToo accusations ended Matt Lauer’s career on Today, a real-life scandal that The Morning Show borrows from in specific enough detail that the series now feels quaint after the graphic and disturbing accusations in Ronan Farrow’s new book.”

Hipster flatness and self-importance

How about Dickinson, the Apple TV+ series about American poet Emily Dickinson? Same complaint from The Hollywood Reporter:

“Wanting to be both a serious teen drama and a black comedy simultaneously, the half-hour show instead comes off as tonally incongruous, awash in wry hipster flatness.”

The Telegraph, meanwhile, slams See, Apple’s answer to Game of Thrones, as “likely to collapse under the weight of its own self-importance.” Describing a show about a future in which a virus destroys humankind, leaving survivors blind, the paper says “there is a lot to go wrong.” TVLine describes a “largely incoherent story” filled with “goofy confidence … as wrongheaded as it might be.” It awards See a D grade.

The only show that emerges relatively unscathed from Monday morning’s Apple TV+ review bloodbath is For All Mankind. No, its reviews aren’t raves. The Telegraph says the alt-history space race drama “tries to juggle too many characters at once, and doesn’t make any of them as compelling as its core concept.” But no critics actually panned For All Mankind. And a few people really seem to think the series actually could be pretty good.

Does Apple TV+ have a vision behind it?

Taken as a whole, the array of bad reviews speaks to service that suffers from a lack of coherent vision. Apple wants to make a show in every color and size, like it would for a new range of iPhones. The shows hint at the kind of woke cultural issues Apple likes to chime in on. But Apple TV+ wants to offer something to appeal to casual viewers, too. As a result, it all sounds committee-driven, like a streaming service trying to please all of the people all of the time.

While I was writing this post, I stumbled upon an article by Variety writer Daniel D’Addario arguing much the same thing. He writes:

“None of the shows, to my eye, are truly successful because each feels in its own way curated to death, overworked with an eye on transmitting quality rather than actually allowing it to spontaneously happen. The visuals are lush and the collaborators are A-list, but there’s something dead about the service’s offering almost to a one — engineering that works for an iPad, but not for TV.”

Damning Apple TV+ on day one (or, well, day zero, since it doesn’t launch until November 1) is foolish. Nobody wants to be remembered as that dude who blasted the iPod before it came out. Or like Steve Ballmer, who laughed at the iPhone. But TV is competitive in 2019. Apple can buy big-name stars and directors, pricing others out of the game. It can give away a year’s subscription to attract viewers without charging them directly. Cupertino can keep Apple TV+ going indefinitely because its cash pile would make Scrooge McDuck green with envy.

But can Apple TV+ compete with the likes of Netflix? Or the all-content-consuming overlord coming in the form of Disney+? We’ll have to wait and see. But today’s unfortunate Apple TV+ reviews probably aren’t what people in Cupertino hoped for when they opened their MacBooks first thing on a Monday morning.