As Apple TV+ celebrates its second birthday today, it’s time to look back on the highs and lows. It’s been a wild ride filled with some risky but rewarding gambles and a bunch of safe (and ultimately disappointing) bets. We’ve also endured a higher than expected (or recommended) amount of singing.
So, after two years and untold billions of dollars, what has Apple TV+ achieved? What kind of identity does the streaming service have? And where, exactly, is Apple TV+ going?
Apple TV+ turns 2
I remember the feeling of having struck gold when Cult of Mac asked if I knew any film critics who might like to watch every single thing Apple TV+ would release. The service had recently launched and the streaming wars were intensifying. I had never been anyone’s first-run critic, and this wasn’t quite that, but it was as close as I’d gotten.
A year and half later, I still love writing for this site. But what of the stuff about which I’ve been writing? Well, that’s a slightly different story, isn’t it? I don’t want to assume anyone reading this has been keeping up with every review. But covering the ever-expanding Apple TV+ slate has been one of the most whiplash-inducing, and frequently frustrating, experiences of my life.
Where’s the quality check?
To say that there’s no standard of quality in Apple’s original programming would be a hilarious understatement. It became clear almost instantly that Apple TV+’s big, expensive shows were quite obviously meant as specific competition with other network and streaming hits.
The Apple execs wanted some of that It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia magic, so they hired almost its entire writing staff for Mythic Quest. They wanted to keep pace with Amazon Prime Video and Showtime, who scored big hits with showrunner Ronald D. Moore, so they bought him out and voila — For All Mankind.
Amazon, Disney+ and Paramount making bank with deep-space adventure shows? Here’s Foundation, the most expensive damned space show you’ve ever seen! Apple TV+ execs wanted their own version of a feel-good NBC show, so they bought a character that debuted there and turned it into Ted Lasso, probably their biggest hit, by staying true to the positive vibes of The Good Place and Parks and Recreation. Need a The Daily Show alternative? Just hire Jon Stewart himself.
Hits and misses
The Apple TV+ weekly show programming and buying often feels like dating a rich guy. You want him to take you to dinner, so he buys you the restaurant. Admirable in theory, but there isn’t always the same amount of thought put into what comes next — operating the restaurant you now own.
For All Mankind is maybe the best example of this, though it’s hardly unique. You have a show with a fun premise, if you’re a certain kind of dork: What if Russians beat us to the moon!?!?
But then, they don’t really do much homework beyond the big-ticket news items. We have a gunfight with Russians on the moon! But uhh, the clothes, music, beer, TV and movies are all exactly the same. Moore and Co. really ought to have had a little more fun coming up with true alternative history for their show (considering the whole damn thing is about that). But that kind of effort would be like coming up with a new menu every week at our metaphorical new restaurant, and their hearts just aren’t in it. Just making a good steak every night is challenge enough, I guess.
Of course, the problem with defining yourself strictly as competition means that you don’t really develop your own identity. Look at the Apple TV+ landing page and see if anything at all seems to unify these particular projects — Central Park, Greatness Code, Beastie Boys Story, Palmer, Mariah Carey’s Magical Christmas Special — beyond a sort of too-contemporary splashiness.
There’s a grab-bag randomness to the decisions made here because they aren’t made with any sense of what Apple TV+ is or should be. Rather, Apple TV+ seems engaged in a slow race to fill up its programming slate with things people might recognize. Squint, and it looks like you know these shows already.
Mythic Quest makes sense
The good investments are obviously easy to sort out from the riskier ones. It’s a no-brainer to give Rob McElhenney and his Sunny cohorts all the room and time and money they need to make a new show, because they’ve proven themselves inexhaustibly creative already. Mythic Quest is the kind of thing you could tell McElhenney has been dying to make for a while now, a show as much a regular (if above average) sitcom as it is a kind of gut-wrenching character study about failure and the fear of failure.
McElhenney and the rest of the writers took a hundred risks when making It’s Always Sunny, and the format allowed for it because they start at something like absolute zero on a character level. The five leads on that show were human garbage. The joke was always on them, and you can get away with a lot (jokes about drug use, racism, pedophilia, sports fandom, alcoholism, poverty, the troops) when you direct every slight at yourself and not outward.
That holds true to a degree for Mythic Quest. These game developers are all obviously still the butt of every joke, but you like them a little more. And because the show can take time to dig beneath the hardened exteriors of these characters, it’s not just fun but rewarding to get to know them, to know why they’re in such dire need of companionship and positive reinforcement.
More like Servant, please
The opposite tack also works for Apple TV+ at times. Servant — the horror series from M. Night Shyamalan and Tony Basgallop that could be called It’s Never Sunny In Philadelphia — is the best kind of ill-considered (not an insult, I swear). Week after week, the miserable “heroes” of this show sink deeper and deeper into lies, violence, depravity and fantasy, and it just couldn’t be any more fun.
Letting the creative team just run in any direction, dodging and weaving and improvising, makes Servant feel marvelously unpredictable. If you told me they literally make the story up every week when they get to set, I’d believe you. And it wouldn’t at all diminish my love for this show. It’s what TV should be.
The randomness of things at Apple TV+ pays off when you get oddball things like Calls or, seemingly out of nowhere, two deadly serious Israeli dramas opening against the likes of Defending Jacob and Home Before Dark.
I’ll take unpredictable over the alternative. That’s why I’m still interested in Dickinson, despite the writing ricocheting from good to bad every couple of seconds. I’ll take the unexpected and catchy over the humdrum niceness of Trying and Ted Lasso.
Indeed, the worst trend I’ve seen emerge from Apple TV+ is this constant hewing toward abject niceties. It’s OK when this directive takes its form in one of the dozens of kids shows the company produced or bought, because everyone likes Snoopy. I’m less enamored when I have to watch fake adults preach the virtues of kindness week after week. That isn’t really why I watch television, but I’m clearly in the rage-filled minority.
(Incidentally, I’d kill to know the logic behind spending so much on children’s entertainment. I’m not saying a network can live without it, but did the people running Apple TV+ know for sure that the parents of small children were signing up for their streaming service? If not, it’s very odd indeed that Apple TV+ currently offers a dozen shows for toddlers.)
Not that I think any network could support a programming directive like this, but a billion-dollar tech company, to whom we’re all in some degree of thrall, telling us week after week that a hug and a song will solve our problems rings pretty profoundly hollow.
Ghosts of Hamilton
And it helps not a whit that so many of these shows keep literally singing the praises of Lin-Manuel Miranda every chance they get. Between the musicals able to be produced because of the success of Hamilton (Apple TV+’s Come From Away and Little Voice) and the shows that feature Miranda and his castmates (Dear… andCentral Park), the platform serves up an inexcusable amount of Miranda apologia.
Fully a fifth of everything on Apple TV+ has singing in it, diegetic and not. At this point, they need to either ramp it up or dial it back, because it’s just enough to be conspicuous (and annoying, it has to be said) but not enough to form a coherent part of the platform’s identity.
To have a half-formed tail of Miranda-styled musicality feels odd and cloying, rather than a direct admission that they’ll be taking after him. It’s not as evil as interviewing George W. Bush for 9/11: Inside the President’s War Room, but it’s close. After all, Miranda only helped ruin Puerto Rico’s economy. He didn’t do it singlehandedly like Bush did to Iraq and Afghanistan.
The collection of personalities that Apple TV+ gathered to its breast is high-profile and predictable. Oprah’s ubiquity makes perfect sense, she’s been a TV legend forever and a day. Prince Harry, Gotham Chopra, Eugenio Derbez, Bruce Springsteen, George W. Bush and Tom Hanks all make sense from a macro view of celebrity culture, if you don’t really look into them for longer than a second.
But for the company to spend so much effort making all this feel-goodery, while blithely and unthinkingly counter-programming George W. Bush and Bruce Springsteen like they were two rival sitcom stars, smacks of unthinking entitlement, of history being just one more show to program.
Apple TV+ lacks a coherent vision
That ultimately is my main takeaway from my months on the job here. Apple TV+ lacks a coherent voice, a guiding principal, a set of perimeters or priorities. In trying to present the Apple TV+ as the thinking man’s alternative streaming service, the execs have shown over and over again how out of touch they are. For every show as exciting as The Mosquito Coast, Foundation or Invasion, there’s some inexcusable and baffling misstep that’s neither fun nor interesting enough to make up for its tone-deafness.
Some of these showrunners flatten history with one hand and tell you to be kind with the other. It’s kind of appalling when all of this work is laid out side by side. Why spend so much time and resources on something as florid and exciting as Lisey’s Story, about the dangers of insular incel weirdos, while also giving Joseph Gordon-Levitt money to make Mr. Corman, which valorizes exactly the same kind of guy, or The Morning Show, which asks us to weep for him? What exactly is Apple TV+ trying to tell us?
The plus side to all this confusion and mixed messaging is that I love writing about all of this stuff. Even the most offensive show proves a worthy challenge because actually parsing the derangement of the likes of Mr. Corman or 9/11 with an editor willing to let me take risks has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my critical career. As big a migraine as I get from some of these shows, dissecting them has been enormously fulfilling.
Scout Tafoya is a film and TV critic, director and creator of the long-running video essay series The Unloved for RogerEbert.com. He has written for The Village Voice, Film Comment, The Los Angeles Review of Books and Nylon Magazine. He is the director of 25 feature films, and the author of more than 300 video essays, which can be found at Patreon.com/honorszombie.