Make or Break review: Apple TV+ surfing doc should focus on the waves

Surfing docuseries Make or Break should focus on the waves [Apple TV+ review]

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Make or Break review Apple TV+ docuseries takes you inside the world of pro surfing.
The new docuseries takes you inside the world of pro surfing.
Photo: Apple TV+

Apple TV+’s new surfing docuseries Make or Break charts the fortunes of nearly 50 competitors as they vie for the title at the World Championship of Surfing.

You get to know the underdogs and the favorites alike in this no-holds-barred look at the dangers and excitement of a sport that doesn’t always receive the prestige treatment. This snappily edited, seven-episode docuseries will show you the ins and outs of pro surfing as the competitors hunger for the title.

It’s hardly must-see TV, but it’s diverting enough.

Make or Break review

In the new Apple TV+ surfing documentary, you get to know Tyler Wright, Kelly Slater, Italo Ferreira, Gabriel Medina, Morgan Cibilic, Matt McGivilray, Felipe Toledo, Stephanie Gilmore and more. These surfers come from all over the globe and are only united by a hunger to be the best.

There’s an unfortunate trend in the way this documentary series treats its characters (which has bafflingly already been given a second season, despite having appeared as a screener on Monday of last week ahead of its premiere today). I like the idea of surfing. And as spectacle, it’s quite hypnotic and beautiful. But I don’t know anything about surfing or modern surfing culture, relatively speaking.

Make or Break opens with a surfing journalist talking about the Wright family surfing dynasty as if we all know this stuff already. Which of course means that nobody involved in this project thought for a second that anyone doesn’t already love surfing.

The series allows about 6 inches of breathing room for the uninitiated. But mostly, like the surfers here, you’re thrown under the waves. When the announcers tell us we’ve seen something extraordinary, and the judges give it a perfect 10, it would be very cool to know why.

Everyone looks good on a surfboard here. They’re all champions. But why exactly is one performance better than any other?

Surfers are money

<em>Make it or Break it</em> on Apple TV+
Make or Break on Apple TV+
Photo: Apple TV+

You may recall, all the way back to the deeply stupid and inconsequential Greatness Code, that I suspected the only reason Apple TV+ paid for that Gotham Chopra money-laundering scheme was because the execs were hoping to forge ties with sports figures that he’d wrangled for the pleasure of being interviewed for 10 minutes about how amazing they are.

Well, here we go. Apple TV+ reaps that particular crop as surfer Kelly Slater returns as a talking head on this surfing competition show.

Producers Ryan Holcomb and Erik Logan (Billy), James Gay-Reese (dreadful Apple TV+ doc 1971: The Year That Music Changed Everything) and Paul Martin (who, like Gay-Reese, produced the sports docs Diego Maradona and The Kings) know that they’ve got a cash cow on their hands. And they don’t for a second act like the audience for this kind of thing isn’t built in.

Surfer Tyler Wright, in one of a hundred tangents that receives no follow-up, pushback or further underpinning, says something like, “Surfers are thought of as hippies, but we’re really competitive assholes.”

OK, but are they still thought of as hippies? How did that start? Was it ever true? Anyone?

Less talking, please

The best moments in Make or Break happen when they stop editing it like a sports competition and just show you the surfing uninterrupted. The editing on this show proves infuriating, because the creators don’t trust that the sight of surfing (you know … the reason the show exists?) is interesting enough without cutting through each few-seconds-long ride a dozen times just in case you turned completely around for a few seconds and then looked back.

The cinematography is pretty decent. Yes, it’s compositionally erratic, but the waves themselves couldn’t be more beautiful.

Surfing films owe their existence to Bruce Brown’s excellent The Endless Summer. That 1966 surfing documentary takes a laconic, no-pressure attitude toward the idea of watching guys catch waves that are just impossible to wrap your head around, from their size to their ferocity.

But for years, the appeal (as far as I could understand, at any rate) was that surfing was one of those things like skateboarding or punk music, that people didn’t think should be taken seriously. That’s why to this day, some of the best artifacts around the idea of surfing (for my money, stuff like 1987 exploitation flick Surf Nazis Must Die or the video for Interpol’s “All the Rage Back Home“) embrace the sport’s connection to the disreputable.

… and more waves!

Crucially, though, those projects don’t add narrative to the surfing itself. It’s the sort of pure sight that resists narrative. It’s like watching the motion paintings of Ken Jacobs. That’s maybe a clumsy one-to-one, but the point is, surfing is great for the part of your brain that’s simply interested in the act of watching.

Making a show about the corporate maneuvers required to make the World Surf League happen in the face of, say, a shark attack, is antithetical to the reason to watch surfing in the first place. This is perfectly fine television, but it does feel like an enormous missed opportunity.

Make or Break is not about surfing. It’s about modern competitive surfing culture, and that’s just not that interesting. Especially when you consider that right over there the most beautiful athletic performances are happening, if the show would just point the camera at them and stop talking.

Watch Make or Break on Apple TV+

Season one of Make or Break premieres April 29 on Apple TV+.

Rated: TV-MA

Watch on: Apple TV+

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 author of Cinemaphagy: On the Psychedelic Classical Form of Tobe Hooper, the director of 25 feature films, and the director and editor of more than 300 video essays, which can be found at Patreon.com/honorszombie.