I had a conversation a few weeks ago with Lauren Hissrich, the showrunner for Netflix’s new fantasy series The Witcher that’s shaping up to fill the Game of Thrones-sized hole in the hearts of pop culture fans and which is debuting on the streamer any day now. What we talked about is, of course, the subject for another post, but I mention her now because of her philosophy about TV and what she thinks makes for quality televised entertainment. There’s no big mystery to it, really, she was saying — at the end of a long day, after work, when she’s got some free time to kill when she wants to unwind, she wants TV that does at least one of two things, and preferably both of these: She wants to be indulged, and she wants to be entertained.
I had her words ringing in my ears tonight as I spent about 3 hours enjoying an early screening of the slate of shows debuting on Friday with the launch of Apple TV+. I focused on the two highest-profile series, For All Mankind and The Morning Show, and let me say right off the bat: I found both to be entertaining — and not only that, but while each is weighed down by the flaws that bedevil any series during its maiden season, I would argue that neither is deserving of the harshest criticism that’s been levied at it so far this week, with the lifting of review embargoes.
I don’t intend the headline of this post to sound like the product of an Apple apologist. Rather, I would like to offer a more balanced counterpoint to a lot of the criticism I’ve read that calls Apple’s first stab at this whole original content business “bland,” a mess, and pretty much a failure for not giving us something that can go toe-to-toe with the homeruns that have emerged from its rivals. Indeed, there is nothing in Apple’s Day 1 content slate that’s equal to what Netflix has in Stranger Things or The Crown, or HBO hits like Game of Thrones or Chernobyl. And I’ll admit, I’m not coming within 10 feet of Apple TV+’s Dickinson, a show that looks downright cringeworthy.
Having said all that, I’d like to suggest a fairer, more objective standard to possibly use when judging the quality of something like a TV series. That standard is the following question — Will this show have a hard time finding a viewership that will be entertained by it?
In the case of both For All Mankind (offering an alternative history of the space race between the US and Russia) and The Morning Show (which goes behind-the-scenes at a fictionalized national daytime TV news show), the answer is no, Apple will not have a hard time at all finding people who are entertained by either of these shows.
We in the media, in my opinion, spend an inordinate time on this nebulous idea of “quality,” whatever that means. Is The Big Bang Theory a quality TV show? I don’t think it is, but who cares what I think — it’s one of the most successful TV comedies of all time. A pinnacle it achieved by, wait for it, entertaining and indulging its audience, full stop. Former Amazon Studios executive Matthew Ball made this point in an essay he penned earlier this year, titled Quality is a Distraction —
“There’s a large disconnect between the press’ focus on creative achievement and audience preferences. The vast majority of consumers don’t want The Crown or Mad Men or Game of Thrones most of the time. To (that) point, close to two-thirds of all primetime TV viewership is unscripted content like Duck Dynasty and The Masked Singer. Not only are these titles not Emmy winners, they’re not even potential nominees …
“Netflix isn’t always hired to show ‘great TV.’ They’re not always trying to ‘make great TV.’ In fact, most TV is ‘bad.’ If Netflix made more The Crowns and less overall content, it would be less popular, less watched, and slower growing.”
With all that out of the way, I’ll now come to some random thoughts I had about each new Apple show that I checked out tonight:
For All Mankind
- I’m intrigued by the conceit of this show, which is that the Russians ending up beating the US to be the first to put a man on the moon. That makes for lots of intriguing creative possibilities for the show to play with, such as later on President Nixon apparently wanting to open up NASA’s floodgates even more in an all-hands-on-deck approach and introduce women into the mix much earlier than happened in real life. Perhaps, as a remedy for the original defeat in the race to put a man on the moon, the series in a later episode will give us the first woman on the moon being an American.
- Heard the first f-bomb a few minutes in, for everyone who thought Tim Cook was going to go full NBC on the Apple TV+ lineup. Also heard a bro-tastically crude sex joke that I wasn’t expecting on Apple TV+ — again, based on the early reports that the content was going to be tame overall.
- Visually, the show looks great, and the writing is fine. If you’re holding it up against the best of HBO, you won’t be impressed. If you come at it with a blank slate and accept it for what it is, there’s a reasonable chance the show will entertain you. And maybe it’s just me, but it’s hard not to see multiple allusions to Apple throughout the series. They repeat and repeat how tragic it is that the Russians got there first, how we got beat, but that just means we have to try harder, because we still want to be in the game (The Russians, in my imagined analogy, being all the other streamers that “got there” first).
- You will recognize pretty much no one in For All Mankind. For some people, I think that will make it a show they’re slower to get into.
The Morning Show
- If this show has an original sin, it’s the source material it’s loosely based on. That source material is Top of the Morning: Inside the Cutthroat World of Morning TV, a book by then-New York Times writer Brian Stelter (who would join CNN as an on-air personality later that same year). Stelter was in his late 20s when he wrote the book, which I found to be thin and not particularly substantive. Stelter, incidentally, is a consultant on this show.
- This is called The Morning Show, but you could justifiably call it The Jennifer Aniston show, based on the early episodes. Her portrayal of a woman in the latter stage of her career, having to fight for relevancy and deal with a sex scandal involving her male co-anchor, will be compelling to some viewers.
- I mentioned a moment ago about “the early episodes” of this series. On Friday, you’ll have the first three episodes of The Morning Show to watch. New episodes are rolling out once a week after that.
- I was a big fan of The West Wing, so it was particularly enjoyable to see lots of walk-and-talks in these episodes.
- I’ve never been much of a fan of Reese Witherspoon. I’ve always found her schtick to be just a little on the hokey side. In my opinion, she’s fantastic in her role as a journalist on this show. And for you fans of Barry out there, remember Sally’s epic freakout moment this past season? Reese’s character has a similar one that I was surprisingly impressed by.
- I couldn’t help but notice lots of closeups of iPhones throughout the show.
- Billy Crudup is perfectly cast as one of those sleazy network executives wearing a constant shit-eating grin. I laughed to myself when he walked into a restaurant at one point, and the camera lingers on him while a female singer is crooning a jazzy version of Radiohead’s Creep.
If you want to know all the fine print about Apple’s new streamer, like pricing and how to watch, check out our deep dive on the service here.