The streaming war is nigh, dear readers! This past Friday, the highly anticipated Apple TV+ finally launched, and along with it an eclectic smattering of programming. From muppets to NASA to sexy Emily Dickinson, we’ve got our thoughts on all of it for your reading pleasure.
DICKINSON (Apple TV+)
When Apple Plus first announced DICKINSON—a modern-ish retelling of the life of Emily Dickinson, starring Hallee Steinfeld and Jane Krakowski—as one of the first shows in their debut slate, I read a Tweet by the brilliant Dana Schwartz that said, “JENNA MARONEY FROM 30 ROCK: I can’t be in the show this week, Liz. I’ll be too busy filming my *new* show. About sexy Emily Dickinson. It’s a hot new teen drama. A sexy teen drama.” In execution, the conceit of the show isn’t that far off. The 30-minute comedy merges modern-day dialogue and teenage soap-tropes against the background of 19th century Amherst. It would be easy to look at the show and surmise that it’s the RIVERDALE version of Emily Dickinson and, in some ways, it is. The problem, however, is that it’s not just that and it doesn’t seem to know exactly what it is. In many ways, it’s equal parts rebellious teen comedy, earnest period piece, and queer love story with an aesthetic and pace that feels on par with features like THE BLING RING.
Perhaps the biggest disconnect of the show comes from its practice of straddling both the past and the present. In the first scene, Emily’s sister Lavina arrives at her bedroom door at 4 AM to tell her that it’s time for her to go fetch water. When Emily asks why their brother never has to do it, Lavina answers that it’s because he’s a boy. “It’s such bullshit!” Emily responds. Emily is not the only one to speak this way; however, not everyone in the show does. The adults, for example, feel as though they’re playing out an entirely different show as their language feels much more appropriate for the times. This is likely a stylistic choice—a way to showcase the widening gap between generations. However, it doesn’t come across that way. Instead, it makes the narrative feel choppy and inconsistent.
There’s also a supernatural-esque element added to the mix featuring Wiz Khalifa who embodies “death,” shown through Emily’s point of view that suggests that the show will also turn the corner into the gothic.
To its credit, the show is its own beast. It’s not RIVERDALE or SABRINA or any of the other latest Gen Z retellings that we’ve come to know over the years. It’s a warped and wacky piece that sits somewhere on its own. After two episodes and coming to terms with creative decisions like watching Emily Dickinson twerk or hearing Austin Dickinson proclaim that his new house is “so pimp,” I’ve decided that DICKINSON is certainly something. As for what that something actually is—I’m not quite sure. [Anna Thorup]
FOR ALL MANKIND (Apple TV+)
With this weekend’s launch of Apple Plus, they’ve immortalized their new streaming service with a drama about one of the most famous launches in world history—the space launch that put men on the moon. FOR ALL MANKIND begins with familiar newsreels of John F. Kennedy talking about the space program, about the Russian cosmonaut who was the first man in space, and some color commentary about the general politics of the 1960s. People gather excitedly around their televisions as a news commentator gives them a blow-by-blow of the craft landing on the moon. Finally, they get a video feed, and a spacesuit-clad man comes out, down the ladder, places his feet on the moon, and utters those infamous words…
Which we cannot understand, because they are in Russian.
In this universe, the Russians beat America to the space-punch, and were not only the first in space, but the first on the moon as well. What follows is a gorgeously acted drama about the ripple effect that this has upon all the people affected in the space program and all the people connected to them: the disappointed astronauts who could’ve had the chance to land on the moon and the nosy reporter attempting to dig into their lives, NASA directors, and even President Nixon himself. The pilot moves a little slowly, but it’s for the benefit of the characters, who are allowed to really breathe and wallow in the misery of the lost race, and for the viewers to understand the reality of this show: the space race is not over. They are putting an American on that moon. A minor criticism is that there’s a major lack of diversity—with recent movies like HIDDEN FIGURES proving to us that NASA wasn’t entirely staffed by white men, it’s a little disappointing to see barely any hint of women, let alone people of color. Despite that, though, the idea is intriguing enough and well-done enough to get me back for the next episode. Definitely worth a watch. [Anna Mansager]
GHOSTWRITER (Apple TV+)
Though perhaps fighting words around these parts, I must admit, I don’t often seek out family-friendly or “children’s” content, apart from the requisite animated series or two. Now while these are of course labels often used to keep animated projects from “serious” critical consideration (and much of the excellent writing from this section has argued for their legitimacy over the years), if it’s between something I could have watched when I was eight and THE SOPRANOS, THE SOPRANOS is going to win every time. That’s to say that as far as GHOSTWRITER goes, I can respect the hustle. If anything, it’s most interesting aim is to get the zoomers of today and tomorrow to reconsider classic pieces of literature, telling the story of a group of four young teenagers in Brooklyn who find themselves communicating with a ghost that’s seen fit to let the characters of various Western classics out of their literary confines. While I knew of books like Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland as a kid because I was a nerd who wasn’t allowed to play video games or watch movies until the weekend, it’s rather frighteningly plausible that a younger child in 2019 would have never come across it. As such, GHOSTWRITER’s ability to recontextualize the canon of English-language literature in an earnest attempt to make it cool enough to engage with is admirable! What’s more, the overall concept of a season-long conflict involving determining who the Ghostwriter is can easily remain present as the more episodic conflicts continue to introduce characters from classic books. Neil Patrick Harris as Carroll’s White Rabbit is a midgame treat that allows Apple to flex its utterly and undeniably impressive CGI budget (THE IRISHMAN who?), the damn thing looked high-fidelity enough that my computer notably lagged, and a genuine scene of classic physical comedy is present when the White Rabbit pesters the kids, who are the only ones that can see him, as they quietly try to take a test. Even if the acting can occasionally be wooden and the dialogue stiff, most notably with the really quite unnecessarily Draconian principal of the kids’ school, how can you fault programming that mostly succeeds in taking the least hokey route to being educational? But if you’re reading this, you’re probably an adult that pays your own bills: use your precious pockets of free time to catch up on MAD MEN. [Thomas Seraydarian]
HELPSTERS (Apple TV+)
There was a lot of early hubbub surrounding Apple’s Sesame Workshop-sanctioned HELPSTERS, namely its stated mission of teaching preschoolers the basic principles of coding. Don’t get me wrong, it is highly dystopic for a large tech company to produce content that curates its own workforce starting at age two. In practice, however… HELPSTERS is a great show. It does in fact impart the basic principles of coding—sequences, loops, and giving specific instructions are all recurring lessons. Yet, at no point do the Helpsters pull out a computer and actually start writing lines of code. The Helpsters’ stated mission is to help anyone with any problem, no matter how big or small: finding out who’s fastest in a race, finding a book you don’t remember the title of, etc. Moreso than the importance of coding, HELPSTERS is about the importance of making and executing a plan. The ability to encounter a problem, break it into actionable steps, and delegate the process of solving it is something some folks in their 30s still struggle with, and getting preschoolers engaged in this kind of thinking is deeply exciting to me as a type A personality. Other than that… the show is just good. The smattering of celebrity guests are bought in 1000% and everybody looks like they’re having an awesome time. The puppet performances are fantastic and hilarious—I adore leader Cody as she meets each problem with enthusiasm and patiently talks her crew of literal muppets through each step. The pastel color palate is a feast for the eyes, and also gives the series a bit of a DON’T HUG ME I’M SCARED quality which is fun. Maybe I’m just drinking the Apple Kool-Aid, but as someone who works in children’s entertainment, this is exactly the kind of stuff I would have loved as a child and would be happy to share with my children. Or, well… with my cat. [Kate Brogden]
THE MORNING SHOW (Apple TV+)
Jennifer Aniston, Steve Carrell, and Reese Witherspoon all individually have enough star power to do literally anything they want. But Apple said no, that’s not enough. We need all three of them, goddamnit, with a Duplass brother on top. While it allegedly doesn’t cost $15 million an episode as was originally reported, it’s definitely on the pricey side for a show without animated dragons. Thus, my expectations for THE MORNING SHOW were justifiably high. So when I say that it fails in its mission to bring a gripping, juicy, and poignant original series to this fledgling little streaming service, I don’t mean to say the show is bad. I’m just saying that it’s not what it thinks it is.
We jump into the pilot at 3:00 A.M. EST, a few hours before Alex Levy (Aniston) and Mitch Kessler (Carrell) are due to begin their morning show, The Morning Show. They’re awoken by phone calls informing the two of them that Mitch has been fired for sexual misconduct, based on allegations published earlier that night. A few hours later, Alex has to get on camera and face America, alone, and explain to them why her fake TV husband will no longer be a part of their Morning Show family. Meanwhile, Bradley Jackson (Witherspoon), a small-time field reporter, pops off in a viral rant and completely decimates a coal miner scumbag with facts and logic, epic-style. The head of their media conglomerate’s news division, AKA the Prince of Darkness, Cory Ellison (Billy Crudup) notices her and begins grooming her to replace Levy.
Despite not having any direct involvement, Sorkin’s influence radiates from every scene. This is both good and bad, much like Sorkin himself. Copious use of kinetic walk-and-talk shots and zingers shooting out every which way feel perfectly at home here. The rhetorical dunks fired at senior execs like Ellison and managing editor Chip Black (Mark Duplass) comprise most of THE MORNING SHOW’s highlight reel. But when the discussion moves from corporate power structures to social power structures, and when the zingers go from billionaires to random protesters, the wheels start to fall off the wagon.
I can appreciate that Apple wants their flagship program to say something important. You can’t find any space in America’s streaming line-up without a subject that makes headlines. But the pilot alone tries to weigh in on fossil fuels, digital communication, #MeToo, and the cutthroat nature of live TV production. The time given to these issues is further cut by jarring, stilted scenes of Levy and Kessler crying alone. We get it! They’re stressed! It’s a stressful time! I don’t need to see them chuff a stoge and fuck up making coffee to know that.
The price tag of THE MORNING SHOW ensures that there’s a number of good elements here, but a show can’t be about everything at once. If future episodes can center themselves, perhaps around the rivalry between Levy and Jackson, then we might have a coherent show here. But if it remains a collection of zingers and buzzwords being intercut with Steve Carrell smashing things, I’m just gonna watch the smashing things clips on YouTube. [Dan Blomquist]
SEE (Apple TV+)
You simply cannot go wrong with Jason Momoa as a badass general leading a group of badasses. Khal Drogo stood out from the already excellent first season of GAME OF THRONES and he turned AQUAMAN into the most profitable DC movie of all time. He’s perfected the smoldering gaze and has a voice that makes you straighten your tie even though staring at him makes you want to get naked. Putting him in charge of a tribe of fugitives is already an incredibly safe bet, but Apple doesn’t settle for safe. These fugitives are fully blind, occassionally incestuous, and will fuck your shit up in the most absurd ways possible.
SEE takes place in a post-apocalyptic Earth that strays from the typical barren deserts and crumbled skyscrapers. This is an Earth hundreds of years after humanity was wiped out by a mysterious virus, and the environment has grown back into an untamed wilderness. It’s been so long since anyone was able to see that most people think of sight as a myth, and those who think otherwise are ostracized as heretics. All of this comes crashing down when twins are born to Baba Voss’ (Momoa) lover, Maghra (Hera Hilmar), who have the gift of vision. The evil Queen Kane (Silvia Hoeks) wants them dead or captured for her own evil purposes.
If this sounds simplistic or hokey or just plain dumb, don’t worry; it absolutely, 100% is. There’s some light commentary about needing to treat our world better, but that takes a back seat to motherfucking blind folks fighting with crazy-looking spears. I have, at best, a passing interest in the plot because I just watched a man-made rock avalanche wipe out an army of faceless imperialists. Sure, there are some lapses in the show’s self-imposed logic, but I could not give less of a shit about that when Baba Voss is wrestling a goddamn bear and stabbing it in the goddamn throat. Regardless of any other aspect of this show, it is some of the dumbest fun I’ve had since watching the trailer for HOBBS AND SHAW. Set your brain to somewhere between silly and horny and enjoy the ride. [Dan Blomquist]
SNOOPY IN SPACE (Apple TV+)
As much as I love to watch a multi-million garbage fire burn (SEE), the Peanuts revival has really been hyping me up for Apple TV+. Snoopy (the official mascot of NASA—it’s true!) wants to become an astronaut, and all his familiar Peanuts pals set up shop at NASA to make his dream come true. The Schulz family is notoriously picky when it comes to shelling out the keys to their kingdom, and it pays off. These shorts are delightful. It is unabashedly charming watching Snoopy and Woodstock dick around on the moon. The animation is gorgeous. Snoopy, Woodstock, Charlie Brown, and the gang are all immediately recognizable, but the color design and fluidity of animation really elevate the classic look to the next level. Content-wise, it definitely feels younger than the all-audiences Peanuts specials we’re used to. Snoopy and Woodstock are much more verbal (though they never actually speak), and the heavy NASA curriculum never quite stops feeling like a commercial. That being said, die-hard Peanuts fans will be pleased. At worst, it’s something you’d be excited to watch when your third grade science teacher comes in with a hangover and can’t be bothered with her lesson plan. At best, it’s a loyal addition to a beloved franchise and an absolute pleasure to witness. [Kate Brogden]