Is the new streaming service worth $4.99 a month? Depends on how you feel about Hailee Steinfeld and the moon.
AppleTV+ is here. The service — $4.99 a month to most of us but free for a year to all folks who buy certain new Apple devices — debuts Friday, November 1, with a small initial slate of original programming and no library of popular shows acquired from other studios (like Friends or The Office on Netflix).
The service aims to make watching TV easier by incorporating lots of other streaming services into its central hub. (You can read more about its promises here.) But you still need to subscribe to those other services to get access to their content through AppleTV+. And you need to subscribe to AppleTV+ to get access to its original programming.
But should you subscribe to AppleTV+? That question rests heavily on the quality of its programming lineup, which is launching with several series for children but also four new TV shows aimed at adult and young adult audiences, and the documentary The Elephant Queen.
The Vox Culture staff has watched those four TV shows — the Emily Dickinson teen dramedy Dickinson, the alternate-history space series For All Mankind, the behind-the-scenes news drama The Morning Show, and the sci-fi epic See — as well as The Elephant Queen, to judge whether the service will feel worth it to new subscribers. We’ve also checked out some of its upcoming programming, which we’re embargoed from writing about in depth but which influenced our final verdict. (The children’s programming was not made available to critics, which is a shame. Snoopy in Space looks like our kind of thing.)
Below, you’ll find capsule reviews of the five AppleTV+ titles available on November 1, as well as our thoughts on whether they add up to a service worth $4.99 a month.
Dickinson portrays Emily Dickinson as God always intended: as a goth teen lesbian. It’s incredibly fun.
Dickinson, about the life of goth teen lesbian poet Emily Dickinson, comes charging out of the gate all style and polish and flair. It’s an acid pop of a TV show dedicated to rescuing Emily Dickinson from her popular legacy as a lonely spinster hermit, and it’s willing to use as many anachronistic needle drops as it takes to do so.
Under showrunner Alena Smith, over the course of the show’s first three half-hour episodes, Emily (Hailee Steinfeld) has a clandestine tryst with Death (Wiz Khalifa) in his carriage, dresses in drag to sneak into a college lecture about volcanoes, and throws a wild opium-fueled house party while her parents are out of town. She also spends some time pining for her best friend, Sue (Ella Hunt), who’s tragically engaged to Emily’s brother Austen — and she also finds the time to write a couple poems.
What’s most impressive about Dickinson is how ably it avoids all the traps laid out before it. Anachronism-heavy historical TV shows can sometimes come off as smug, as if they think they’re shocking their audiences — even though, in this post-Reign world, seeing a girl in a 19th-century hoop skirt get low to “I Like Tuh” is approximately as new and surprising as watching a walk-and-talk on an Aaron Sorkin show.
But Dickinson is specific and self-aware in the way it uses anachronism: not to shock, but to illuminate, to bring out what is freshest and most urgent in Emily Dickinson’s life story. The point of its “I Like Tuh” dance party isn’t to impress upon the audience how edgy Dickinson is, but how young and fun Emily Dickinson herself used to be. In other words, this show is far more goth Marie Antoinette than that bad TNT show about Shakespeare wearing leather pants.
Another common hurdle for shows about famous writers is that they often get too literal in the way they depict the writers creating their most famous work. (Remember in that Anne Hathaway Jane Austen biopic how it felt like every other scene someone would say a line from Pride and Prejudice and Anne would make an “aha!” face and start scribbling notes?) But while Dickinson draws connections between Emily’s life and her writing, it keeps those connections subliminal and gives her metaphors space to breathe.
Sure, we see Emily attend a lecture about volcanoes right before we see her composing “I Have Never Seen ‘Volcanoes,’” but it’s also clear that when Emily writes the poem, she’s not transcribing her lecture notes. She’s using some of the raw material from her life to think through ideas about sex and rage and suppressed emotion — and we get to feel all of those suppressed emotions fully.
Dickinson is a slick, stylish show, and refreshingly, it knows exactly what it’s doing. —Constance Grady
Created by: Alena Smith
Starring: Hailee Steinfeld, Jane Krakowski, Toby Huss
Episodes watched for review: 3 of 10
The Elephant Queen will delight fans of anthropomorphic nature documentaries. But it seems to sidestep important parts of its story.
If you like the Disney style of nature documentary — where the animals have names and someone describes their activities as if narrating a dramedy — The Elephant Queen will hit the same sweet spot. It’s the tale of a herd of elephants, led by one dubbed Athena, the titular queen. They live peacefully near a watering hole, coexisting with a bunch of other animals: dung beetles, terrapins, bullfrogs, and more.
But drought and an encroaching dry season force the elephants away from their home and toward a far-away savanna, where they might be able to find the water and food they need to survive. It’s a dangerous journey, and the harsh realities of their environment mean tragedy can strike at any moment.
The Elephant Queen is narrated by Chiwetel Ejiofor and directed by veteran wildlife documentarians Mark Deeble and Victoria Stone. It’s lushly shot, with close-ups of big mammals and tiny insects as they engage in eating, playing, and trying to stay alive, a portrait of wildlife that is richly constructed.
But with that said, how much you like The Elephant Queen might depend on how you feel about a cutesy kind of anthropomorphism. The animals are not just named; they’re also given personalities, worries, and desires by their human narrators. (And this treatment is applied to extend far beyond the pachyderms; one sequence, in which the sounds of helicopters and tiny punching and fighting noises are layered into scenes of dung beetles fighting one another, goes full cartoon.)
I personally find this technique maddening. I don’t think we need to pretend animals are humans in order to feel empathy for their plight, or imagine that their societies are like human societies to recognize that they occupy an important place on the planet and in its ecosystem.
This is probably the strangest thing about The Elephant Queen: It’s either ignoring or choosing to ignore the reason Athena and her herd are forced out of their home by drought, a problem that’s been worsening over time. The film concludes with text that suggests the damage done to elephant populations by environmental and man-made threats is fierce. But everything that comes before it seems curiously uninterested in those concerns, never mentioning issues like the changing climate and spending relatively little time on the threats posed by human poachers.
There’s no need to launch a polemic or spend the whole film pontificating, but the absence feels significant. After all, the people who watch the movie might actually be inspired to do something about the dangers the elephants face.
The result is a nice story about elephants but not much more, making The Elephant Queen feel a bit like a squandered opportunity. Still, if nature documentaries with tiny yelling beetles are your thing — and maybe even if they aren’t — the devotion of Deeble and Stone to Athena and her herd and the obvious affection and care the crew brought to the production process is something to behold. —Alissa Wilkinson
Directed by: Mark Deeble and Victoria Stone
Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor (as the narrator) and a herd of elephants
For All Mankind is a stylish but too-sober story of a world where the space race never ended
Leave it to Battlestar Galactica mastermind Ron Moore to create a utopia based on the premise that the Soviet Union was the first country to land on the moon, beating the US by a handful of weeks in the fateful summer of 1969. In Moore’s For All Mankind, the US doesn’t retreat from the Soviets’ victory, tail between its legs. Instead, it redoubles its efforts and pushes to make the American space program even more robust in the name of colonizing the solar system for the good ol’ stars and stripes.
That premise suggests a potentially fascinating world for a TV show to be set in, but it doesn’t offer much in the way of characters who might live in that world or what they might do in it (unless “colonizing the solar system” qualifies). For All Mankind occupies an alternate history so entranced with its ripple effect that for too long in its first season, the show doesn’t do anything beyond ponder a version of Mad Men where Don Draper might become obsessed with finding ice on the moon instead of landing Coca-Cola.
A lack of solid character storytelling in service of world-building might be acceptable on a better-paced series, but of the eight episodes of For All Mankind that AppleTV+ sent to critics for review, not one was shorter than 59 minutes and most ran well over an hour. The show has gorgeous production values, but it might be the single best argument anyone could make in support of being able to play episodes at 1.5 or even double speed. There’s just so much filler, and too much throat-clearing masquerading as storytelling.
Perversely, however, there also isn’t enough throat-clearing. Major mishaps in space — including one that threatens to strand several important characters on the moon in the second episode — are too often solved off-camera, and whatever Apollo 13 energy the show might have evoked is too easily squandered. What’s more, the series’ two lead characters, astronauts Ed (Joel Kinnaman) and Gordo (Michael Dorman), are total snoozes whose character development is largely limited to, “They wanted to be astronauts and now they are!”
Fortunately, For All Mankind is the one series where AppleTV+ sent out enough episodes to give critics a good sense of how it might evolve, and the longer it runs, the more it finds its groove. In particular, episode three — which opens with one of the show’s biggest breaks with reality by bringing women into the space program in the early ’70s — sets up a kind of shadow series about women astronauts competing against each other to make NASA’s cut while also trying to support each other in a more outwardly sexist world. (The show eventually does similar things with queer identities.)
For All Mankind is nowhere near perfect, but it’s deeply watchable — eventually. And at this point, “deeply watchable” might be all AppleTV+ cares about. —Emily VanDerWerff
Created by: Ronald D. Moore, Matt Wolpert, Ben Nedivi
Starring: Joel Kinnaman, Michael Dorman, Sarah Jones
Episodes watched for review: 8 of 10
The Morning Show is bad. But it’s not boring.
The Morning Show is the crown jewel of AppleTV+’s launch slate. It’s got the stars — Jennifer Aniston! Reese Witherspoon! Steve Carell! It’s got the behind-the-scenes talent, including showrunner Kerry Ehrin (of the unheralded Bates Motel) and head director Mimi Leder (of ER and The Leftovers). Even its supporting cast is stuffed with ringers, to the degree that Martin Short turns up in episode three in what amounts to a cameo.
The series feels fussed over, too. It switched showrunners to Ehrin early on (a change reflected in how the show is “created by” Jay Carson but “developed by” Ehrin), and its storytelling lurches awkwardly from arc to arc, trying to accommodate every one of its stars and potential storylines. It’s honestly pretty fun to watch, all glossy and zippy. But it’s also fundamentally at war with itself.
This internal conflict is perhaps best examined via the lens of the two ideas the series sets up to comment on in its first three episodes. The first is that women face many struggles in the workplace that men don’t, an idea that makes sense on a show where Aniston plays Alex Levy, a veteran morning show anchor who seizes the moment after her longtime co-host, Mitch Kessler (Carell), is booted in the wake of a Me Too-style scandal.
But the second idea is that Me Too has maybe gone too far, viewed through Mitch, who is upset that his career is over because some women who he says he had consensual sex with have accused him of bad behavior. Conceptually, “Women face workplace struggles” and “Me Too has gone too far” don’t have to be at odds, but it’s really hard to avoid the huge, obvious tension between those themes without either diminishing the other.
And it’s not immediately obvious what The Morning Show actually thinks. Throughout its first three episodes, it’s just asking questions, and Mitch has been drawn in such a way that the show could eventually reveal the full extent of what he did or that the accusations against him are hot air, and it’s never clear which way it’s leaning. That kind of ambiguity could potentially be fascinating on a show actually centered on the Mitch character, but The Morning Show is also about 15 or 16 other things, especially the uneasy alliance between Alex and upstart anchor Bradley Jackson (Witherspoon).
The desire to have things both ways constantly undercuts The Morning Show’s first three episodes. Bradley claims not to be on the side of the left or the right but on “the human side,” which translates to lots of weird self-defeating anti-logic in the big monologue that goes viral and makes her a star. The big bosses at the network wax nostalgic about broadcast TV then lament the inevitability of tech taking over (a richly ironic idea on an AppleTV+ show). Everything is both itself and the opposite of itself on a series that feels more focus-tested than well-crafted. It’s bad, sure, but it’s also not boring. There are worse things you could watch. —EV
Created by: Jay Carson (developed by Kerry Ehrin)
Starring: Jennifer Aniston, Reese Witherspoon, Steve Carell
Episodes watched for review: 3 of 10
See fails to take up the big-budget fantasy epic mantle Game of Thrones left behind
Now that Game of Thrones is over, what will fill the void? Definitely not See, a vapid, glacially paced attempt to woo fantasy fans in search of a new world to invest in. Despite containing several of the same elements that Game of Thrones fans found so enthralling — warring tribes; young people with special seeing powers; a scary, sexy, evil queen type; and even the presence of an angry, grunt-y Jason Momoa — See is missing the human drama and stakes that helped make Game of Thrones a juggernaut among a variety of viewers, even if they hadn’t read the source novels or cared about dragons before.
See is a lightly sci-fi trip through bland environments fronted by forgettable characters who exist according to some bizarre rules. The show’s title refers to its great irony: No one in its future society can “see” anything at all! The human race has been forced to rebuild after some vague cataclysmic event not only decimated most of Earth’s inhabitants but also robbed whoever was left — and future generations — of their eyesight. Whatever happened also set technology seemingly all the way back to prehistoric times and now everyone is using spears and wearing animal skins. And despite needing to boost the human population again, different tribes are trying to kill each other, for reasons largely unexplained.
There are two exceptions to the “everyone is blind” rule and they are at the crux of the action. Twin babies are fathered by Jason Momoa’s character and they apparently have the power of sight. Alfre Woodard plays the infants’ nurse, and though she mostly just feels around in a cave in a constant state of shock, she is able to ascertain that they can see. And so they must be protected, because there’s an evil queen who wants to kidnap them and harness their power after discovering through the grapevine that they exist.
This sounds interesting, I thought to myself, even though I don’t always love high-fantasy fiction. But See fails to do the world-building required to support its premise. There’s lots of indistinguishable scenery — just forest after cave after forest after cave. After watching the three episodes AppleTV+ sent to critics for review, I still had almost no sense of how Earth (and specifically the United States) got to be this way or what “this way” really meant in the context of this haggard future society.
See operates like an average adult fantasy series, with little material attention paid to the extra complication of its characters’ blindness (rarely does it seem to bear any impact on their ability to accurately stab each other). The show mostly relies on its expansive environment to draw comparison to Game of Thrones; there’s little intrigue or tension in the battle to protect or destroy the two people in its world who can see.
Game of Thrones sure wasn’t perfect, but watching See in its wake offers an important reminder: A big budget (reportedly around $15 million per episode) and Jason Momoa’s grizzled looks do not an engrossing show make. —Allegra Frank
Created by: Francis Lawrence, Steven Knight
Starring: Jason Momoa, Alfre Woodard, Sylvia Hoeks
Episodes watched for review: 3 of 8
Should you subscribe to AppleTV+? Depends on how much you like Hailee Steinfeld.
Based solely on its launch programming, a subscription to AppleTV+ doesn’t seem particularly necessary right now. Average out our scores for the service’s first five programs and you wind up with a score just under three stars. Not horrible, but also probably not what anyone was hoping for.
Apple has made the very common mistake of building its TV shows less around great ideas and more around recognizable talent. Having such an impressive roster certainly doesn’t hurt, but once the initial shine wears off, what will keep viewers coming back for more of The Morning Show isn’t the cast, it’s the storytelling. And so far, the storytelling throughout the AppleTV+ lineup leaves much to be desired.
A few shows that are scheduled to debut later on are slightly more promising. The upcoming half-hour horror drama Servant (from M. Night Shyamalan) is solidly creepy, and a true-crime series called Truth Be Told should play well for fans of the genre. But unless you’re a huge Hailee Steinfeld stan and just can’t wait to see Dickinson, AppleTV+ can probably wait.
Especially because there’s another big question we can’t yet answer: How easy will it be to actually use AppleTV+ to watch Apple’s own programming or anyone else’s? Apple is generally good at designing intuitive user interfaces — the current state of iTunes notwithstanding — but helping viewers navigate the oceans of possible content they could watch remains a problem nobody has quite solved, not even mighty Netflix.
Even after screening some of its programming, we still have more questions than answers about AppleTV+, its quality, and its future.
Author: Emily Todd VanDerWerff