When Apple announced Planet of the Apps, a reality competition show in which aspiring app developers pitch their ideas to a panel of celebrity entrepreneurs and will.i.am, I cringed along with the rest of the internet (and, apparently, Apple employees) at the flagrant Shark Tank ripoff and painfully punny name. Since Apple surprise-released the first episode Tuesday night, the reviews haven’t been any nicer than the initial reaction to the trailer: It’s a “tepid, barely competent knockoff of Shark Tank” that “misses the point of original programming” and feels “like slowly dying.” But I don’t know what these people are talking about, because Planet of the Apps rules.
My anticipated hatewatch turned into me sitting at my laptop, genuinely enjoying the sensation of watching Gwyneth Paltrow decide whether she liked an app. Yes, Planet of the Apps is bootleg Shark Tank. Who cares? Apple’s whole shtick is taking someone else’s idea (computers, smartphones, AI speakers, wearing black turtlenecks) and presenting it as innovative and cool, and anyway, Shark Tank itself is a spinoff of Japan’s Money Tigers. Originality is not a priority for Apple, and it’s also not really that important in developing a watchable competition reality show, since there are only so many variations on smug-looking people rejecting the dreams of plebes. Watchability is far more important. For example, Beat Shazam, the new Fox game show based on the music-identification app Shazam and hosted by Jamie Foxx, is arguably slightly more original because it’s based on an app rather than simply about apps — but it’s also just not that interesting to watch a game show where someone tries to beat an app.
The key components of making a successful reality competition show are:
- Compelling judges
- Contestants who are either easy to root for or easy to hate
- Some sort of gimmick to make it stand out
On Planet of the Apps, the gimmick is gloriously corny, and it made me laugh: They make contestants enter and give their “elevator pitch” on a gigantic escalator, and then the judges decide whether to swipe right or left on their ideas as they descend. Meanwhile, the celebrity judge casting is borderline diabolical. I’m pretty sure Apple asked both Paltrow and Jessica Alba to fill the “hot famous lifestyle brand purveyor” slot figuring only one would say yes, and then it got awkward when they both did, and the company decided to just roll with it. It’s a built-in rivalry and I appreciate any efforts to cultivate potential celebrity feuds.
Asking will.i.am to participate was another stroke of genius, as most tech sector projects will.i.am has ever worked on have proved to be bonkers failures. It’s like asking William Hung to judge The Voice: sort of cruel when you think about it, but almost certain to be entertaining. And then there’s Gary Vaynerchuk, the only judge who is a quasi-celebrity because he’s a tech entrepreneur and not the other way around. Vaynerchuk is supposed to be the token Mean Judge in addition to the token Judge Who Actually Has a Background in the Field, and he’s competently grouchy. All the judges are civil in the first episode, but I have high hopes that we’ll get a Nicki-Mariah situation cooking.
As far as the contestants go, it’s a hard sell to get viewers emotionally invested in app pitches. By limiting the field to app developers, Planet of the Apps is trying to carve out a niche but is also lowering its stakes, as it’s incredibly difficult to find a new app that truly feels essential in 2017. The first episode follows a family man struggling to pay the bills as he gets his augmented-reality design app off the ground, as well as a pair of painfully earnest recent college grads convinced their walking safety app is going to change the world. It’s clear that neither app is going anywhere fast. (The college grads face a setback when Google essentially releases the same product, and the AR man is rejected by investors for failing to properly explain his product.)
But I actually like the show’s low-stakes, larky quality. It feels more like The Great British Bake Off than The Voice in that you know no matter what happens the contestants will probably be just fine and not have a prolonged emotional breakdown upon watching their hopes get reduced to piles of dust. I’ve always hated the first few episodes of talent competition shows because the gleefully presented parade of failed contestants is just too heart-rending. Meanwhile, Planet of the Apps’ rejected app developers come off as people who need to rethink their business plans rather than reckon with the obliteration of their deepest personal dreams.
Planet of the Apps is derivative and hokey, but it’s charmingly derivative and hokey, and I think it’d do quite well if it were aired on a major network and not nestled within Apple Music. Is it worth canceling Spotify and switching over to Apple? Nah. But I’ll definitely be scouring YouTube for the inevitable judge drama and worst app pitch compilations.