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What Does Apple TV+ Want to Be?

The tech giant’s streaming service goes live on Friday as the Streaming Wars kick into full gear. But even with Jennifer Aniston, Reese Witherspoon, and an endless amount of money in its arsenal, the service still feels a few adjustments short of reaching its full potential.

Apple TV+/Ringer illustration

For All Mankind is well within the wheelhouse of cocreator Ronald D. Moore. Like Battlestar Galactica, the limited series is an imaginative riff on the space adventure; like Outlander, it toys freely with the contours of history, creating a world in which the Soviet Union “won” the Space Race to the moon and then asking what would happen from there. More broadly, For All Mankind is the story of an institution spending its near-infinite resources on an all-important launch, only to find itself in second place—at best. Without the rush of absolute victory, our heroes can only console themselves with qualifiers that inevitably ring hollow. Better technology is no substitute for winning.

For All Mankind is a good show. It’s a great metaphor for Apple TV+, the streaming service that goes live Friday and includes For All Mankind as part of its high-wattage opening slate.

Apple’s entry into the Streaming Wars has been hanging over Hollywood’s collective head for years. The tech company’s shot across the bow was a two-season order for The Morning Show, a star-forward drama headlined by Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon, in November 2017. More press releases came in at a steady drumbeat, each flashier than the last: an Oprah book club! A Steven Spielberg anthology! A Sofia Coppola movie! Back in March, Apple turned one of its regular events into a show-and-tell for A-list talent, even as it withheld important details like price point and launch date. Now, Apple TV+ is finally here, for the stunningly low price of $4.99 a month (or free with the purchase of an iPhone—just don’t forget to cancel that subscription when the time comes).

Entertainment and tech have been on a collision course for some time now; Netflix is still headquartered in Los Gatos, California, and Amazon has used third-wave feminist art as a deal-sweetener for same-day delivery since 2014. Apple’s emergence as a content provider, however, marks the point when the two become one and the same. There’s good reason Apple’s long-impending rollout has invited a level of interest (with a light undercurrent of dread) that’s all but impossible to amass in an oversaturated landscape. Apple’s offering is the first in an impending wave of new subscription services designed to chip away at Netflix’s head start in the streaming era: Disney+ will launch in just a few weeks; HBO Max will launch in May 2020; NBCUniversal’s Peacock will arrive sometime next year. Apple TV+ is the only one whose parent company wasn’t already in the entertainment business, but that parent company is also the corporation best provisioned for a war of attrition to win audiences’ time and money. What if the only thing that can beat Netflix’s multibillion-dollar spending spree is a trillion-dollar behemoth?

Still, it takes more than money—though a great deal of money certainly helps!—to build a premium network from the ground up. In June 2017, Apple hired former Sony Pictures Television chiefs Zack Van Amburg and Jamie Erlicht for the job, a solid start; the two had previously produced Breaking Bad and The Crown, among others. But scattered among the various Deadline announcements that followed their hire, there were also telltale signs that a hardware manufacturer’s transition into the softer, squishier world of storytelling was not a seamless one. The Morning Show, which had earned a series order without so much as a script, changed showrunners midstream. Both The Morning Show and See, a post-apocalyptic fantasy about a world without eyesight, ran up budgets of $15 million an episode. The Wall Street Journal reported that CEO Tim Cook balked at the violence and nudity that characterize much of prestige TV, the demands of brand management butting up directly against the incentives of buzz-hunting, let alone artistic expression.

The brewing narrative was epitomized by a recent Bloomberg feature titled “The One Where Apple Tried to Buy Its Way Into Hollywood.” The culture of a tech firm mandates secrecy, caution, and rigid control; the culture of making movies and television shows is marked by intangibles and a free-flowing exchange of information. A clash was inevitable, and some of its manifestations verged on comedy: “Van Amburg and Erlicht gave projects code names, a hallmark of Silicon Valley product development that’s unusual in the film industry, and insisted that partners sign nondisclosure agreements before they could see materials from their own shows,” Bloomberg reported. With all the intrigue surrounding Apple’s massive expenditures and awkward segues, the shows themselves almost felt like an afterthought.

The four series that make up Apple’s starter squad do little to change that impression. All of them boast an impressive pedigree and/or enticing hook: The Morning Show builds on the shameless-acting-showcase model Big Little Lies began; See has an outlandish premise and Jason Momoa’s biceps; For All Mankind fuses period detail and grand scale with grounded character drama; Dickinson, starring Hailee Steinfeld, turns a renowned poet into a Riverdale cast member who hangs out with Wiz Khalifa. (There are also three children’s shows and The Elephant Queen, a nature documentary narrated by Chiwetel Ejiofor.) But no one show—Apple provided screeners for all four, plus soon-to-launch titles like Octavia Spencer crime yarn Truth Be Told and M. Night Shyamalan thriller Servant—is executed strongly enough to serve as a creative flagship, and the whole of Apple TV+ hasn’t yet coalesced into more than its parts.

Nor does a particularly cohesive image of Apple’s intended brand or target audience emerge. Though rarefied complaints about screeners are to be made sparingly in public, if at all, a poorly built site making it near-impossible for critics to watch Apple’s lavish productions on their TVs, or even in full screen on their computers, makes for a confounding first impression. Further viewing doesn’t do much to clarify what Apple is going for. See and The Morning Show are broad plays for middlebrow saturation, while Dickinson and For All Mankind are defiantly niche, playing to a specific demo. (I would know; when it comes to the insouciant, allusion-heavy Dickinson, I’m basically it.) Even the release strategy is something of a mash-up, with some series unleashing full seasons at once while others opt for a weekly drop.

At the Morning Show premiere earlier this week, Ehrlicht told The New York Times the company’s goal is to release “[c]ritically acclaimed quality shows, first and foremost. Ultimately subscribers matter. But Day 1, high-quality, distinctive, critically acclaimed programming will drive everything.” Not that Ehrlicht would ever claim Apple isn’t striving for quality, but the implication is that the service wants to hew closer to HBO-style curation than a Netflix-style firehose (though Netflix first dipped its toe into original programming with Emmy favorites Orange Is the New Black and House of Cards). Some of Apple TV+’s shows even have direct analogs: If The Morning Show has the melodrama and Reese Factor of Big Little Lies, See has the supernatural elements and shirtless Jason Momoa of Game of Thrones.

Still, a scripted slate that looks and sounds like HBO’s is not the same as HBO’s. Each of the Apple series feels a few adjustments shy of its full potential. The Morning Show has meltdowns aplenty, but fails to weave them into a statement about journalism or show business misogyny to weigh down its style with some substance. For All Mankind is glacially slow, delaying the big-picture implications of its premise to get bogged down in the details of its slightly-alt NASA. Dickinson is best when it’s as audaciously weird as its subject, though it struggles to balance opium-hallucinated bees and carriage rides with the Grim Reaper alongside a cookie-cutter feminist empowerment narrative. Only See appears to be doing exactly what it wants—but given that what it wants to do is be a ridiculous, borderline-camp epic with lots of silly names and loud grunting, it’s not setting the highest bar for itself to clear.

One imperfect-yet-promising show with a slow start is standard; an entire group of them as an opening pitch to consumers does not inspire confidence. Apple is essentially playing catch-up with more established players like Netflix, a strange reversal for the most powerful company in the world and the onetime upstart that’s still credited with “disrupting” much of Hollywood. But for all of Apple’s financial might, there’s a distinctly novice feeling to its initial pivot to production. It turns out money can buy a lot of things, including a multiseason commitment from Rachel Green. But it can’t buy experience.