A streaming service is like an airline: It takes enormous upfront costs just to start one, and just because it’s operational doesn’t mean it always works smoothly. Take Apple TV+, the tech giant’s pivot to original content, which launched in November with an odd grab bag of shows ranging from the delightfully ludicrous (Dickinson) to the less delightfully ludicrous (See) to the more middlebrow attempts at conventional prestige (The Morning Show, For All Mankind).
In the months since, Apple has undergone a dizzying sequence of ups and downs. The ups include Little America, a charming anthology about real-life immigrants, and Visible: Out on Television, a stirring new docuseries about the history of LGBTQ representation in TV. The downs include, well, everything listed below. Apple TV+ was always bound to be a fraught enterprise, bringing a computer manufacturer into an industry outside its core skill set and awash with other well-funded bids for viewers’ attention. Its history to date has borne that difficulty out, culminating in the recently reported suspension of sprawling page-to-screen project Shantaram. This is a guide to Apple’s bumps in the road, which began well before TV+ actually made it to our living rooms.
The Morning Show
Apple’s flagship release has actually done exactly what its parent company intended it to do: garner attention, sometimes in the form of trophies like Jennifer Aniston’s SAG Award. But just because The Morning Show has returned on Apple’s astronomical investment doesn’t mean it had an easy path to get there. The drama, based partly on Brian Stelter’s Top of the Morning, was announced in November 2017, close enough on the heels of costar Reese Witherspoon’s Big Little Lies to absorb some of the lingering hype. There was just one small caveat: Apple had gone all in without so much as a script. Movie stars may be increasingly important in TV’s creative landscape, but were they enough to upend the hierarchy of a historically writer-centric medium?
Two years and one midproduction showrunner hand-off later (from ex-politico Jay Carson to Kerry Ehrin), many of The Morning Show’s hiccups could be found in the final product. The pilot makes obvious why a change of course was necessary: Steve Carell’s character, Mitch Kessler, was clearly based on Matt Lauer, and just a month after The Morning Show was ordered to series, Lauer had gone from amusingly vain anchor to a much darker sort of villain. The Morning Show does what it can to navigate these hairpin turns, but its tone is still jumbled and uneven, to say nothing of its Game of Thrones price tag despite there not being an ice zombie in sight. Even Apple’s success stories are marked by behind-the-scenes chaos.
Despite the name, Apple TV+ isn’t just supposed to be a TV network. Like competitors Netflix and Amazon, Apple wants in on the original-film business and its awards circuit, which represents an easy shortcut to publicity and relationships with talent. There are multiple avenues Apple could take to its first Oscar season, including a collaboration with A24 that will kick off with a Sofia Coppola project starring Bill Murray. But its first effort ended up sinking before it could ever properly launch.
The Banker has awards bait written all over it: A true-life and largely uplifting story about outsmarting racial prejudice directed by The Adjustment Bureau’s George Nolfi, it stars Samuel L. Jackson and Anthony Mackie as two black men who use a white collaborator (Nicholas Hoult) as a front for their operation. But even before The Banker could hit theaters and thus qualify for an awards run, disaster struck. Last fall, Cynthia Garrett—the daughter of the man who inspired Mackie’s character—raised allegations of sexual abuse against her half-brother Bernard Garrett Jr., who is credited as a producer on the film. Apple responded by pulling The Banker’s screening at the AFI Festival in late November, mere weeks after launch. The release was then postponed entirely, effectively burying The Banker until a much smaller debut this spring.
One could argue the controversy represents a failure of due diligence, or alternately, that Apple ought to have forged ahead and absorbed the noise to preserve momentum. What’s not up for debate is how The Banker’s deflation has colored what Apple clearly intended to be an announcement of purpose. As Netflix has shown, even a well-oiled machine can find major awards frustratingly elusive, but Apple has yet to even get its foot in the door.
One of Apple’s first releases after its initial onslaught, the M. Night Shyamalan–produced Servant builds on the age-old trope of child horror, creeping out current and prospective parents à la The Omen, Pet Sematary, and Children of the Corn. But it turns out Shyamalan’s influences may have been much more specific than a mere play on the subgenre. In a lawsuit filed last month, director Francesca Gregorini alleges that Shyamalan and Servant creator Tony Basgallop borrowed liberally from her 2013 feature The Truth About Emanuel, which also tracks a mysterious young woman hired to care for an infant.
The suit calls Servant a “wholesale copy” of Gregorini’s work, appropriating “not just the plot of Emanuel—but also its use of cinematic language.” A Sundance indie starring Jessica Biel and Alfred Molina, Emanuel contains specific details that also recur in Servant, which Gregorini spelled out to The Atlantic: the nanny character manipulating a young man into stealing a bottle of wine; an antique rocking horse in the couple’s house. Shyamalan and Basgallop say they haven’t seen Emanuel, and Apple has declined to comment to the press thus far; Servant, meanwhile, remains renewed for a second season. Still, the optics of the allegation—independent filmmaker vs. tech behemoth; personally motivated female storyteller vs. an established male producer—are deeply unflattering, playing into ongoing struggles and suspicions that cast Apple as the unsympathetic overdog.
Apple’s latest hiccup might be its most dramatic. An epic, globe-spanning best-selling novel may sound like a recipe for the ever-elusive next Game of Thrones, but a troubled adaptation of Gregory David Roberts’s Shantaram sounds a lot more like the long-delayed first season of Westworld. After shooting two of its 10 planned episodes, the Charlie Hunnam vehicle suspended its production late last year following showrunner Eric Warren Singer’s failure to complete further scripts. Singer has since left the project, with the search for a replacement further pushing back the resumption of filming.
On its own, Shantaram’s difficulties aren’t surprising or exceptional; adaptations are hard, and transitions from the rhythms of film (Singer’s past credits include American Hustle and the upcoming Top Gun: Maverick) to those of TV are harder still. But within the context of its predecessors at TV+, Shantaram starts to look more like part of a consistently spotty track record for a platform that still has quite a bit to prove. One troubled project is par for the course in an industry that embodies the idea of “more art than science.” Four troubled projects indicate that Apple has yet to master the byways of a business that’s taken shape over a century—and instead has run right into a steep learning curve.
Of course, Apple could easily write off everything above if TV+ was an undeniable commercial success. There are currently no hard numbers to illustrate how many subscribers Apple has lured in with a relatively low price of $4.99 a month, with a free year dispensed as a perk to those purchasing brand-new Apple devices; CEO Tim Cook has merely lauded the service’s “rousing start” on an earnings call, a subjective assessment of a venture that will, eventually, require objective metrics.
In the meantime, outside observers are forced to rely on the oblique, third-party assessments Netflix has made into a standard lens for understanding trends in Hollywood. The firm Ampere Analysis offers the optimistic estimate of more than 33 million TV+ subscribers to date, a number that would put Apple ahead of Disney+ and behind only Netflix and Amazon Prime; Parrot Analytics ranks many Apple series among the top performers on streaming, notching Servant, See, and For All Mankind behind only IP-driven shows like The Witcher and The Mandalorian. Yet neither of these findings represents a rubric as standardized as the Nielsen system, and another report found that just 10 percent of the hardware customers eligible for Apple’s free-year promotion had taken the company up on its offer.
Of course, 10 percent of a customer base as large as Apple’s is still a lot of people; collectively, the picture given by these reports is less dismal than merely uncertain. For now, uncertainty can work in Apple’s favor. Combined with its (many) other foibles accrued in such a short time, though, that ambiguity starts to feel less like an advantage and more like they’re hiding something.