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Opinion: Apple TV+ doesn’t add up (yet)

  • With a mere handful of shows, Apple TV+ isn’t worth even its low subscription fee
  • People buying a new Apple product get an annual subscription for free

Apple may be spending $15 million (around  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>105 crore) per episode for 'The Morning Show'
Apple may be spending $15 million (around 105 crore) per episode for 'The Morning Show'

In 1996, the American cable TV network HBO debuted a contentious but highly successful advertising campaign where it rebranded itself as the most premium offering on the television landscape. “It’s not TV," the ads boasted, “It’s HBO." The slogan gathered steam in the years ahead, as HBO’s original shows became television’s finest—The Sopranos, Sex And The City, Six Feet Under, The Wire (all streaming in India on Hotstar)—and, to this day, HBO is the network that defines our golden age of television.

Apple TV+ launched globally on 1 November, and is selling something we already have. That isn’t new for the technology company—which has repackaged innovations with astounding success—but it is seriously weird to see Apple playing catch-up. This is a company that makes us routinely covet immaculately made paradigm shifts, and so another streaming service feels underwhelming. Design deity Jony Ive can’t waffle on about scripts and stories like he does, mesmerizingly, about corners of iPads and bezels on phones. There is nothing extraordinary about Apple TV+.

In fact, it barely makes the cut. Apple TV+ launched with nine offerings—Indian consumers get eight, because, for some reason, we are deemed unworthy of Oprah’s Book Club—and the lack of options is discomfiting. Sure, we have rallied about how Netflix is indiscriminately turning into YouTube, but a literal handful of shows cannot be the answer, and Apple TV+ currently feels like a beta version—particularly when these seven shows (and one excellent documentary) stand alongside movies for us to individually “rent" or “buy", which sound like incredibly dated concepts.

Right now, you could take Apple up on its one-week free trial and watch everything on offer—that might be why this trial is just a week long, compared to three months for Apple Music and one month for Apple Arcade. The terrific Apple Arcade lets you pay a flat fee ( 99/month, just like Apple TV+) for as many games as you want, from a delicious and ever-expanding selection (I am certifiably addicted to Sayonara Wild Hearts, a game so gorgeous it doesn’t matter how clumsily you play it). It lowers the barrier to entry and lets in those who might not otherwise purchase games.

This TV thing, on the other hand, feels like another Amazon Prime—engineered to lock us tighter into the Apple ecosystem. It doesn’t matter how few of us actually choose to pay for Apple TV+, since a free year of the service is being bundled to all those buying an Apple product in the next year, guaranteeing a humongous user base. Even if nobody loves the limited shows on offer, they will be on hundreds of millions of devices. In that time, something must-see will indeed show up.

What Apple TV+ makes me realize is that one must-see show is not enough. The first time I tried out Netflix, I was comforted by the endless, thumb-tiring galleries of old shows and content I already knew. I now understand why networks are paying hundreds of millions for 1990s sitcoms—because comfort food matters (mine is largely on Hotstar: a rerun of It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia or Curb Your Enthusiasm is but a click away). Apple may be spending a bonkers $15 million (around 105 crore) per episode for The Morning Show, starring Jennifer Aniston, Reese Witherspoon and Steve Carrell, but Aniston’s other TV hit, Friends was recently bought for five years by WarnerMedia for $425 million (around 3,000 crore), for its own forthcoming streaming service — illustrating the need for something already beloved.

Apple’s current roster is okay—nature documentary The Elephant Queen is a grand, evocative affair; Dickinson is an irreverent Mozart-In-The-Jungle-esque look at a genius poetess; For All Mankind is revisionist storytelling on a huge scale that questions the human need to explore space; and See is an overambitious (and all too literal) shot in the dark. The children’s shows are snappier —Snoopy In Space is a delight, and The Helpsters takes a Sesame Street route to problem-solving—which only underlines our need for familiar faces and characters.

The Morning Show, of which three episodes are out —with the rest to follow in weekly instalments—starts off unforgivably clunky, with a severe Aaron Sorkin hangover: People complain about musicals, actually say things like “this is television, not a women’s studies seminar", and Witherspoon actually says “I’m not a perky person." Still, this glossy show looks to create conversation about gender dynamics in the workplace and the MeToo movement. Witherspoon and Aniston add unpredictability to their somewhat one-note characters, playing girls with boys’ names planting their flags in a male domain.

Billy Crudup shines as an icily manipulative network executive, while Mark Duplass looks appropriately bushed as an executive producer. Carrell plays a Matt Lauer-like TV anchor facing MeToo allegations (complete with a button under his desk to lock his door, like Lauer allegedly did). He’s unconvinced of his wrongdoing and eager to speak when everyone is telling him to listen. Let’s see what the show ends up saying. Apple, meanwhile, has started out with self-censorship—but bewilderingly so. The f-word, for instance, appears to be allowed as a noun, not as a verb. So characters can use it as a figure of speech, but not when actually talking about the deed.

Netflix wasn’t built in a day. The chime of that big scarlet N announces a mammoth library, and while much of its non-proprietary comfort food will disappear, there are enough familiar originals in place. Rumours of Netflix’s imminent demise may have been exaggerated, and I believe its massive libraries of foreign-language content will give it enough of a head start over new entrants—though Disney+, with its own gargantuan back catalogue, will be a different kind of challenge. For now, Apple’s attempt to create yet another channel feels short of ambition. I guess it’s heartening that telling a magical story is harder than making a magical phone. This is not HBO; it’s just TV.

Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. Raja Sen is a film critic and the author of The Best Baker In The World(2017), a children’s adaptation of The Godfather.

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