Apple TV+ review: It’s cheap entertainment, but there’s not a lot of it

Apple’s first attempt at producing original TV content is a mixed bag, but the future looks promising.

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At a Glance

The debut of Apple TV+ makes the streaming TV market just a little more competitive--and splintered. As to whether Apple’s service can hold its own with Netflix, Amazon Prime, and the other big players, the jury is still out.

On the bright side, Apple TV+ is pretty cheap at $4.99 per month. And if you bought a new a new iPhone, iPad, iPod touch, Apple TV, or MacBook after September 10, you get a year of the service on the house. If you want to try before you buy, there’s a free seven-day trial available to all who are willing to create an Apple ID and provide a credit card number. Don’t have an Apple device? You can stream via a web browser, and the Apple TV+ app is also available for Roku and Amazon Fire TV devices, select Samsung smart TVs, and TVs from LG and Vizio that support Apple AirPlay 2. Apple promises that list will grow.

I purchased a new Apple TV 4K box, and since your Apple ID knows and sees all, the device already knew who I was when I hooked it up. Upon launch, Apple TV+ immediately offers a button to start your free year. (Your account is then automatically active on all your Apple devices, or at least the ones with the latest version of iOS.)

Apple TV+ user interface Apple

For All Mankind featured on the Apple TV+ interface.

The interface is much like the old iTunes store, with sliding banners trumpeting the featured shows, and attractive, individual buttons to click on specific programs. The touchpad on the Apple TV 4K's remote is quite sensitive, so it takes a little practice to maneuver around the screen and select the correct item, not to mention pausing and unpausing a show without inadvertently fast-forwarding 20 minutes ahead.

Apple allows subscribers to share their Apple TV+ subscriptions with up to five other family members, but since this depends on Apple’s Family Sharing program, it’s meant only for family members in the same household. There can be only one organizer in the family group, and the people the organizer invites to join the group must accept the invitation using an Apple device.

Apple TV+ user interface Apple

The main screen for The Morning Show, as seen on Apple TV+.

Like Netflix and Amazon Prime, Apple TV+ also allows users to download content to watch offline. The service can make the most of high-end home entertainment systems, boasting 4K picture quality with Dolby Vision high dynamic range and Dolby Atmos sound. As of today, however, less than half of American households have upgraded to those sound and picture levels. As with 3D, it’s perhaps still not yet clear how widely those standards will catch on. But even if viewers only have lowly 1080p displays, the quality is still exceptional.

Apple TV+ launched with nine new programs (eight series and a documentary), and the app allows users to link cable subscriptions, and subscriptions to other streaming services like Amazon Prime, into the Apple TV+ interface. (As of now, however, Netflix is not one of the options.) Other entertainment options will pop up in the menu, Spider-Man: Far from Home, for example, but unlike Netflix, users can’t simply click on these titles and start watching. Rather, these are just links to the iTunes store, which allows users to buy or rent the movie for an additional cost. Of the nine available programs, I checked out the five biggest options. This Macworld article has a complete list of what’s available and what’s coming to Apple TV+.

The Morning Show

★★★☆☆

Apple TV+ The Morning Show Apple

A distraught Alex Levy (Jennifer Aniston) gets a hug from her fired co-host Mitch Kessler (Steve Carell) in The Morning Show.

The most hyped release on the new service stars three comic heavyweights—Jennifer Aniston, Reese Witherspoon, and Steve Carell—in addition to an impressive supporting cast of familiar faces. The Morning Show is torn from the headlines, detailing an incident in the #MeToo movement, as popular talk show host Mitch Kessler (Carell) is fired for having had multiple affairs with production assistants and interns, leaving his co-host of 15 years, Alex Levy (Aniston) in an existential tailspin. Meanwhile, a correspondent for a right-wing network, Bradley Jackson (Reese Witherspoon) has become a viral sensation after going off on a protestor at the re-opening of a mine, and is somehow catapulted into Mitch’s chair.

Despite the presence of the three stars, The Morning Show is—perhaps surprisingly—rarely funny. It’s not meant to be, but it looks like a comedy, and that expectation could disappoint many viewers. Perhaps more disappointingly, it can’t quite balance an edgy exploration of the complexities of #MeToo with its relatively standard soap opera center. For every unexpectedly brilliant scene detailing sexual double standards, there are many others full of regular anguished emoting. Apple TV+ offered three one-hour episodes, and it’s perhaps too soon to give up, but my initial impression is an uneven one.

See

★★★☆☆

Apple TV+ See Apple

Baba Voss (Jason Momoa, center right) attempts to lead his unseeing people away from an evil witchfinder and to safety in See.

Created by Steven Knight of Peaky Blinders (and also the screenwriter of Dirty Pretty Things, Eastern Promises, and Locke), See is another uneven show that could likely right itself, but it could just as easily tumble unceremoniously off a cliff. It’s a post-apocalyptic story, with all the interesting and aggravating components that implies. In the distant future, most of the human race has been killed off, and those who remain are blind. Baba Voss (Jason Momoa) is the leader of a village of survivors, who speak that typical, very serious sci-fi futurespeak, with a few made-up words thrown in to sound otherwordly. A pregnant woman who mysteriously showed up in the village has now given birth to twins.

For some reason, a cowardly snitch alerts an infamous witchfinder general (a one-note bad guy) to their presence, and the entire village is forced to evacuate. Of course, there’s a “chosen one” (or “ones”), and many other tired, creaky old tropes. Yet the show contains a surprising number of dazzling sequences. The exteriors are lush and rich, and the action is cleanly handled. Alfre Woodard adds some life to the show in her role as Paris, a figurative “seer.” Apple TV+ launched with three one-hour episodes.

For All Mankind

★★★★☆

Apple TV+ For All Mankind Apple

Astronaut Edward Baldwin (Joel Kinnaman) flies a mission in an alternate-reality version of the U.S.-Russian space race in For All Mankind.

If See is short on writing and long on visuals, For All Mankind is the opposite. It’s a smart, touching, and highly engaging alternate-reality show (think The Man in the High Castle), that frequently looks awful, with too-close, shaky, hand-held camerawork. It’s 1969, but in this reality, the Russians have landed on the moon a month before the Americans. It begins by focusing on Edward Baldwin (Joel Kinnaman, from the great, underrated series The Killing), a fictitious astronaut who, in this world, flew the Apollo 10, the “dress rehearsal” leading up to Apollo 11. The defeat by the Russians leaves him distraught and angry, and he gets himself in trouble, and thereby demoted to a desk job.

Meanwhile, the Apollo 11 flight goes quite differently from the way it happened in our reality. This show—which, oddly, shares the name of a classic documentary about the actual Apollo program—looks to continue in an interesting vein, exploring the us-versus-them competition that led to some of the century’s greatest scientific achievements. Even the women here seem to have just a little bit more going on than the typical “waiting, worrying” characters we usually see in space-related material. Once again, the service launched with three, one-hour episodes.

Dickinson

★★★★☆

Apple TV+ Dickinson Apple

Emily Dickinson (Hailee Steinfeld) prepares for a nightly carriage ride with Death in Dickinson.

Apple TV+ dropped all 10 half-hour episodes of this delightful show right at the start, and apparently a second season has already been ordered. It tells the story of young poet Emily Dickinson (Hailee Steinfeld), but not in a stodgy, reverent way that’s usually designed for awards shows. Rather, it’s done in a way that the poet herself might perhaps have approved of. Dickinson proudly features anachronistic music, behavior, and dialogue, specific turns of phrase that would not have been used in the mid-19th century, in addition to full-fantasy moments, such as Emily taking nightly carriage rides with Death (Wiz Khalifa).

Otherwise, Emily is a spoiled, but still appealingly plucky genius who wants what she wants and isn’t very happy about anything standing in her way. She is also in love with Sue (Ella Hunt), an orphaned, destitute young woman who has pledged to marry Emily’s brother. There’s a delicious sequence in which the two, after having successfully infiltrated a lecture about volcanos by dressing as men, share a lovemaking session that is intercut with volcanic erupting. It seems more frivolous than a serious costume piece might be, and it’s very likely that Dickinson will only appeal to poetry fans, but I think it’s one of Apple TV+’s better offerings.

The Elephant Queen

★★★★★

Apple TV+ Elephant Queen Apple

The unflappable mother elephant Athena leads her children to water and safety in the documentary The Elephant Queen.

Better than anything else at the moment, this nature documentary really shows off how well Apple TV+ can deliver resonant sound and a sparkling picture. Happily, The Elephant Queen is also a fascinating, and incredibly touching movie about a mother elephant making a dangerous journey across Kenya in search of water. She leads her entire family, including several small calves, who are alternately adorable and heartbreaking.

Directors Victoria Stone and Mark Deeble take into account an entire ecosystem, all the other animals that affect and are affected by the elephants, including frogs, chameleons, killifish, terrapins, and, yes, dung-beetles. There’s also a doofus gosling named “Stephen” who gets lost and provides some comic relief. Chiwetel Ejiofor provides the elegant, spellbinding narration, creating powerful drama to go with the beautiful pictures.

The documentary perhaps relies a bit too heavily on a Lion King-inspired music score, and occasionally the dazzling cinematography draws attention to itself—viewers might ask, “how did they get that shot?”—but for the most part, it’s seamless storytelling. The mesmerizing images will even entertain small kids, although parents should know there are images of death and some mating rituals. Out of the gate, this one is Apple TV+’s clear winner.

Should you subscribe?

Apple TV+’s smartest move was to give away all those free one-year subscriptions. As a brand-new service with a totally unknown quantity, it would have been an uphill battle to get people to pay for shows they hadn’t seen and that hadn’t developed any word of mouth. (Conversely, Netflix and Amazon Prime were both services people already had when they launched their streaming content.) Despite the hype behind The Morning Show, so far none of the new content is must-see, water-cooler quality. Also, given that Apple TV+ is not, so far, showing licensed content from other studios, the service’s offerings are a little skimpy at launch. So, everything rides on what’s coming up, both in terms of quality and quantity.

Apple will need to keep up a supreme level of constant content creation to stay relevant, but fortunately, the company is big enough that it could pull it off. Consider the talent it’s already landed: even Oprah Winfrey will have an Apple TV+ show. Other future entertainments are said to include a reboot of Amazing Stories, supervised by Steven Spielberg; a version of A Christmas Carol with Will Ferrell and Ryan Reynolds; and a crime show starring Octavia Spencer and Aaron Paul. The key will be keeping viewers continuously curious about what’s coming up, just long enough to pay their $4.99 each month.

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At a Glance
  • None of the first Apple TV+ offerings is a slam-dunk, but there’s enough here—and enough coming—to float the service for a while. The low barrier to entry for consumers will help.

    Pros

    • Your first year is free with purchase of certain Apple products
    • Up to six family members can watch on the same membership
    • Mostly very high production values

    Cons

    • Very limited amount of entertainment available at launch
    • Little of what is available now can be considered must-see entertainment
    • The app is not broadly available on older smart TVs
  
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