“Parties should be like shipwrecks, you should emerge from them soaking wet, out of breath, and hopelessly disoriented,” Emily Dickinson (Hailee Steinfeld) wistfully tells us. Parties, maybe—streaming platform launches less so. But that is more or less the feeling of bingeing through all of Apple TV+’s inaugural offerings.
Overall, Apple has provided a slate of shows that are also calculated to hit every genre from slick sci-fi to documentary features. It may not have a library or back-catalogue like Disney, or even Netflix and other streaming hubs that borrow from a variety of studios, but it does have exceptional brand loyalty and the offer of a free year of service for those who purchase Apple devices. (It’s currently $4.99/mo for everyone else).
The throughline of Apple’s TV+ launch series is that they are pretty but hollow in almost all cases, though your your mileage may vary on our two top picks. The amount of money that Apple has put towards these shows is on full display—they are gorgeous and feature A-list talent, they just need more cohesion and substance in the writing. On the positive side though, women are featured at the forefront of almost all of these productions, which cynically you could chalk up to Apple being great at optics, but sometimes it’s nice just to take the win.
Below is our ranking of the shows of everything on Apple TV+’s so far — yes, even its documentary and kids shows! We will also be updating this to include additional new series in the coming weeks. For now, check out our thoughts on what you should watch and what you should skip:
Here’s an inauspicious way to begin a TV review: Remember Waterworld?
See looks great. It also looks expensive, which it was, reportedly clocking in at $15 million an episode; it was composed with obvious care, arriving at shots that’ll just knock your socks right off your feet a few times an episode. The richness of the production design echoes the detail of the world-building, which in turn reflects the ambition of the filmmaking. All good things. But the quality that most defines this Apple TV+ series is one that is, unfortunately, just as thickly layered: It is deeply, inescapably, and not even all that enjoyably ridiculous. So again I ask, do you remember Waterworld, the wildly expensive post-apocalyptic movie where Kevin Costner and Tina Majorino search for a mythic place known as DryLand? See has big Waterworld energy. Both determinedly commit to even the most ludicrous elements of their premise, swinging for the fences with the energy and confidence of a dude who once read a thing about baseball and is now clearly an expert. It strikes out at nearly every turn, but you’ve got to admire the spirit.
There are all kinds of issues with See, and we’ll get to some but not all of them. (What happened to braille? Who’s dying the fabrics? How come there are so many psychics, and are they actually psychic? They lose the word for “steel” but keep both “queen” and “parliament”? You hire Tantoo Cardinal and then give her nothing to do? I could go on.) But whatever other complaints might be made or questions raised (The blindness was caused by a plague but is now inherited?), it cannot be said that creator/writer Steven Knight and director Francis Lawrence are phoning it in. This series is never not at 11: it’s revealed that Woodard’s Paris has psychic dreams, reads the minds of birds, and has psychic dreams about mind-reading birds in the show’s earliest moments; at one point a character draws a knife on another from the hiding place inside her own forearm. The language is often beautiful, the visual and sonic designs thoughtful and surprising, and the chilly, elegant cinematography consistently striking. There’s a shot in the third episode that frames Jason Momoa as he’s about to shove a sword into a kneeling guy’s throat, and it’s so perfectly composed it should hang in a museum.
Except, of course, it shouldn’t, because the show itself just isn’t very good. A near-total lack of character investment is the biggest impediment to engaging with the series on an emotional level, but it’s also damned hard to engage with it intellectually, because unfortunately See also doesn’t seem to know what it’s saying. [Full Review] —Allison Shoemaker
Just like you wouldn’t expect a mediocre adult show that stars Jennifer Aniston, Reese Witherspoon and Steve Carrell, you wouldn’t expect the people behind the long-running, iconic and adored Sesame Street to come up to come with a mediocre kids show. But alas, my friends, they have. The helpsters are monsters who like to help people. The sing about it. They dance about it. Each episode features two people or groups of people who need help. A woman getting ready to climb a mountain. A starlet who can’t sleep. A brother and sister who need to figure out who is the fastest runner. The willingness to help people is a great lesson to teach children. The problem is that while some of these problems are ones the preschool set might have, I don’t see your three-year-old extrapolating and relating it to his or her life. As they should be for the show’s target population, the lessons are redundant. There’s a lot of talk across many episodes about the word “sequence” and what it means. That’s because the show is trying to teach kids the early concepts of coding and how important it can be to put things in the right order. The helpsters—Cody, Mr. Primm, Scatter, Heart and Jackie—aren’t as instantly lovable and relatable as say Cookie Monster, Elmo, or Abby Cadabby. Alan Cumming is among the celebrities who pop up, but the show is missing those inside jokes to keep parents entertained (think TV parodies like Game of Chairs, A’s Anatomy, or Upside Downton Abbey). The whole thing plays out like a knock-off Sesame Street. Why watch this when you can spend time with Big Bird and the gang? —Amy Amatangelo
Apart from the retention of a few key building blocks, Sesame Workshop’s new Ghostwriter is less a revival of its early ‘90s Children’s Television Workshop-era PBS property than it is a complete reimagining. Yes, it’s still set in Brooklyn. Yes, it still features a core cast of kids who are deliberately diverse in terms both of race and family situation. Yes, those kids still become friends with a mysterious ghost who can only communicate with them through writing. But where the OG Ghostwriter used these elements to cultivate a generation of code-cracking, clue-tracking middle school mystery buffs (raise your hand if you wore the binding out of your official Ghostwriter Clue Book), the new Ghostwriter, which is set in a dusty old bookstore owned by the recently widowed grandpa of two of the main kids, is ready to use the same set-up to build a new generation of avid readers. This isn’t to say that Ruben (Justin Sanchez), Chevon (Amadi Chapata), Donna (Hannah Levinson) and Curtis (Isaac Arellanes) aren’t still solving mysteries—they are. Just, more of the “who are these celebrity-voiced CGI-ed characters that Ghostwriter freed from the shelves of Grandpa’s bookstore to teach us important life lessons, and how do we get them back into the books they came from?” variety. Think less Harriet the Spy and more Wishbone. Or, if you’re an adult viewer of a more modernly nerdy sensibility, less Riverdale Season 2, more Legends of Tomorrow Season 4.
That said, adult viewers, in general, need not apply. As fun as this literary reimagining mostly ends up being—the complete system shock of Alice in Wonderland’s lost CGI March Hare in the first pair of episodes notwithstanding—the new Ghostwriter, like its predecessor, is not for us. Its intended audience is still the under-twelve set, meaning the dialogue is uncomplicated, the acting tops out at earnest, and the take-home lessons are painfully on the nose. The cinematography is really lovely, and the ghost-related visual shenanigans are engaging, but there are no sly jokes for the adults in the room here—you want that, navigate on over to Disney+. You want something that might get the kids in your interested in reading, though, well, this just might do the trick. —Alexis Gunderson
7. The Morning Show
The most damning thing I can say about The Morning Show, the star-studded drama that is part of Apple TV+’s big launch, is that it’s fine. Reminiscent of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip with its frenetic take on putting on live television, the show is like an old-school network drama—which again is perfectly fine, but not exactly what one would hope for when discussing the crown jewel of the streaming launch.
But let’s back up. Clearly inspired by Matt Lauer’s firing and allegations of sexual misconduct (which also broke two years ago in November of 2017), The Morning Show follows popular morning show co-hosts Alex (Jennifer Aniston) and Mitch (Steve Carell). They’ve worked together for 15 years amid declining ratings for their network UBA. As the show begins, Mitch is fired for his behavior and, with only a few hours notice, Alex must go on air and address the situation. “You are part of this family and we will get through this together,” she says at the top of the hour. Meanwhile, feisty whippersnapper Bradley Jackson (Reese Witherspoon) is biding her time as a reporter for a conservative local affiliate in West Virginia. Her job prospects are stagnated by her uncontrollable temper, but Bradley’s career begins to change when one of her politically-tinged outbursts is videotaped and goes viral.
The Morning Show is chock-full of big names and they all do a fine job. It’s great to have Aniston back on a TV series. Billy Crudup oozes smarm as UBA news division president Cory Ellison. The real problem is that, so far, I don’t have a clear idea of who these characters really are. They do a lot of telling us who they are without really showing us. The writing fails to make anyone distinct. The Morning Show is a fine drama. But when launching a streaming platform you expect people to pay for, you need more than fine. You need to break the mold and give us a TV show we didn’t even know we needed but cannot live without. The Morning Show is not that. [Full Review] —Amy Amatangelo
6. The Elephant Queen
Among Apple TV+’s new scripted series debuting for its launch is one film: The Elephant Queen, a nature documentary directed by Mark Deeble and Victoria Stone. Filmed over the course of four years, The Elephant Queen follows revered matriarch Athena and the herd she shepherds across the unforgiving terrain in search of food and water.
Like any nature doc worth its salt, the film is a gorgeous visual journey through what have come to be perilous times for the world’s charismatic megafauna, something never made explicit in the script narrated by a staid Chiwetel Ejiofor. Unsure whether it wants to be more Planet Earth or pure Disney fare, The Elephant Queen’s message is mixed as it chronicles Athena’s long journey. Early on, Alex Heffes’ whimsical score delights alongside footage of creatures found “a toenail height” to the elephants, including a particularly frightened frog whose pond the herd start stomping around in. But there is also an extremely difficult sequence not too much later that more cooly details the death of the herd’s youngest member from starvation.
The Elephant Queen is messy both in its filmmaking and messaging (which never mentions climate change), but it’s still a worthwhile nature watch that educates viewers on how important elephants are to the biomes across which they traverse and why. The documentary struggles to narratively incorporate a gaggle other creatures encountered throughout, be they avian or amphibian, although just meeting these beings and learning a little more about their own life cycles is justification enough for their inclusion. There is a rawness and a beauty to the production that should be appreciated even through some of its more questionable choices. Because when there is a call to action at the very end of the film, I was ready to answer it. Sharing this story is one way to help Queen Athena protect her herd. [Full Review] —Allison Keene
5. Truth Be Told
Truth Be Told, based on Kathleen Barber’s novel Are You Sleeping, is a fine if uneven murder mystery. Octavia Spencer stars as journalist-turned-podcaster Poppy Parnell, who is reopening a case from 19 years ago to investigate whether a boy was sent to jail for a murder he did not commit. Poppy has a personal connection to the case, because her reporting at the time helped paint the teenage suspect, Warren Cave (a fantastic Aaron Paul), as a psychopath who should be tried as an adult. Cave was then sentenced to life in prison for stabbing his neighbor, Chuck Buhrman, to death on Halloween night. But from the start the circumstances were strange; how did Chuck’s wife and twin daughters (Lizzy Caplan) sleep through the attack, and why did one of the daughters later change her statement in order to implicate Warren, who had previously been a friend?
The detective work here is really the thing, as they begin to unravel the past (some flashbacks from which we are privy to whereas Poppy is not, in rather random ways), and as Poppy works through her guilt. Did she help put the wrong man in prison when he was just a child? As a black woman, can she defend a man who is now part of the Aryan Brotherhood? Will her guilt end up making things right, or causing more harm? These worthy explorations are when Spencer is given the opportunity to shine, but there’s not yet enough of it.
Though the series is only eight episodes (four of which were available for critics to screen), each of which hover around 40 minutes, the pacing is incredibly uneven. There is so much to unpack with the twins (one of whom briefly sports an English accent!), Warren, and the two families caught up in this crime, but then we shift to Poppy’s family and it feels like jumping to a different show. The same is true after we’ve spent time in their world with their histories, and then come back to the crime. Good detective shows always pepper in a little bit of the investigator’s personal life alongside the crime being solved, and on paper Truth Be Told does exactly that, but currently it’s too disjointed as it adds in a variety of twists and reveals that aren’t given enough buildup or explanation to really land. It’s the same feeling one has watching the Apple TV+ series The Morning Show, which also boasts an outstanding cast and a great premise. It’s interesting, but it drags; it’s enjoyable while you watch, but you don’t rush to return to it. It’s just fine—but it’s not essential TV that you need to pay for a streaming platform to enjoy. —Allison Keene [ Full Review ]
What if the terrifying denizens of the infant Uncanny Valley were put to good use for once? What if Twilight’s bug-eyed Renesmee and American Sniper’s stiff plastic baby were intentional aesthetic choices meant to inspire anxiety? Servant, the gripping Apple TV+ series from writer/creator Tony Basgallop and pilot/penultimate episode director M. Night Shyamalan, is all about the horror of inviting a new presence into your house, be it Cronenberg baby anxiety or the equally ancient fear of a younger woman from outside the fold.
When Philadelphia parents Sean (Toby Kebbell) and Dorothy Turner (Lauren Ambrose) hire a weird nanny, Leanne (Nell Tiger Free), it never seems fine. Things are never normal. There is a ghost in the house. That’s because Leanne has been hired to take care of a reborn doll. These hyper-realistic dolls, morphed and sculpted uniquely to match a real baby, can serve a variety of purposes. The Turners’ helps them cope with the loss of their child, Jericho, at thirteen weeks. Reality is simulated for therapeutic purposes. Until it’s not. The first episode ends with a very real cry from a very real baby and uh, where did HE come from?
Servant isn’t scary, really, but its mysteries make for an enthralling nightmare. If you were dreaming about it, it’d reflect the opening titles. A long slow walk down a hallway leads to a closed door, which opens just enough to get a glimpse of what might be a baby and then—oops! You woke up. You’re not sure what was wrong with that last look, but you can’t shake it all morning. Servant is like that. Its horror references are child-based, relationship-heavy, and demonic. But it’s not just the spooky baby stuff. Sean’s a chef, so Shyamalan and company also throw in a hefty amount of food porn for those longing to see haute cuisine for nothing more than fancy animals tearing apart less fancy animals. If Hannibal made horror food the height of bloody elegance, Servant rips it down to its fleshy ferality.
As things begin to get weird—with the first uneven glimpses of Leanne’s strangeness coming in fits and spurts—Sean keeps acquiring physical maladies of increasing severity while he and Dorothy see their tense relationship, strangely, soften. It’s unhealthy, whatever this is, but pressing on it only makes it worse. Over eight of its half-hour episodes, various metaphors rise and fall (sometimes working wonders, other times distracting from the well-crafted genre flavor), but the main idea of watching a couple suffer for taking the easy way out of death, trauma, guilt, and loss is never lost in this still mostly fun fairy tale. Servant is an unfocused yet ultimately creepy good time with enough character and charm to keep its hazy nightmare from lulling you to sleep. —Jacob Oller [Full Review]
3. Snoopy in Space
You get a little nervous when you hear that AppleTV+ will be putting on a show with Snoopy. We all grew up watching (and probably still watch every year) A Charlie Brown Christmas and It’s a Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown. We don’t really need a modernized take on the beloved beagle. But I’m happy to report that Snoopy in Space which finds Snoopy traveling to the International Space Station to fulfill his dream of becoming a NASA astronaut, is true to the property we all know in love. There’s the beleaguered Charlie Brown (“Why can’t I have a normal dog?” he wonders). There’s the ever-bossy Lucy. There’s know-it-all Peppermint Patty and her sidekick Marcie. There’s the ever-observant and wise Franklin. The gang is all here and, good grief, it’s terrific.—Amy Amatangelo
Despite all the mystery surrounding her long, hermetic life, it’s hard to imagine that the real Emily Dickinson (she of the poetic syntax so wildly removed from the style of her time that it wasn’t until 1955 that publishers stopped editing all her linguistic ecstasies into comparatively dull normalcy), wouldn’t get a kick out of Dickinson, Alena Smith and Hailee Steinfeld’s lovingly weird imagining of the poet’s young adulthood. Dickinson is so fun and so strange and so tireless in handing out little moments of character development, with wildly original mood setting, you could watch thousands of hours of television and still not think to expect, of course, the Dickinson who scrawled out “Wild nights – Wild nights!” and left behind thousands of scraps of genius in a locked chest would dig it.
To be clear, this is not me saying that rapturous anachronisms of Dickinson will be to everyone’s taste. Would Emily’s parents, in reality or as played here by Toby Huss and Jane Krakowski, be into it? Nah. Emily’s peers? Sue (Ella Hunt)—yes. George (Samuel Farnsworth)—yes. Everyone else—it depends. You? Who’s to say! Death showing up in the guise of Wiz Khalifa in a black silk top hat inside a ghostly black carriage to take Emily (Steinfeld) away from the funeral of her bosom friend/true love Sue’s last remaining sister (as Billie Eilish’s “bury a friend” pulses underneath the dialogue almost too quiet to hear) will read to many as try-hard poptimist-adjacent gimmick, and it feels likely that Apple is trying to buy the affections of a Gen Z audience through clout rather than substance. But.
But with such gorgeous cinematography, costuming, and metatextual design, and with every actor putting in such fun, charming, deeply specific (read: often deeply odd) performances—and with Smith and Steinfeld, especially, so blazingly self-confident in their vision—it seems entirely likely that Dickinson will be one of the brightest debuts of 2019. I genuinely want to be shut up in the prose of its walls, for as long as Emily will have me. [Full Review] —Alexis Gunderson
1. For All Mankind
America has never lost gracefully. Exploring alternate histories where America loses usually involves the country’s moral stance defeated by a great political evil. The Nazis win World War 2; the British suppress the revolution. But what if the loss was more complicated than that? More ideologically gray. Less focused on Superman’s truth and justice, and more on his American Way. Apple TV+ asks this question with alt-history For All Mankind’s opening, where the Soviet Union stuns a watching world by beating the U.S. to the moon, and answers it with an enthralling drama dedicated to the flawed pursuit of greatness.
It’s certainly appropriate for a show about the best pilots in the world to have a great pilot episode, but its early success is matched by a show where politics and science branch in ways pleasing for space junkies and astro-nots alike. The sprawling sociopolitical butterfly effects—like how the Nixon administration reacts to, and is affected by, losing the first leg of the space race—are just one of the pleasures to be found in Ronald D. Moore, Matt Wolpert, and Ben Nedivi’s creation. After seeing eight episodes of the ten-episode season, For All Mankind has already set itself apart as the must-see show of Apple TV+.
NASA, pushed as much by a president needing a political victory as by their own wounded pride, shoots for sci-fi. And the writing is smart. Potentially saccharine rah-rah patriotism is undermined by dashed hopes and a permeating need for American exceptionalism that is, in this version of events, proven untrue. Instead, the series works towards a new national culture in its large scale and quiet, workhorse dignities in its small scale. America gets back to its scrappy roots through its space program.
Those scrappy (bordering on irresponsible) elements—government employees doing their best at the behest of their overlords—see a powerhouse turn underdog. Nothing’s more humanizing than trying to break ground with equipment from the lowest bidder. Avoiding the truly sappy by showing the scars left by the program (the fuck-ups, the deaths, the near-misses, the battered relationships) earns the show its most moving moments. Rather than pure golden glow, For All Mankind leaves you smiling and ugly crying at the same time, amazed that humanity has achieved so much despite all its stupid pettiness. Unlike the space program it follows, For All Mankind pursues greatness, succeeds, and plants an Apple flag for the world to see. [Full Review] —Jacob Oller
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