TV Review – Apple TV+ – The First Episodes

Apple TV+ – The First Episodes

We are living in an age of streaming overflow. So many companies have seen the success of Netflix & Hulu and now want to get in that revenue stream with their own content streams. Just in the last couple of years, we’ve seen services like DC Universe, The Criterion Channel, Disney+, and now Apple TV+. Some streaming platforms as niche and focus on specialty programming while others attempting to cast a wide net and appeal to all demographics. I decided to sit down and watch the first episodes of four shows that recently debuted on the Apple TV+ platform. This service is attempting to focus on original content touching on a wide variety of genres with big-name recognition on the creative side as the selling point. Filmmakers and actors like Steven Spielberg, M. Night Shyamalan, Jason Momoa, Jennifer Aniston, and Oprah Winfrey are all developing shows for the fledgling channel.

The Morning Show
Episode One – “In the Dark Night of the Soul It’s Always 3:30 in the Morning”
Written by Kerry Ehrin & Jay Carson
Directed by Mimi Leder

During the runtime of this episode, I had to keep checking to see if Aaron Sorkin’s name came up anywhere in the production credits. It doesn’t, but everything about this show is born out of the aesthetic he created on his programs The West Wing and especially The Newsroom. Instead, the show is the brainchild of Jay Carson, who has worked on House of Cards for Netflix and most recently co-wrote The Front Runner about Gary Hart. More on Carson in a minute.

The premise of The Morning Show is predicated on the recent #metoo movement where women began speaking publicly about sexual assault & harassment they had experienced, especially in work settings. One male television presenter who was outed as a perpetrator of this behavior was The Today Show’s, Matt Lauer. The Morning Show seems to be saying, in a very troubling manner, “But hey, like what if he wasn’t that bad of a guy?” I get that they want to convey how much more complicated and less cut and dry some accusations can be, but more often than not, the men doing these things know precisely what leeway their privilege gives them. I suspect there would be a sensitive way you could present a complicated and challenging situation in this vein, but The Morning Show doesn’t do that.

Instead, the focus appears to be on building a negative relationship between Alex Levy (Jennifer Aniston), the shocked co-host and Bradley Jackson (Reese Witherspoon), the new host being brought in to “spice things up” and help the network deflect from the news of sexual harassment on their watch. Everything about this show feels disingenuous, mainly because the writers have chosen to adopt the Sorkin way of speaking. I am not a fan of Sorkin’s work, I honestly despise his entire neoliberal ideology. It is typical of false centrist arguments that always try to position the non-existent neutral middle ground as the enlightened path.

Show creator Jay Carson has worked with almost every major Democratic political figure since 1998, and it shows that he has eaten up the centrist neolib ideology by the spoonful. His choice to cast Steve Carrell as Mitch Kessler, the womanizing now ex-host of The Morning Show, telegraphs some of his thinking. In large productions like this, you cast big names based on audience expectations. Carrell is known as an everyman figure, comedic, and oozing with pathos. Without watching more of this show, I can tell we are going to get an arc that implies that maybe some of those accusations aren’t quite what we think & Mitch isn’t such a bad guy, he just coerced an intern into bed by abusing his hierarchal position. One episode was enough for me on this one.

Episode One – “Because I Could Not Stop”
Written by Alena Smith
Directed by David Gordon Green

This may seem like something wildly original, but we have seen it before. Sofia Coppola’s “Marie Antoinette” played with anachronism and gave us a period piece painted over with modern stylization, 1980s new wave music scoring the antics of the Royal French Court. Here we are in 19th century New England and seeing fictionalized accounts of how poet Emily Dickinson was inspired to create her work. The language is mostly contemporary with some characters, mainly adults attempting to affect a timely way of speaking. The youth talk to each other, almost like modern teens would.

Of the four shows I watched, this one received the highest compliment from me, “It’s not terrible and embarrassing.” There is a genuine charm to the series, and Hailee Steinfeld is a fantastic person to cast in the lead. She hasn’t been an actress I’ve sought out the work of, but what I have seen always leaves me duly impressed, from True Grit to Bumblebee and now this. She is genuinely charming and never comes off as just a “nice face” like so many actors & actresses in big-budget movies and television. There is a sharp wit there, and the choices she makes, her strength in playing characters with such a natural awkwardness is impressive.

The biggest problem with this show is that the creator and writers did not sit down and hash out the balance in tone. The hook of Dickinson is that this is a period piece with modern touches, but these elements fluctuate throughout the pilot in ways that pulled me right out of the show. At first, it seems Emily will be the only character to speak in modern vernacular then about halfway through we meet characters who talk like Emily…sometimes. It’s hard to understand what Alena Smith’s overall intent was. With Coppola’s “Marie Antoinette,” there was a lot of thought that went into who would speak & act out of time and why they would do this. Dickinson isn’t bad, and it is the only show I would probably watch another episode of, but it definitely needs to figure itself out.

For All Mankind
Episode One – “Red Moon”
Written by Ronald D. Moore and Matt Wolpert & Ben Nedivi
Directed by Seth Gordon

Of the four shows, this one had the best cold open with the most potential to hook me. But then the rest of the episode happened, and by the end, my interest had bottomed out to zero. The episode begins in late June of 1969 as people around the United States and Mexico are gathered around their televisions to watch the moon landing. Those of you familiar with your space program dates might know the US didn’t land a man on the moon until July of that year. The big reveal is that people are watching Soviet cosmonauts take man’s first steps on the moon, much to the chagrin of a deflated American space program.

The show was created by Ronald Moore, whose work on Star Trek: The Next Generation I’ve been enjoying a lot lately. Flanking him is Matt Wolpert, a producer on FX’s Fargo and American Crime Story. The driving force behind the show plus the hook seemed like something that would have me hooked. However, so much happens in this episode, and the central conflict is resolved, so I was left wondering what a second episode could even look like. This has been done in a good way, I immediately think of Amazon Prime’s Forever and how it cleverly took three episodes to get the audience to where it was going. The problem with For All Mankind is that I think I can guess where it goes next, and I’m utterly bored with that idea.

There are some great moments here, I particularly liked the alternate direction Apollo 11 goes in, but the show pulls back at the last minute to give a heroic conclusion. Due to jangled nerves and discontent after the Soviet moon landing, the scheduled Apollo mission feels shaky. When the lunar module comes in to fast, it appears Armstong & Aldrin have crashed and died. Mission control keeps sending out calls to the module with no response. I was excited to see how the world would be shaped by the first death in space occurring at the moment in our history, where a monumental achievement was made. However, as Jim Lovell passes over the crash site in the command module, he sees the men alive, and they send a message that they just got a little dinged up. End of the episode. I honestly think from a dramatic and alternate history point of view, it would be more interesting to see how the nation crumbles and recovers from the death of those heroes. Instead, I was left feeling meh yet again by an Apple TV+ show.

Episode One – “Godflame”
Written by Steven Knight
Directed by Francis Lawrence

The premise is another intriguing one. A disease strikes mankind that causes blindness to become a dominant hereditary trait. What remains of humanity is left without sight, and enough time passes that even the mention of sight has become a form of heresy to the new religions that have sprung up. Wow, a series with an entire cast that is playing blind characters. I wonder how they will film that to out the audience in the shoes of people who perceive the world differently? Yeah, so they shoot it with sweeping visuals and glorious vistas, which has the effect of keeping me disconnected from the experience of the character.

There are some amusing moments. A traitor among the Alkenny tribe goes unnoticed because they can’t see him conspiring with outside enemies. The message birds (heavily inspired by Game of Thrones) carrying loops of rope with knots tied in them that contain the communication. These are smart and interesting choices, but nothing feels fully committed to. Armor & clothing are still visually stylized in ways that I don’t believe blind people would see the need to spend time on. I would expect cultures that valued sense like sound, smell, and touch much more, but that’s lacking.

My read of this show is that the creator wanted to emulate the success of Game of Thrones & Vikings. But they needed a hook that kept this from just being another generic fantasy show. So, they set it in the future and made everyone blind. “It’s like Game of Thornes, but everyone is Marvel’s Daredevil” I imagine the pitch meeting went. That’s not a terrible concept, but the execution borders on the outright comical at moments. The narrative is so convoluted that ten minutes in, I was completely lost about who certain factions were and why characters were doing what they did. I did see that the show had a creative consultant who is blind, but I wonder how much he shared with them that they actually chose to include.

This, like For All Mankind, feels so dependent on annoying cliches despite having a good hook. Once the whole thing starts going, it just seems like anything that would be lumped into this genre. It doesn’t help that the dialogue is weak and sometimes comedic. There’s such a sense of overblown self-importance and then moments that are intended to shock the audience but play for laughs. Yet again, another shoot and a miss.

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