Apple TV+ isn’t as bad as critics say — or worth a monthly fee

Ahead of the public release of the new Apple TV+ subscription video service, Apple seeded television show reviewers with early access to the lineup, including the ability to watch the first several episodes of adult and kids TV shows, plus the service’s first movie. For that effort, the company was rewarded with generally blistering critical reviews, offset only by limited praise for one of the shows and vague insider hints that the service would improve over time.

My personal view is that the early buzz on Apple TV+ was at least somewhat inaccurate, but not broadly unfair. If the service was completely free for all viewers, as it is for recent Apple device purchasers, Apple TV would be (mostly) hard to complain about. But as a paid service with a $5 monthly fee, it’s a debacle Apple needs to fix — and fairly quickly — if it wants a prayer of winning paying customers.

Unlike reviewers, who were given early access to the service as it actually launched and later received special links to one show’s entire first season in what some speculated was “damage control” following poor reviews, I experienced Apple TV+ just like a regular consumer. Having recently purchased an iPhone 11 Pro, I was entitled to a free year of TV+ service.

As with Apple News+ and Apple Arcade before it, Apple TV+’s free trial was a hook to get me interested in trying the service, but not enough to convince me it was worth paying for. I took note of the Metacritic scores for the key shows — currently 67/100 for Dickinson, 65/100 for For All Mankind, 60/100 for The Morning Show, and 37/100 for See — and the similarly middling 67/100 for the TV+ exclusive movie The Elephant Queen, though I didn’t dive deep into the underlying reviews or let their numeric summaries bias my own conclusions.

What I found was a lineup of undeniably interesting content with obviously high production values, damaged by very rough edges. For Apple, that’s a sea change-level step forward from prior productions, such as Planet of the Apps and Carpool Karaoke, which apart from their celebrity participants too often felt barely “television-caliber” — amateurishly filmed and/or conceived, even by the very low standards of reality and game show programming.

From my perspective, The Morning Show is the best of the early shows, though it gets off to a terrible start due to horrifyingly rough language and pacing issues. Apple could and should have used a first episode to make the three key characters — played by Jennifer Aniston, Reese Witherspoon, and Steve Carell — likable, but instead they’re all introduced as profane, screaming jerks surrounded by less profane enablers. Viewers will need to suffer through early episodes to begin the process of caring about the storyline or bonding with the characters, but I was genuinely interested to see episode 4 after I finished the initial three shows, and I would tune in again to watch it.

Jason Momoa’s See, by contrast, deserves the scorn it has received as the worst of the early Apple TV+ shows. I would describe it as ironically unwatchable — an almost comically terrible concept paired with overwrought acting and a reportedly huge budget. Even summarizing the premise is a struggle: It’s about a future in which virtually everyone is blind and living a primitive, tribal existence. This time, I couldn’t force myself to watch all three of the episodes, and I shudder at the thought of having to revisit it.

As a fan of Ronald D. Moore’s rebooted Battlestar Galactica, I was the most intrigued by For All Mankind, though not deeply enough that I would have subscribed to Apple TV+ to watch it. The “What if?”-style premise considers how the U.S. might have reacted if the Soviet Union had been first to put humans on the moon, exploring the impacts on both NASA and society as a whole — a theme that requires viewers to be interested in both science fiction and the late 1960s/early 1970s setting.

As with The Morning Show, For All Mankind is a slow burn, but by the second episode it feels worth following episodically — with a short leash. Apple has pitched Apple TV+ as a place for top storytellers to share great stories, but after several episodes, it’s unclear what For All Mankind has to offer on that front. So far, it seems like an argument that the U.S. (and perhaps the world) might have made more social progress if Russia had been the leading space power, a message that won’t resonate with many U.S. viewers, especially at this point in history.

I can’t speak properly to the cinematic sitcom Dickinson, which feels targeted toward viewers younger than myself but older than my grade school-aged daughters, who somehow expressed no interest in rising star Hailee Steinfeld’s portrayal of 19th century poet Emily Dickinson. The show is narrowly the highest-rated of the Apple TV+ launch library and is seemingly inspired by Sofia Coppola’s brilliant Marie Antoinette — just not something I’d personally tune into.

Apple’s other launch content is similarly niche: several shows targeted at young children that, like Dickinson, didn’t appeal to my kids, and the nature documentary The Elephant Queen, which I only skimmed due to lack of personal interest. Conceptually, that’s the reality of launching a traditional television service — offer a range of content for different types of viewers — though ideally, much of the content would be so compelling that it winds up attracting even people who weren’t initially interested.

That’s not where Apple TV+ is right now. Three of the first four major shows may turn off viewers before they even finish one episode, and there’s so little content that a potential subscriber could exhaust literally every piece of programming in less than a seven-day trial. Giving Apple device customers a full year of service isn’t just generous; it is frankly the only way Apple may keep enough viewers hanging around for the launches of new shows and first season conclusions of initial ones. Based on what’s here and what’s coming, I would never pay $5 per month to sit around waiting for that to happen over the next year, and I suspect almost no one else would, either.

Looking at the big picture of Apple TV+ as a business for Apple, there’s no longer any question that the company has carved out a spot for itself in the TV world, but that place is currently tenuous at best. I feel strongly that we’re well into the cord-cutting era at this point and that consumers will increasingly replace their cable TV bundles with paid subscription services that make more sense for their budgets. Apple surely has something here, but Apple TV+ has a long way to go before it delivers monthly value as compelling as Netflix, Hulu, ESPN, Disney+, or even Amazon Prime Video.

The next year will be a critical chance for Apple TV+ to demonstrate its long-term value to consumers. For now, I’m glad it exists — and pleased that I won’t have to pay to watch it become worthy of its monthly subscription fee.

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