“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 amount of money that Apple has put towards these shows is on full display—they are gorgeous and feature A-list talent, many just need more cohesion and substance in the writing (others are truly great). On the fully 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 Apple TV+’s scripted series so far—including kids shows! Movies and documentaries are not included though (for now). We will also be updating this with new series in the coming months (after we catch up with Amazing Stories). For now, check out our thoughts on what you should watch and what you should skip:
Workplace comedies centered around fun rom-com-esque jobs are risky. Sure, it might sound engaging and might convince the execs that those crucial youths will watch your show, but pick something too niche or too limiting and you end up like that Zach Braff podcasting show Alex, Inc. And once you’ve cleared that hurdle, you have to make it funny. Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet, the Apple TV+ series from the folks behind It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, gambles it all on being a hilarious, brash, cool take on the modern videogame industry. It’s almost as terrible as its name.
The show, named after its central MMORPG’s first expansion (more tongue-twister than tongue-in-cheek), sees creators Rob McElhenney, Charlie Day, and Megan Ganz attempt to go both broad and hyper-specific—sillier than Silicon Valley but with nerdy bonafides. I scoured all nine half-hour episodes of its first season on a quest for comedy, finding only squandered potential wandering its depressing office space.
Creative director Ian Grimm (McElhenney) lords over the Mythic Quest team—including souless monetization lead Brad (Danny Pudi), uncool programming head Poppy (Charlotte Nicdao), washed-up writer C.W. Longbottom (F. Murray Abraham), and eager testers Dana (Imani Hakim) and Rachel (Ashly Burch)—who are all ostensibly under the management of wimpy executive producer David (David Hornsby). Ian, ever the rock star with his pickup artist styling and silly name, makes that fantasy immediately transparent. Even David’s scary assistant Jo (Jessie Ennis) gravitates towards Ian’s tech-bro confidence. Each character has a trait, no more no less.
A late turn in the season trying to make its characters overly-sympathetic might’ve worked if it was done better and earlier, but the structure—hell, the format of the show—undermined this attempt from the beginning. This makes Mythic Quest not just an unfunny comedy, but an entirely ineffective show that doesn’t seem to know what it is or where it’s going in a second season that Apple has already greenlit. Mythic Quest certainly won’t woo a gaming audience, and has little to offer anyone else. [Full Review] —Jacob Oller
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
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
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 scattershot. 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 ]
Defending Jacob is an eight-episode series based on the 2012 novel of the same name by William Landay. Assistant District Attorney Andy Barber (Chris Evans) and his wife Laurie (Michelle Dockery) are living a lovely upper middle-class life in the wealthy suburb of Newton, Massachusetts when a classmate of their son is found murdered in a nearby park. Their shock and grief are compounded when their 14-year-old son Jacob (Jaeden Martell) is arrested for murder.
The show flits back and forth between the events unfolding before and right after the murder, and Barber being interrogated on the stand 10 months later by his former colleague/frenemy Neal Logiudice (Pablo Schreiber). “I was protecting him from his own stupidity. I was being a father,” he bellows.
Clues are dropped along the way. “I know you think you know Jacob but you don’t,” Jacob’s classmate Derek tells Andy. Various red herring suspects pop up over the course of the episodes, but none compelling enough to truly pique your curiosity. That’s really too bad, because Evans and Dockery are fantastic. Dockery, in particular, is captivating as the mom who wants to believe her son is innocent but begins to second guess every single parenting decision she’s ever made.
“But what if … I just didn’t look closely enough?” she wonders. Evans, blessedly not trying to lean in to his native Massachusetts accent, tracks as the father who thinks this is a problem he can solve with dogged determination and righteous indignation.
The novel was a gripping, stay-up-way-too-late-to-read page turner. The series, not so much. Even though the eight-episode length is much shorter than most TV shows, it’s probably still two episodes too long. Director Morten Tyldum (The Imitation Game) has an eye for gorgeous aerial shots. The show looks amazing. I had full-on kitchen envy during every single scene that takes place in the Barber home. But it’s also languid. The camera follows Laurie for too long on her morning jog, and is extremely fond of gazing on Evans’ furrowed brow (aren’t we all to be honest?). But the pacing takes away any urgency that is inherent in the storyline. The shocking reveals are way too drawn out. The result is a murder mystery you can put down. [Full Review] —Amy Amatangelo
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?