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Apple TV+ Original Series: What Those Mixed Reviews Mean For Friday’s Launch — Podcast

Now that word is out about the new streaming service's debut slate, can Apple bounce back? Absolutely. It's been planning on it.

Reese Witherspoon, Jennifer Aniston, and Mark Duplass in "The Morning Show"

Reese Witherspoon, Jennifer Aniston, and Mark Duplass in “The Morning Show”

Courtesy of Apple

It’s here: With Apple TV+ set to debut Friday, November 1, the streaming service kicked off premiere week by lifting the review embargo on its four most-anticipated original series. But rather than cheers and confetti, “The Morning Show,” “See,” “Dickinson,” and “For All Mankind” were met with a collective shrug. It’s a far cry from what Apple executives had to be hoping for or what they’re used to — this wasn’t the kind of reaction that gets customers to stand in line for days, eagerly waiting to get their hands on the newest, coolest piece of tech.

These shows aren’t iPhones (even if they’re hocking them), but the disconnect between Apple’s origins as a cutting-edge technology company and its first venture into original entertainment has plagued the Cupertino behemoth since its initial Apple TV+ announcement. Watching the shows was supposed to level the playing field; its secretive, high-priced, celebrity-driven original series are still just TV shows. They have to be entertaining, informative, or they just have to be good. That early reviews say they aren’t is a ding on the nascent service.

But it’s not a death knell. Far from it. Apple has been preparing for this possibility since day one by greenlighting series that will get people talking, attract already-devoted fanbases, and add prestige to an already prestigious brand, no matter what. First reviews aren’t the final word; they’re a point to pivot off, and Apple is ready pivot — to new episodes, next seasons, or even their next slate of originals. These reviews indicate that Apple still doesn’t have its must-see show, but even that rational takeaway is still up for debate.

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So what are people saying about Apple’s initial slate? The Metacritic standings rank “For All Mankind” as the “best” reviewed series and “See” as the worst, with “The Morning Show” sitting in between with an unremarkable 60 average rating. Each show has a champion or two, but it’s safe to say none of them were met with universal acclaim. “See” got the worst of it. The Jason Momoa post-apocalyptic drama (rumored to cost almost $17 million an episode) landed a 47 average review rating on Metacritic, frustrating critics like Brian Tallerico who called it a “slog” and The Hollywood Reporter’s Dan Fienberg who cited “nonsensical” plot points. (I liked it a tad better than most, though only with the caveat that its particular brand of weirdness will only carry it so far.)

“Dickinson” and “For All Mankind” fared slightly better, earning 66 and 72 averages, respectively, but every glowing review had a rebuttal. IndieWire’s Libby Hill writes the Emily Dickinson coming-of-age comedy “slowly becomes a quiet revelation,” adding that the half-hour series’ queer romance “provides a safe haven for teens looking for more representational and mature fare.” Variety’s Caroline Framke acknowledged the best parts come from its central romance, but that can’t always overcome a “scattered” narrative in a series that “drowns in distracting stylistic flourishes.”

Dickinson Hailee Steinfeld

Hailee Steinfeld in “Dickinson”

Courtesy of Apple

“For All Mankind” saw similar contrasts in opinion, but nothing compared to Apple’s flagship drama, “The Morning Show.” Vulture’s Jen Chaney lauded praise on the cast (particularly Jennifer Aniston) while calling the show “a well-executed work of television” — a statement running contrary to my/IndieWire’s take, that “it’s hard to figure out what ‘The Morning Show’ is trying to accomplish, or even who we’re meant to care about.” Rolling Stone’s Alan Sepinwall said it was a bit of both — “a well-polished snore” — echoing multiple critics who said they’d rather hit the snooze button than watch more of “The Morning Show.”

And yet… all these complaints may be moot. For one, “The Morning Show” is somewhat shielded from critics because it’s got star power on its side. Aniston and Witherspoon come with fandoms who will defend them no matter what and watch them in just about anything. Though movie stars moving to TV hasn’t always guaranteed viewers, it will certainly guarantee more viewers than the same show sans stars. Similarly, Apple is already making sure the proper parties are watching “The Morning Show”: aka the HFPA, SAGs, and more organizations that can override critics’ opinions with big, shiny awards. If Aniston and Reese score Golden Globes nods — which is obviously still a strong possibility — this early bad buzz will be overshadowed by the ultimate signifier of prestige TV: trophies.

Also, Apple has pre-launch worries other than reviews. Misinformation might be its biggest hurdle. Audience awareness, interest, and answering their inevitable follow-up question — “How do I watch?” — could be a more critical factor to streaming success than quality. As Vox critic Emily VanDerWerff points out, the average review score for Apple’s first four originals isn’t that far removed from Netflix’s inaugural series. But Netflix trained its audience to watch via streaming by hooking them with DVDs-by-mail, offering streaming as a free bonus, and then rolling out original series on that platform. That its first two series were the well-respected “House of Cards” and “Orange Is the New Black” certainly helped, but one could argue interest wouldn’t have mattered if the answer to “How do I watch?” wasn’t obvious. (Amazon, meanwhile, had far better reviews for its early shows, and yet its originals department re-branded away from those shows and now is chasing the next “Game of Thrones.”)

As Apple’s launch day approaches, it’s still answering “How do I watch?” Many sites emphasize that you can only watch Apple originals through the Apple TV+ app — which isn’t true. (You can watch on quite a few devices, but you can also just stream them through your web browser.) The promotion offering Apple TV+ for free to anyone who buys a qualifying Apple product has led some to believe you have to have an Apple product to watch Apple’s shows (which is also untrue). Toss in early, false rumors that have nevertheless persisted — all its programs are family-friendly, Apple TV+ offers discounts on bundles — and these misunderstandings further complicate the ultimate decision for potential subscribers.

The launch itself should help. Once up and running, people can see for themselves how to subscribe and what’s being offered, rather than frantically searching for verified intel. Like with the reviews, more will become clear once Apple TV+ hits the open market. Just remember: Exclusive must-see TV isn’t the key to streaming success; it’s only one of them. Apple may not have found its game-changing original just yet. Or maybe it has. Either way, this is just Apple’s first public battle in the streaming wars.

For more, listen to IndieWire’s latest episode of “Millions of Little Screens” below.

“Millions of Screens” is available on AnchorApple PodcastsBreakerGoogle PodcastsSpotify, and Stitcher. You can subscribe here or via RSS. Share your feedback with the crew on Twitter or sound off in the comments. Review the show on iTunes and be sure to let us know if you’d like to hear the gang address specific issues in upcoming editions of “Millions of Screens.” Check out the rest of IndieWire’s podcasts on iTunes right here.

This episode of “Millions of Screens” was produced by Leonardo Adrian Garcia.

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