You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Apple’s Cavalcade of Stars Sets High Expectations (Column)

Apple’s March 25 conference announcing various new services — including their upcoming passel of video content — was heavy on grandeur and light on specifics. Company CEO Tim Cook described the company’s move into television as part of an ongoing commitment not merely to diversion and customer satisfaction but to social change. “Apple has always tried to make the world a better place,” he said, “and we believe deeply in the power of creativity.” He later noted that Apple “can contribute something important to our culture and our society through storytelling.”

The story of Apple’s video service — to be called Apple TV+ and to materialize sometime this fall — remains to be told, even after a lengthy, upfront-style presentation celebrating not merely Apple’s programming but the power of art and the human spirit, or something along those lines. After a video segment depicting various Apple-contracted creators, including Steven Spielberg, J. J. Abrams, and Reese Witherspoon and Jennifer Aniston, describing the thrills and agonies of the creative process, those stars and others took to the stage to describe their upcoming shows. No substantial footage from any show was provided at first, with a brief clip package at the presentation’s end aggregating glimpses of various series; all looked fabulous and, crucially, expensive.

It was Apple-ishly mindblowing in the way, say, the debut of the iPod had been. Any day of programming so laden with A-listers that Aniston (probably the biggest star in television at the moment thanks to the extended second life of “Friends” on streaming) doesn’t get mentioned first is a big one. And yet it communicated a mixed message. Apple was using familiar levers of both television craft and marketing — enlisting top talent the way all outlets are trying to these days, promoting shows through direct appeal to fans and industry in an onstage event the way networks have done since the dawn of the upfront. And they did so in order to pitch themselves as an organization that would be doing something different from, and more than, plain old TV.

Any of the shows Apple presented could, based on their loglines, have gone elsewhere: Spielberg’s “Amazing Stories” reboot on Amazon, Witherspoon and Aniston’s behind-the-scenes “The Morning Show” on HBO, Abrams’s collaboration with Sara Bareilles on Hulu. (Or mix and match shows and networks, any way you like!) Based on what we saw, which was precious little, the viewer has no evidence that Apple will be any different in sensibility from Netflix, another organization that has put together a mass quantity of programming driven by the sensibilities of well-known creatives. Which is fine — Apple could be very successful imitating Netflix. But its drive to distinguish itself as something special has the potential to distract from what really matters at a network or streaming service, which is quality.

Consider that Netflix made its first real case for itself as a provider of original content with three programs: “House of Cards,” “Orange Is the New Black,” and the revival “Arrested Development” all appeared within the first seven months of 2013. One was a familiar brand from its past incarnation on Fox but hardly a premium product; one had the household names of David Fincher and Kevin Spacey attached but was hardly a story intended to uplift and inspire. The third (and best) of the three shows came from a creator who was known to TV devotees but not quite a celebrity, featuring a cast of relative unknowns who’ve become durable stars. Netflix’s massive success began with scrappiness, not razzle-dazzle. In their own ways, Amazon and Hulu have done the same, winning fans for programs that state their ambitions plainly but don’t shout them. Though both were certainly successful, neither Amy Sherman-Palladino nor Elisabeth Moss would have felt quite at home on a stage as populated with legends as Apple’s before their respective shows launched. And now “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” and “The Handmaid’s Tale” have become the first streaming shows to win top comedy and drama honors at the Emmys. These shows rise or fall on premise and execution, not solely the prestige of their creators and stars.

Apple’s programming will eventually do the same. But, for now, the framing is all we have, and it suggests television-as-premium product in a way that gets away from the serendipity and oddity of the medium as its best. Framing the service as one in which stars are the enticement and what they get up to is a secondary concern suggests that Apple, a newcomer to the TV space, has yet to figure out what fans love about television. Its booking of Oprah Winfrey as the presentation-closing coup made this plainest of all: Winfrey is a generational talent, but she’s also omnipresent, including on her podcast and on OWN, her dedicated cable network. And the advocacy she used to do on her talk show doesn’t feel quite so rare in a more crowded landscape. How will her work with Apple, including two documentaries and a book club, distinguish itself as uniquely Oprah, uniquely Apple, or uniquely worth watching? It remains to be seen, which might not be good enough for the consumer deciding this fall whether to add on yet another subscription. Same with the new Sesame Workshop-licensed series: It’s a coup for Apple, sort of, but if “Sesame Street” is already on HBO, what does this add to the harried parent sorting through all those recurring monthly charges?

Apple is a brand with other obligations, and all the television it platforms will reflect back on its company in a way that simply isn’t true of Hulu. Its enlisting a suite of megastars is impressive in a way other platforms don’t feel obliged to be. And yet its vision of itself as a force for good and not just good television seems like a potential stumbling block in achieving either. Viewers in 2019 want to be entertained, and not necessarily by names with whom they’ve been intimately familiar for decades. The streaming successes of recent vintage have gotten where they are not merely by proving themselves worthwhile but by exceeding expectations. For Apple, a company that has staked its claim not merely on success but on medium-shifting excellence from the first moments its service was announced, that may end up being a challenge that’s hard to meet.

More TV

  • Judith Light'Transparent' TV show Musical Finale,

    'Transparent' Team Talks 'Transformative Energy' of Trans Community

    As Amazon Prime Video prepares to send off “Transparent” with a musical finale movie on Sept. 27, the cast and creative team behind the show are hoping the impact of a character such as Maura Pfefferman (Jeffrey Tambor) will not be overshadowed by the controversy that the actor who portrayed Maura caused. “I believe that [...]

  • Cherry Jones

    Cherry Jones Wins 2019 Guest Drama Actress Emmy

    Cherry Jones won the 2019 guest drama actress Emmy for her work as the titular character’s mother, Holly Osborne, in Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale.” This was Jones’ second consecutive nomination for the role but first win. Interestingly, both noms were for her work in the second season of the dystopian streaming series. After a few [...]

  • Jane Lynch, Cyndi Lauper Developing 'Golden

    Jane Lynch, Cyndi Lauper Developing 'Golden Girls'-Style Comedy for Netflix

    Jane Lynch and Cyndi Lauper just wanna have fun. The comedian and the 1980s music icon have joined forces to star in a new comedy project that may be heading to Netflix. Lynch let it slip backstage at the Creative Arts Emmys that she and Lauper will co-star in a comedy that she described as [...]

  • Luke Kirby71st Annual Primetime Creative Arts

    Luke Kirby Wins 2019 Guest Comedy Actor Emmy

    Luke Kirby has been crowned the winner of the 2019 guest comedy actor Emmy for his role as the real-life comic Lenny Bruce on Amazon Prime Video’s “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.” This was Kirby’s first-ever Emmy attention. He was nominated against a slew of “Saturday Night Live” players (Robert De Niro, John Mulaney and Adam [...]

  • Bradley Whitford photographed at the PMC

    Bradley Whitford Wins 2019 Guest Drama Actor Emmy

    Bradley Whitford won the 2019 guest drama actor Emmy for his role of Commander Joseph Lawrence on Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale.” Whitford joined the cast of the streaming dystopian series at the end of its second season, in episodes that were released after the close of the 2018 Emmy eligibility window. The Television Academy agreed [...]

  • TV Review: 'Transparent' Series Finale

    TV Review: 'Transparent' Series Finale

    Amazon’s “Transparent” will have a chapter, or a section of one, in some to-be-written history of television, in part thanks to how brazen and how daring its ideas were for its moment. Some of those were ideas that came to seem simply logical in retrospect: The show was a pathbreaker for trans representation onscreen, casting [...]

  • Jane Lynch NBC Relatively Happy

    Jane Lynch Wins 2019 Guest Comedy Actress Emmy

    Jane Lynch has been crowned the winner of the 2019 guest comedy actress Emmy for her role of comic Sophie Lennon on Amazon Prime Video’s “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.” This was Lynch’s second consecutive nomination for the role but first win. However, it is her fifth Emmy overall, after winning a short form statue in [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content