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Apple TV Plus Debuts With An Opening Line-Up That's Not Yet Worth Paying For


This is FRESH AIR. I'm TV critic David Bianculli. Today streaming services are fighting a pitched battle for programming, viewers and their monthly subscriber fees. Netflix is the major leader in this new streaming game of thrones, with lots of shows and movies worth watching. But Hulu has "A Handmaid's Tale," and Amazon has "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel," "Fleabag" and other excellent series. CBS All Access has one great show, "The Good Fight," but hasn't yet persuaded many people to sign up for one more streaming service.

And this month, there are two more, with even more to come next year. Consumers at some point are likely to say, enough - or, looking at their monthly budgets, too much. Into this landscape come two major entertainment behemoths with new streaming services - Disney with Disney+, which arrives soon, and Apple with Apple TV+, launching today. Let's look at Apple TV+ because now we can.

Basically, it's a streaming service that costs $5 a month and doesn't have any back inventory of programming. Everything offered is brand new. You don't have to watch it on an Apple device, but if you bought a new one in mid-September or later, you get the streaming service for free for a while. Apple wants to make a splash right away and has plenty of money to throw at producers and stars.

The flagship program for Apple TV+ is "The Morning Show," a new drama series starring Jennifer Aniston, Steve Carell and Reese Witherspoon as TV news stars. The budget for this new Apple TV+ show is a reported $240 million for 20 episodes over two seasons. That's 12 million an episode, which makes it, I think, the most expensive TV series ever made - a lot more expensive than even "Game Of Thrones."

Is "The Morning Show" worth it? To Apple, if millions subscribe to the new streaming service, and especially if they buy a new Apple device to watch it at a discount, absolutely; but to viewers as a piece of entertainment, not yet - not even close. Reese Witherspoon's ambitious news reporter is more caricature than character. The co-anchors played by Jennifer Aniston and Steve Carell are poorly written, too. Things crackle when they share the same scene, but most of the time they're kept apart, as in this scene when Carell's character Mitch watches TV at home with his management team while Aniston's character hosts their morning program by herself.


JENNIFER ANISTON: (As Alex Levy) Good morning. I'm bringing you some sad and upsetting news. Mitch Kessler, my co-host and partner of 15 years, was fired today for sexual misconduct.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) All right. Stay strong.

ANISTON: (As Alex Levy) First and foremost, I want to offer our sympathy and support to the women. We are devastated that this happened on our watch, and our hearts are with you. And to you at home, I understand how you must be feeling because I and the whole team here at "The Morning Show" are feeling the same way - shock, disappointment, disbelief.

STEVE CARELL: (As Mitch Kessler) She's throwing me under the bus.

ANISTON: (As Alex Levy) And while I don't know the details of the allegations, I understand that they were serious and that keeping Mitch on was not an option.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) I don't think we need to watch anymore of this. Let's...

CARELL: (As Mitch Kessler) Do not touch that remote.

BIANCULLI: Other shows in the initial batch of Apple TV+ programs are aimed at more specific audiences. For young adults, there's "Dickinson," which presents the famous poet, played by Hailee Steinfeld, as a thoroughly modern Emily. It's set in the past but with an attitude that's pure present - hip-hop music on the soundtrack, erotic fantasy encounters with death and so on.

For the whole family, there's a nature series called "The Elephant Queen" with Chiwetel Ejiofor narrating the action of Athena the elephant like one of those old friendly Disney nature shorts. It's very upbeat, even when the subject involves big plops of elephant dung.


CHIWETEL EJIOFOR: Athena is aware that there is a dry season coming, and the only way to prepare for it is to put on weight, which means piling it in. But what goes in must come out.

BIANCULLI: For sci-fi fans, there's a new series from Ronald D. Moore, who so cleverly rebooted "Battlestar Galactica." In "For All Mankind," he does an even bigger reboot of sorts. Just as Amazon's "The Man In The High Castle" imagined what life would be like had the Allies lost World War II, "For All Mankind" imagines a world in which the Soviets beat Apollo 11 to the moon by a month, becoming the surprise victor in the 1960s space race. There are even some convincing, though totally fictional, Nixon tapes in which we hear the president railing about the surprise Soviet lunar landing. It's clever, suggesting the series may get even better as it goes on.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As Richard Nixon) You know how the press is going to play this, don't you? The New York Times is going to say that Kennedy started the moon race, Johnson ran it, and then Nixon tripped at the goal line. That's what I'm going to be. They're going to try and hang this around my neck, but they're not going to succeed. No, sir.

BIANCULLI: Finally, for "Game Of Thrones" fans, an obvious lure is a new series called "See" starring Jason Momoa and Alfre Woodard. It's about a jungle kingdom in which everyone is blind until two children are born able to see and grow up, well, like you'd expect. The only impressive part of "See" as I can see are the fight scenes. That may be enough for the "Thrones" addicts but not for me. For me, there's not one potentially great show in the opening bunch, though "For All Mankind" might get there.

But all is not bleak for Apple TV+. It plans to add new titles to its roster each month, and one of the next ones to be added, a new psychological thriller from M. Night Shyamalan and company, is the best thing I've seen from Apple. It's called "Servant," and it's about a young, well-to-do Philadelphia couple who hires a nanny and almost instantly has second thoughts. Toby Kebbell and Lauren Ambrose play the couple.


LAUREN AMBROSE: (As Dorothy Turner) Well, she seems very nice.

TOBY KEBBELL: (As Sean Turner) Kind of quiet, don't you think?

AMBROSE: (As Dorothy Turner) She's a long way from home. She's bound to be nervous. I mean, it's our job to make her feel more comfortable.

KEBBELL: (As Sean Turner) Yeah, I get all that. How old is she?

AMBROSE: (As Dorothy Turner) Does it matter?

KEBBELL: (As Sean Turner) I don't know. I was expecting someone older, less weird.

AMBROSE: (As Dorothy Turner) If you screw this up for me...

KEBBELL: (As Sean Turner) What? I'm not allowed to make an observation?

AMBROSE: (As Dorothy Turner) I just want us to make a good impression.

KEBBELL: (As Sean Turner) She's staff, darling. Try to remember that.

BIANCULLI: "The Servant" is so good, so unpredictable and so unsettling, it's worth waiting for. And unlike the initial batch of Apple TV+ shows, it might even be worth paying for.


BIANCULLI: After a break, we'll return with our next guest, Viv Albertine, one of the few women pioneers in the early days of punk rock. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.


David Bianculli is a guest host and TV critic on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. A contributor to the show since its inception, he has been a TV critic since 1975.
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