Apple TV Plus, the company's fourth premium subscription service (joining Apple Music, Apple News Plus and Apple Arcade) is here, and it's … interesting. Priced too low to write off immediately, Apple TV Plus aims to worm its way into your streaming habits with big names, important premises and a surprising amount of supported devices (at least for Apple). It's even on the Fire TV Stick (which Disney Plus can't claim yet).
Having spent a weekend poking around the service's initial offerings, I've found that Apple TV Plus' Day 1 package isn't exactly ready to compete with Netflix, even though some of the Apple service's shows can be pretty entertaining. The big early flaws include a web-browser streaming option that needs more time in the oven and a selection that feels limited at best.
TV is a medium where commercial (Big Bang Theory) and critical (The Wire) success can be mutually exclusive, so my lukewarm thoughts about some of Apple's shows may prove irrelevant over time. The success of Apple TV Plus, however, depends on how soon Apple can smooth out its streaming issues and if one or more of its shows can find a strong audience that makes the service a must-have. Most folks aren't getting the free year I did.
Apple TV Plus pricing, availability and deals
Priced lower than any major streaming service, Apple TV Plus costs $4.99 per month (with a one-week free trial). That includes 4K streaming (which costs $15.99 on Netflix) and family sharing, with a total of six shared accounts permitted. Apple TV Plus is available in more than 100 countries, including the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the United Kingdom and Australia.
You can get a free year of Apple TV Plus by buying a device to watch it on; that could be the iPhone, iPad, Apple TV, iPod touch or any Mac. Students paying for the $4.99 Apple Music account get Apple TV Plus for free.
Apple TV Plus app and device support: Flawed
Apple could not hope for its streaming service to succeed if it were limited to just Apple's hardware; neither the Apple TV HD ($149) nor the Apple TV 4K ($179) is affordable. So, the good news is that the service isn't limited to the TV app (available on tvOS, iOS, iPadOS and macOS).
There's an Apple TV app for both Roku and Amazon Fire sticks (the Fire TV Cube is a glaring omission — though Amazon tells the press it's coming soon), and that app is also on Samsung Smart TVs. Oh, and there's a web-browser-based player, available at https://www.apple.com/apple-tv-plus/ (click Watch Now).
How well those apps run, though, is a different question. Apple TV Plus operates smoothly on Apple's own devices, but things didn't run as smoothly elsewhere. Users (including my colleague Andrew E. Freedman at Tom's Hardware) have reported random crashing in the web browser mode, and I saw the Amazon Fire TV app stop mid-episode in Dickinson, which kicked me to the Apple TV app's home screen.
I couldn't watch in a web browser for long enough to see a crash, however, as I saw bumpy video quality, especially when people were moving in both See and Dickinson. Frustratingly, any progress made in a web browser doesn't carry over to other apps. That stack of browser-based problems might seem small for those with a streaming stick or box, but those who use their laptop for their TV would say otherwise.
A less annoying, but still noticeable issue happened as I streamed Apple TV Plus shows on the Fire TV Stick 4K; the load time after fast-forwarding or rewinding a show was about 8 seconds on average, while Netflix (5 seconds) and Prime Video (4 seconds) loaded footage faster.
My Roku Ultra had the least-annoying issue of all outside platforms, as I noticed a slight lag between clicking a button on the remote and the on-screen graphics responding.
Apple TV Plus library: Not aiming for quantity
Apple TV Plus' $4.99-per-month price makes sense given that you can fit the nine entries in the Apple TV Plus launch list — The Morning Show, See, For All Mankind, Dickinson, Ghostwriter, Helpsters, Snoopy in Space, Oprah's Book Club, The Elephant Queen — in a single smallish paragraph.
You can't say the same about Netflix's originals lineup, which earns its higher price (HD streaming costs $11.99 per month) with quantity, offering hundreds of shows and movies. Disney Plus will also launch with nine originals, and those shows will debut one episode per week, but the company's immense back catalogue practically makes it a value pick at $6.99 per month.
More original programming is coming soon, including M. Night Shyamalan's Servant (Nov. 28); Truth Be Told (Dec. 6), starring Octavia Spencer; and The Banker (January 2020), a film starring Samuel L. Jackson and Anthony Mackie.
See: It's a C for me
A long-running target for jokes in the Tom's Guide office, See revolves around warring tribes in a post-apocalyptic world. Both groups are unable to see, with a blindness that's likely tied to the near-extinction-level event that created the post-apocalyptic setting. The show's big early twist, however, is that two newborn children can see. How do the adults know the babies can see, if they're blind?
And the show itself? The first episode (three are out right now) feels like an attempt to be the next Game of Thrones, down to lead actor Jason Momoa. The magic, though, is missing. Dialogue is stiff, and all characters outside of Momoa's Baba Voss are barely there, feeling two-dimensional at best.
Maybe See will find a home with fantasy fans, but it didn't convert me. Sure, it's giant wide-shots of the rivers and valleys look beautiful, and it feels immense, but it doesn't do anything to make me care about any of the involved characters.
The Morning Show: Good, but a bit hollow
This series, co-produced by co-stars Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon, bit off a lot with its subject matter, and I'm not sure how it plans to digest its topic. The broad strokes of the series are simple and ripped straight from the headlines: Talk show co-host Mitch Kessler (Steve Carell) is kicked out of his job following multiple accusations of sexually inappropriate relationships with colleagues.
Meanwhile, The Morning Show (yes, that's also the name of the show in the show) co-anchor Alex Levy (Aniston) is struggling to deal with the ramifications of this news. This series proves most engaging when focused on Levy's quest to stay at the top of the a.m. TV pecking order — Aniston clashes well with co-stars Mark Duplass and Billy Crudup — and handling Bradley Jackson (Witherspoon), a potential new rival.
Having seen three episodes of The Morning Show, I'm beginning to feel that it may not have as much to say about the #MeToo era and workplace harassment as I wanted or thought it should. This came into focus for me during a small-ish monologue by Carell's character, who came across as a farce as he said to one of his last remaining allies:
"Let's, just for a second, let's look at the larger context of hashtag-me-too. It's been, what, two years? We're two years in? I feel like people are screaming for an honest conversation, and what do I do? What do I do best? I am a journalist. I can feel when the world needs me to articulate something for them, to help them understand, and believe me, I know this is going to require a high degree of sensitivity, but I fucking love a tightrope. I love it. Makes me feel alive. Maybe all this happened for a reason. I think if I can get in there and show my face, and look and address the darkness that exists —"
That entire monologue pokes at the idea that this show is going to take its subject matter seriously, by turning him into an aloof joke. A later scene in that episode, however, did more damage to the show's credibility on the topic. As Kessler continues to talk about making a documentary about the #MeToo era, he learns that, shockingly, an accused man he knew was a serious threat, which helps Kessler see himself as innocent. All the while, it seems intentional that we've still yet to get a tally of his transgressions. It all comes across as "sympathy for the accused," which is the last thing this moment needs. If The Morning Show turns out to be an anti-cancel culture project, it'll curdle even more over time.
Read my full The Morning Show review for more details.
Dickinson: A surprise standout
The last Apple TV Plus show I expected to love managed to be my favorite so far. Hailee Steinfeld, as a young Emily Dickinson, is the centerpiece of a wonderfully weird comedy series.
Imbued with a modern, youthful energy, Dickinson eschews dry period-piece dialogue for lively banter as Jane Krakowski (her mother, Mrs. Dickinson) and Toby Huss (Edward Dickinson) try to raise a daughter who is spiritually not of their era. Not only does Emily not sit like a lady of her time, with a slouch that feels utterly relatable, but the way she says "bullshit"? I felt it.
Later in the first and second episode, you'll happen upon the show's sexual energy, which adds urgency. Also, its depiction of "death" borders on fantasy and will leave you scratching your head — in a good way.
For All Mankind: Houston, this is a problem
Maybe I'm just unpatriotic, but this cloying What If? series, which imagines a world where Russia beat the United States to the moon, just grated against my brain. The best thing I can say is that the series isn't entirely torturous.
When Chris Bauer (The Wire's Frank Sobotka) shows up, he adds a bit of energy, as a member of NASA's middle management who's trying to deal with the press and wrangle a bunch of depressed astronauts. His performance helps pull the camera away from Joel Kinnaman, who gets a lot of work for how wooden his acting chops are.
The worst part of the first episode (Red Moon) is the cloying soundtrack, as it blasts nostalgic tunes over montage scene after montage scene. It's like if someone took all the earnesty and underdog tropes of Friday Night Lights and sprayed it at a CNN documentary about the moon landing.
Outlook: Waiting on a hit
Is Apple TV Plus worth it? Well, the shows certainly look like they cost a lot to make, but based on my early experience, I have to say the service's value is on a case-by-case basis. If you're intrigued by one of the shows, give Apple's service a spin. Unless, that is, you're expecting to watch Apple TV Plus on a PC laptop. In that case, wait.
I'll be updating this review as Apple TV Plus evolves, as it's a living, breathing thing. Apple's released only three episodes of See, The Morning Show and For All Mankind, so the word is out on how they're going to land these stories. Right now, I don't know if I'm going to renew in 2020 when my free year expires or if I'd buy a second month after this one is over.