Assessing the Apple TV+ new series, from "The Morning Show" to "For All Mankind"

A look at four of the series, starring Reese Witherspoon, Jennifer Aniston, Jason Momoa, Hailee Steinfeld, and more

Published October 31, 2019 5:26PM (EDT)

Stills from Apple TV+ series Dickinson, For All Mankind, See, and The Morning Show (Apple)
Stills from Apple TV+ series Dickinson, For All Mankind, See, and The Morning Show (Apple)

A is for Apple TV+, the first of the new streaming platforms making a bid for your wallet, eyeballs, and media fealty. With its Nov. 1 launch date, it just manages to precede the Disney+ debut by two weeks, even though that date was announced first.

Perhaps Apple TV+ (pronounced Apple TV Plus) should have waited because its meager offerings don't really amount to much compared to its rivals. With no back catalog to rely on, the Apple TV+ library launches with less than 10 original series and one documentary. That's not a lot, even for a $4.99 monthly subscription fee.

On the plus side (heh), that means there are far fewer shows to catch up on, especially if one considers that they'll release episodes weekly, not as a full-season binge.

Below, check out brief reviews for the four series (and one doc) that were provided to critics in advance, along with a listing for the rest of the forthcoming offerings.

"Dickinson," available Nov. 1

The life of the Victorian-era poet Emily Dickinson isn't thought of as the most exciting source material for a young adult series, let alone a comedy. After all, it's well known that later in life she was a shut-in, primarily living in isolation in one bedroom. It's a marvel that her genius transcended those limited conditions to produce some of the most passionate, imaginative poetry that still resonates today.

This Apple TV+ brainchild of creator Alena Smith has the soul of "Clueless" but the body of "Little Women." It trots out the expected period drama facade with carriages and corsets, but the language, soundtrack, and mindset are unrepentantly modern, in the vein of "A Knight's Tale." For every meal made painstakingly from scratch, there's Urban Dictionary-approved slang dropped with abandon. For every ruffle or flounce enhancing on a gown, there's an inspired needle drop from Billie Eilish or Carnage. There is also 19th-century twerking to be had.

Emily (Hailee Steinfeld) is your typical rebellious teen wanting to rage against the clockwork machine. She flops dramatically into bed, defies her mother's wishes to marry, says "dude," and throws a rager with elegant ham slices when her parents are away. She's also very much in love with her best friend Sue (Ella Hunt), who just happens to be engaged to Emily's brother Austin (Adrian Enscoe). Rounding out the dysfunctional family is the soft-hearted yet socially paranoid patriarch (Toby Huss), boy-crazy sister Lavinia (Anna Baryshnikov), and traditional mother (Jane Krakowski).

Oh, and Wiz Khalifa plays Death. Yes, that Wiz Khalifa. The rapper with tiny sunglasses. Here, dons a top hat and rides around in a carriage pulled by ghostly horses (nightmares?), and picks up Emily clad in a scarlet gown. It's all very seductive and romanticized. It's also a visual that is perhaps too on the nose, but at the same time, let it be understood that Emily Dickinson loved death to distraction long before Bergman did.

As much as this is a period comedy (and yes, there's a bit of comedy about Emily's period), not everything is farce. A strong and unshakeable integrity runs through the silliness. Everyone has value, even those who try to keep Emily down. This allows even the supporting characters to have moments of affecting humanity.

Steinfeld is not an Academy Award nominee for nothing. She has the chops to carry this lunacy off, while still looking the part. She and Hunt anchor the series with their chemistry, along with compelling moments from Huss. It's more difficult as a viewer to accept Krakowski as stern and forbidding after her "30 Rock" and "Kimmy Schmidt" turns, but this oddness works occasionally though, as there's a beat or expectation that follows her lines, but then the laughs come from elsewhere.

Director David Gordon Green ("Eastbound & Down," "The Righteous Gemstones") sets the deliriously delicious tone in the first two episodes that careen from melodrama to camp to moments of shining comedic brilliance that are almost breathtaking in their tonal brashness. Lynn Shelton ("GLOW") helms the last of the three episodes given to critics for review, and the transition feels seamless. Let's hope the rest of the season follows suit.

There's a wackiness and disregard for convention that will no doubt put off purists, but the "Dickinson" isn't meant to be literal, rather its own poetic take on Emily's life and the society that formed her. It's bonkers, joyous, and possibly the best series on Apple TV+. Underestimate "Dickinson," just like her contemporaries did, at your peril. – Hanh Nguyen

Check out the "Dickinson" trailer below:

"The Elephant Queen," available Nov. 1

Nature documentaries have always included the odd animal dying, whether it's the hoofed creature taken down by a big cat or insects being devoured by, well, almost anything else. But a few years ago, a change came over these docs to depict far more devastating and widespread mortality. It began with the return of the BBC "Blue Planet" franchises showing these precarious ecosystems withering away and then amped up to the more recent swath of programming such as "Hostile Planet" that felt more like animal snuff films.

"The Elephant Queen" sits somewhere in between the idealized "DisneyNature" and the recent snuffage. But as long as our planet is in such dire straits, most nature docs are going to have to present some aspect of that harsh reality, which this film also can't escape.

The first half of the documentary by filmmakers Mark Deeble ("Voyage of Time") and Victoria Stone ("The Queen of Trees") is bursting with promise and joie de vivre. Although the film introduces matriarch elephant Athena and her family of pachyderms from the top, the narrative quickly moves to all the other creatures in her environment that benefit from the watering hole after a life-giving storm. Adorable animal babies abound, and various critters ranging from foam frogs and killifish are sowing their oats.

Sweeping drone shots give an idea of the scope of the alternately gorgeous and bleak landscape. Chiwetel Ejiofor offers warmth and some humor to his narration, which is essential for the expected anthopomorphizing that takes place to help identify with the animals. There's the noble Athena, the hapless gosling named Steve, and even the dung beetles who are treated to an extended fight sequence complete with "Batman"-style punching foley and indecipherable "beetle" squabbling as "The Ride of the Valkyries" play. It's all highly entertaining, the better to lull you into complacency, my dear.

Soon, the jauntiness gives way to gritty reality, and the mood shifts. "The Elephant Queen" becomes a difficult watch but a poignant one. By focusing on the tiny critters underfoot to the giant elephants lumbering along the landscape, the film drives home how everything is connected and balancing precariously. That includes how we as humans can contribute to or destroy this ecosystem. It's ultimately sobering.

As the first feature-length programming on the AppleTV+ service, "The Elephant Queen" is a good indication of the quality that the streamer wants to pursue. Although it doesn't add to the overall branding identity thus far, it's a noble and effective choice. – Hanh Nguyen

Check out "The Elephant Queen" trailer below:

"For All Mankind," available Nov. 1

What would have happened if Russia won the space race, and it was a Soviet cosmonaut who made that first small step for man/giant leap for mankind? This is the question that drives "For All of Mankind," but that question raises another: Why should viewers care? In a series that thus far lacks any real sense of surprise or urgency, that answer is unclear. 

"For All of Mankind" begins as the world watches the moon become The Red Moon, so-called because Russia jetted up there first. This newfound sense of inferiority sparks a certain rage from the American population — specifically President Richard Nixon — which only intensifies when Russia completes a second successful moon landing, this time with a woman astronaut. It's determined that our government must do the same. 

Despite this conceit to inspire fictionalized fury, the alternate history in this show feels very familiar, both in general setting — devoted wives and colorful Corvettes abound — and in execution; there aren't too many deviations from actual historical record outside the space station in "For All Mankind," the biggest being that Ted Kennedy's Chappaquiddick scandal didn't happen, and his political legacy wasn't subsequently tarnished. 

The initial character in focus is Edward Baldwin (Joel Kinnaman), an astronaut who is deeply bitter about the fact that, just as he was circling the moon's surface, his superiors called him off; they were unsure the program was ready for such a dramatic step. He would have been first on the moon, and begins drinking more to deal with his personal anger about his feelings of being robbed; eventually, he drunkenly tells a reporter about the incident which puts his job in jeopardy. 

Things do get mildly more interesting when women are invited to join the space program, and there's a delightful reversal of roles found in husband-wife pair Molly and Wayne Cobb; Molly (Sonya Walger) is a veteran astronaut candidate who conducts herself with a certain flyboy self-assurance, while Wayne is her — at times anxiety-stricken — artist husband. 

But where "For All of Mankind" loses itself a bit is in how it unpacks its characters; there's a lot of pulling back, but not a lot of pushing forward. This results in a pace that is simultaneously plodding and sprawling. At one point, right after Nixon has announced that he ideally wants to build a military base on the moon, you sense a glimmer of opportunity for some speculation about President Donald Trump's "Space Force," but in the eight episodes available so far, it hasn't been explored. 

"For All Mankind" has already been renewed for a second season, so perhaps it will pick up then; but for now, I'd expect better than bland from a show co-created by "Battlestar Galactica" creator Ronald D Moore. – Ashlie D. Stevens

Check out the "For All Mankind" trailer below:

"The Morning Show," available Nov. 1

Prior to diving into "The Morning Show" it may be helpful to remember a show that Amazon launched with: "Alpha House." Remember that one? Maybe? Probably not.

"Alpha House" is a 2013 comedy about as four Republican senators who share a place in Washington, D.C., but the logistics of the situation are less important than its star power: John Goodman led the cast, and the series itself was written by "Doonesbury" creator Garry Trudeau.

The writing and performances were … fine. Solid. But the show itself was unremarkable. Plus, Netflix already beat Amazon to the punch with "House of Cards" and HBO had two critically acclaimed seasons of "Veep" under its belt.

"The Morning Show" feels like the "Alpha House" of Apple TV+, for reasons similar to the ones mentioned above and entirely new ones. In 2013, audiences weren't yet annoyed by TV's mediocrity deluge and the too-frequently abused "it gets better" school of streaming  narrative progression. We are now, and that means there aren't many excuses for the haphazard two hours that open this series. Episode 3 finally hints that it might be going someplace, far too late for many viewers.

What's clearest about "The Morning Show," based on Brian Stelter's 2013 book "Top of the Morning," is that Apple is very much banking on the combined persuasiveness of Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon, and that the audience is interested in its take on the #MeToo movement as it is playing out at NBC.

Aniston plays Alex Levy, the female co-host of a top-rated national news program co-anchored by Mitch Kessler (Steve Carell). Or it was: the series begins with the breaking news of Mitch's sudden firing, a la Matt Lauer, over allegations of sexual misconduct.

Handily this happens at the same time that Witherspoon's Bradley Jackson is caught on tape going ham on a nasty demonstrator at a protest she's been assigned to cover. The resulting sympathetic viral attention catches the eye of network head Cory Ellison (Billy Crudup), who views Bradley's fire as the cure for the staleness that ails "The Morning Show."

"The Morning Show" arrives after many better series about newsrooms over the years (except, that is, for "The Newsroom") and mere months after Showtime's "The Loudest Voice," which may have been about a specific newsroom – Fox News – but provides a decent refresher course on how the sausage is made.

But Apple TV+'s  series is less about the intricacies of the business than the firestorms resulting when the talent's egos clash against management's callousness. One might understand that more precisely after a slog through the first two episodes.

Maybe audiences will forgive the clunky pacing and derivative scenes in those episodes, since "The Morning Show" is less about the script than the performances and the star power.

Aniston's and Witherspoon's talents receive ample showcasing in the form of exhilarating monologues and retorts tailored to reflect the audience's #MeToo frustrations back at them. All of it seems designed to create content for their inevitable Golden Globe and Emmy For Your Consideration campaign reels. A show or a film can get away with that kind of thing as long as the rest of the writing smoothly integrates these turns into the script. That does not happen here.

That said, there's a segment of the audience that enjoys Aniston and Witherspoon chewing scenery, or Carell walking the line between misunderstood nice guy and creep, which is basically what's being asked of him here. Crudup, though, nails his portrayal of a shark-like network executive who plays so many angles at once that he makes it impossible to fail anywhere but upward. Again, that's not immediately apparent, but by the time Cory hits his stride one gets a sense of this show's potential. You have to be willing to make it that far, though, and there are only so many hours we get in a life, let alone a day. — Melanie McFarland

Check out "The Morning Show" trailer below:

"See," available Nov. 1 

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that humanity doesn't need very much of a push to tumble face-first over a cliff and into the darkness of utter ignorance; indeed, the species is teetering off-balance and flailing its limbs as you read this. We also trust that sci-fi fans, though generally discerning, will give just about any wacky dystopian story a shot as long as the production value isn't insulting, and in fact may find a few narrative niblets within around which to build Reddit debates or think pieces.  And that our affection for Jason Momoa has not yet diminished enough for us to dismiss any series in which he appears easily or entirely, even though the three episodes of "See" provided for review certainly test this theory.

All of this is to say that there's a ripe TV audience for "See," the bleak and amply wacky futuristic drama from "Peaky Blinders" creator Steven Knight. The premise of the series could have been dreamt up by a "Dungeons and Dragons"-loving eighth grader who kinda likes girls and yet found the lessons of female anatomy in health class confusing, and maybe a touch frightening.

On the other hand, because it exists, we do get lots and lots of scenes of Momoa growling in furs and swinging a battle cleaver and being tender with babies and children, and who doesn't miss Khal Drogo? We mean the khaleesi-loving Drogo, not the one fond of giving his enemies Dothraki neckties.

Baba Voss is a sight kindlier than Drogo on a bad day – as far as his people know, tortured pasts are also super sexy! – but he's still a formidable mountain of a human who, like the rest of the roughly two million humans left following a 21st century-era virus that destroys the planet, is blind. Baba is his tribe's leader and has married a mysterious pregnant outsider, Maghra (Hera Hilmar) who turned up one day seemingly alone in the world.

As it turns out, Maghra is carrying the child of Jerlamarel (Joshua Henry), a wanted fugitive and a heretic allegedly possessing the power of light, otherwise known as the ability to  … just read the show's title, OK? To the great fear of the self-pleasuring prayerful lady of the land Queen Kane (Sylvia Hoeks), if Jerlamarel has the light, then so might his babies – and that is what led to the destruction of the world in the first place!

"Infidel defilers – they shall all drown in lakes of blood!" she might as well have said, and orders a lengthy hunt by the royal witchhunter Tamacti Jun (Christian Camargo), a guy who is very much into crushing enemies, lamentations of the women and all that familiar noise. For some reason Alfre Woodard also signed onto this as Paris, the village wise woman and midwife who conveniently knows a whole lot and shepherds certain elements of the plot from one place to the next.

"See" is a gorgeously filmed series, and props are due to director Francis Lawrence for making the most its British Columbia settings. There's also just enough fodder for thought in its exploration of how the massive scale elimination of a sense humans take for granted might, indeed, change the world.

However – and yes, go ahead and call me a sensitive snowflake for this – there's something profoundly ableist in the proposal that blind people would, in the span of a few generations, somehow forget that the sun is a big ball of flaming gas and start talking like Lothar of the Hill People. The counter to that, of course, is that Baba and the rest build functioning societies even so, and the furs and knits are fashionable neutral and coordinated. Plus, stick around long enough and you'll get to some jaw-slackening scenes of Queen Kane's prayergasms. To completion!

"See" may indeed realize whatever ultimate vision Knight has for it, although that is not clear within the first three episodes. Will it join the ranks of what is best in life? That's highly doubtful. But it may give people a few things to contemplate on their couches. Or Tree of Woe. Whatever. — Melanie McFarland

Check out the "See" trailer below:

Also available Nov. 1 (but no screeners were provided for review)

"Oprah's Book Club" - Oprah has another talk show, but this time it's only about books. In the first episode, she speaks to Ta-Nahisi Coates about his first novel "The Water Dancer," about a young man who was born into slavery.

"Snoopy in Space" - As part of the youth offerings, Snoopy becomes a NASA astronaut and takes over the International Space Station. The season will have 26 episodes. Watch the trailer.

"Ghostwriter" - This is a reboot of the 1990s family mystery series and will run for 26 episodes. Watch the trailer.

"Helpsters" - More for the toddler set, Cody and the puppet Helpsters sing and solve problems. Watch the trailer.

"Dear …" - It's a docuseries, and that's all we know at the moment.

What's on the horizon (that has a release date)

"Servant" - M. Night Shyamalan is the mastermind behind this creepy, psychological thriller. Premieres on Nov. 28.

"Truth Be Told" - In this limited series, podcaster Poppy Parnell (Octavia Spencer) must reopen a notorious murder case in which she helped to put Warren Cave (Aaron Paul) behind bars. Lizzy Caplan also stars. Releases Dec. 6. Watch the trailer.

"Central Park" - Loren Bouchard ("Bob's Burgers") brings this musical sitcom to life. Premieres on Jan. 31.

By Hanh Nguyen

Hanh Nguyen is the Senior Editor of Culture, which covers TV, movies, books, music, podcasts, art, and more. Her work has also appeared in IndieWire, and The Hollywood Reporter. She co-hosts the "Good Pop Culture Club" podcast, which examines the good pop that gets us through our days, from an Asian American perspective.

MORE FROM Hanh Nguyen

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

MORE FROM Melanie McFarland

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Ashlie D. Stevens is Salon's food editor. She is also an award-winning radio producer, editor and features writer — with a special emphasis on food, culture and subculture. Her writing has appeared in and on The Atlantic, National Geographic’s “The Plate,” Eater, VICE, Slate, Salon, The Bitter Southerner and Chicago Magazine, while her audio work has appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered and Here & Now, as well as APM’s Marketplace. She is based in Chicago.

MORE FROM Ashlie D. Stevens

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

All Salon Apple Tv Culture Dickinson For All Mankind Review See Streaming The Elephant Queen The Morning Show