Two entertainment powerhouses — Disney and Apple — got into the video streaming business in a big way over the last few weeks, and my little sci-fi and superhero-loving family sits on the center ring of their target audience.
So after diving deep into their offerings, I feel confident in my recommendations. The short version is to skip Apple TV+ unless you qualify for a free subscription, and sign on to Disney+ immediately if you have kids.
Now let’s get to the good stuff: The shows.
Neither network — if that’s the word — launched with a huge selection of original content. Disney’s tentpole series is The Mandalorian, an old-school spaghetti western set in the Star Wars universe. PJMedia’s own Jim Treacher reviewed it on Saturday, and he absolutely nailed the show’s charms. He wrote:
I’m looking forward to the next Star Wars movie about as fondly as my next dentist appointment. At this point it seems like a grim obligation. The whole franchise has just collapsed under the weight of all that continuity. But I can recommend The Mandalorian without reservation. It’s fun, it’s expertly crafted, and you don’t need to do any homework.
Indeed. Easter eggs galore for diehard Star Wars fans, including a big one from the long-lost(ish) 1978 Holiday Special.
Jon Favreau — the guy who launched the Marvel Cinematic Universe by taking a chance on the barely-employable (at the time) Robert Downey Jr. — is Mando’s showrunner. If he set out to take Clint Eastwood’s “Man with No Name” and turn him into Pedro Pascal’s “Man with No Face,” he’s succeeded. And while it might not be everyone’s cup of blue milk, 45 minutes of very good Star Wars on TV once a week is much better than 2.5 hours of dreck SJW Star Wars on the big screen every couple of years.
Disney also offers the delightfully odd Jeff Goldblum in the delightfully odd The World According to Jeff Goldblum. If listening to Jeff Goldblum talking in that delightfully odd way of his about delightfully odd things in a delightfully light documentary series is your kind of thing, then The World According to Jeff Goldblum is definitely your kind of thing.
The rest of Disney+’s original streaming offerings are the same as what you’d expect from Disney’s direct-to-video efforts: Well-produced fluff aimed at the four-to-12-year-olds in your life.
For what it’s worth, the Disney+ app is easy to navigate and runs nicely on every device — Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV Stick, iPhone, and iPad — I’ve tried it on.
The back catalog brings far more value than the $7-a-month price. You get very nearly all of Disney’s productions going back to way back when (no “Song of the South,” I’m sure), plus Pixar, Marvel, Star Wars (the original trilogy in 4K HDR looks very, very nice), and more. It’s a helluva value, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Disney raised the price of Disney+ after the first year.
Apple TV+… it’s complicated.
Apple certainly can’t charge more than the current $5 per month, since Apple TV+ has zero back catalog. It’s original content only, and there isn’t that much of it yet. Apple’s shows are a mixed bag, and oddly enough I’ve grown to hate the show I thought I’d love, and am loving the show I thought I’d hate.
For All Mankind is the show I thought I’d love. It’s set in an alternate history where the Soviets beat Apollo 11 to the Moon by a few weeks. Then, just as NASA is really getting its act back together, the Soviets double down and land a woman on the Moon as part of a huge propaganda effort. The show is well-acted, lovingly produced, and totally had its hooks in me for the first two or three episodes. Things went downhill quickly as the show descended into the preachy strain of feminism. Worse, Ted Kennedy is presented as a feminist hero, a plot development I feared might come after catching a small tell in the first episode. When the Soviets reach the moon, it’s mentioned on the news that Kennedy cut short his weekend in Chappaquiddick. So of course Mary Kopechne lives, and of course Ted gets elected in ’72 as the most woman-loving president evah. Which I guess kinda works if you forget all the waitress sandwiches and pantsless pickup lines and stuff. Oh, and because of the extra-heated space race, Nixon got us out of Vietnam years earlier, too… yet still couldn’t manage to get reelected.
In other words, the premise of For All Mankind seems to be that the world would be a much better place if only the Communists had been more competent. Talk about your alternative histories, right?
On a much better feminist note is The Morning Show, starring Jennifer Aniston, Reese Witherspoon, Steve Carrell, and Billy Crudup. TMS the Apple TV+ show is set around a fictional morning show, where everything is falling apart when Aniston’s cohost, played by Carrell, gets caught up in a #MeToo scandal. But nothing is as black-and-white as the premise might imply. All the characters, male and female, are presented as real and complex human beings. The only unambiguously bad male character is a cameo role by comic actor Martin Short as a Roman Polanski-type. If there’s an overarching plot after the first six episodes, it hasn’t yet gelled. But no matter, as the sharply-drawn characters keep my wife and me coming back for more. TMS is essentially a glitz & glamour (yet grounded) women’s urban workplace fantasy, and it’s a good one.
The Jason Momoa-driven See wants to be the next Game of Thrones, but something just doesn’t quite click. I’ll probably give the third episode a shot; I’m just not sure when.
Apple’s weirdest effort so far is Dickinson. It’s a half-hour dramedy — I hate that word — centered on young poet Emily Dickinson and her life at home. The adults all speak like proper mid-19th Century grownups, but the teens all speak a very modern vernacular. The music is modern, except when it isn’t, and occasionally the show graces your screen with a few apropos words of Dickinson’s poetry. If it sounds weird, it is. If it works — and it does — it’s in no small part because of title character star Hailee Steinfeld. She’s in virtually every scene, and brings brains and likability to TV’s unlikeliest leading character. Like TMS in a way, I have no idea where Dickinson is going. But it isn’t often a TV show is unafraid to stray far so from the path, so I’m happy to follow along.
There are a couple other shows, but none caught my or my wife’s eye enough to bother streaming. There are many more shows and movies in the Apple TV+ pipeline, including a series based on Isaac Asimov’s Foundation books.
I should mention that the Apple TV app is just not good. Apple had a perfect TV interface with the first two generations of Apple TV hardware, but since then it’s been all downhill. The latest incarnation of the app isn’t easy to navigate (“Just show me the new TV+ shows!” is a common refrain here) and it’s buggy, too. Because of that and the paucity of content, I’d give Apple TV+ a pass. If you’ve bought a new iPhone, iPad, Mac, or Apple TV in the last few weeks, Apple throws in a free year of TV+. It’s on that basis that I’m watching it, and only on that basis that I’d recommend it.
Disney+ had me at The Mandolorian, but since I already own physical and/or digital copies of their best back catalog, it remains to be seen if I’ll keep my subscription once Mando’s eight-episode run ends next month. Although I’ll certainly re-up when Season 2 rides into town. Apple TV+ is good enough as a giveaway product, but the paucity and unevenness of the content make even just $5 a tough sell.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to Netflix and chill.