Binge time: Best Apple TV+ shows to stream during self-isolation [Review]
Trapped indoors with nothing to watch during the COVID-19 quarantine, or just sick of your usual streaming options? Apple TV+ harbors a day’s worth of exciting and compelling programming to finally dig into.
For anyone looking for an excuse to finally give the streaming service a try, here’s a guide to some standout shows. Not every Apple TV+ series is a slam dunk, but there are hidden gems waiting to be binged during these uncertain times.
What to watch on Apple TV+
Across the board, the interesting thing about Apple TV+ programming is the enormous scale and scope of the projects. Whether it’s the boundless post-apocalyptic world of See or the sprawling, A-list casts of Little America, The Morning Show, For All Mankind and the upcoming Defending Jacob, it is quite clear the producers will spare no expense. (The service itself costs $4.99 per month, but it’s free if you buy certain Apple devices.)
The amazing and the ordinary await you on Apple TV+
E’myri Crutchfield and Hailey Kilgore enliven Amazing Stories episode “The Heat.”
For Apple TV+ recommendations, I’ll start with the familiar — last week’s incredible episode of Amazing Stories, titled “The Heat.” The Steven Spielberg-produced anthology series still has three more episodes to go, and right now it’s the dictionary definition of a mixed bag, but “The Heat” was an encouraging step in the right direction.
“The Heat” is a little less apparently the work of Apple TV+ showrunners with a blank check. The drama comes from the believably loving rivalry between two best friends suddenly separated by the supernatural. It’s the best thing I’ve seen on Apple TV+ so far.
Things get crazy at a hot gaming company.
Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet
The second best thing currently on Apple TV+ has to be a midseason episode of workplace comedy Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet. Despite the unwieldy name, the show is a fairly simple operation. It follows a team of video game programmers, writers and branding experts at a firm that makes MMORPGs. Mythic Quest‘s head writer Rob McElhenney plays Ian Grimm (pronounced “eye-an”), the big-headed creator of the game that gives the show its name. His employees must deal with him and the little aggravations that come from catering to 14-year-old YouTubers (Elisha Henig) more than their own artistic muses.
The writing is sharp (even if it never quite reaches the absurd, no-holds-barred madness of McElhenney and co-creators Megan Ganz and Charlie Day’s last project, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia).
And the characters are all empathetically drawn. There’s head programmer Poppy (Charlotte Nicdao), who’s desperate to be taken seriously in a field dominated by sophomoric dudes. CFO David (David Hornsby, who played Rickety Cricket in It’s Always Sunny and is also a Mythic Quest writer/producer) always feels a hairsbreadth from succumbing to failure and chaos.
There’s old-timer C.W. Longbottom (Oscar-winner F. Murray Abraham), a fantasy novelist modeled after John Norman who provides the game’s complex backstory. Game testers Dana (Imani Hakim) and Rachel (writer Ashly Burch) might harbor feelings for each other. Branding expert Brad (Danny Pudi) immediately brings memories of the more brash and needy Community.
Standout episode: ‘A Quiet Dark Death’
In the middle of the season, “A Dark Quiet Death” lands. During this episode, the show takes a break from the usual crew to do something unexpected. We see the courtship of game designers played by Cristin Milioti and Jake Johnson, first as they navigate success and later as they face corporate pressure to make something more audience-friendly and less personal.
The half-hour is achingly poignant without ever leaving the realm of buyouts, computerized zombies, darkness and death. It’s a bleak and heartbreaking look at the compromises people make in relationships and as artists. And though it bears a tenuous connection to Mythic Quest’s overall narrative, it brings out a more melancholy tenor from the rest of the show’s more antic episodes. Directed by McElhenny, it’s a little indie dramedy with no happy ending or easy answers. The episode proves the show is more than just the slacker comedy it initially appears to be.
I’m a creep, I’m a weirdo
Nell Tiger Free plays the mysterious title character in the M. Night Shyamalan-produced Servant.
Photo: Apple TV+
The most perverse and strange of the offerings (OK, the only one that’s perverse and strange) is the M. Night Shyamalan-produced, Tony Basgallop-written Servant. The series is alternately directed by Shyamalan, noir specialist John Dahl, genre hand Nimród Antal and TV vets Daniel Sackheim, Alexis Ostrander and Lisa Brühlmann.
They all take their cues from Shyamalan’s mesmerizing pilot episode, a wonder of blocking, perspective, space and sound. Shyamalan remains one of the most underrated directors in the country, with a string of financial and critical failures the albatross his excellent direction must now wear forever. Whatever you think of him, his direction is objectively superb, sketching the bizarre interpersonal dynamics and the menacing angularity and perfection of the Philadelphia townhouse where the show transpires with an iron gaze.
In Servant, Toby Kebbell and Lauren Ambrose play a well-to-do Gen X couple reeling from tragedy. Their boy died a few weeks after his birth, so they replaced him with a lifelike doll to preserve Ambrose’s mental health. They had already hired a nanny before little Jericho passed and when she (Nell Tiger Free) arrives, not only is she unmoved by the story, she treats the baby like it’s real. Kebbell is nonplussed by her behavior, already having lost his patience with his wife’s little experiment, but imagine how he feels when he walks upstairs one day and finds a real shocker.
Excellent pulp TV
Servant delivers everything you want from good, pulpy TV. There is a sloppy undercurrent of bizarre psychosexual brooding, pristine image and camera choreography right out of the Brian De Palma handbook (Shyamalan is nothing if not his heir apparent), and performances so strange they beggar description.
Kebbell and his brother in law (Rupert Grint) seem to be in a contest to see who can pretend to be more normal, and they both fail spectacularly in the most charming way possible. They delineate their syllables like they’re rationing them during a shortage, neither confident in their American accent. It’s wildly endearing and watchable.
Ambrose (gifted with closeups right out of The Silence of the Lambs) goes big where the men go small and mumbly. She is out loud about everything, sparing her company no uncomfortable subject and inappropriate attitude toward them. The only one acting normally is Free as the shady babysitter, and she’s the one with the most to hide. The surface pleasures here are deliciously asymmetrical, and the look of the show is perfectly judged.
For the young at heart
Death stops to visit Emily Dickinson.
If you’re looking for something a little more temperamental to match your mindset while cooped up, try Dickinson, created by The Affair’s Alena Smith. The show is a teen drama — complete with modern idiom, needle drops and performance styles — about the life of Emily Dickinson as a youth. The show is set in the middle of the 19th century, as Dickinson reaches maturity and starts to write her great works.
Dickinson follows the young poet (played by the great Hailee Steinfeld) as she falls in and out of love with her brother’s (Adrian Enscoe) fiancée (Ella Hunt). Emily tries to keep her career as a budding poet secret from both her overbearing mother (Jane Krakowski) and her loving but fragile father (Toby Huss). Mostly the show serves as an excuse to apply a half-decade of tropes from modern youth TV drama to pre-industrial America.
The enormous budgets of the Apple TV+ programming seem to exhibit a curious effect on the way the shows are planned out and invented. With no door too heavy to open, the show is free to pile on elements it imagines people want to see or that Smith and her writers room (which includes Hollywood Handbook’s Hayes Davenport, one of the funniest people working in any medium) want.
This means the show frequently feels like a Pinterest page come to life. John Mulaney as Henry David Thoreau? Sure. Jason Mantzoukas voicing a hallucinated bee that haunts Emily? Why not? Wiz Khalifa as death in a carriage drawn by CGI horses? I guess?
The show never quite decides if it’s a non-sequitur-based comedy that pretends to be a drama or a coming-of-age drama with jokes. The identity crisis hurts the show’s emotional arc but it’s frequently thrilling and often hilarious in the moment. Steinfeld’s a little hamstrung by the approach because she can do whatever she wants. However, Emily still must behave more or less like a teen girl, so the show falls back on the sight of her vamping and dancing like no one’s watching a little too often.
Dickinson needs to admit it’s not about Emily Dickinson and commit to the endless possibilities a little more zanily if it’s going to last through the second season.
Charlie Brown and Co. help Snoopy from Mission Control in Snoopy in Space.
Photo: Apple TV+
Snoopy in Space
Finally, if you want to quickly escape into a beautiful, stress-free world, check out the Peanuts cartoon Snoopy in Space. I’m serious. It offers a few minutes of bliss that will make the COVID-19 crisis vanish for an hour. I’d recommend it over See, which is like if one of the Apple TV screensaver drone shots had a plot, or The Morning Show, which is like a bad impression of late Aaron Sorkin. (If you’ve seen late Aaron Sorkin, you know how dire we’re talking.)
More Apple TV+ content coming soon
Apple TV+ has a new movie coming Friday (The Banker), and three more episodes of Amazing Stories rolling out in the next three weeks. Plus, three new series (Home, Home Before Dark and Defending Jacob) hover on the near horizon.
While it doesn’t yet enjoy a Netflix-size catalog, Apple TV+ is doing its part to keep us all sane during quarantine.
Watch on: Apple TV+
Scout Tafoya is a film and TV critic, director and creator of the long-running video essay series The Unloved for RogerEbert.com. He has written for The Village Voice, Film Comment, The Los Angeles Review of Books and Nylon Magazine. He is the director of 25 feature films, and the author of more than 300 video essays, which can be found at Patreon.com/honorszombie.