Apple TV Plus: More Than ‘The Morning Show’

“The Morning Show,” with its slick surface and murderously expensive cast, is the gleaming shell designed to entice you to buy Apple TV Plus. Other inaugural series on the new streaming service — the hinkier and less star-driven “Dickinson,” “For All Mankind” and “See” — are the apps Apple needs you to get addicted to, so that you’ll keep paying. Here’s a look.

If a story has been famously and repeatedly told — as recently as in the spate of moon-landing documentaries that filled TV screens this summer — how do you justify telling it again? Ronald D. Moore and his collaborators in this big, old-fashioned, 10-episode retelling of the space race came up with an easy solution: They changed the story, having the Soviet Union sneak a couple of cosmonauts onto the moon just before the launch of Apollo 11.

That alteration of history has a couple of payoffs for Moore, who’s demonstrated his skill with pulpy, sweeping pop entertainments before in “Battlestar Galactica” and “Outlander.” It gives him a plausible, organic way to put women at the center of the NASA narrative, and even on the moon. Overall, the show works with and against the currents of history to highlight female and gay characters in ways that feel less tacked-on and obligatory than in a lot of other period dramas. (The same can’t be said for an immigration subplot that, through eight episodes, feels superfluous and, in its likening of the cross-border journey to the across-space journey, alarmingly on the nose.)

Putting the Russians back into the race has a pure dramatic benefit, too: It makes everything dangerous again, in contrast to the procession of problem-free real-life landings (Apollo 13 aside) that the American public quickly lost interest in. The show’s alt-NASA cuts corners and rushes decisions to meet the public-relations needs of Richard Nixon and his (surprise) successor. The amplified pressure leads to breakdown and death among the Apollo astronauts.

But what also comes through, strongly, is Moore’s simple pleasure in finding a new way to play with the bright toys of the familiar story — to venture where “The Right Stuff” and “Apollo 13” (not to mention Al Reinert’s great 1989 documentary, “For All Mankind”) have gone before. So we get vintage Corvettes racing to the Outpost saloon, and pastel backyard barbecues, and anxious wives (and one husband) perched in front of black-and-white TV sets. Nostalgia is compounded by the 1960s-70s soundtrack, which has some quirky choices (Petula Clark’s “World Song,” the James Gang’s “Funk No. 49”), and an elaborate plot thread involving “The Bob Newhart Show.”

Joel Kinnaman and Michael Dorman head the large cast as a pair of fictitious astronauts who came close to the moon on Apollo 10 and hope for a chance to go back. The show’s divergence from history means that while quite a few real people are major characters, a few real people, like the actual Apollo 10 astronauts, are written out.

Over the course of the story, it’s fun to see how the lives and careers of historical figures like Wernher von Braun (Colm Feore) and Deke Slayton (Chris Bauer) are tweaked in response to fictional events. It’s more amusing, unfortunately, than most of what happens in the central story, involving Kinnaman’s and Dorman’s buddy astronauts and their wives, played by Shantel VanSanten and Sarah Jones. Their domestic drama occupies a lot of screen time and plays out in ways both predictable and unlikely. For all of its polish and cleverness and suspense, “For All Mankind” ultimately puts the soap in space opera.

Shot on beautiful British Columbia locations, in postindustrial settings that could have been left over from a “Planet of the Apes” movie, the gorgeous extinction parable “See” exhibits a ripe ridiculousness that’s almost endearing. (Three of 10 episodes were available.)

Created and written by Steven Knight — who’s known for the cult British crime series “Peaky Blinders” but whose most significant credit has to be the shared creation, two decades ago, of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” — “See” imagines a future world in which a virus has nearly wiped out humanity and has rendered the survivors blind. Eyesight, in this formulation, is the original sin that led people to nearly destroy the planet, and when a pair of sighted children are born into a tribal, neo-native society, their ability has to be hidden. In plain scent, sound and touch, as it were.

The “Hunger Games” director Francis Lawrence directed the series, and it looks great and moves well — the landscapes are impossibly lush, pointing up the inability of the characters to see them, and there are exciting scenes of combat, large- and small-scale. Care was taken in the hiring of performers and consultants to make the presentation of blindness convincing.

But no one seems to have done the more difficult, and boring, work of really thinking through how to make the premise convincing onscreen. For an Apple product, it’s a startling failure of engineering. Some poetic license is fine, but these people in their fitted buckskins who talk like characters from an Edgar Rice Burroughs novel (“Hatred and vengeance are the two wild horses pulling his carriage”; “No one can both be and not be all at once”) stretch the definition.

Why do they talk like that when they’ve supposedly forgotten what books were? It’s just one of the countless questions you may ask, like why the enraged bear doesn’t just take a bite out of the chief played by Jason Momoa, who looks pretty tasty. Or why the rituals of a distant future in which people can’t see so strongly resemble the more embarrassing products of 21st-century dance and performance art, or “Stomp.”

The slightest, but perhaps most interesting, of the Apple Plus shows, through three episodes, is this half-hour comedy that makes the young poet Emily Dickinson (Hailee Steinfeld) the star of her own teenage rom-com — “Little Women” with sex, profanity and opium ragers.

Alena Smith, who’s written for “The Newsroom” and “The Affair,” created the show, with its high-low, deadpan spoof of both melodrama and sitcom conventions. But in the first two episodes, there’s a woozy, off-kilter quality — less arch than you’d expect, more surreal — that probably comes from the director, David Gordon Green.

He’s also an executive producer, so perhaps the show will be able to keep that distinctive tone. Without it, the comic spins on the details of Dickinson’s biography — her propensity for baking, her passion for volcanoes — would be less engaging, and the twerking and the modern dialogue (“So pimp!,” “What part don’t you understand?”) could veer from funny to irritating.

As it stands, the early episodes may not be very illuminating regarding Dickinson or her poetry, but they’re a consistently amusing twist on teenage agita, and a lot quicker to watch than HBO’s “Euphoria.”

Source link