Apple TV Plus doesn't have its Game of Thrones grabber ... yet

Commentary: Apple's new streaming service is packed with stars, but none look like must-see TV.

Richard Trenholm Former Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
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Richard Trenholm
4 min read
Apple/Screenshot by CNET

Apple  on Monday revealed the headliner TV shows that will make its new Apple TV Plus streaming service compete with Netflix . And they're ... OK, I guess?

When the folks at Netflix first got into the game of making their own original episodic content, they made House of Cards. At the time, the concept of Kevin Spacey playing an evil politician was dynamite. If new streaming service Apple TV Plus is to be a success, Apple needs original content like that. Proper must-see telly. Something everyone talks about. Something everyone pays for.

Game of Thrones , basically.

I stream a lot of TV and movies. I watch Netflix and Amazon Video and Hulu and Now TV, and I welcome the choice of new shows on a new streaming service. But I have to admit, I don't get much of a tingle in my antennae from any of the original Apple shows announced at the launch event in Cupertino, California.

Watch this: Apple teases its original shows in new trailer

"Great stories can change the world," Apple CEO Tim Cook  said at the star-studded launch event. "We feel we can contribute something important to culture and our society." Although he also complained, "With so many choices, sometimes it's hard to know where to start," literally minutes before launching an entire new TV platform. 

Cook left out a few key details about Apple TV Plus. First and foremost: the price. Viewers seem to accept a charge of 10 bucks a month and no higher for streaming services, and Apple will certainly struggle to charge more without some killer shows wooing potential customers.

Various glittering names took to the stage to officially reveal the shows they're creating for Apple. Cook and Co. are reported to be sinking as much as $2 billion into producing content, and for that kind of money Steven Spielberg, Reese Witherspoon, J.J. Abrams and Oprah Winfrey will make the trip to Cupertino.

And yet, are any of their shows that exciting?

You've always got to show up for anything Spielberg produces, but I'm not convinced a reboot of '80s show Amazing Stories is really billion-dollar TV. The legendary director chose to highlight the concept from one episode of the fantasy anthology, in which a WW2 pilot finds himself in the present day. Is that really the most intriguing way to tease the series? Anthology series are all the rage, with CBS All Access entering The Twilight Zone in April (disclosure: CBS is CNET's parent company), but it does mean the field is a little crowded. Especially when the brutal Black Mirror continues to innovate on Netflix.


Kumail Nanjiani dropped intriguing hints about his show Little America.


Of the shows announced on stage, the one I'm most interested in is Little America. Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon, the couple behind The Big Sick, are creating an anthology telling the story of people coming to America. Nanjiani used his brief speech to spin the tale of an immigrant family that was deported, leaving their 13-year-old to secretly run their hotel while also heading to a national spelling bee specifically to meet Laura Bush. That sounds like great storytelling.

Watch this: Kumail Nanjiani talks up new show, Little America

Also introduced on stage was See, which might feature Jason Momoa in furs, but that doesn't make it Game of Thrones. A post-apocalyptic drama set in a world after the human race lost its sight, it sounds a bit close to Bird Box and A Quiet Place to really pique the interest.

The Morning Show also feels kinda familiar. I mean, I'm definitely going to watch it. As a producer, Witherspoon has a great track record, and if it's anywhere near as good as Big Little Lies, then The Morning Show could be a huge win for Apple. Tackling timely themes of tension between the sexes at work, it's very relevant. And if nothing else, it sees Jennifer Aniston and Steve Carell back on TV.

Still, though, behind the scenes of TV feels like familiar ground. In recent years we had a movie on the exact same subject called Morning Glory, we've had The Newsroom, and Amazon just bought Mindy Kaling's comedy Late Night set in a chat show's writers room.

Of course, I recognize I'm not the target audience for some of this stuff. Oprah's book club is clearly going to be massive, and the documentaries produced by the beloved broadcaster will no doubt be powerful and affecting. And there's clearly a huge market for a musical from Sara Bareilles and Abrams. Whether that's enough to get people to part with their cash remains to be seen.

The launch only officially confirmed a few of the Apple shows, leaving many others still to be announced. Hailee Steinfeld and Jane Krakowski were in the audience, but nothing was said about their forthcoming comedy Dickinson. Judging from the brief flashes in the sizzle reel video, the sitcom about the life of Emily Dickinson might have provided a bit of spark among the more heavygoing announcements. 

Celebrities show off their new series on Apple TV Plus

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Apple also left out some of the galaxy of huge star names linked to the new service. There was no room on stage for Brie Larson, Chris Evans or Jennifer Garner, the big-name actors also producing their own shows. We didn't hear any specifics from top-tier directors and producers Ron Howard, Damien Chazelle, Taika Waititi, Sofia Coppola, Ronald D. Moore or M. Night Shyamalan. We don't even know what some of their projects are called, let alone what they'll be about.

That does give Apple scope to make more announcements and continue to build buzz around Apple TV Plus. So anticipation will continue around ambitious sci-fi drama Foundation, for example, which will be based on Isaac Asimov's series of epic novels.

Now that feels like the sort of heavyweight event TV you could hang a streaming service on. 

Can Apple compete with Netflix, Amazon and the rest, or are we all getting sick of having to pay for a million streaming services? I guess we'll find out when Apple TV Plus launches in the fall.