a good show – but is it visionary enough to launch Apple TV Plus?
October 31, 2019
Apple TV Plus arrives this week, and with it four tentpole series that Apple is hoping will establish the streaming service as a major rival to Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Disney Plus and the others. Reactions to three of the shows have varied from acclamation for Space Race alternative history For All Mankind to exasperation at #MeToo parable The Morning Show. Meanwhile, Hailee Steinfeld’s fourth-wave feminist Dickinson has… turned heads.
Apple’s fourth major original series, See, seems calculated to fill the action-adventure slot on its opening slate. A new entry in the “sensory apocalypse” subgenre alongside the likes of The Day of the Triffids, Bird Box and A Quiet Place, See’s premise – a largely solid one – is that humanity has gone blind thousands of years in the future, and society has reorganised along close-knit tribal lines. The concept of sight itself is considered heretical, and “witchfinders” follow rumours and kill anyone who might have encountered those who claim the power of sight. See’s action kicks off when twin-sighted babies are born in a remote village, representing a serious challenge to the established social order.
In the land of the blind, Jason Momoa is king: a typically hairy, musclebound warrior of a man named Baba Voss. Voss has the eyebrows your girlfriend wishes you did, and is surprisingly well groomed for a man who couldn’t use a mirror even if he owned one. The caveman/Viking chic is exactly what we’ve come to be used to from Momoa, who clearly understands (or has an agent who understands) how to play to his strengths – think Frontier, Game of Thrones and Conan the Barbarian. Voss’ village is a loose democracy, and See’s first episode offers further proof, if we needed it, that referendums are terrible ideas when the witchfinders turn up and the village promptly votes to hand the newborns over to be toasted on a fire. Voss quickly puts the dampers on that idea, and instead the community flees en masse to a new, hidden settlement where they can raise the children.
See is the creation of Peaky Blinders writer Steven Knight – which begs the question of why he didn’t just call this one Blinders – and Knight knows exactly how to get the most from the high concept that underlies his show. In the first episode, the build up to a huge battle scene takes place almost in silence, as combatants try to work out where their enemies are. At a panel at Comic Con London, Momoa reported that the sequence took a full month to film: blokes with scrap-metal siege ladders besiege Voss’s village wearing makeshift, rusty armour that looks like American football gear, wielding stone axes, hatchets and whips with iron claws on them. Voss and his defending band of fur-clad warriors smear themselves with pungent mud to identify one another by smell in the melee, and the whole thing devolves into a gory, muddy frenzy under the heavy rain. Knight uses set pieces to build great tension throughout – watching 30 blind people attempt to navigate a rope bridge over a ravine is genuinely thrilling.
In another world, See would represent a welcome bit of entertaining filler for any streaming service. But there’s something about the world Knight has created that seems lacking. See’s universe doesn’t immediately feel expansive or authentic – it’s no Westeros, and there’s none of George RR Martin’s 20 years of source material to flesh out the show’s canon. If Apple truly want people to lose themselves in their vaunted high-concept series, that’s a must. Compare See to Disney Plus, which will launch with The Mandalorian, a series set in the tried-and-tested, much-loved universe of Star Wars. Will people be interested in Jedi Knights and lightsabers? They already are! For a really successful flagship launch, Apple needs something to captivate millions of people one night a week, every week, that they will want more of. A series fans will post theories about on Reddit, which journalists will race to dissect the morning after episodes air. But they won’t. It’s almost impossible to imagine a “300-years-earlier” prequel set in the world of See.
Nor does See make any real comment about us, the living, breathing people of 2019. As Netflix’s first huge hit, House of Cards was (initially, at least) brilliant because it felt like a comment on American political cynicism. Look at their other successful original series, and they all relate closely to the real world: Stranger Things is a vision of the 1980s; The Crown, an interrogation of an ancient institution in modern times; Mindhunter, a social history of murder. Even Bojack Horseman, on the surface an animated programme about an anthropomorphic celebrity stallion, is really about mental health, fame and addiction.
See works on neither of these fronts: it’s neither satisfactorily fantastical nor is it very insightful. It’s the kind of show you might watch a couple of episodes of on a Sunday night, think “This is alright”, and then forget about by midweek. You’d dip into it to pass the last couple of hours of a long-haul flight. It boasts a good concept, and little more. Blind people fighting each other is very cool, but remember: Game of Thrones had an entire subplot dedicated to that idea in season five – plus 100 others.
There’s been a suggestion that the quality of Netflix’s output has fallen since they essentially have unlimited money for projects, and will green-light almost anything to keep people glued to their laptop screens. According to the Wall Street Journal, Apple are spending $15m on each episode of See, which is not far off the amount spent on the last season of Game of Thrones. Have they, as one of the world’s most financially successful companies, already reached a point where they no longer worry about massive losses? I hope so. If they were expecting Thrones, they should ask for their money back.
Apple TV Plus and the first three episodes of See launch tomorrow.