With bars and restaurants and multiplexes and legit theaters and everything else closed at the moment, we have of course been turning to the sweet infinity of streaming television, the great maw of the Internet, to keep us entertained. (Book reading has, of course, been outlawed for health reasons.) A few weeks into our screen bath, though, we’ve maybe begun feel as though we’re running a little low on content. Yeah, yeah, there’s still so much more available to watch, but do we really want to rewatch, like, Dexter? I don’t think we want to rewatch Dexter.
Wouldn’t it be great, then, if something brand-new came along? A whole new platform, full of uncharted content to engage, distract, and maybe even enlighten us? Such is the promise heralded by the arrival of Quibi, a new streaming service from mega-producer Jeffrey Katzenberg, CEO’d by former eBay chief Meg Whitman, and bristling with new scripted and non-scripted offerings. The hook is this: Quibi is short for “quick bites,” meaning each installment of its shows (I guess some could be called movies) are under ten minutes long, most hovering around seven to eight minutes in length.
Sure, many people aren’t commuting right now—a prime slot in one’s day for Quibi content, designed for exclusive use on smartphones and tablets, to be consumed—but plenty still are. And everyone is still taking trips to the toilet, or looking for a brief diversion from some pressing task or horrifying news story. So the timing is ripe as ever for Quibi, with all these little quickies there to help us weather the long siege.
Only, after spending a day or so sampling what’s going to be on offer when the service goes live on April 6, I’m not feeling very heartened about Quibi’s possibility. What I’ve seen so far feels, for the most part, devoid of any real raison d’etre. It’s a rambling assemblage of mere stuff, plain-looking and arbitrary. There is no big, grabbing Why that emerges when surveying the first salvo of Quibi content; it’s all just sort of there, broken up into awkward chunks and flitting quickly out of mind once you’ve moved on to the next equally forgettable thing.
Its best offerings so far are its reality programming. The drag queen artiste Sasha Velour, a RuPaul’s Drag Race victor and fan favorite, has a series about her impossibly hip drag revue, Nightgowns. That show at least has an informative structure, highlighting each act bite by bite, giving us a rousing performance at the end of every installment. It’s a mini-documentary that could live anywhere, really, but exists on Quibi just fine.
There are laughs to be found on Gayme Show, a loud and silly seven minutes hosted by comedians Dave Mizzoni and Matt Rogers, who challenge straight male comedians to compete to win the title of honorarily “gay as fuck.” Mizzoni and Rogers, who have adapted their long-running live show for this format, bring on a host of their cool queer comedian friends—Patti Harrison, Joel Kim Booster—to help brighten up the antics. It’s fast and fun, if extremely niche. (A fond familiarity with the queer comedy scenes of New York and Los Angeles is almost a prerequisite to viewing.)
Quibi does a lot of niche. Lena Waithe has a series called You Ain’t Got These that focuses on sneakerheads, the commerce and culture of athletic shoe obsession. It moves along gamely enough, but it plays like a discrete episode of something larger, a Frontline episode broken into pieces rather than its own standalone entity.
The nicheness of some Quibi series can make them feel that much sillier, like with The Shape of Pasta, in which a self-serious Los Angeles pasta maker and restaurant owner travels to Italy to learn about the wonder and beauty of various shapes of pasta, in the process trying to scratch at something more profound. The series is shot to look like Netflix’s high-gloss culinary series Chef’s Table, but The Shape of Pasta’s narrow focus is a bad match for its grand, lush aesthetics. Pasta is great, and its tradition of variance is interesting. But is this particular little area of food curiosity really what people want to be watching on their phones while they, I dunno, wait for the Q train or sit in their doctor’s office?
With Katzenberg’s considerable reach and resources, the platform was able to attract some top-tier talent. But it’s hard to say what, exactly, beloved performer Titus Burgess is doing—along with a cadre of celebrity guest-judges—on the food competition series Dishmantled, in which cooks have a dish of food shot into their faces by an air cannon (yes), and then have to piece together a recipe based on what they think they’ve tasted in piecemeal from the blast. I guess the ridiculousness of the conceit is the whole joke, but it seems more like something we’d have seen in a quick-cut on 30 Rock than an actual, comestible series.
I’m similarly confused about Reese Witherspoon narrating a nature documentary about cheetahs called Fierce Queens, which plays like one of those random shorts that live deep in the recesses of airplane in-flight player libraries. But with Reese Witherspoon narrating. Model, cookbook author, and Twitter humorist Chrissy Teigen proves an amiable host on her Quibi offering, Chrissy’s Court, but she’s hampered by the strained format of the show, which is styled like a People’s Court/Judge Judy type of thing, only resolving the inanest of interpersonal squabbles. Engaging as Teigen is, why not give her a more straight-forward talk show or something? Chrissy Teigen interviews [blank celebrity] for seven minutes? People would watch that!
I wanted to like Nicole Richie’s mockumentary Nikki Fre$h, a sort of Sacha Baron Cohen-esque mix of character work and man-on-the-street interviews that parodies wellness culture and the music industry. It has amusing moments but, again, ultimately elicits questions of, Why this? Why now? Why here? Richie is clever, and yet the show’s humor never finds a sharp sense of purpose. It falls just short of timely, a nagging delay in its topical references that kills a series aimed right at the zeitgeist.
I similarly hoped to enjoy Chance the Rapper’s revival of MTV’s celebrity prank series Punk’d—because Chance is charming, handsome, talented, etc.—but the quick bite format doesn’t give the pranks enough room to build. Even lo-fi, celebrity-free prank videos on YouTube tend to unfold over a longer amount of time. The same goes for Keke Palmer’s rushed version of MTV’s Singled Out, which moves as fast and disorientingly as a Tinder swiping spree.
There’s nothing outright objectionable about Quibi’s reality content (save, maybe, for The Shape of Pasta host’s teary-eyed mugging to camera and achingly pretentious voiceover). In aggregate, though, the way it all just hangs there, listless and without the glow of necessity, makes the whole enterprise seem soggy and sad. Plenty of these shows could have lived happier, healthier lives on YouTube or Instagram TV. Only, Quibi had the budget. Therein lies the conundrum.
Quibi’s non-scripted series fare far better than its scripted content, a dreary muddle of narratives that aren’t terrible, exactly, but are all ill-suited the platform in individual ways.
Survive, a gloomy drama about two survivors of a plane crash, has the cachet of Game of Thrones star Sophie Turner and Straight Outta Compton star Corey Hawkins. It’s essentially The Mountain Between Us for a younger set, only more concerned with depression and suicide, and is an odd fit for Quibi’s limited dimensions. Why do a series—really, a segmented movie—with so many sweeping vistas of snow-covered mountains that is solely meant to be watched on such tiny screens?
Speaking of size, the episodes are all about 10 minutes, which is oddly too long, caught somewhere between the quick bites advertised and regular episodic television. Part of the potential excitement of Quibi was to see how creators managed little arcs within tight time parameters. Ten minutes feels like cheating. Turner and Hawkins are compelling enough—it is especially interesting to see Turner out of the confines of corsets and superhero suits—but their plight seems less about surviving a frigid wilderness and more about justifying this newfangled Hollywood experiment. They don’t quite get there in the episodes—excuse me, the chapters—that I’ve seen.
Neither do the reliable comedians Kaitlin Olson and Will Forte, in Funny or Die’s Flipped, about a clueless, big-dreaming couple who buys a shack in the hope of renovating it and landing their own HGTV-esque makeover show in the process. (Some other interesting complications arise, which I won’t spoil.) All the bones are there—good stars, solid production company, cute concept—but the laughs never arrive. Comedy has long been a good genre for short-form web series, a fruitful history that suggests Flipped should be among Quibi’s strongest first offerings. It certainly makes the most sense of the scripted shows I’ve seen, but it doesn’t seem likely to make the splash its heavyweight status implies.
The other big show (or, again, movie) is Most Dangerous Game, which will have Liam Hemsworth running around Detroit trying to not be killed in a human-hunt organized by Christoph Waltz. It takes several tedious episodes to get to the exciting stuff, which is where my advance screeners cut off. Perhaps audiences will not mind wading through four short installments before they arrive at the dangerous game part, but that seems like an odd gamble for the series to take—it demands the kind of committed investment that I thought Quibi, as opposed to all the other streaming services, was supposed to free us from.
I was hoping for more daring, for some truly innovative storytelling, instead of the usual old things squished strangely into a tinier box. But that’s what we’re served in this first course, stuff that’s cheap-looking but competent enough, and just shy of dull. As a physical viewing experience, Quibi is frustrating. Watching something vertically turns just about everything into a voyeuristic closeup, like we’re looking at a fancier and far more staid TikTok. Horizontally, you get more of the picture, of course, but a phone doesn’t rest as comfortably in one’s hand that way. (I’m sure plenty of people younger than me are much more adapted to those ergonomics.) In practice, Quibi never feels quite right.
That may simply mean that I need to adjust to a new reality, something I’m less good at doing the older I get. It’s possible that Snapchat and TikTok natives will take right to the mechanics of the platform. But I don’t think the content will thrill them when they start digging in; it’s filler in the place of real substance. Will we one day have a profound experience on Quibi? Maybe. More prestigious filmmakers—like, say, Steven Spielberg—are set to debut material on the service in the coming months or years. With its first collection, though, Quibi will likely have a hard time breeding much loyalty. These days, who has time to get excited about something that’s more irksome gimmick than welcome disruption.
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