The first thing I saw on Quibi was a cross-promotional ad for Charmin. A bright blue papa bear, presumably sitting on the toilet, told an impatient cub that he’d be with him after a Quibi. Maybe two. I had to think about that for a minute, which is a long time when you’re on Quibi.
Unfortunate marketing happens, but you might expect a little more attention to detail from a business that’s been gearing up for two years, has raised close to $1.8 billion and recruited J. Lo, LeBron and Steven (Spielberg), among many others, to make its short-form, mobile-only shows. You also might expect the more than 40 series and documentaries that Quibi premiered at its debut on Monday to make a statement about the creative potential of such shows.
Looking at a small but high-profile subset of that content — the service’s first four scripted series, featuring recognizable stars like Christoph Waltz, Liam Hemsworth and Sophie Turner (“Game of Thrones”) — leaves the questions of “Why Quibi?” and “Why now?” unresolved. What the shows do demonstrate is just how agonizingly long eight or nine minutes of television can feel when it’s tying up your smartphone.
The mediocrity of the scripted series — three dramas and one comedy — raises a more immediate question: Were they poor choices to begin with, or is Quibi’s “movies in chapters,” as it calls the format, sabotaging them?
The need to break movie-length stories into sub-10-minute, self-contained installments has had effects that can be seen across all four series. (On Tuesday, four episodes of each were available.) The premises are not subtle. In “Survive,” Turner plays a woman who — mild spoiler alert — is about to commit suicide in an airplane lavatory when the flight goes down in the wilderness, giving her a new lease on life.
“Flipped” stars Will Forte and Kaitlin Olson as a pair of reality-TV wannabes who finance a home-renovation show with the drug money they find stashed in an abandoned house. “When the Streetlights Go On” is a high school murder mystery with “Wonder Years”-style narration, while “Most Dangerous Game,” with Waltz and Hemsworth, is the latest retelling of the original short story by Richard Connell about humans hunting humans.
All of the shows scan quickly — you catch on to who’s important and what they’re like within an episode or two. That doesn’t mean they move quickly, though. Situations and stories are two different things, and the staccato rhythm of the short episodes appears to get in the way of moving the stories forward. In each of the shows, the main plot seems to be just getting underway, or about to get underway, after close to 40 minutes.
The reason for that, it seems fair to say, is less a failure of execution than a failure of imagination at the beginning of the process. Rather than explore new storytelling forms suited to the cellphone — the way Snapchat and the users of TikTok do — Quibi, on the evidence of these early shows, is taking conventional dramatic formulas and simply rendering them into bite-size videos. That may be exactly the business plan, but as an artistic strategy it’s headed nowhere.
In the absence of any interesting ideas about how to exploit the small screen or the short form, the shows employ similar strategies — narration is popular, as are woodenly expository conversations, particularly in “Most Dangerous Game.” (Waltz, as the mysterious recruiter of prey-for-pay, makes his share of the dialogue convincing.)
The traditional TV-ness of their approach is demonstrated, in an interesting way, by a slick feature of the interface: the way Quibi shows shift seamlessly between horizontal and vertical formats, always filling the screen. If you hold your phone horizontally, they look better, more handsomely composed, the way the directors and cinematographers shot them. But if you hold the phone vertically, they look more lively and engaging — they gain movement and intimacy because of the old-fashioned, pan-and-scan cropping and editing that’s been done to reformat the images. Ugly, in this case, is more interesting.
Quibi, arriving at a time when millions of people are stuck at home and don’t need to watch anything on their phones, is offering introductory 90-day free trials. If that lures you in, the scripted show to watch is probably “Flipped,” in which Forte, Olson and Arturo Castro, as a fey cartel boss, provide some comic energy. Second choice: “When the Streetlights Go On,” which has small-town-noir atmosphere and offers Tony Hale as the adviser to the school newspaper.
The trial will also carry you to next Monday and the premiere of a new set of shows including the horror anthology “50 States of Fright,” whose executive producer Sam Raimi might have come up with something new.