Why does Apple TV+ have so many of the best streaming shows you've never heard of?
Two things struck me while watching Monarch: Legacy of Monsters, Apple TV+'s ambitious, limited series extension of a world originally sketched out in earlier projects.
First, the series is surprisingly good. Jumping off from Legendary Pictures films like 2019's super-silly Godzilla: King of the Monsters and 2017's Kong: Skull Island, here Monarch details the creation of a super-secret agency which tracks super-sized monsters. Father-and-son actors Kurt and Wyatt Russell play the same character at different ages – and it works! – in a twisty adventure which confounds every expectation you might have for a series inspired by old-school monster movies.
Second, I fear this excellent, swing-for-the-fences effort won't have the impact of other, similarly ambitious blockbuster series like Stranger Things or House of the Dragon shown on competitive platforms.
Why? Because Apple TV+ remains the streaming service with the best shows you have never (or, at least, rarely) heard of.
Certainly, this doesn't apply to all their shows. TV fans know Ted Lasso, the unassuming, earnest comedy that has been nominated for 61 Emmy awards. And The Morning Show, the occasionally bonkers, often-maddening drama featuring big names like Jennifer Aniston, Reese Witherspoon, Steve Carell and Jon Hamm. Dickinson, a stylized look at the life of 19th century poet Emily Dickinson, was the first Apple TV+ series to win a Peabody award. And, of course, the film Coda won three Oscars, including Best Picture.
But there is a universe of programming behind those big-ticket shows that rarely gets the same amount of pop culture traction, likely because many people don't hear enough about them. And even as some critics grouse about Apple TV+ raising its subscription fees by $3 per month – arguing they don't offer enough classic shows as "library content" to justify the price hike – I think there are lots of original series packed in their lineup that many viewers haven't yet considered.
So, at the risk of looking like a shill for Apple, here's a quick look at why I've come to appreciate a streaming service which will spend millions to put something like Monarch: Legacy of Monsters on the small screen.
They've got lots of great sci fi originals
Let's talk a bit more about Monarch, a series which solves the biggest problem of gigantic monster movies – too much time spent watching actors look up in wonder at skyscraper-sized, computer created behemoths.
Instead, Monarch focuses on the people affected by these monsters' rampages and the quasi-military agency which was supposed to keep tabs on them, but may have lost its way. There's lots of great, giant monster action, but it's carefully considered and rolled out in a way to keep you eager to see new glimpses of the creatures.
One of the things which impresses me most about Monarch, however, is how much money Apple TV+ must have spent to create such a high-quality production, building out the shared cinematic "monsterverse" created by the production company Legendary, which includes classic characters like Godzilla. Mothra and King Kong.
The streamer has also ponied up similar sums to create other great sci fi and adventure series which have gotten much less acclaim.
Silo, a dystopian drama about a future where a pocket of humanity lives hundreds of stories underground, was a compelling tale featuring David Oyelowo, Rashida Jones, Tim Robbins and Rebecca Ferguson.
Foundation, a sprawling series based on the legendary Isaac Asimov novels, was complex and intriguing, with powerhouse performances from Jared Harris and Lee Pace.
Fans are still waiting for the second season of Severance, a quirky, mindblowing drama about office workers whose memories are severed between time at work and time at home, directed and executive produced by Ben Stiller.
And For All Mankind, the excellent alternative history of America's space race, just debuted a quality fourth season, earning The Daily Beast's designation as "TV's most underappreciated drama."
Science fiction shows often have high price tags and can be difficult to pull off. So it's wonderful to see a deep-pocketed programmer like Apple TV+ take so many bold swings in the genre, even on stuff that doesn't quite work, like the alien incursion series Invasion or the quirky dramedy Hello Tomorrow!
Great platforms for non-white characters and creators
Samuel L. Jackson's collaboration with legendary crime novelist Walter Mosley, The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey, also didn't click on all cylinders. But it gave us compelling work from two towering Black artists, while also highlighting amazing work by Dominique Fishback – who turned heads this year in Donald Glover's Prime Video series Swarm – as a caretaker to Jackson's aging Ptolemy Grey.
In fact, Apple TV+ has released lots of high-quality stories centered on non-white characters: The basketball-focused drama Swagger; Jackson and Anthony Mackie in the film The Banker; Reginald Hudlin's Sidney Poitier documentary Sidney; LaKeith Stanfield in the ambitious drama The Changeling; Tiffany Haddish and Sam Richardson in the comedy/murder mystery The Afterparty; the powerful drama about a Korean family, Pachinko; Octavia Spencer in the true crime podcast drama Truth Be Told; and the wonderful collection of immigrant stories in Little America.
At a time when Hollywood's commitment to diversity has sometimes seemed, well, tenuous, it is heartening to see major dollars committed to telling the stories of non-white characters in ways that are sophisticated, authentic and wide-ranging.
Lots of high quality, under-the-radar dramas
The best action project featuring Idris Elba this year wasn't on the big screen; it was Apple TV+'s Hijack, featuring Elba as a high-powered corporate negotiator stuck on a hijacked plane. Same with Gary Oldman, who digs unabashedly into his role as cagey, slovenly, burnt-out-but-effective intelligence agent Jackson Lamb in the still-entertaining third season of the exceedingly British, dry comedy/espionage thriller Slow Horses, returning for its third season this month.
Paul Walter Hauser has rarely been better onscreen than his turn as high-voiced serial killer Larry Hall in Dennis Lehane's Black Bird. John Ridley's powerful Five Days at Memorial offered a poignant new take on the terrible choices a hospital had to make during Hurricane Katrina.
And there's a cool new British police drama coming to the streamer next year, Criminal Record, which pits Cush Jumbo's midlevel police detective against a superior who may be dirty, played by Peter Capaldi. And there's the admirable stuff that didn't always completely work like Brie Larson's Lessons in Chemistry — a period piece with lush production values that didn't quite match the success of the New York Times bestselling novel which inspired it.
A maturing service that is still mostly a side hustle
I'm going to skip listing all the cool comedies and other stuff (Shrinking, Bad Sisters, Schmigadoon, Peanuts animated specials) that I've also come to really like on Apple TV+, because that could stretch on a bit. Still, Apple's original programming remains, essentially, a (really robust) side project for a company that finds much of its nearly $3 trillion value from making smartphones, computers, smartwatches, headphones and other kinds of tangible technology products.
Which may explain why the company's TV shows often don't have the visibility of larger, higher-profile streaming services presented by competitors whose primary business is more focused on media content (another rival, Amazon Prime Video, has similar issues). When part of a streamer's purpose is to encourage customers to plunge deeper into the world of Apple media devices, does it matter so much which series inspires those purchases?
I got an early look at Apple TV+'s original series in the summer of 2019 – well before the service would debut that November — and I was really only impressed by Little America, which seemed like the best marriage of high-quality content, creative storytelling and the elevation of previously unheard voices. (Two other series I previewed then, The Morning Show and Dickinson, have had much more visibility and success, though I liked them a lot less).
But they have since stocked the service with lots of creative work that often doesn't nearly get the attention it deserves.
So after you watch Monarch: Legacy of Monsters, take a little time, maybe during the Thanksgiving holidays, to explore all the other great titles on Apple TV+. Because it's time for some of the best streaming shows you never heard of to get a little more public attention.
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