Don't be too quick to dismiss Quibi. It might be on to something.
Quibi? Well, if you insist ...
It's yet another subscription service, launching Monday with two dozen TV shows (to start), the twist being that episodes clock in somewhere between six and nine minutes each. Quibi's founder is Hollywood mogul Jeffrey Katzenberg; the first batch of shows features an array of big names (Liam Hemsworth, Sophie Turner, Chrissy Teigen, Jennifer Lopez) and fast ideas.
The point is to lure young-adult eyeballs with easily consumed content in all genres -- dramas, comedies, reality shows, documentaries. It's television for people who've never owned one, meant to be viewed mainly on phones or tablets, in the chunks of time that one might otherwise spend noticing one's surroundings -- waiting in lines, riding in the back seat of a Lyft or forced to engage in random small talk. Quibi says: Fill all that head space with Quibi!
Critic tempted to pan in nine words, including: blech.
However! After spending the weekend surfing through the service's initial shows, it's difficult to deny that Quibi is on to something. This clever, fun-size format is probably what YouTube and Facebook should have devised when elbowing their way into the streaming TV game, because it so easily comports to what we already know about the ceaseless distraction that our phones became.
People love TV more than ever, but they often find the portions too big. (You want me to watch six seasons of one-hour episodes?) Or there's some other daunting barrier to entry besides the time investment, such as sitting down and paying attention. Quibi gets rid of all that.
Its shows glide past with such efficiency (in horizontal or vertical display, your choice) that it almost feels silly to take notes on them. They are expertly diced, refined and tightly edited in a way that convinces a viewer that it's easier to keep watching than to consciously click away.
Even if your interest may wane, your eye notices that there's only 90 seconds left, so you might as well finish this episode. After which, why not start another? Repeat cycle, mindlessly, until you've finished a whole series.
But are Quibi's shows any good? Objectively, they're not that great, so far. But they are fast (and sometimes furious) and, if the game has become one of quantity over quality (thanks, Netflix), then Quibi cannot be written off as merely some strange experiment in modern entertainment packaging. The frenetic format feels spot-on, even if Quibi's launch is taking place amid a national pandemic that requires Americans to stay home and try to calm down, for once. Designed for people who are always on the go, it will instead be greeted by an audience that has nowhere in particular to be.
"Survive" is one of Quibi's two marquee scripted dramas. It stars Turner ("Game of Thrones") as Jane, a suicidal young woman coming to the end of her stay at a psychiatric rehab center. Still intending to kill herself (and convincing her doctor otherwise), Jane boards a flight home. Even though she's met a cute seatmate, Paul (Corey Hawkins), Jane retreats to the plane's bathroom to take an overdose of pills.
Thankfully, what seems like a dreary and possibly hapless series that glamorizes suicidal ideation instead shifts into the tried-and-true plane crash survival story. Yes, the airliner smacks into a snowbound mountain peak; Paul and Jane are the only survivors. He's determined to live, but she still wants to die. "Please just stop being an (expletive)!" she screams at him as he tries to convince her to get up and go on. Thus concludes the third episode (out of an eventual 12). I suppose she musters some desire to live.
Hemsworth, meanwhile, definitely wants to beat death in "Most Dangerous Game," an action-thriller in which he plays Dodge Tynes, a financially desperate Detroit real estate developer who has just learned he has a brain tumor -- and no health insurance. Instead, he signs up to be the prey in a high-dollar human hunt, overseen by a mysterious game master (Christoph Waltz of "Inglourious Basterds"), with the promise of a big payoff if he can survive the game.
It's a hackneyed idea, but a suitably classic one, which plays right into Quibi's strengths -- by the third episode, the hunt is on, with the odds stacked against the hero. It's not outstanding TV, but it does have the polish of some of those elaborate, episodically narrative advertisements that BMW and others tinkered around with back when internet marketing was new. Now it just bills itself as entertainment.
Elsewhere on Quibi's menu, there are more disappointments than delights. A comedy called "Flipped" stars Will Forte ("The Last Man on Earth") and Kaitlin Olson ("It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia") as a delusional couple, Jann and Cricket, determined to become the next house-flipping stars on an HGTV-like network.
Plunging in, they acquire a dilapidated ranch house in the middle of a desert and, during their demolition phase, find several hundred thousand dollars stacked behind the drywall. Said cash belongs to a drug cartel and, well, the funny fuse just won't light. The characters, as written, don't deserve the sort of commitment that Forte and Olson bring to the party. It's a dud.
Or is it? As both a critic and a viewer, I find that Quibi's structure too easily invites a snap judgment. It renders the hard work of making a TV show into a more ephemeral experience, putting a trap door beneath its creators, writers and performers and then handing us the button so we can hastily decide whether to drop them or not.
Watching Quibi makes me feel less like a viewer and more like a network executive who is trying to decide which pilot episodes get the green light and which don't. These all feel like shows that could be, or might have been. Have they already been passed over by another network? As a critic, knocking them can feel somehow unfair.
That said, nothing can class up a struggling programming slate quite like documentaries, two of which stand out: "NightGowns," a docuseries that follows the life and work of "RuPaul's Drag Race" champion Sasha Velour; and "Run This City," which chronicles the rise and fall of Jasiel Correia, who was elected mayor of Fall River, Massachusetts, at age 23 and later indicted on a charge of wire fraud.
As Netflix has already discovered, reality TV can lessen the stakes somewhat. The genre also more easily bends to Quibi's format, able to present and execute a concept quite efficiently in fewer than nine minutes. Executive producer Jennifer Lopez's "Thanks a Million" is a treacly but interesting charity show in which a celebrity performer surprises everyday, deserving people with $100,000 in cash. (Lopez kicks it off; additional episodes feature Kevin Hart, Nick Jonas and others.)
The catch, Lopez tells her recipient (in the first episode, it's a San Diego single mom with a daughter who has cerebral palsy), is that they have to give half of the money to another deserving person. "It's important to look for any opportunity to express gratitude," Lopez explains. "It's about paying it forward."
So $50,000 then gets paid forward as $25,000. For a hopeful moment, I thought maybe "Thanks a Million" intended to pay it along to the point that someone was giving someone else $1.52, and perhaps include just a brief word about how the tax liability works out on all this. Alas, it's mainly just a sunshine infusion, designed to make everyone feel better in the most fleeting way possible.
Then there's "Chrissy's Court," in which ubiquitous celeb Teigen judges intentionally ridiculous court grievances, in about six minutes, with her adorable mom as the bailiff. It makes you wonder whether there were any pitches that Quibi actually rejected.
"Dishmantled," a cooking competition, definitely feels like a show from someone else's reject pile. Hosted by Tituss Burgess ("Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt"), it features two chefs who must don hazmat suits and blindfold goggles so they can have a classic entree shot at them from a cannon, where it explodes all over them.
Tasting the bits of debris, they have 30 minutes to re-create the dish, whatever it was, for a panel of judges. It's a little gross, a little weird and perhaps not as much fun as the creators may have hoped.
But, strangely, what happens in "Dishmantled" is much like the experience of working one's way through Quibi's lineup. It all just sort of bursts open, and from tasting the pieces, I get the feeling there's a network in here somewhere.