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TV Review: Apple’s ‘Planet of the Apps’

Variety logo Variety 6/7/2017 Maureen Ryan

These days, there’s an almost endless array of reasons for TV executives to feel anxiety, and for some time, one of the most ulcer-inducing prospects on the horizon was the idea of Apple diverting a sliver of its vast resources into making TV shows.

That day has come, and so far, there’s no reason to lose sleep over it.

Apple’s first offering, “Planet of the Apps,” feels like something that was developed at a cocktail party, and not given much more rigorous thought or attention after the pitcher of mojitos was drained.

It’s not terrible, but essentially, it’s a bland, tepid, barely competent knock-off of “Shark Tank.” Apple made its name on game-changing innovations, but this show is decidedly not one of them.

The program’s one slick innovation is the escalator pitch. You read that right; I didn’t mistype “elevator pitch.”  The show begins with an overly brief set-up segment, which doesn’t spend much time explaining the rules of the show, and which also assumes that a viewer will know who host Zane Lowe is, though a reasonably large chunk of the audience won’t. The judges are Gwyneth Paltrow, Jessica Alba, will.i.am and entrepreneur Gary Vaynerchuk, who clearly wants to be the Simon Cowell of the show but comes off as merely abrasive.

Soon enough, app developers step into a pitch room with a very long escalator in the middle of it. As the four judges listen (often with looks of glacial boredom on their faces), the aspiring creators have one minute of escalator time to tout the product they want funding for. After the app makers get to the bottom of the conveyance, the judges (or “advisors”) vote yea or nay. As long as one judge has given the developers a green light, they can continue making their pitch.

As is the case on “Shark Tank,” “The Voice” and other shows in this sector of the reality realm, if a judge is very keen on a contestant’s offerings, he or she can come on board the project as a coach. In the first episode of “Planet of the Apps,” two of the four judges worked with contestants, prepping them for the next stage of the show: A meeting with representatives of a venture capitalist firm who might get them further funding.

The biggest problem with “Planet of the Apps” is that it doesn’t know what it’s selling — which should be the contestants. It should turn them into compelling TV characters and make their quests dramatic, but it does a mediocre-to-poor job on those fronts. The app developers go from one pressure-filled situation to the next, but the people and the situations don’t pop. A random five minutes of any installment of “RuPaul’s Drag Race” has more drama than this entire 50-minute pilot.

The best reality shows do a good job of getting the viewer invested in the people who might win the singing contest, buy the house or take their business to the next level. There’s one young tech duo who are as nervous and as sweet as can be, and they are designing a useful product — an app designed to get people home safe. For a skilled reality producer, making these recent college graduates appealing — to the point that viewers would have to see how their saga turned out — would have been Job One. But the show just goes through the motions, most notably after one of the V.C. pitches goes badly. After things went south, Lowe could have gotten a comment from the celebrity advisor about what went wrong and why, but “Planet of the Apps” just plodded onward. 

It’s ironic that a program designed to show potential being realized doesn’t quite take advantage of its own. The first installment began to feel long before the halfway mark, and every so often, explanatory on-screen chyrons popped up to explain terms like “AR” or “SDK” or “B2B,” which was every few seconds. It was all so dry and lacking in self-awareness that it began to feel like a sub-par episode of HBO’s “Silicon Valley,” especially when you heard words like “pivot” and “scale” and “disrupt the space” in rapid succession.

If Apple begins to throw serious cash at creative types who make scripted television, as Netflix did a few years ago, when that tech company began to, well, disrupt the TV space, there might be a reason for cable and broadcast executives to worry. For now, however, Apple’s foray into reality TV does not appear to present serious competition. “Planet of the Apps” is a bit too hollow and mechanical to pose much of a threat, or to hold the attention of anyone but the most tech-obsessed business majors.

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