Servant Review

Servant Review

I watched the first two episodes of Apple TV+’s new show, Servant on a plane on Tuesday morning. By Thursday night I had finished the first season. Servant is a far better show than I was expecting, and in my opinion, is way more interesting, well produced, and more memorable than the completely average-at-best The Morning Show which is getting all the headlines.

M. Night Shyamalan’s name is all over the marketing for this show, and he was indeed involved, executive producing the series and directing two episodes, but this is Tony Basgallop’s baby (pun not intended) and he is the creator and gets the solo writing credit for every episode. The show definitely feel Shyamalan-esque in all the right ways, though, so I could see why Shyamalan was interested in making this show happen.

Servant is a very small show in many ways. There are few characters, and almost every scene takes place in a single family home in Philadelphia. It follows a husband and wife, played by Lauren Ambrose and Toby Kebbell, who lose their child at a very young age and get a baby doll as a physical coping mechanism to help the wife get over the loss. They both put in amazing performances that really made me feel the sorrow, pain, and helplessness that they were going through.

They hire a nanny to help them raise this  doll, which is certainly weird, but the nanny, played by Nell Tiger Free, is inexplicably committed to embracing the “reality” of the doll. Rounding out the cast, Rupert Grint plays Lauren Ambrose’s brother, and I thought did a great job playing the concerned, and aggressively suspicious friend role.

I don’t want to get too into the plot because you should go in knowing as little as possible, but you can probably guess that things get complicated with this new nanny and the whole season has you wrestling with what is real and what exactly is going on. I found it compelling from start to finish, and the way it uses food to communicate things in the plot is really inspired.

it’s also worth jumping back to the Shyamalan involvement. He directed episodes 1 and 9, and you can really tell that those episodes are a little better than all the rest. I’ve always loved his directorial style, while the words coming out of characters’ mouth are often far less exciting, and I think he’s in fine form here, working off someone else’s script. Also, the 9th episode is truly devastating and I was really surprised to see the show go as far as it did. I can’t say more without spoilers, but I’ll say that the show set themselves up to have an episode that was either great or horribly embarrassing, and they completely nailed it.

Servant has been picked up for a second season, and I think it’s very well deserved. There is a lot of ways the rest of this story can be told, and I hope they continue this level of quality, but as it stands today, Servant is a tight 10 episodes of television that left me feeling creeped out, uncomfortable, and always glued to the screen.

The Morning Show

The Morning Show

My wife and I sat down to finished Apple TV+’s The Morning Show last night. I was excited about the talent behind the show, and despite some grumpiness about the show’s reviews, a majority of critics liked the first 3 episodes, I thought it had a chance to be really good.

To say I was disappointed with the early episodes of this show would be an understatement. I would say that without question, the first few episodes of The Morning Show were the worst TV episodes I watched this year. The writing was borderline amateur, the production value was both high and low somehow at the same time, and the cast turned in uncharacteristically awful performances.

The next few episodes were much of the same, but two actors started to stand out: Jennifer Aniston remained strong for basically the whole time and Billy Crudup seemed to be getting a whole different set of stage directions than everyone else, turning in a truly bizarre, but wonderful performance.

Episodes 8-10 which close the season bounce back remarkably though, and I thought they were largely pretty compelling television. The actors finally started to get a hold on their roles and the corporate intrigue was far more interesting than the schlocky storytelling we were getting for most of the season. With the exception of the final scene, I thought these wrapped up the season very nicely.

The Morning Show is not great television in my view, but it at least became good television by the end. I hope that season 2 hits the ground running.

What if Apple Made a TV?

This is not a prediction by any means, but let's imagine Tim Cook wakes up tomorrow and thinks to him self "we should make a TV." No, not a new iteration of the Apple TV, but a big 55 inch sheet of glass with tvOS running the whole thing.

"It just doesn't make sense in 2017" he says to his execs that morning. "Why do we make this TV box that gets plugged in and then forgotten about? We do all the work and Samsung, Samsung is the brand people are looking at all day when they use it?" Eddy and Craig are sitting back, gears turning. Johny isn't there, but you know, he'll get caught up later. It's something people have been talking about forever, and Apple has maintained that making the box and letting others make the TV sets makes sense for them.

But now the CEO is asking them to change that thinking and make the whole damn TV. What would it cost? What would it look like? Do we give it USB-C or Lightning?! These are the questions running through their minds, all of which they've considered before and decided the answer was no, it isn't worth it, but today they need to reassess.

12 months ago I would have told you that Apple shouldn't make their own TV. The boxes have better margins and have better upgrade cycles since they don't cost a ton. Sure, they're getting some pressure from the low end with Amazon selling a boatload of cheap Fire TV Sticks, but the Apple TV seems to be doing alright for them. If you're still upset with Apple for not competing on price with low end competitors in 2017, I don't think you're ever going to be happy with Apple.

I'm thinking about my past experience selling TVs over the years and in my experience there were 2 distinct types of people buying TVs. Thinking back on these groups makes me think Apple might have an angle into the full TV market.

First are people who want to get a TV that costs the least and has the most HDMI ports on the back so that they can plug in all of their Chromecasts, Apple TVs, Rokus, and cable boxes into the thing. They want a dumb screen that they can turn into whatever they want.

These people were easy to sell to because they were very logical about their purchase. They bought based on the numbers. What's the screen resolution? How many inputs are there? What's the contrast ratio? They would weigh the numbers with the prices and make a decision. Easy.

The second group of people were those who don't ask about inputs because they're just going to plug their cable box into the thing and be done with it. Maybe they have a BluRay or DVD player too, but any TV worth a damn has at least 2 inputs for these. Some would ask about the smart features of one model verses another, and they would almost always spend the extra money to get the "smart" version of the TV they wanted so they could watch Netflix and Facebook videos just as easily as cable.

To generalize, the first group of people are more tech savvy and the second group is more "mainstream." Put another way, the first group has a project planned for their TV when they get it home, and the second group just wants to plug it in and watch their content. It's a subtle difference, but an important one.

Us nerds sometimes think that things that are "open" are always better. We think that more options equals a better experience. We think that a lower price for the same "specs" means the cheaper option is more desirable. In some cases, and for some people these things are true. There are people who build their own PCs even though they could easily buy an all-in-one PC that they just plug into the wall and it works, but they don't want that. Part of the fun is that they get to play with things, break stuff, and make everything just the way they like it.

But there is another group, a larger group of people who don't enjoy technology that way. It's not a hobby for them, it's just something that's supposed to make their lives better. For them, the all-in-on computer is more desirable.

From that perspective, I could definitely see how these TV boxes we plug into our TVs are not a particularly elegant solution. They're fundamentally hacks, aren't they? A lot of people have smart TVs already and use their Roku box to stream Netflix because the software is better on the Roku. We obviously want these smart features, but the smart features built into most TVs is just not good, so we buy these $35-150 boxes to get something decent.

There's a story out of CES this week that Amazon is working with a few partners to get their Fire TV software built into their TVs this year. That's a huge get for Amazon because the Fire TV software really pushes Amazon's content first, but it's a bit win for consumers as well because Amazon's software (despite my problems with it) is a jump up from what most people have on their smart TVs today. I don't see Apple licensing out their software to third party manufacturers, so they would have to make their own sets if they wanted to make do this same thing.

But I can hear you saying now, why does this make more sense than the box they have today? If you're asking that, you're probably in that first group of people I talked about before. You have a plan when you buy a TV and you want the flexibility to upgrade your TV and streaming box separately, or completely change the streaming box you use whenever you want without trashing your TV. Those are all legitimate complaints, but they fall on deaf ears for people in that second group.

Some people have mentioned "the battle for HDMI 1" before, but I think you might be getting too in the weeds by even bringing up HDMI ports at all. I'm not saying Apple should remove HDMI ports, although you know they would be the ones to do it first, but they want users to turn on the TV and have the Apple UI presented to them immediately. I think Apple's vision of the TV has ports for your other stuff, but the UI you see every time you turn on the TV is tvOS.

tvOS has your streaming content right there, and it could have "apps" on the screen for any device you have plugged into it. You don't cycle through inputs, trying to remember which one if the cable and which is the DVD player, you just select that device as if it were another app installed on the TV. They could integrate with your cable box and display the channel guide in tvOS and let you avoid the terrible UI your cable company had cobbled together. The Xbox One already does this and I would love to see Apple give this a go.

And what if they took the idea of a TV even further? What if it had microphones and had Siri built in so you could call out "hey Siri" and get answer to questions like you can with the Amazon Echo or Google Home? What if it could mirror your iOS notifications on the screen and you could talk to it to manage those notifications? There's much more Apple could do in this space, and controlling all of the hardware and software (which we know they love to do) is really the only way they get there.

I ultimately don't think Apple has this on their roadmap right now. The downsides you already know about, like razor-thin margins, price-sensitive customers, and long upgrade cycles are all hurdles. That's not even mentioning the fact that TVs are not a major pain point in most peoples' lives. But despite all that, I think Apple would be able to make something very compelling to their fans.

I wouldn't pay a 2x markup for an Apple-made TV, but I have quite a bit of faith in them being able to make something better than just about anyone else in this space.

Now if they could just figure out a good remote for the thing...

Apple TV (2015) Review: Is it "the future of television"?

The new Apple TV is a very good streaming video player, but it is not the revolution in how we consumer media as a people. Because Apple is Apple and they feel like they have to pitch everything as "the next big thing", their tagline for the Apple TV is "The future of television is here." This pitch seems aimed at the version of the Apple TV they wanted to launch with a subscription streaming model from Apple.

But what we have instead is a very nice evolution of the Apple TV that we've had for years. The new Apple TV improves on the previous models in every way, and in many other ways is the best streaming box on the market, but don't buy it expecting a revolution.

After spending almost a month with the Apple TV, I have 3 big takeaways1.

Siri is really good most of the time

Siri is new for the Apple TV and it's easily the best way to get to most content. It's fast, smart, and generally wonderful when it does exactly what you want. The great thing about this is that Siri shows you tv shows/movies and then breaks them lets you choose what service you want to use to watch it on.

For example, searching for "season 2 episode 8 of The Goldbergs" brings up a nice screen showing the episode, complete with art and description. This page has buttons to play on each service it's available on. In this case, it's iTunes and Hulu. As of right now this only works with iTunes, Hulu, Netflix, HBO, and Showtime. Apple is opening the API to all apps, and PBS seems to be the first app that has used it to get their shows into this system. Once more do, the better Siri on the Apple TV will get.

Additionally, the multi-part queries are pretty darn good. I don't use them all the time, but they're great to have when they make sense.

Finally, using Siri to scrub through your video is pretty great. Yes, you can swipe through the video with the remote, but telling Siri "back up 25 seconds" or using the much-hyped "what did he/she say?" work brilliantly.

All in all, Siri is my absolute favorite thing about the new Apple TV. Eliminating the traditional navigation between apps to watch what I want, a simple request spoken into the mic is all I need to do to get to most things. It's awesome.

The remote is good, but takes some getting used to

The remote isn't quite as magical out of the box as I was expecting. I found it surprisingly hard to select the right item from a list and typing out my passwords with it was something out of one of the more mild circles of Hell.

But I came to appreciate the remote after the first couple days as I got more comfortable with it. The best tip I can share is to set the sensitivity to "fast." This setting made everything feel much more natural, and counterintuitively made it easer to select the right things. I now find myself zipping around the interface with ease.

You can use the Remote app for the iPhone/iPad or the old Apple TV remote, but I found both of those to be inferior to the standard remote. The old remote works but really puts into perspective how slow it is to navigate the interface one square at a time. And the Remote app still doesn't feel as natural at the regular remotes. Swiping just feels "off," although typing on the thing is quicker than using the silly horizontal on screen keyboard.

One thing that is frustrating is that since the trackpad on the front is always looking for your fingers to interact with it, you can accidentally scrub a few seconds in the video when trying to pick it up in the dark. While there is no way to stop this entirely, you can hit the Menu button after accidentally scrubbing and your video won't be interrupted. It's a usability thing that I'm surprised Apple let though testing, but at least there is a way to not have it impact your experience much.

Gaming is pretty abysmal

There was some big talk about the Apple TV being a disrupter to Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo in the home gaming market, but in this first iteration, those fears have proven to be way, way, waaaaay overblown. The Apple TV is too underpowered, too limited in control methods, and lackluster in game selection.

We get excited about the power in our iPhones and iPads, and gush over how beautiful games have become on them. And we should, the types of games that I can play on my phone are worlds better than anything we've ever seen before on handheld devices. However, the the Apple TV2 is woefully underpowered compared to the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. When I play games on it, the games feel older and less advanced than even PS3 and Xbox 360 games, and those consoles launched in 2004 and 2005!

Power isn't everything, but the simplistic games on the Apple TV don't come close to what people expect from their games in 2016.

Another problem for gaming on the Apple TV is it's controller limitations. All games must be playable with just the standard remote, which essentially means all games must be able to be controlled by sliding your finger, tilting the remote, and pressing one button. It's woefully insufficient and makes most games very little fun.

Now, games that support a full controller as well do get better when you use one of them, but there's only so much they can add to games that have been simplified to the point of being basically no fun.

And that gets us to the last problem with gaming: there simply aren't that many good games available for the platform. A few games like Guitar Hero Live and Disney Infinity are solid games, but the vast majority of games I played were either bland original games like Beat Sports or pale imitations of their iPhone counterparts like Alto's Adventure. The platform is young, and the great games may need some time to get going, but they're not ready today.

Should You Buy?

Despite my disappointment in the game selection, I really love my Apple TV. People had some very specific problems with the past Apple TV:

  • Too slow
  • Not enough apps/no App Store
  • Dated interface
  • Needs universal search

Check, check, check, and check. Apple checked all the boxes with this release, so if you are a fan of the old Apple TV and are just looking for some of its flaws to be addressed, this is a great buy for you.

Alternatively, if you have never owned an Apple TV before and are just looking into getting a streaming box, I still think this is a great buy. It's a little more expensive than the competition, but I think you get what you pay for, as the Apple TV has an interface that is much nicer than either Roku, Android TV, or Amazon have on offer right now.

There are a few caveats, though. There are not yet apps for Amazon or Google Play movies, music, or television. If you are heavily invested in either of those ecosystems, this player isn't going to do you much good right now. Word on the street is that Amazon and Google are both working on apps for the Apple TV, but they may still be a ways off for all we know. Also, such like their current iOS offerings, you likely won't be able to buy thing though their apps, which makes them less useful than just using Apple's services.

Another alternative is the Chromecast, which doesn't offer an on screen interface or physical remote, but it's $35 and does a pretty darn good job of getting video from your phone to your TV. This is a whole different category of media player, but it's definitely something to look into if you're goal is to spend as little money as possible.

So that's what it boils down to, the Apple TV is the best streaming box you can buy, as long as you don't use Google Play or Amazing video services. But with access to iTunes, Apple Music, Netflix, Hulu, HBO Go/Now, Showtime, Plex, NBC, ABC, CBS All Access, HGTV, Comedy Central, AMC, and hundreds more channels, you likely can get what you want.

I'm vert impressed with what Apple has delivered, and I think they're laid a very nice foundation to put their (hopefully) upcoming streaming service on top of. Until Apple delivers their true "future of television" hopefully in 2016, I'll continue to use my Apple TV as the best traditional streaming media box.

  1. And as a side note, the setup process that a bunch of tech reviewers were freaking out about is fairly painless. Yes, you have to enter your iCloud password a few times, which is a bit aggravating, but outside of that the setup was quick and easy. 
  2. Which runs on a version of the A8 chip which was found in Apple's iPhone 6 and iPad Air 2.