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We’re four years into the existence of Apple TV Plus, and the network still feels like it’s punching above its weight class. It doesn’t have nearly the expansive library of its competitors, but the shows (and occasional film) it does have are really, really good —usually.
I’ve heard friends compare it to HBO in the 2000s, and that feels like an apt comparison. There are plenty of great movies, but there’s also an astonishingly well-programmed group of TV shows that seem to speak to a very wide audience, from its core group of science fiction shows like For All Mankind and Foundation to its more outlandish fair like Schmigadoon! and The Morning Show.
Apple TV Plus has found a way to reach a wide audience with a small array of high-budget and highly entertaining shows.
It will help if you’re already a fan of Legendary’s massive monster shared universe, but the beauty of Monarch is you really don’t have to be. This series is based in the same universe as the 2014 Godzilla and its many sequels, but unlike those films, here you actually care about the characters. It’s a prequel set in the ‘50s and in 2015 and chronicles multiple generations of the same family as they explore the world of giant monsters that could be a threat to Earth — or its savior. You might be distracted by the very good stunt casting of Kurt Russell and his son, Wyatt Russell, playing the same character in different times, but you’ll stick around for the monsters and everyone else.
Lessons in Chemistry
This show, produced by and starring Brie Larson, is based on the book of the same name and it’s just as heartfelt, encouraging, and occasionally devastating. Larson is Elizabeth Zott, a talented chemist trying to make it as a single working woman in the late ‘50s. After a series of devastating losses, she picks herself up, launches a science-based cooking show, and becomes a star. I don’t want to spoil things, but this show is the kind of romantic drama we desperately need more of from Hollywood.
For All Mankind
This science fiction drama from Ron D. Moore is one of the longest-running shows on Apple TV Plus, and for good reason. It’s really that good. While it started as an alternate history show that pondered what would happen if the Soviets made it to the Moon first, it’s now become some of the best science fiction on TV. The fourth season has felt particularly prescient. Set in the early 2000s, it explores the concept of commercially driven space exploration. There are big conversations about the rights of billionaires, labor organizing, and how NASA can function in a world where the biggest and best rockets are made by private corporations.
This is another show based on a book, but instead of women navigating a debilitating patriarchy in the ‘50s, it’s about women navigating a debilitating dystopia in the future. It’s a mystery and thriller set lower down in the ground than most of us will ever go, and it uses its unique and unsettling setting to ratchet up the tension, even as it explores how a small community comes together at the end of the world.
This show about friends reconnecting in their 40s is basically Thirtysomething for millennials. Rose Byrne and Seth Rogen have incredible chemistry as platonic best friends with a relationship so close and chaotic it can warp those around them. Oddly enough, its first season ends on a super satisfying note, so it was a surprise to see it’s coming back for a second season. But if it’s as cathartic as the first season, I’m certainly not going to object.
This weird homage to Broadway musicals has flown under the radar — probably because of its premise. Its about a couple (played by Keegan-Michael Key and Cecily Strong) who find themselves in a world based on musicals. In the first season, those were all musicals from the ‘40s to ‘50s. In season 2, those musicals were from the ‘60s and ‘70s. And between the more complex themes of the source material and my own fondness for the era of Fosse and Chicago, I’ll admit I found myself liking this season a lot more. To the point that I even got avowed anti-musical friends watching and enjoying it. If you have a passing familiarity with musicals but found the general conceit of them horrifying, then give this season a go (you can skip right to it!). It manages to mock its source material even as it praises it, and you’re left with one helluva good time.
The Morning Show
Apple TV Plus’ biggest hit is also one of its messiest shows — never deciding if it’s a drama or a melodrama. Thankfully in season 3, The Morning Show finally found its footing… as one of the most compelling soap operas on TV right now. The plot lines are outlandish, and that’s the point. Every emotion expressed on this show is cranked to 11 and you’ll find yourself chuckling as they try to convince you Reese Witherspoon just exploded in a rocket. But the show works because it’s full of very talented and charming actors. Like the soap operas of old, you find yourself not minding the goofiness because you’re mainly eager to spend time with all these familiar faces.
But I will note the show had one genuinely great moment this season: when Nicole Beharie’s character confronts Holland Taylor’s over institutional racism at the television network. Beharie was famously blacklisted from Hollywood after conflict on the set of Sleepy Hollow and the moment engineered on The Morning Show mirrors the actress’s real life in a way that felt as cathartic as it was meta.
The first season of Invasion was slow, with the aliens showing up pretty late in the season. Season 2 doesn’t have any of those problems and instead keeps a tight leash on its sprawling story. There’s the soldier worried about what is being kept from people about the invasion, a mother trying to keep her alien-touched child safe, a group of kids trying to find their friend in a world ravaged by aliens, and finally, there’s the story of a woman wracked with guilt trying to communicate with the aliens and not lose herself in the process. The second season ended on a much larger cliffhanger than the first, and the show still hasn’t been renewed. But it’s well worth your time if you’ve been looking for an alien invasion story that never loses sight of why humanity should survive.
You probably started watching Foundation because you’re a big science fiction fan. And who wouldn’t want to watch a big-budget series based on the works of Isaac Asimov, one of the fathers of American science fiction literature? You will stay because Lee Pace is really, really good as a god emperor clone.