Many of the best series on TV this year aren't on Netflix or Disney+ or Hulu or Amazon or HBO Max. They're on Apple TV+.
Shocking as it may seem, the ubiquitous tech company's foray into original TV programming, which started out with a dull whimper in November 2019, has progressed to a satisfying roar with a triumphant slate of acclaimed TV shows. As someone who initially dismissed the service as an expensive vanity exercise, I couldn't be more thrilled with Apple's output in 2021. And it appears like it's only going to get better.
Apple entered the original TV business with a $4.99 a month price tag for its streaming service (purchasers of selected Apple products also get it free for one year). When the service launched it had only nine shows and films to offer, including Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon's media drama "The Morning Show"; post-apocalyptic "See," starring Jason Momoa; irreverent historical comedy "Dickinson"; alternate space race history "For All Mankind"; and some children's programming.
Disney+, launched shortly after Apple, has far more library titles than originals from Disney Channel series to "The Simpsons"; HBO Max was launched with 10 seasons of "Friends," reclaimed from Netflix; Peacock quickly took back the rights for "The Office" from Netflix in January, months after its launch; and Paramount+, the newest arrival in the streaming wars, has everything from classic Nickelodeon cartoons to CBS crime dramas to "The Brady Bunch" (even if many of its titles are also available on its competitors' sites).
How were a handful of shows with a handful of stars supposed to compete with more TV than any viewer could watch in a lifetime?
The answer, unsurprisingly, is quality over quantity. While "Morning Show" and "See" flailed creatively out of the gate when Apple TV+ launched, most of the streamer's programming has been smart and savvy. Apple has slowly been amassing some of the most creatively ambitious and satisfying series on TV right now.
The promising "Mankind" flourished as one of the most exciting, illuminating dramas on TV. "Dickinson," while not everyone's taste, is a cult series with a devoted following and a cutting sense of wit. And several strong series have joined the lineup, including workplace sitcom "Mythic Quest: Raven's Banquet," Jason Sudeikis comedy "Ted Lasso," immigrant anthology series "Little America," M. Night Shyamalan thriller "Servant," animated musical "Central Park" and British comedy "Trying."
On the film side, Apple has acquired and premiered increasingly high-quality movies. The company's deep pockets and the upheaval in the film industry have allowed the service to acquire some titles meant for theatrical releases, including the dazzling Oscar-nominated animated film, "Wolfwalkers." Other well-received movies include Billie Eilish's documentary "The World's a Little Blurry" and Sofia Coppola's "On the Rocks," starring Bill Murray and Rashida Jones.
Apple still lacks the vast choice of Netflix or Disney+, but it is quickly becoming one of the most worthwhile subscriptions out there. All it took was a little time.
And actually, its modest array of offerings proved an advantage. Decision paralysis afflicts many viewers scrolling through endless titles on Netflix and HBO Max, as too many choices make it hard to find something to watch.
Of course, not every series is a winner. An adaptation of William Landay's novel "Defending Jacob," starring Chris Evans and Michelle Dockery, was a boring mess that couldn't rise to its source material. The first season of "Morning Show," despite its A-list cast, was a wild disappointment, with poor writing and casting that often made little sense. But it's easy enough to simply ignore the dud shows in favor of the winners.
If you have had an Apple TV+ subscription hanging around since you bought a phone or computer and don't know what to do with it, here are the three best shows to start off watching.
An heir to quirky, joyous workplace sitcoms like "Parks and Recreation" and "Brooklyn Nine-Nine," this comedy from the creators of "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia" is hilarious and endearing. Set at the office of a video game company, the series has a delightfully stacked cast of characters played by Rob McElhenney, Danny Pudi, David Hornsby and F. Murray Abraham. Its central relationship is between McElhenney's Ian and his creative partner Poppy (Charlotte Nicdao), a strictly platonic relationship that's more complex and engaging than many a romance. It's one of the few series that included the pandemic in its storytelling in a thoughtful and non-depressing way, including a remotely shot 2020 episode that found the perfect tone. And while the series occasionally indulges in cringe comedy, it has a much lighter touch than "Sunny." Season 2 premieresFriday.
One of the few Apple shows to become a bigger part of the zeitgeist, you've probably heard of Sudeikis' affable American football coach Ted Lasso, who takes a job as a coach for a British football (aka soccer) team. What started out as a one-joke punchline in an NBC Sports commercial (literally) blossomed into one of the most genuinely heartwarming shows on TV. Ted is the most positive, upbeat character to grace the small screen, and his kindness is infectious to the disgruntled Brits around him, who don't trust or like him when he shows up in London. The show zooms out over the course of the phenomenal first season, showing the players, coaches, friends and management of a down-and-out football club as a misbegotten family. When it arrived last year, amid global despair and tragedy, it was a much-needed balm, even if you don't know anything about soccer.
'For All Mankind'
Apple's best series is actually one of its first, although it took a few episodes to get going. "Mankind" is an alternative history of the late 20th century, which explores what would have happened if the Soviet Union had beaten the U.S. to the moon and the space race never ended.
What starts as a relatively insular drama about astronauts and engineers in Houston quickly becomes a bigger story that asks larger questions. To compete with the Soviets, NASA invites women to apply for the astronaut program in the early 1970s. The space race turns into a competition for a base on the moon. Mars gets into the conversation in the 1980s.
The butterfly effect of this alternative history extends beyond NASA, with political and social changes – the Equal Rights Amendment is ratified, Charles marries Camilla instead of Diana, John Lennon survives an assassination attempt – creating a familiar but foreign picture of America. In the second season, set mostly in the 1980s, in which "Mankind" becomes a true tour de force, generating must-see TV in every one of its 10 episodes as tensions, on the world stage and amongst the core cast, rise and fall. The second season just concluded at the end of April, setting up a Season 3 with great potential.
There are more great shows beyond these three, and more to come. "Schmigadoon!," a charming musical comedy produced by Lorne Michaels and starring Cecily Strong and Keegan-Michael Key, is due July 16, featuring Broadway greats like Kristin Chenoweth and Alan Cumming. Joseph Gordon-Levitt has signed on for a new comedy. And "Ted Lasso" returns for a second season July 23.
So while you don't need another streaming service as part of your monthly expenses, and there are enough TV shows on your list, I suggest you give Apple a chance.
When you're looking for good TV, there's an app for that.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'Mythic Quest' to 'Ted Lasso': Apple TV+ is one of the best streamers