If you’re a frequent TV watcher, you may have noticed a significant change in daily and weekly series over the past month. TV crews have scrambled in the face of coronavirus shutdowns to generate content without their usual tools or studios, and, gosh, it’s been sloppy. The results from most major networks have featured problems with lighting, microphones, camera resolutions, and editing across the board as hosts transition to filming themselves from home.
Even as of press time, many of these shows still feature awkward pauses and silences, not to mention grainy, compression-filled video feeds captured from online chat platforms. It seems like networks don’t know what to do in a world where “social distancing” means not taping in front of a live studio audience, and the results look quite bad compared to home-filmmaker stars on YouTube. Major TV networks have long been accused of not understanding the streaming landscape, and that accusation has rung all the more true recently.
Which brings us to the latest streaming-exclusive service: Quibi. Unlike most other streaming services of the past few years, which have largely battled over which classic TV exclusives they can secure, this one has been built out of new, celeb-filled series with one thing in common: the “mini-sode” concept. Every Quibi video clocks in at 10 minutes or less.
We know: there are serious questions here, and the most important one is, doesn’t a ridiculous acronym immediately disqualify any upstart service? (If that’s the start and end of this review for you, we don’t blame you.) But in an era where TV as we know it is changing before our very eyes, this new service’s long-in-the-works experiment has shown up with serendipity on its side. Quibi may not be for you, and I went into its preview catalog utterly skeptical. But I came out of it surprised by how charming its scattershot launch lineup has mostly turned out to be.
But hold on, WTF is a “Quibi,” anyway?
Get your barf bags ready. Quibi is the result of two words squished together: “quick bite.” Yeah, okay, hold on, erp, oof, hrm… gulp. Okay, I can keep it together here. I hate that word combination for a few reasons, but most importantly because it undersells the platform’s biggest success.
The public sales pitch of “quick bite” television sounds like a slew of fast-forwarded throwaway videos, perhaps full of bad production values and clickbait concepts. Sure enough, one of the platform’s launch series has come up in Ars Technica’s TV-review chat channel quite a bit in the past few weeks, though not necessarily for good reasons. We’ve privately poked fun at Murder House Flip, which revolves around homes that are infamous for murders and crimes… and then having decorators swoop in and fix the homes up. All in nine minutes or less!
My assumptions got worse when I looked at the series list, which arrived without any explanations. “Gayme Show.” “Memory Hole, Hosted by Will Arnett.” “Cup of Joe, featuring Joe Jonas.” Ugh.
Once I got access to Quibi’s launch slate, as shared in a dump of video files in a Web browser (as opposed to the official Quibi app), I came to realize what was really going on here. Quibi isn’t an attempt to dumb down television by shrinking full episodes into tiny, moronic chunks. No, Quibi plays out more like something surprising: a grown-up version of Sesame Street.
The MTV of old, only shorter and gayer
That’s not to say Quibi has some gang of friendly faces stitching concepts together with a letter of the day. Rather, its series producers all got the memo to follow the pacing of an average Sesame Street “short,” which, as you may recall, lands somewhere between “a Muppet hangs out with a little kid to learn and reinforce a silly lesson” and “a camera crew follows someone around in their real lives and takes their minutiae seriously.”
Take The Shape of Pasta. In this series of miniature documentaries, a chef travels to remote corners of Italy to learn about forgotten pasta-making techniques, usually tucked away in small villages as passed down from generation to generation. It’s a cute hook to see parts of Italy you might never otherwise care about, and its three episodes’ pasta lessons are actually pretty appetizing stuff. By going with a weirdly specific premise, The Shape of Pasta avoids feeling like another freakin’ TV cooking series. Each eight-minute chunk allows you to get into a region, see its history, see its one prestige dish, and get the heck out.
Or let’s go with Gayme Show, which sarcastically pits two straight comedians against each other in a mix of trivia questions and flamboyant dance-offs. This would have worn me out in a 22-minute format, but condensing this over-the-top, gay-as-hell comedy show into eight-minute blasts means we get it all: laughs every minute and an exit when the time is right.
Time after time, I found myself clicking on things I never would have bothered watching, like a docu-series about concert production staffers or quick-hit dance-offs between street dance crews or mini-sodes about up-and-coming high school athletes, and coming away charmed. The “big” names on Quibi, on the other hand, didn’t sway me as much, including MTV’s nostalgia one-two punch of Singled Out (a ’90s dating series, only now much gayer) and Punk’d (the ’00s prank show, only now, much shorter).
From tiny, kid-friendly street cars to… oh… oh goodness
But it’s also a weird, all-over-the-map lineup, meaning you shouldn’t look at Quibi as the equivalent of a single TV channel. Tastes and series concepts vary wildly on Quibi.
One minute, I’m watching a “street racing” show in which little kids ride in Hot Wheels versions of expensive cars. The next, I flip to Game of Thrones‘ Sophie Turner in a gut-wrenching scripted series, Survive, which is broken up into five mini-sodes. But I couldn’t get through its first eight minutes without pausing and walking away, due to its graphic portrayal of a character’s battle with mental illness, as portrayed by her character’s bloody self-harm fantasies. How’d I get from “cute kids in fake cars” to “dramatic actress cutting herself” that fast?
So long as you go into Quibi with that kind of warning, you’ll be fine. Only Survive includes a stark warning before each of its mini-sodes about “viewer discretion advised for issues surrounding mental health,” and the network isn’t otherwise a smorgasbord of self-harm content.
Also, once I got over Survive‘s shocking intro, I otherwise felt underwhelmed by this “Quibi movie” approach. At a grand total of roughly 43 minutes, this series played out more like a British TV special with a single, extra-long episode. The same could be said for the enjoyably silly Flipped, starring Will Forte (SNL) and Kaitlin Olson (It’s Always Sunny)—a quality series, but not due to being stretched over a few mini-sodes.
Quibi is at least in a position to deliver arbitrary series lengths, instead of being beholden to a TV-mandated amount of time, which may prove more compelling if the service catches on as filmmakers and TV producers come up with inventive ways to play with the format. At least one scripted series at launch leans nicely into the Quibi premise: Most Dangerous Game, which fast-forwards to its whackadoodle premise within four minutes. By that, I mean four minutes after hitting the “play” button, with no long credits sequence or character-driven exposition. Archetypes emerge, and Liam Hemsworth begins immediately facing off against the calm-yet-menacing acting prowess of Christoph Waltz. Right, let’s cut to the chase. This service isn’t “Slow-bi.”
All in all, Quibi’s preview slate left me entertained enough to recommend installing the service’s generous 90-day free trial at launch, even if Murder House Flip wound up being one of the platform’s more boring “this could’ve been on normal TV” options in the end. After trials run out, the service costs $5/mo with ads, or $8/mo without them—and by then, we’ll see how its daily, news-driven content (unavailable in preview form) fits into the Quibi promise of entertainment designed around smartphone consumption. And in the meantime, I hope Quibi doubles-down on that Sesame Street-like quality and cranks up the nerdy content. YouTube is proof positive that the eight-minute format can work great for gadgets, games, science, and health, which Quibi sorely lacks as of press time.
(Full disclosure: my preview slate of content didn’t include Cup of Joe, and in spite of my surprise appreciation for much of Quibi, I’m not ready to raise my hopes for that one.)