Television

Quibi Picked the Worst Time to Launch a Streaming Service for Short Attention Spans

Or maybe the best?

I Promise, Run This City, Flipped, and Chrissy's Court
I Promise, Run This City, Flipped, and Chrissy’s Court. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Quibi.

For months, Quibi, the phone-based streaming service that launched Monday, has been getting roasted by the small group of people whose professions require them to know about the existence of Quibi. The gist of the jokes has been that Quibi sounds like a 30 Rock fiction come to life. The brainchild of billionaire boomers Jeffrey Katzenberg and Meg Whitman, it’s predicated on the idea that no one can pay attention any more, so if anything is going to lure the scattered, cellphone-obsessed youth away from the free and varied YouTube content with which they seem generally satisfied, it’s high production values that you can’t really see on a cellphone and the imprimatur of celebrities grandparents have heard of. Quibi has gone on a buying spree for every famous person in Hollywood’s leftover ideas, which have been turned into “quick bites” of six to 10 minutes apiece. The company has already raised $1.75 billion dollars, on the strength of that idea and a slate that includes a reality show called Murder House Flip.

As someone who has not been above a Quibi joke herself, I am disappointed to report that Quibi is neither a glorious embarrassment nor a surprising triumph. It is, instead, expensively competent. The dozens of star-studded series it debuts with are, in general, solid and professional, and tend toward uplifting but brief documentaries I could totally imagine spacing out to in a waiting room. (The fact that almost no one on the planet Earth is spacing out in a waiting room right now is another Quibi punchline.) The implicit assumption of Quibi is that no one has any time anymore, even, say, for a 22-minute sitcom. And yet it is arriving at a moment when a majority of Americans have more time than they had weeks ago—if also, perhaps, even more shredded attention spans.

If eight minutes of distraction sounds like all you can attend to right now, Quibi has a lot of celebrities who would like to help you with that. Reese Witherspoon narrates Fierce Queens, an anthology nature doc series about different female animals—ants, cheetahs, hyenas— that is chock-full of howling feminist puns. Jennifer Lopez kickstarts Thanks a Million, which would more properly be titled “Thanks a 50K,” in which celebrities give someone they are grateful to $100,000 of their own money, the one condition being that they pass on half to someone else. The fact that it is incredible PR for the celebrities does not mean it won’t make you cry, and the same goes for I Promise, a hagiographic yet moving look at the Akron, Ohio, public school funded by LeBron James.

The only shows that fail completely are the ones that, on other services, are most likely to transport you: dramas. There’s yet another remake of The Most Dangerous Game, this one co-starring Christoph Waltz and Liam Hemsworth, with the latter as a terminally ill man who agrees to be hunted. It’s one of the few shows that really feels like it knows it was shot for an iPhone, by which I mean it doesn’t even try to include the wide shots that will never look good vertically, and it’s extremely claustrophobic as a result. Survivor and When the Street Lights Go Out (the former with Game of Thrones’ Sophie Turner) are both stylized and murder-y, and I hated watching them on my phone. Please keep creepy murder shows out of my literal hands.

It’s not simply that Quibi doesn’t lend itself to serialization. The serialized docs—in addition to I Promise, there’s Lena Waithe’s sneakerhead investigation, You Ain’t Got These, and Run This City, a political doc that’s one of Quibi’s best offerings—are more compelling than the anthologized docs, which either feel like they are scratching the surface, or like there’s not much more than surface to scratch. I’m thinking of shows like Prodigy, every episode of which skims the life of a talented young athlete, or Shape of Pasta, in which chef Evan Funke learns to make a different, obscure shape of Italian pasta each episode, which would be a lot better without the cloyingly purple and self-important narration. The problem with the dramas is that they all end on a moment of action. This is the same MO as Netflix, but in Quibi’s case it means an almost-cliffhanger is upon you every seven minutes. The only show that uses these near-constant dramatic climaxes to good effect is a comedy, Will Forte and Kaitlin Olson’s Flipped, which leans into the absurdity.

Almost all of the good Quibi shows do this—and, yes, there are a few. (Sadly, Murder House Flip isn’t one. It’s too straightforward.) My absolute favorite—as in, I actually liked it—is Nikki Fre$h, in which Nicole Richie channels her inner Sacha Baron Cohen. I also enjoyed Dishmantled, a zany show hosted by Tituss Burgess in which a full meal is shot at contestants wearing hazmat suits and blinders, and they have to figure out how to recreate it from the gunk sticking to the walls. In Chrissy’s Court, Chrissy Teigen gets to play Judge Judy and has a blast goofing it up: If you like her, the show is charming. I also guffawed at one of the episodes of the rebooted prank show Punk’d—the only one that featured a celebrity I had heard of.

The fact that I had not previously heard of Punkd guests Sabrina Carpenter and Liza Koshy (I knew Megan Thee Stallion, at least) marks me, of course, as an old. As an old, I have limited interest in watching TV on my cellphone, and Quibi didn’t convert me. Watching on my phone, every notification was an interruption. Every text I wanted to write back to was a cessation. Quibi may be built around our second screens, but it tries to turn that second screen into a first one. What does Quibi want, my undivided attention? I thought it was predicated on the knowledge that nothing and no one gets that anymore. What am I supposed to do when watching Quibi, not play Candy Crush? Not text anyone? Please, I’m not that old.

If you’re interested in some Quibi guidance, here are my top five Quibis.

Nikki Fre$h

As first demonstrated in her aughts realty show with Paris Hilton, The Simple Life, Richie is a scamp with a great deadpan. In this not-quite-classifiable comedic spoof of a reality show, she plays a version of herself: Nicole Richie, daughter of Lionel, wife of Joel Madden, wellness influencer, and wannabe trap music star. Every episode ends with a music video in which Richie raps and sings about things of interest to the Goop set. (The first ends with “Parent Trap,” a trap song about … being a parent.) In the second episode, she and her assistant Jared try to sell grocery shoppers on all-natural tampons, crystal granola, and a Napa Cabbage Patch Kid—i.e., a doll with an actual cabbage for a head. I was laughing even before the episode-ending track, “Get Ugly 4 tha Veggies.”

Run This City

The only documentary in a slate full of documentaries that feels like you could find it on another service is a tale of political corruption. It’s about Jasiel Correia, who became the mayor of the city of Fall River, Massachusetts, at the age of 23, and then was accused of embezzlement.* Told at a breakneck pace, the show makes its way through the scandal while constantly asking viewers to adjust their perception of Correia , who participated in the series. Is he an egotistical Young Turk, a wannabe king, or is everyone else just jealous?

Flipped

Will Forte and Kaitlin Olson star as a married couple in this comedy that feels as if it could be on Fox, and I don’t mean that as an insult. High-strung, perfectionistic, and irritating to everyone but each other, they’re over-the-top characters that the show throws in increasingly over-the-top circumstances. Out of work, they become fixated on getting a home décor show of their own—Flip It and Gone With Cricket and Jann—and insanity ensues. The big swerves at the end of every episode fit in with what Forte and Olson do best: taking their characters way, way too far.

Dishmantled

In the first episode of Dishmantled, when host Tituss Burgess asks guest Dan Levy if he would ever do what the contestants on the show just did—have a slurried meal hurled at them so they can blindly taste it—Levy replies with perfect horror: “I am wearing a light beige shirt!” This show is exactly the right length for its kind of silliness. By the time Burgess has small-talked his guests and the contestants have tried to recreate the dish, all the good jokes have been made, and no one has worn out their welcome.

The Sauce

A dance battle show between hand-selected street crews, hosted by Ayo and Teo, The Sauce contains great dancing, which the crews have to prep on the spot. Before the battles, the hosts and judges request that specific moves and technical elements be incorporated, and those same steps are visually highlighted as the dancers perform, giving the dance battle show a nice hint of Top Chef or Project Runway.

Correction, April 6, 2020: This post originally misidentified Fall River as Falls River.