Quibi’s Brave New World of Reality TV Is a Magnificent Disaster
It's like a "30 Rock" joke come to life. And not in a good way.
Since the earliest announcement of its conception, the new streaming service Quibi has inspired a recurring joke (among critics and comparably sad people who must find humor in industry programming news bulletins) that it does not actually exist. Ascribe it to the possibly-deranged-possibly-brilliant business model of “TV, but no longer than 10 minutes,” or the fact that it can only be viewed via smartphone, or the revelation that its name is a portmanteau of “quick bites.” Whatever the cause, it all smacks of a 30 Rock joke about the deteriorating standards of small-screen entertainment, come miraculously to life. But it is real, it is here and it is a magnificent disaster.
This week, Quibi greets a world well-primed for its arrival, with everyone sequestered at home and starved for something, anything to watch. Its premiere couldn’t have met with friendlier conditions, and yet perusing the avalanche of screeners sent to press in advance, a captive audience seems like the kind of viewership that the executives were banking on. “You people will watch anything, won’t you?” emerges as the guiding creative principle in assembling this motley lineup of mini-shows, most of which top out at being preferable to watching nothing. Whether it will succeed is anyone’s guess; seven minutes turns out to be short for a TV show, but long for a single video on your phone. But hey, to paraphrase H.L. Mencken, nobody ever went broke underestimating the attention span of the American people.
For the sake of sanity and morbid fascination, this critic tackled all 12 of the shows listed as “Unscripted” on Quibi’s official press release, a category questionably distinct from “Documentary.” (Many of the Unscripted programs play as far more scripted than the one Documentary I did check out, a series about an American chef traveling Italy in search of the rarest, least-known pasta shapes. Pure goddamn rapture.) Quibi’s vision of reality TV is so cheap, so sloppy, and so baldly driven by algorithmic favor that it makes Netflix’s lesser output look like an exemplar of professionalism, polish and creative integrity. Anyone still clinging to the idea that making television takes some measure of artistry, even to the more workable notion that good reality TV requires craft and craftiness from its producers, will see the Quibi house style as a lowering of the barrel’s bottom.
In the spirit of brevity, I’ve herewith whipped up delicious quick-bites of criticism assessing each of Quibi’s 12 Unscripted offerings, a smorgasbord of solid concepts thoroughly bungled in execution — with a few notable exceptions. In each case, a person can clearly imagine the pitch meeting, and see why Mr. Quibi would’ve given the green light. Here’s how it all went spectacularly awry.
Murder House Flip
Foolproof idea: Everyone loves real-estate shows, and everyone loves macabre true-crime stuff, so why not combine the two? A pair of real estate agents have to spruce up the site of a grisly slaying and then convince some prospective buyers not to get the heebie-jeebies just because some poor bastard got decapitated in their breakfast nook. The joy of home remodeling, the thrill of the kill, and a lovely touch of absurdity where the two meet.
How they blew it: When the two realtor-hosts drop the pearl “Murder and makeover don’t usually go together, but that’s all about to change,” early in the first episode, it suggests that they’re in on the joke. Alas, we’ve been sold a false bill of goods — they don’t even flip the murder house! The current owners aren’t moving out or anything, they just want a less-murdery vibe for their living quarters, which means that we’re deprived of watching the hard sell for a house that may contain loose body parts. I assumed that the far more accurate title of Murder House Makeover was already copyrighted, but could find no such evidence. Stranger still, a local Sacramento news story reporting on Quibi’s renovation of the Dorothea Puente house uses Murder House Makeover as its hook. As if there weren’t enough banal mysteries swirling around this program, they censor the word “fuck” but not “shit.” Other shows censor both, and one censors neither. Have you no rules, Quibi?
Thanks a Million
Foolproof idea: Celebrities have money. Regular folks need money. This show does what little it can to right the scales, as Famouses reach out to people in need from their pasts or personal lives and gift them the life-changing sum of $100,000. There will be tears. There will be the spirit of good Christian charity. There will be J. Lo. (She’s an executive producer, her Nuyorican Productions one of the many small production companies enlisted to whip up a quick-and-dirty hour’s worth of content.)
How they blew it: Let’s just breeze right past the detail that two of the A-listers handing out wads of cash happen to be Karlie Kloss and Kevin Hart, lending the whole affair the cynical reek of image rehabilitation. The real flaw has been hardwired into the structure: yes, each household name awards one hundred grand to someone deserving. (Though Hart just gives it to the hospital that fixed his back after a recent car crash. Are those doctors going to see any of that money?) The kick in the pants comes when the recipient learns that they must then give half of their windfall to someone else, who has to halve and donate that money again, leaving the final link on the “chain of gratitude” with $25,000. Convoluted? Yes. Emotionally pornographic? You betcha. Self-defeating? I’d say so! This sadistic game unwittingly illustrates of the evils of capitalism, in the way financial aid comes with moral strings attached that leave the individual far less better-off than they would’ve been in the first place. Plus, as the beneficiary of his largesse, Nick Jonas just picks the leader of the Jonas Brothers fan club!
Foolproof idea: “Queer Eye, but a game show” sells itself. Round up the schlubbiest, most clueless heteros the casting agent can find and send them through a gauntlet of trivia and other tests of their manners, fashion sense, et cetera. Some good-natured chuckles at their humiliation — they’re straight men, they can take it, they’ll be fine — and at the end of the day, hopefully they’ve all learned how to step the game up, becoming the best versions of themselves. Maybe someone discovers that exfoliating rocks aren’t just for women, or how to make a dignified, basic pasta sauce from scratch, and gay-straight relations continue to improve.
How they blew it: Pro funnymen Matt Rogers and Dave Mizzoni bring their long-running live show online, and the result certainly hews closer to sketch comedy than reality TV. One heterosexual contestant gets paired with a Wise Gay (Bowen Yang, Joel Kim Booster, Brendan Scannell), the other to a Woman Who Gets It (Nicole Byer, Patti Harrison, Ilana Glazer), and must complete goofy challenges more Double Dare 2000 than Jeopardy! testing their knowledge of gay culture. The trouble is that any show taking up such a broad purview must necessarily promote a restrictive, monolithic idea of what “gay culture” means. (We learn that being poorly informed is, in fact, a “gay thing.”) Beyond that, the straight contestants are all recognizable actors or comedy writers, most of whom already possess a functioning understanding of pop culture, fashion, basic politeness, what-have-you. The highlight is in-house singer Vonzell Solomon, who ushers in each new segment with a mighty Whitney Houston belt.
Foolproof idea: Think Judge Judy, but instead of being met with the piercing gaze of Judy Sheindlin, small-claims squabblers must explain themselves before erstwhile model and Internet darling Chrissy Teigen. Whaddaya need, a road map?
How they blew it: Any veteran viewer of lowest-common-denominator court TV knows that a show lives and dies on plaintiff and defendant selection. Teigen can make her zingers and draft her mother Pepper to play baliff/comic relief, but it won’t go anywhere unless the kooks in her courtroom meet her halfway, and they’re just not cutting it. A dispute over a Lizzo sweatshirt that says “100% That Bitch” courts a topicality that never amounts to anything, and a lounge singer’s refusal to do hip-hop hums with a racial tension no one has the stones to articulate. (The third of the three available hits the right note of low-stakes pettiness.) Somewhere between the haunting noise of Teigen laughing at her own wit and her earnest inquiry as to whether the Culver City resident on the stand has visited her favorite upscale eateries in the area, I felt Peak TV entering its decadent last-days-of-Rome period.
Foolproof idea: It’s Punk’d, but with Chance the Rapper. You remember Punk’d, don’t you? Ashton Kutcher, trucker hats, celebrity pranks, the heyday of MTV’s race-to-the-bottom reality era? Same deal, only with Chance. Seems harmless, right?
How they blew it: Quick, without looking it up, can you tell me who Sabrina Carpenter is? How about Liza Koshy? They’re both social-media personalities known exclusively to the world’s more plugged-in 16-year-olds, the presumptive audience for this pale reincarnation of the best stoopid-brilliance that the Dubya years had to offer. Quibi’s emphasis on reverse-engineering success by hiring enough Instagram-friendly personnel to guarantee a reach shines most brightly here, recalling the line from Nineteen Eighty-Four about the image of the future being a boot stamping on the face of humanity forever. Having said that, the one where Megan thee Stallion — an actual famous person — freaks out because she thinks a gorilla’s attacking her works like a charm. Can’t get away with cutting costs or corners, not here.
Foolproof idea: Nicole Richie, wealth scion turned minimum-wage icon turned actress, wants to add another “turned” to that clause. This mockumentary (this one really stretches the definition of “Unscripted” entertainment) chronicles her effort to reinvent herself once again, this time as a “trap star” dropping bangers about ecological responsibility. As she attempts to get her career’s latest phase off the ground, she promotes a holistic wellness lifestyle taking satirical potshots at the admittedly sizable target of Goop.
How they blew it: They didn’t! This outclasses the rest of the batch by far, the only to attain consistent, purposeful, genuine funniness. Richie knows how to deliver a line, where to place emphasis, how to do a serviceable deadpan. She has an easy, natural rapport with her preening, obsequious assistant character, and she can work her physicality of smallness and skinniness for laughs. Wading through these series and finally encountering someone with actual comedic instincts hits you like a splash of fresh water to the face in a Bioré commercial. The “unscripted” material really sings, too; her offhanded mention of a failed “Met Gala for toddlers” makes it sound like one of Richie’s scribes on her underrated sitcom Good News followed her here.
Foolproof idea: Just when you thought the TV industry had fully exhausted the well of gimmicks for food competition shows, here’s an explosive new angle. Literally — a high-pressure cannon shoots food into the faces of two rival chefs, who must then use only their sense of taste to recreate the dish on their own. It is in no small respect a pretense for us to watch some shit get blown up, an appeal the show wears on its sleeve with the catchphrase, “Y’all ready to watch me blow some shit up?”
How they blew it: Another hit, thanks entirely to the utterer of the above phrase, host Tituss Burgess. An indefatigable dynamo of energy, Burgess was born to host game shows, turning any beat of tedium into a laugh through the sheer force of over-the-top shrieking. He lets us know not to take any of this too seriously, an attitude reinforced by one contestant’s stated intention to use her relatively paltry $5,000 winnings to buy Celine Dion tickets. The game itself doesn’t really serve as a test of any valuable skill, though of course that’s not the point. We’re here to watch shit get blown up, and get blown up it does. Trigger warning: this was obviously shot in a pre-corona world, and footage of people licking walls and eating glop off their own shoes has grown remarkably stress-inducing.
Foolproof idea: The closest thing we’ve got would be The Soup, but rather than clowning on embarrassing things from the day’s reality TV or Internet goings-on, the host of this program revisits wince-worthy obscurities from the recent past. The detritus left in the lost-and-found bin of pop culture is excavated and thoroughly mocked, equal parts two-hour Wikipedia K-hole and Mystery Science Theater 3000 wisecracking.
How they blew it: There’s some edifying and amusing stuff in here, such as a play-by-play of the Toronto SkyDome’s calamitous 1989 opening, but it’s all relayed to us by a visibly checked-out Will Arnett. He’s been slumming it a lot as of late, this being his second simultaneous hosting gig along with LEGO Masters on Fox, and he’s making minimal effort to conceal exactly how he feels about that. There’s a far-off sadness behind his eyes as he reminisces about the regrettable trend of pro sports team novelty songs, or the silliness of the so-bad-it’s-amazing cult film Gymkata. We feel a secondhand pain when he must contextualize who Alan Thicke is by explaining that he’s the father of Robin Thicke. “Have you ever cringed so hard you could feel your DNA unraveling,” Arnett asks, referring to a some mortification from the ‘80s. By this point, we have.
Foolproof idea: A revival of the ‘90s-era MTV dating show, in which one lucky “Picker” sifts through 50 potential matches by eliminating them based on personality criteria and answers to personalized questions. The one catch? They can’t look at any of their possible beaus, which means that they could, and did, stumble into a pairing with some major-league oddballs.
How they blew it: It’s pretty much the same deal, precious little lost or gained in either direction. Keke Palmer has stepped in as host, and she does a bangup job, though her presence does compel one to imagine the far superior game show What Doesn’t Keke Palmer Know? (Our gal has never heard of a wombat before!) With assistant host Joel Kim Booster, doubling up on those Quibi checks, they guide a gay man, a bisexual woman and a drag queen to a future romance. Getting outside the hetero status quo pays dividends in cheeky one-liners, but the mechanics of the game have gotten gummed up. The new wrinkle is that the dater has connected to each potential date-ee via social media, and in this new version, Round 2 involves appraising an Instagram selfie with the face blocked out. As such, the person can take a gander at their mate-to-be’s physique, effectively defeating the whole purpose of the blind-testing.
Gone Mental with Lior
Foolproof idea: Israeli mentalist Lior Suchard, a viral sensation with an Ellen appearance already on his IMDb, comes Stateside to pull some psycho-mystical fast ones on a host of celebrity guests. The guy’s no mindfreak, closer to a street-corner persuasion magician, but even so, you won’t believe your eyes.
How they blew it: Except that you will have no trouble believing your eyes, because nothing shocking happens onscreen. Every one of Lior’s would-be amazements requires a lot of good faith and willing suspension of disbelief on the part of the viewer. For example: he first meets with Rob Gronkowski, who must tackle one of two doors while Lior uses inception to steer the charging Gronk away from the one Lior has hidden behind. Miraculously, Gronk tackles the right door every time. Every trick works like that, something that could be so easily faked that watching it happen can’t possibly impress the viewer. There’s too much cutting, too many disjointed edits leaving space for the magic to be forged behind the scenes. Ludacris grabs a handful of quarters from a jar, and after a few close-ups, Lior rightly predicts the exact number; this would only be impressive if conducted in a single unbroken shot, and it isn’t, leaving the skeptics with plenty of rope with which to hang him.
Skrrrt with Offset
Foolproof idea: It’s just Top Gear, with Migos member Offset taking the place of those three old English guys. He drives luxury cars, pulls some stunts, makes some mischief, travels the globe, brings in some friends — a good time for all.
How they blew it: The dynamic of rough-and-tumble friendship between the three blokes of this series’ clear inspiration made the thing go. Offset, on the other hand, behaves awkwardly around every other living being in his immediate proximity. He makes uncomfortable chit-chat with Jay Leno in one segment, during which he refers to the former Tonight Show host as an “OG” twice. Lil Yachty shows up to stage a controlled getaway chase, and the fellow rappers can’t strike up a repartee with one another. Offset can’t even telegraph looseness around his own damn wife; Cardi B eventually shows up with their child Kulture for a baby go-kart race and Offset treats them like business associates. His voiceover narration, halting and tentative and weirdly emphasized, proves once and for all that no, not everyone can act.
Foolproof idea: Online rug-cutting superstars Ayo and Teo embark upon a nationwide, city-by-city search for America’s best dance crew. Just like in America’s Best Dance Crew!
How they blew it: This ranks among the best of Quibi’s Unscripted section for its ability to not get in its own way. The lion’s share of this platform’s programming does too much to a simple, direct premise, but Ayo and Teo just let the kids show their stuff unimpeded by gimmickry or side shows. In New York, for instance, the dudes doing the SHOWTIME! routines on the L train get a chance to strut for a national audience, while 2 Real Boyz bring Brooklyn’s “flexing” or “bone-breaking’ technique to the rest of the country. Every time, the sheer talent (something in frightfully short supply in Quibi’s stable) wins out. The special guests leave something to be desired, unless the viewer knows offhand who Shiggy and Blocboy JB happen to be.
They’re both creators of widely imitated dance-memes, an appropriate distinction on a platform fueled by the desire for virality more shamelessly than any other. In the faraway time when TV reigned as king, Quibi might have been referred to as a Poochy, something perceptibly created to capitalize on youth market trends as interpreted by the adults in the room. The term recalls another neologism brought to us by television, the kind of instant-classic moment of which this watery substitute is completely devoid: How do you do, fellow kids?