A very silly, somewhat confusing streaming service
What the hell is Quibi?
For starters, it’s a mobile-only streaming service that launched Monday. Its name is a portmanteau of “quick” and “bites,” but it’s not pronounced that way, which is just the first of many frustrating and silly things about it. It’s pronounced Kwib-ee (rhymes with “Libby”) and it has a streaming library of dozens of shows with episodes that last fewer than 10 minutes.
Quibi releases some episodes daily. It makes some, like Steven Spielberg’s After Dark, available only at certain times of the day. You can change the orientation of your phone to determine how you want to watch. If you sign up in April, you get 90 days free before you have to pay a subscription fee ($5/month with ads; $8/month without).
“But that sounds just like regular TV/YouTube/Instagram Stories/Vine/Snapchat/TikTok,” you say. And you’re right. All of the services mentioned above have done what Quibi is doing, and done it better. Quibi hasn’t marketed itself a lot leading up to launch day, but when it has, it’s done so with all the fervor of a Silicon Valley bro who thinks he has invented the new Uber but has really just invented the bus system again.
That didn’t matter to investors, who gave the startup service led by blockbuster filmmaker Jeffrey Katzenberg and former HPE CEO Meg Whitman nearly $2 billion in funding before it even launched. Quibi also sold out its $150 million ad inventory last year.
Katzenberg, Whitman and investors are banking on Quibi’s shortform storytelling to appeal to people (mostly Millennials and Gen Z-ers) who have short gaps to fill in their schedule where they’re thirsting for precious content, like when they’re waiting for a train or standing in line at the grocery store. The only problem with that is, you can scroll Twitter or check email while being semi-aware of your surroundings. You can’t really be aware of your surroundings when you’re wondering why Reese Witherspoon would host a nature documentary series where she eagerly explains why some female Macaques monkeys fake orgasm. Or maybe you can; if so, you’re more powerful than I.
A hybrid of TikTok and Snapchat, with reality shows
Right, so the actual content. It’s very hit-or-miss. Quibi launched Monday with 50 original shows and has enough upcoming content to last until September. The actual interface works fine; it looks like a hybrid of TikTok and Snapchat. All of the shows vary in length from a minute to about eight minutes long. The shows fall into a few categories. There are nature documentaries. Comedies. Reality shows. Then you have the scripted shows, which fall somewhere between serialized television and bite-sized bits of real movies.
Here are some quick bite overviews of some of the shows I watched:
–Flipped is my favorite of the scripted shows I’ve seen so far. It’s a comedy from Funny or Die that has a better handle on the Quibi format than most other shows, probably because FoD figured out how to do web series early on. Flipped knows its characters from the start and just drops you into its world, as the clueless Cricket (Kaitlin Olson) and Jann (Will Forte) try to make their own HGTV reality show with hidden money they find in the walls of a fixer-upper. The three episodes spanning about 20 minutes contain no heavy-handed exposition or voice-over, which plagues nearly every other dramatic show on the service. Each episode ends with a cliffhanger without feeling like a preamble to something else.
–That preamble problem is present in the Liam Hemsworth-helmed Most Dangerous Game, yet another twist on the old formula. I watched three episodes and no one has even hunted Hemsworth yet. The 20 minutes of backstory might be good for a feature-length movie, but here it feels like it’s buying time. Though it is fun to see Christoph Waltz hamming it up as the villain.
–I’ve seen six-second Vines with more thought-out storytelling than the first episode of the misguided and confusing Survive, where Sophie Turner’s character gives detailed instructions on how to commit suicide before the episode ends with a National Suicide Hotline number. For whom did Quibi make this show?
–The coming-of-age crime drama When the Streetlights Go On still deals with some muddy exposition, but it does a little bit better in the suspense department. That one also features Mark Duplass, himself no stranger to new ways of producing media.
–The Reese Witherspoon nature doc series is called Fierce Queens, which interprets the exploits of female animals as YASS GURL empowerment, because as we all know, cheetahs hunting prey need validation and empowerment.
–Quibi feels like it might shine the most with reality programming, especially through updates of old favorites like Punk’d. In a YouTube-prank world, there’s not much new value in seeing a new iteration of the old MTV show. But there is something comforting in watching new host Chance the Rapper prank his friends in six minutes with no warmup. You already know the premise. Get in, prank, get out, swipe to the next episode.
–Other reality shows, like Chrissy Tiegen’s Chrissy’s Court, try too hard to introduce a new concept before rushing to a conclusion. And the jokes there are cringy and rely too much on you thinking it’s funny that Judge Chrissy lets her family perform court proceedings.
There at the Turnstyle
None of the above shows really make good use of Quibi’s so-called “turnstyle” tech that lets you flip from portrait to landscape mode within a show. Portrait mode often cuts off important information from the whole of the frame and just feels confusing. It works for TikTok and Snapchat, but not for a streaming service. All this is is the old fullscreen vs. widescreen debate from the early 2000s again.
The good thing about all of this is that Quibi is completely free for 90 days as long as you sign up in April. Suddenly, we all have a ton of time on our hands, and we might need to take a break during the day to just decompress and watch something silly.
You’ll have to mine through a bunch of duds to find something good. I enjoyed some of the stuff I watched. But the platform’s interface and insistence on spelling out all of its shows for me left me mostly confused. I can’t imagine paying $5 a month for this, and I can’t imagine this being a sustainable business model. I also can’t imagine any future Google Hangouts or Zoom calls where my anyone would say, “Hey, I just binged that new show on Quibi, you should check it out.”
But then again, these are strange times. I watched half of the stuff in this review yesterday morning while I was killing time in the parking lot. I was waiting for the supermarket to open so I could get my hands on some toilet paper. Watching short TV episodes on a confusing app wasn’t the weirdest thing I did yesterday.