A couple months after its launch, the story of Quibi, Jeffrey Katzenberg’s new streaming platform, has not exactly been a promising one. Coming in much lower on subscribers than expected, Katzenberg blamed the soft launch on the COVID-19 pandemic, although exactly how being stuck at home and having nothing to do hurt a platform of original content isn’t clear. Theoretically, these “quick bites” (that’s what the name means—Qui(ck)Bi(tes)) were meant to be digested on buses to school or on a train to work, so removing those from the public equation did likely hurt the overall business model. However, there’s a truth being ignored, which is that despite the $1.8 billion pricetag, consumers don’t feel like they need Quibi yet. Content platforms have always been driven by a sense of consumer need. People needed to see “House of Cards” and “Orange is the New Black” in the early days of Netflix; people needed to see “The Sopranos” and “Sex and the City” and so they subscribed to HBO. If there was a show on Quibi that hit that cultural need point then subscribers would check it out. And so I decided to peek back under the curtain on my iPhone and iPad to see if any of the recent high-profile offerings filled that role, especially highly-advertised ones like “Die Hart” with Kevin Hart and “The Fugitive” with Kiefer Sutherland, two shows that have been a part of basically every commercial break during the new NBA season.
Before looking at six shows individually, something I noticed about the slate as a whole: almost none of these shows take advantage of their format. The structure feels like a bug instead of a feature. Most of these high-profile shows do almost nothing in terms of episodic storytelling, coming off more like a 100-minute film that’s just been broken up into pieces. There’s a big difference between presenting viewers with short episodes that feel satisfying on their own and just chopping up a feature film and feeding it to viewers one bite at a time. The purpose of the latter eludes me.
Most of all, the writing just isn’t there for most of these shows, which universally feel like they started with budget and cast before considering concept or story. Get famous faces and talented directors on Quibi and the people will sign up, right? Not if you don’t give your talents good scripts to work with. There are a lot of talented people involved in Quibi original programming, but I felt like most of them weren’t given enough to do.
Advertised all over the NBA Restart, this comedy feels like arguably the biggest Quibi offering to date, at least in terms of exposure. Worldwide star Kevin Hart plays a version of himself, a comedy actor known for acting alongside action hunks but never getting to play the leading man in an action movie himself. After getting the attention of a high-profile genre director (Jean Reno), Hart goes to an action acting school run by someone who may be actually trying to hurt our favorite comedy star, played by John Travolta. It’s all an excuse for Hart to show off his physical comedy skills in a narrative that echoes something like “The Truman Show” at its best with a hero who isn’t quite sure if what he’s doing is real or acting.
Like almost everything on the service, “Die Hart” clearly began life as an actual film concept, but there’s not enough meat on the bones here to justify a studio production. Late plot twists and a fun supporting turn from Josh Hartnett aside, this would be too thin for most Kevin Hart films, and so it’s been chopped up and put on Quibi. There are some undeniably funny beats, but this is one of several Quibi shows that doesn’t feel quite like a series or quite like a movie, lost in an uncanny content valley in the middle. Yes, maybe Quibi is trying to find something in between, but I can’t imagine their goal is merely to replicate the format of a comedy feature film with credit breaks every 8-9 minutes. The result doesn’t feel like a complete project as much as spending the day watching clips on YouTube from a movie that you’re not sure you want to pay to see in its entirety.
Sorry to be a broken record already, but, even more than “Die Hart,” this new offering is simply a feature film chopped up into bites. Boyd Holbrook plays a recently released convict who happens to be on an L.A. subway train when a terrorist attack takes place that leaves dozens dead and injured. Before he knows it, and for reasons that don’t make a ton of sense, he’s the main suspect in the attack, hunted by a cop with an emotional connection to terrorist attacks after losing his wife on 9/11, played by Kiefer Sutherland. The “24” star leans into the Tommy Lee Jones nature of his character with all of his weight, even delivering lines like “If his dog has fleas, I want ‘em confiscated” with a TLJ drawl.
Directed by Stephen Hopkins (“The Ghost and the Darkness”), “The Fugitive” jumps into its action instantly—a lack of a first act seems to be a Quibi thing as creators were clearly instructed to grab viewers in those initial eight minutes as firmly as possible—and Holbrook and Sutherland make for interesting variations on the classic structure of a falsely accused man and the officer driven to find him. They’re both engaging enough, able to jump into the intensity in ways that some of the other Quibi shows fail to do. However, “The Fugitive” ultimately feels like the kind of thing that might have worked on the ABC Fall schedule better than it does here, where it reminds one a bit too much of Andrew Davis’s excellent 1993 film…only cut into pieces.
One of the most successful early Quibi shows, this offering was nominated for three Emmys for its stars, breaking through in short-form acting categories. It’s easy to see why. Stephan James and Laurence Fishburne give this one their all with the “If Beale Street Could Talk” star playing a young man targeted by the place after an incident, who uses social media to rally his supporters during a day-long stand-off. Fishburne plays the only cop who believes him, while Skeet Ulrich plays the villain looking to end this conflict with a dead Black man.
Naturally, there’s a timeliness to “#FreeRayshawn” that gives it added power—the series even ends with hashtags of victims of police violence, including George Floyd—but it’s too thin for a 15-episode short film series. It’s a one-act play, something that could have worked as a network TV hour at about 45 minutes total, but spins its wheels and repeats its points to fit this format. However, while the script leaves a lot to be desired, this is one of the stronger Quibi shows thanks to James’ emotional commitment and a subtle turn from Fishburne.
The revival of the Comedy Central hit that ran from 2003 to 2009 before an awful movie (“Reno 911! The Movie”) actually fits the Quibi model better than most of their original programs. I’m not going as far as to say it’s the best Quibi original, but it’s the only one of these six that feels structurally attuned to the format here. Heavily improvised, “Reno 911!” was always in bite-sized chunks even in its original run (which is one of the reasons the movie didn’t work), playing out more like a sketch comedy series than a traditional sitcom. And so the lack of an overall narrative or even the sense that there should be one fits the Quibi structure, even if some of the humor seems a little stale and dated.
“Don’t Look Deeper”
Catherine Hardwicke (“Thirteen”) directs future star Helena Howard (“Madeline’s Madeline”) in one of the most promising Quibi offerings on paper. Howard plays Aisha, a young woman who suspects she might be an android. Yes, seriously. Playing with issues of teen identity in a sci-fi setting allows “Don’t Look Deeper” to open with a ton of original potential, and Howard is going to be absolutely major. It doesn’t hurt to have Don Cheadle and Emily Mortimer in the supporting cast too. Like most of Quibi, “Don’t Look Deeper” feels a little narratively thin, but Howard keeps it moving. Like “#FreeRayshawn,” it has power largely due to its casting. I expect Howard will be a major star, and so this early career choice should be even more interesting in years to come.
Once again, I’m stymied by the wasted structural potential of a Quibi show. “The Stranger” should be 100% my kind of thing, anchored by two young stars I like and created by the talented Veena Sud. What I discovered, however, is that it’s remarkably difficult to build tension and create suspense in “bite-sized” segments. And the constant breaks in something like this story of a rideshare driver (Maika Monroe) who is being stalked by her latest passenger (Dane Dehaan) is like letting the air out of a balloon every eight minutes. It’s also, so clearly, something that was conceived as a feature instead of a series, which means we end where we began with the question of what exactly Quibi wants to be. The people behind it have spent so much money on advertising and talent without asking what defines a Quibi show in terms of tone or even format. Until they answer that question, these quick bites just won’t be filling.