Reality shows are often decried as somehow toxic. They celebrate shallowness, enshrine the worst people as idols, coarsen even love into just another game show. And in some ways Planet Of The Apps — Apple’s first foray into producing its own TV show, which is available via Apple Music — reflects those criticisms. But its real problem is that it celebrates something far more culturally toxic than even the most vapid show about thrown wine.
The concept is fairly straightforward: App developers, hoping for a shot at some venture capital, start delivering their pitch at the top of an escalator and have exactly 60 seconds to sell the four judges (Gwyneth Paltrow, Jessica Alba, Will.I.Am, and the one actual tech mogul in the proceedings, Gary Vanyerchuk) on their dream. The judges vote yes or no on their iPads; four nos, and you’re gone. But even one “yes” lets you pitch your app in more detail, possibly turning heads. Then, the lucky few get a celebrity mentor and we see the allegedly thrilling build-up to their big venture capital meeting. If the whole thing sounds like a series of meetings, that’s more or less what it is.
Planet Of The Apps has two strikes against it right from the start. The first: as Apple’s first show, expectations are through the roof. The second: it’s built from the ground up to be a lengthy ad. Apple products are everywhere, every single developer on the show gets a nice chunk of airtime to promote their app, even if they don’t get funding, and Apple, of course, pushes the show through Apple Music.
The problem is that it has no grasp of why reality shows endure. A show like Survivor, or American Idol, or this show’s blatant inspiration Shark Tank, work because they cater to our fantasies of being a Robinson Crusoe-esque hero, the star of a Cinderella story, or serving as the CEO of our own successful company. People want to be the next Mark Zuckerberg, and Apple wants employees, not competitors.
This might be mitigated somewhat if the app developers were characters we got to know and got invested in, but the show seems to care more about pitching the app than selling us on the people behind it. Instead, it seems to find the process of software development and venture capital, where acronyms and jargon are flung around willy-nilly and markets are discussed in detail, to be enthralling. Nor are the judges and mentors all that enthused to be there. While Paltrow and Alba do seem genuinely interested in the apps they vote for and want to help, Will.I.Am mostly seems bored. Only Vanyerchuk, oddly enough, seems to grasp that he’s there to make things interesting. Vanyerchuk is either playing a part or must be terrible to work with, but his willingness to call bullshit on some contestants and combative way of doing it tends to bring the show to life.
At its core, though, Planet Of The Apps can’t work, because it’s avoiding the real drama. There are shows about the tech industry that work, such as HBO’s piercing Silicon Valley, but they do so by confronting the fundamental absurdity, and cruelty, that lies at the heart of so many apps — and the tech industry itself. The tech industry is built on the belief that everything it does is a profound revolution, that everything is worth sacrificing your personal life and gambling millions of dollars.
Take the show’s first contestant, Andrew, an Air Force veteran who spends every waking moment working on Pair. Andrew works so hardly Apple blithely fetishizes his commitment to software over family: Sure, this guy never sees his kids, but that’s the price of disruption! Andrew has a change to change the world with his brilliant, technically advanced app.
We hear a lot about Pair, and it is impressive. In the fields of augmented reality and machine vision, Andrew’s achieved something many companies would be jealous of. And what does his app do, that’s so important, that will be so world changing, that he is willing to humiliate himself in front of millions for a shot at some venture capital? It sells furniture. That Planet Of The Apps sees the drama in the meetings he takes, not what he paid for so little return, says it all.