My Very Weird Week Watching Quibi’s $2 Billion Content From the Toilet
Losing my mind in 10-minute installments while sampling new shows on the multi-billion dollar app that no one can pronounce, let alone explain what it is. (Spoiler: It’s not good.)
It is Day Five of my Quibi Quarantine Watch, and Reese Witherspoon is extolling the virtues of female hyenas’ “pseudo-penises.”
Is this what I expected when I downloaded, subscribed to, and began watching the multi-billion dollar content app that seemingly all of Hollywood—and just about no one else—is talking about? I can’t say that it was. And yet by the time the Oscar-winning actress was bragging about how these “gutsy gals” can urinate, mate, and give birth through these imitation phalluses in a new episode of the feminist-tinged nature documentary series Fierce Queens, which she narrates, it felt about right.
Baffling, intriguing, edgy, a little embarrassing: it pretty much encapsulated my cumulative first impression of Quibi’s content and the experience of watching it all on my phone while trapped at home. The knee-jerk reaction to Quibi’s launch is that the new service is going to be a disaster, echoing the hardly stifled snickering from critics and industry insiders leading up to its debut on Monday.
That’s not an entirely fair assessment given the scattered bright spots of content I watched in its first week of availability, and there is not enough user information publicly available to gauge its success yet—though it’s looking more promising than some expected. But I can say with certainty that, outside of friends and colleagues in the media with professionally mandated interest, there is not one single person I know that understands what Quibi is or that should have been subscribing to it this week.
It tickles this jaded cynic’s well-worn heart that almost $2 billion has been thrown behind a project that has drafted nearly every famous person in Hollywood into its cause and most people can’t even pronounce its name.
Jeffrey Katzenberg, the former Disney exec and co-founder of DreamWorks, along with ex-eBay, HP and Disney exec Meg Whitman, managed to raise a cool $1.75 billion to launch Quibi, and has been skipping through Hollywood passing out that cash to everyone from Witherspoon to the likes of Jennifer Lopez, Will Smith, LeBron James, Chrissy Teigen, Lena Waithe, Guillermo del Toro, Laura Dern, Chance the Rapper, Sophie Turner, and even a Hemsworth—all of whom are involved with a Quibi series or movie in one way or another.
Quibi stands for “quick bites,” as in quick bites of content. Every episode of a series and “chapter” of a movie that is available on the new mobile platform is less than 10 minutes long—little snacks of content that can be consumed on the go. But this is 2020, post-Lizzo times. We don’t want a snack. We want the whole damn meal.
Beyond content length and the starpower behind it, the defining aspect of Quibi is that it’s a mobile platform. It can only be watched on your phone. There is no way of watching it on a web browser or desktop, unlike pretty much every other streaming service. It is your cell phone or bust.
So while ahead of its (very expensive) rollout, critics and journalists were given screening access to the new Quibis to screen and review, I wanted to wait until the actual app was available this week. In addition to assessing if the shows were any good, I wanted to have the experience most subscribers would have: ad-supported, on my phone, in 10-minute chunks as my day allowed.
That was, after all, the platform’s big gimmick and disruption. But would anyone actually want to consume content this way—or, hell, even enjoy it?
There’s an elephant in the room to address when it comes to Quibi’s launch, and that is that the elephant is not leaving. None of us are. We are trapped, a pandemic confining us all to our homes for our health and safety. It’s not ideal circumstances in which to launch a mobile platform meant to be watched on-the-go: on commutes, in waiting rooms, killing time between meetings, on breaks from work.
I tried my best to adopt the “when I’m killing time” ethos, if only to give these Quibis the benefit of the doubt.
So I watched Megan Thee Stallion get punk’d while waiting for my coffee to brew. (Yep, there’s a new Punk’d. It’s like the old Punk’d, but more predictable.) Lena Waithe mused about the cultural importance of Air Jordans while my oven preheated. (Her sneaker documentary, You Ain’t Got These, is interesting, if inconsequential.) When I needed a break from transcribing a long interview, I watched Tituss Burgess cannon-blast spaghetti at two game-show contestants while Antoni Porowski and Dan Levy watched. (Dishmantled, a 30 Rock parody in real life if there ever was one.)
It doesn’t take long to feel like you’re playing a round of Celebrity Mad Libs, and wondering if there was any value to the exercise beyond that. We’ve spent so long being chastised over the amount of time we waste on our phones. The decision to devote even more time to staring at them is a massive hurdle to clear.
Many major creators have decried the idea of consuming film and TV on phones as a desecration of the art. Here, that’s the point. Still, that doesn’t make it any easier to wrap your head around: incredibly expensive content jam-packed with major celebrities created specifically for you to watch while you poo.
(It didn’t help matters that, because of what I assume is some coding glitch exacerbated by my old, not-updated iPhone, two-thirds of the Quibis that I attempted to watch would only play in a tiny corner of the screen. A “bite” of it, if you will. Too on the nose?)
It would be easier to grasp the idea of Quibi if there was any tangible need for it.
We can already watch short video content on YouTube, TikTok, Instagram Live, and a slew of other platforms—and usually for free. While it’s offering free trials now, the lowest Quibi price point will be $5 a month, with ads. That there’s now another new platform exploding with content to help pass the time raises the question of just how much time billionaire investors think we’re struggling to find ways to pass?
At a time when there are already more than 500 original scripted series that air in a year, Quibi launched with a slate of more than 50 shows—just a slice of the 175 projects it’s greenlit. There’s something overwhelming about confronting that much new content when there’s already this much other content. Of course, it would help things if that content was better.
The resounding issue with most of what I watched on Quibi this week is that they were all fine. Just like...eh. OK.
If the true mark of a good show is that you want to seek it out despite the sheer number of alternatives there are out there, there’s only a handful of those on Quibi.
Fierce Queens, beyond the errant of delights of Reese Witherspoon waxing poetic on hyena dick, is one of the more clever remixes of the nature documentary genre: thrillingly shot, pleasantly cheeky, and corny in a way that I kind of loved.
Nikki Fre$h stars Nicole Richie as a parody version of herself—in this case an eco-minded aspiring trap queen who makes music for “plants, people, kids, bees…” It has the smart wit, irreverence, and, frankly, thin premise that the webseries boom was born of in the first place. Richie is hilarious, even if the dialogue coheres less into a narrative than a whizzing assemblage of writer’s room riffs.
Gayme Show!, which envisions a game-show world in which straight men are the minority and must answer trivia questions about queer culture and compete to be as gay as possible, is total fun. It’s something that I would have sought out if it was on another platform, which eventually became the barometer of success for me. The web series structure used to be a haven for fringe content—read: from marginalized creators and minority voices—and something like Gayme Show! took me back to that.
There is non-fiction news programming that is productive (Around the World by BBC News) and there is non-fiction news programming that are glorified versions of those autoplay videos that terrorize you when you go to some magazines’ websites (Last Night on Late Night)—made all the more annoying because you can’t text, scroll through Instagram, or do anything else on your phone while they play.
It’s an existential flaw in Quibi: distractions that require your full attention.
Two of the strongest documentary series are Run This City, about an allegedly corrupt upstart mayor, and NightGowns, a gorgeous, meticulous, artful, and meditative look at drag star Sasha Velour as she crafts her acclaimed drag revue in Brooklyn. But you kind of wish the former had gotten the full-on Netflix/HBO true-crime series treatment, while I’m desperate for the latter to be a full-length documentary. Then again, would anyone have watched that documentary? Is anyone watching this on Quibi?
The Chrissy Teigen Judge Judy thing is fine. The celebrity pay-it-forward thing with J. Lo and Nick Jonas is awful. Outside of Flipped, which at least made me laugh, and the aforementioned Nikki Fre$h, the scripted options are a bit of a disaster. Sophie Turner’s Survive is almost unwatchable, and Liam Hemsworth’s The Most Dangerous Game is wasted potential of a tried-and-true plot.
Those last two titles, especially, drive home the point that few, if any, of the creators have nailed down how to pace something at this length. How does something less than 10 minutes still take too long to get to the point? Well, it seems that may be by design.
As my colleague Tarpley Hitt reported this week, the major draw for these big names is that Quibi is allowing its creators to own the rights to its projects. That means that, after a specified period of time, they can stitch together these 10-minute installments and repackage them as feature films or series with standard-length episodes and sell them to other services, like Netflix.
So we’re watching these “quick bites” that, in some cases, may not have been ultimately intended for that style of consumption. These creators are crafting a full dish, but we’re only being fed it one ingredient at the time, which is hardly appetizing.
For all the money and the star power, and even by nature of its founding gimmick, the biggest problem with Quibi is that it all feels so... small. The conceit is too slight to grab my attention away from Netflix or Hulu—or, frankly, from preferring to use my phone to text or scroll mindlessly through Twitter. And these series are too small to make noise when the TV landscape and arena of content creation has grown to be this big.
The effect is like tiny gnats screaming for attention in a crowd of roaring elephants. When you seek them out, you might appreciate what you see. But on their own, they’re unlikely to ever be loud enough for you to hear.