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Is Apple TV+ the best streaming service out there? Not yet. But it’s gaining.

Apple doesn’t own a major franchise like Marvel or Star Trek, so it’s had to focus on fresh, original ideas.

Jodi Balfour stars in For All Mankind, Jason Sudeikis stars in Ted Lasso, and Hailee Steinfeld stars in Dickinson.
For All Mankind, Ted Lasso, and Dickinson are among the terrific shows Apple TV+ has aired in the last year.
Apple TV+
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

When Apple TV+ launched in late 2019, I found the whole idea of it deeply annoying.

A big tech company entering the streaming game, simply because it could, throwing around money to attract big-name talent but without making shows that were all that great? The service’s big, flagship drama, The Morning Show, boasted Reese Witherspoon and Jennifer Aniston and Steve Carell and so many other household names, but even at its best, it was merely solid, a disappointment for a series with so much well-known talent.

And even worse than the other major tech company-owned streaming service — Amazon Prime Video — Apple TV+ didn’t have a library of favorite shows and movies to scroll through. Subscribers were pretty much stuck with the programs Apple itself made. And the programs it offered at launch were adequate at best.

Imagine my grudging surprise, then, when Apple TV+ became one of the streaming services I turned to most throughout the pandemic, as I found more and more good shows to watch.

Ted Lasso became the service’s first genuine success, first taking TV Twitter by storm and then rippling out through the larger sphere of people who like TV comedies. And both the Emily Dickinson dramedy Dickinson and the alternate history drama For All Mankind are among the best shows being made right now. Meanwhile, the service’s catalog of quality TV to kick back your heels and zone out to grows larger by the day. (My favorite show of this type: the “child detective” noir Home Before Dark, which has absolutely no clear audience but is weirdly compelling.)

I don’t know that I would call Apple TV+ essential quite yet, but if you’re willing to spend $4.99 to check it out for a month, it’s a decent bet. And, hey, if you have an Apple TV set-top box, it’s probably the best streaming device on the market, funneling all the shows you enjoy into a space that makes it easy to figure out which subscriptions you must have in order to watch them.

The easiest explanation for why Apple TV+ is airing so many solid shows right now is that it’s making an intentionally limited number of them, mimicking the model of a network like HBO or FX and focusing on quality rather than quantity — in contrast to a service like Netflix, which tries to flood the zone with more and more stuff. Sure, not every one of Apple’s original series will be a roaring success, and some will still be awful. But this sort of curated approach leads to more consistently enjoyable shows.

But there’s another explanation for why Apple TV+ is working so well for me right now: It doesn’t have any clear intellectual property to mine.

Apple doesn’t own any major movie or TV franchises, so it must turn to other places for its ideas

Ted Lasso, played by Jason Sudeikis, points excitedly off-screen
Technically, Ted Lasso is based on a TV commercial, but you maybe didn’t know that.
Apple TV+

Intellectual property (IP) is a fancy way of saying “stories a corporation owns the rights to.” Disney’s intellectual property, for instance, includes all of those animated princess movies and Mickey Mouse, but also the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Star Wars.

The wave of streaming services that launched in 2019 and 2020 has been defined by intellectual property mining. Disney+ has shows based on Star Wars and Marvel superheroes, as well as, like, a Mighty Ducks series. Paramount+ has so, so many Star Trek series, and HBO Max launched with new Looney Toons shorts and added new Adventure Time tales shortly afterward. Even Peacock has offered sequels to Saved by the Bell and Punky Brewster.

I don’t want to ride down any of these shows. Some of them are quite good! But there’s less of a mountain to climb in getting an audience interested in yet another tale of their favorite superheroes, starship captains, animated pals, or plucky orphan from the ’80s. You know these names, the theory goes. You may feel the strong pull of nostalgia for the original stories that centered on them. And thus you can more easily be convinced to invest in new stories built around those names.

I don’t know that this approach has been particularly successful across the board — are you watching Punky Brewster on Peacock? — but it’s been the dominant strategy of fledgling streaming services. It’s only going to get worse from here. Every service I’ve already mentioned is overloading on spinoffs, sequels, and remakes of titles and characters you’ve already heard of, even if you don’t have a firm memory of, say, Chip & Dale: Rescue Rangers (a show that will receive an updated version at Disney+). More established services like Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, and Hulu are less dependent on intellectual property, to some extent, but even they are gobbling up existing works to adapt.

To be clear, Apple TV+ is very much in the IP business as well. Ted Lasso is technically an adaptation of a series of commercials about a bumbling American who starts coaching a soccer team, while Home Before Dark is loosely based on the true story of a girl who became a reporter chronicling what was happening in her neighborhood. (I’m not sure we can call real people “intellectual property,” but grant me that stories based on real people are adaptations of a sort.)

Apple is also adapting books and remaking old TV shows, and it has made shows featuring Snoopy and the many other characters from the comic strip Peanuts. Eventually, it will land a big hit show, a Stranger Things or a Bridgerton, a Handmaid’s Tale or a Boys, and it will go all-in on that success. (It’s also worth noting that the company makes and acquires movies, and is the distributor of the very good documentary Boys State and the tremendous animated film Wolfwalkers.)

But there’s a crucial difference between what Apple’s IP strategy amounts to and what, say, Disney+ (which also launched in late 2019) is doing. Apple TV+ is mostly adapting books, and mostly choosing titles that have not been adapted for the screen before. But Disney+ is not particularly interested in buying up book rights when the Disney vault is right there, full of IP that it can reimagine for the streaming era. That’s not to say Disney+ never adapts properties that weren’t already movies or TV shows (its 2020 film The One and Only Ivan is based on a book that hadn’t been adapted previously, for instance), but it points to how projects that build off of already successful Disney properties have a leg up.

Apple TV+ has no choice but to look elsewhere for its ideas. When you combine that challenge with its focus on creating fewer, more consistently successful shows, it seems more likely that it will greenlight exciting and original projects that don’t look like other stuff on TV. Say what you will about M. Night Shyamalan’s schlocky, goth-y horror drama Servant, but it’s hard to compare it to anything else on the air right now.

Will that translate to viewers thinking of Apple TV+ as a home for quality shows? It’s already working around the edges. Ted Lasso is a bonafide hit, and Dickinson, For All Mankind, and Little America (an anthology drama about immigrant stories produced by Epic, a subsidiary of Vox Media) have substantial cult audiences. Put enough good shows like this together, and Apple TV+ might go from a curiosity to a must for many TV fans.

The Apple TV+ approach won’t always result in great television — its Jason Momoa vehicle See is hilariously bad — and it won’t always result in memorable television. Even as its overall quality ticks upward, Apple TV+ still makes a few too many unmemorable shows, like its musical drama Little Voice, which featured new songs from Sara Bareilles and which I could not tell you anything about beyond that I know I watched it at some point.

But making a smaller number of shows, based on fresher ideas, is a smart way to build a streaming service with an eye toward standing out in the long run, especially if those shows hail from creative voices who might bring new perspectives to the air. (Dickinson creator Alena Smith, as an example, had mostly been a staff writer on Showtime’s The Affair before she launched her nifty mash-up of romantic longing, real history, and over-the-top dramatics.) Time will tell if this approach proves more successful than simply larding up a streaming service with familiar titles and characters, but as a fan of fresh and original television, I’m rooting for it to work.