No one asked for Quibi, but it's kind of great
There's a new streaming service in town. Quibi won't dethrone Netflix, but it's worth checking out.
We're all a bit like Mr. Henry Bemis in The Twilight Zone right now. For millions of people, there's nothing but time to read the book you've been putting off, master that recipe, or learn how to knit. But just like Henry with his broken glasses, you may be struggling to focus on that epic task thanks to the distractions of the internet and the stress of living through a pandemic. Reading an entire book — let alone watching a seven-part Netflix documentary — can feel insurmountable. Quibi might be the cure.
Founded by Jeffrey Katzenberg (the former Disney chairman and Dreamworks CEO), Quibi is a different kind of streaming service. It's designed with smartphones in mind, and that influences everything from the types of shows available to the way you watch them. It's not necessarily a good thing, but it does set Quibi apart from competitors like Netflix, Amazon, and Disney+.
In reviewing Quibi, I was given access to an approximation of the service through the video platform Frame.io. So while I was able to watch many of the exclusive shows coming to Quibi, I didn't get the full app experience.
Based on what I did see, Quibi's prime selling points (including an adaptive display that fills your smartphone screen in portrait or landscape mode, and bite-sized episodes) feel more like gimmicks than standout features. But if you're willing to overlook those gimmicks, you might just find something decent to watch.
Before diving in any deeper, here are a few key details:
- Quibi launches April 6.
- There's a free 90-day-trial (for now).
- Every episode of a Quibi show is under 10 minutes, and some are closer to five minutes.
- Quibi costs $4.99 with ads and $7.99 without ads.
- There's a ton to watch at launch and 25 new episodes (over three hours of video) added each day.
With that out of the way, let's take a closer look at whether Quibi is worth your attention. Let alone your money.
What makes Quibi different? Two things: short episodes and a phone-focused user interface.
Let's take about the UI first. There are a lot of small features, like the ability to scrub through an episode or toggle on subtitles with a quick swipe, but the main differentiator is that videos that work in both portrait and landscape mode.
To pull this off, every show is seemingly filmed in a traditional, horizontal shot and then carefully edited to look decent vertically as well. This works better for some shows than others.
For serious dramas, portrait mode lets you focus on a character's face during the most emotional scenes, but it often crops out important information. I found myself watching these shows horizontally as soon as the initial novelty wore off, but casual reality shows seem to work better. On Punk'd, seeing the entire screen matters less a lot less than zooming in on the facing of a crying celebrity.
As for the shows themselves, Quibi's focus on short episodes only works some of the time. After using the app, it's clear that reality court shows and home-makeovers never needed to be 20, 30, or even 60-minutes-long. Seven or eight minutes is more than enough to tell these types of stories, which Quibi calls “Unscripted and docs.”
But for dramas (or "Movies in chapters") this format doesn't work as well. It's tough to get invested in a character when you're getting bite-sized episodes, though with a little effort you might stumble onto something you like...
Are Quibi's shows any good? The truth is, it may be too soon to say. For the most high-profile shows, I was only given a few episodes, which wasn't enough to learn anything definitive. But for some of Quibi's more casual reality TV, a single episode was more than enough, so let's talk about that stuff first.
I watched a few different "Unscripted" Quibi shows, starting with Chrissy's Court, a Judge Judy-inspired series in which Chrissy Teigen evaluates petty arguments and casts judgment (her mom, Vilailuck "Pepper Thai" Teigen, serves as courtroom foreman). It's entertaining enough, but after two episodes I was done.
I also enjoyed a bizarre new homemaker show called Murder House Flip set exclusively at homes where grisly murders occurred. I was less impressed with Quibi's Punk'd reboot starring Chance the Rapper as a prankster who consistently takes things too far. (Tricking someone into thinking rats infested their home and destroyed all their possessions isn't funny, it's just mean.)
But my favorite discovery was Shape of Pasta, a travel/food show in which Los Angeles chef Evan Funke tracks down Italian grandmothers making rare types of pasta and learns their techniques. It's just as delightful as it sounds.
On the drama side, Quibi takes some interesting shots. I watched the first few episodes of Survive, in which Sophie Turner plays a suicidal teen who ends up trapped on a snowy mountain with a stranger after her plane crashes. It's a pretty familiar story of roughing it against the elements, but the choice to focus on a character dealing with mental illness gives Survive a unique twist.
Finally, there's Most Dangerous Game, in which Liam Hemsworth agrees to be hunted for sport for... reasons. I couldn't watch enough of this one to form much of an opinion, but Christoph Waltz plays the villain and he's always great. I might actually keep watching this show as new episodes release, which is more than I can say for almost anything else on Quibi at launch. (Well, that and the pasta series.)
Overall, Quibi is better than I expected. It's not how I pictured spending my quarantine, but it might be the distraction we all need.