For Apple’s First Series, Planet of the Apps, the Company Imitates, Not Innovates

The Shark Tank-esque show assembles—but wastes—an A-list panel

Jessica Alba, will.i.am, Gwyneth Paltrow and Gary Vaynerchuk bring the star power, but no sizzle, to Planet of the Apps.
Apple Music

Throughout most of its lifespan, Apple has been an innovator—if it doesn’t outright invent a new product, it takes an existing one to the next level and beyond—but as the company releases its first series, it finds itself in a unusual position: that of imitator.

That’s the case with Planet of the Apps, which unexpectedly premiered at midnight on Apple Music (the first episode is also available for free on iTunes and planetoftheapps.com), after a screening Tuesday at Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference. The first season’s remaining nine episodes will roll out each Wednesday on Apple Music.

The Shark Tank-like (and, Shark Tank-lite) series—where app developers try to sell one of four big-name advisors on their new app and partner with them for six weeks to secure their piece of $10 million in venture capital funding for the app, along with featured placement on the App Store—is perfectly adequate and occasionally insightful. But in the era of Peak TV, there’s not enough here to warrant users to subscribers to fork over $9.99 per month to subscribe to Apple Music, a case that could easily be made for two other recent shows from subscription streaming outlets: CBS All Access’ The Good Fight and Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale.

(I should note that Planet of the Apps wasn’t originally intended to be Apple Music’s debut series. Carpool Karaoke, the spinoff of The Late Late Show with James Corden’s most popular segment, had initially been slotted for the spring, but now will premiere on Aug. 8.)

Developers have 60 seconds on a descending escalator to get at least one of the advisers intrigued enough to swipe green (as opposed to red) on their iPads. Those who receive at least one green advance to the next level, where they share a deeper dive into their app. If more than one adviser is interested, the developer gets to decide which to partner with.

Then, for the next six weeks, the developer and adviser work to fine-tune the app ahead of their pitch to the show’s venture capital partner, Lightspeed Venture Partners, who were the first institutional investors in Snapchat. Lightspeed is committing more than $10 million in capital for Planet of the App’s first season.

The early problems come, somewhat surprisingly, from its A-list panel of advisors: Jessica Alba, Gwyneth Paltrow, will.i.am and Gary Vaynerchuk. (The four are also executive producers on the show, along with Ben Silverman and Howard Owens, both of whom co-created the show with will.i.am.)

While similar shows like Shark Tank and The Voice revel in their panel’s magnetic personalities and spirited interactions, in the first episode, those people are muted, with the exception of Vaynerchuk. Zane Lowe, who hosts Beats 1 on Apple Music, hosts the show, but he also fails to leave much of an impact.

Alba, Paltrow and will.i.am are far too reserved for a show like this, which needs out-sized characters to keep viewers engaged. Instead, they are blank slates, and aside from Vaynerchuk, always on their best behavior, to the show’s detriment. If they aren’t bringing their personalities to the show, what’s the point of them being there?

This is partially the fault of the show, which fails to establish the advisors’ business bonafides of those people, and why they’d be qualified to give advice. The large portion of viewers who know Alba, Paltrow and will.i.am from their acting and/or music careers might not know much about The Honest Company, Goop, i.am+ or Vayner Media, and the show makes no effort to elaborate. (Even after eight seasons, Shark Tank still opens each episode with a quick explanation of what its sharks bring to the table.)

One developer picks Alba to partner with, explaining, “You’ve got the fire and background we need to take [the app] to the masses.” Without any background about her Honest Company business, for all we know, he could be referring to her work in the Fantastic Four films.

The show’s formula is similar to Shark Tank or The Toy Box, down to the focus on the developers’ background prior to the pitch. Where the show does diverge, and becomes more intriguing, is in its second half, as developers must workshop their pitches and sidestep landmines ahead of their venture capital pitch.

To its credit, the show does offer insight into how apps can morph, for better or worse, as a result of both internal and external problems. One promising app is dealt a seeming death blow when Google announces its own version of it.

The Lightspeed scenes do have more of the fire and drama that is lacking from the advisor panels, as the panelists occasionally clash while weighing the pros and cons of each pitch. (Which makes it even more disappointing that their final deliberations are kept off-camera.)

While the show, which is produced by Apple and Propagate, probably won’t drive up Apple Music subscriptions, it could be a boon for Apple’s App Store, which is featured prominently throughout. At the conclusion of each episode, audiences are directed there to check out all of the apps featured that week.

But if Apple wants to shake up and reinvent television as it has done for so much of the tech industry, the company has to go back to the drawing board.