I have ventured into the wilds of Quibi. I’ve wandered through its small thicket of six-minute attention traps that you can only watch on your phone. I’ve sampled its daily updates, its serious dramas, its strange, surreal comedies, and its reality shows. Several hours later, spread across several days, I still can’t tell you exactly what Quibi is. No matter how many episodes I watch of Chrissy’s Court, I still can’t quite get my arms around why watching Quibi feels like staring into the void.
For anyone who hasn’t taken up the multibillion-dollar media company’s offer of a 90-day free trial, here’s what happens when you download and open the Quibi app. The first thing you see is a “For You” page, with tiles to swipe through to browse the many different Quibi shows. My “For You” page keeps suggesting I watch a LeBron James–produced docuseries called I Promise, the daily NBC News show The Report, a Funny or Die comedy called Agua Donkeys, and an “intense thriller” called The Stranger. Pick a show and it starts playing — probably in a vertical orientation on your phone, because the “For You” page that funnels you there only works vertically.
My most recent pick was Dummy, a show where Anna Kendrick becomes friends with her boyfriend’s sex doll. When I turned my phone horizontally, suddenly I could see a widescreen version of the same series: The sex doll’s legs splayed further along the floor, and in the background I could now see Donal Logue, the actor who plays the boyfriend. Quibi calls this ability to switch between horizontal and vertical “Turnstyle,” but none of the shows I watched made this orientation-switching power seem like anything more than a way to access a sad cropped, vertical version of a show that looked better in widescreen. The episode of Dummy lasted six minutes, just long enough for me to think, What is this?, when I realized that the boyfriend was a barely fictionalized version of Emmy-winning TV writer Dan Harmon. Then it ended.
The streaming works fine. The user interfaces are serviceable. The app itself functions as promised. The shows, though, are a mess. Quibi shows all share a few qualities: They’re short, with episode run times under ten minutes. Short doesn’t have to mean chintzy or trivial, but Quibi shows almost universally feel cheaper and less memorable than similar stuff on other platforms. The Quibi shows that are meant to seem like TV shows do feel like TV shows (Run This Town, Shape of Pasta, Murder House Flip), but their compressed run times and thoughtless cinematography just remind you of how much better they could be if they were TV shows. Camera angles and scene edits look identical to the visual design of a typical TV show, full of panning cameras and long shots, and it’s seemingly meant to signal that “this is a serious, expensive TV show!” Instead, it signals that no one’s put much effort into thinking about what this should look like when played in a vertical format on a phone. The Quibi shows that seem closest to YouTube series (Dishmantled, Gayme Show, Memory Hole) fare better, but even those feel half-hearted, all shell and no inner oomph. The worst are the movies, like When the Streetlights Go On or Most Dangerous Game, which Quibi advertises as “movies in chapters.” In their widescreen cinematography, the beats of each scene, the way they’ve been awkwardly crammed into tiny chunks, I swear you can still hear them screaming, “I’m a movie!” even as Quibi shovels dirt over their short-form-mobile-storytelling graves.
None of these Quibi shows were born wanting to be Quibi shows. Many of them were literally repurposed; they’re reboots of older properties like Punk’d or scripts taken from other projects and rejiggered to play on the app. But even for the shows ostensibly conceived for Quibi, nothing gives the impression that it was made by someone whose dream was to make a perfect series of very short episodes meant to be watched on a phone. If enough people actually watch these things, that might change. It’s easier to create something once there’s a model of what works and what doesn’t, and the shows currently available on Quibi had to burst into existence with no previous proof of concept, Athenas crawling fully formed from Jeffrey Katzenberg’s forehead. Everything on the app right now feels like queasily retrofitted versions of other kinds of video storytelling, not a dramatic investment in the creative potential of short, small mobile stories. It’s bad.
But its badness doesn’t explain why everything I watched was also incomprehensibly unmemorable. I kept getting distracted as I tried to pull together my thoughts about Quibi, often by the delivery of some new Quibi show I felt like I needed to watch before I could make a verdict. I would watch it and come away with a mind that felt like it’d been scrubbed clean. Then I got distracted by the fact that I could not take screenshots of the dang things. Not allowing people to share images of the Quibi shows they watch is both a foolhardy attempt to control the cultural conversation and a fairly effective way to kill the conversation entirely, but personally, I just wanted to record that these shows do exist, that they are real. The Nicole Richie consciousness-trap semi-parody show in which she tries to get Bill Nye to rap about bee hives is something I actually experienced, something I watched and wish I was capable of recalling any detail about beyond the most basic superficial descriptors.
This is where I admit that the problem with Quibi is partly me. And the world. When it debuted in early April, I and many others laughed about the fact that Quibi, an app designed for videos that can be watched on the go, was released just at the moment when no one was allowed to go anywhere, ever. What better recipe for a well-funded Silicon Valley media start-up to crash in a delicious burning heap of Schadenfreude than for it to be designed for a world that disappears at the exact moment it finally comes to fruition? Haha, how hilarious. Suck it, Quibi investors!
Fair or not, funny or not, I nevertheless suspect Quibi’s complete failure to make an impression has a lot to do with everything happening outside of it. Maybe it would work better as it was intended to be viewed: with a fraction of my attention while standing on a subway platform. Maybe if I could watch it while I waited in the parking lot for my kid to finish her dance class, I’d have the exact right mental energy for the Sasha Velour drag show NightGowns. Maybe these terrible movies that’ve been dismantled from their original forms and insufficiently reimagined as anything else would actually be entertaining if I watched them while waiting in line at the post office. By all rights, this should be a wry, light review of a new media company with enormous mountains of venture-capitalist money that launched an app to provide silly, unappealing videos no one wants or needs on their phones. I would love to confidently state that Quibi’s badness is entirely the result of its own lack of merit. But I can’t quite separate the feeling of watching Quibi now from my nostalgia for all the little six-minute corners of my life that Quibi was seemingly designed to fill, which have been completely obliterated.
In the end, it won’t matter why Quibi is bad. Executives have begun to jump ship. After being featured in Apple’s App Store the week it came out, and in spite of still holding a prominent promotional slot, Quibi has plummeted on the iTunes top-apps charts. (Right now it’s No. 67, behind Cisco’s Webex app.) Even its core premise has begun to crumble: In what feels like an admission that the mobile-only plan won’t work, Quibi announced this week that it would soon make it possible to watch its shows on larger screens like TVs.
Plus, Quibi’s badness will not mean that it falls apart immediately. Not only does it still have lots of money behind it, but unlike many other media companies, it reportedly has plenty of content squirreled away to keep its catalogue fresh for quite a long time. By the end of the year, maybe people will turn to Quibi by dint of running out of new shows from anywhere else. If we have to grant the “who knows what the world will look like in a month or two” uncertainty to everything from schools to joblessness to hospital capacity to antiviral treatments, I guess we have to extend that uncertainty to Quibi, too. In spite of everything, there may still be enough time, capital, and sheer will to reverse course.
If that’s going to happen, though, it won’t just be a result of the world shifting back to normal. Quibi will need to figure out how to be a better version of itself. Its content will need to feel actually designed for what Quibi is, whatever its executives decide that should be. It’ll need its shows to be memorable, to be shareable, to have any kind of weight or sense of pleasure. Ideally, if Quibi is going to work, it will need some unifying vision for what mobile storytelling is, some sincere, thoughtful creative design that goes beyond “make it short.” But most of all, it’ll need to reach a point where watching it no longer gives me the sensation that I’ve stared into the memory-erasing light pen from Men in Black.