Ah, Quibi, we hardly knew ye. The new streaming platform’s demise this week has left most of us with many questions, such as, “What’s a Quibi?”, “Is it as disgusting as it sounds?” and “Isn’t it Lidl’s own brand version of Angel Delight?” Launched in April this year, Quibi, a portmanteau of “quick” and “bite” (as in, “Quick, bite off my ears, so I never have to hear the word Quibi again”) came promising original short content for our smartphones – although even it must have been surprised by just how short it ended up being. Quibi’s gimmick was that no episode was longer than 10 minutes, because they assumed that’s how millennials like to consume content – watching a tiny bit of a show on a tiny screen in between eating their avocado toast, spinning their Marie Kondo fidget spinner and killing various industries by not being born in the 1960s.
Why did Quibi collapse? Maybe the pandemic means fewer people are commuting, so fewer people need short-form content. Maybe a dramatically changing world is a bad time to release something new, when people crave the familiar amid the chaos. Or maybe a TV show where people try to recreate a meal that’s been shot at their faces through a cannon isn’t the basis for a successful business. Who can say? Well, me, potentially – in one of my routine attempts to numb my brain from the horrors of reality, I spent last week watching nothing but Quibi.
What was meant as an exercise in getting cheap laughs has been turned by circumstance into an elegy for a poor, misunderstood app, a chance to chronicle the final days of Quibi. I hope I can do it justice.
God, I hate this app. I’m having trouble working out what to start with, mostly because every show looks like a straight-to-DVD movie that you would see advertised on the tube, starring Ray Winstone and an extra from 1917, with names like FORGIVE US OUR SINS or I’M GONNA NUT YOU, STEVE. After a fair amount of bored scrolling, I decide to plump for Wireless, mostly because the poster is of a tired, cold man looking grumpily at his phone, and it’s nice to see myself represented in the media.
Wireless is a 10-part thriller about a twentysomething man (Tye Sheridan) driving to a New Year’s Eve party in the middle of a snowstorm. He’s late, and also drunk, and also, like I say, there’s a snowstorm, so you can kind of guess where this is going. There are a lot of long periods where you’re just watching a man text and scroll through his messages, though. Do they know they’ve only got eight minutes?
It turns out if you flip the phone to the side and watch it portrait mode, you see what’s on Tye’s phone – so all those bits earlier when I was watching him just stare blankly at his phone, I was supposed to turn my phone to the side to watch the much more interesting stuff (Instagram videos of his ex-girlfriend, etc) happening on his phone. This is a really inventive innovation, and I despise it with every fibre of my being because I have to flip the phone every five seconds to make sure I’m not missing some crucial plot point. Holding the phone like a steering wheel, I feel like I’m playing the most boring game of Mario Kart imaginable, where the reward isn’t the Mushroom Cup, it’s seeing the text messages of an alcoholic as he freezes to death in a truck. In summary, 7/10.
After Wireless, I have been recommended #FreeRayShawn, a drama in 15 parts, about a black man who finds himself wrongly accused of assaulting a police officer, and is then besieged in his apartment with his family as trigger-happy New Orleans police fire at him. It’s powerful, it’s upsetting, it has three remarkable performances from Stephan James, Laurence Fishburne and an Emmy-winning turn by Jasmine Cephas Jones. It feels almost offensive to everyone involved that I can only watch it on a tiny phone-screen. It’s as if Ta-Nehisi Coates released a new searing nonfiction book on the brutal realities of being black in America that could only be consumed as a 3,000-part text message on a Nokia 3310. Really, this should have been a two-hour film, not 15 “quick bites”. It feels like the format is actively fighting against the content – maybe the thorny problem of racial inequality and police brutality is something that needs to be tackled in something more substantial than a series of quick bites. That’s really more of a “sit-down meal” matter.
Note to self: start a new rival streaming service to Quibi called Sitdown Meals, where every piece of content is eight hours long and can only be watched on your electric toothbrush. I’ll be rich, rich, I tells ya.
Today I’m moving on to comedy, because after watching two depressing thrillers in a row I’m worried the Quibi algorithm is starting to judge me. I kick off with Hello America, Nish Kumar’s bite-size topical show where he lampoons American politics with a British bent, and it’s a welcome change of pace from #FreeRayShawn, in that at no point did I fear a sniper was going to blow the main character’s head off. Most importantly, it actually works with the format of “quick bite” – in that it’s self-contained and satisfying on its own. It’s like a handful of dry-roasted peanuts, while a single episode of Wireless is a spoonful of mustard, in that it doesn’t work on its own and requires a bunch more ingredients for any kind of successful resolution.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, I get about six minutes into the first episode of Dummy, a comedy series starring Anna Kendrick and her boyfriend’s sentient sex doll, before I suddenly start to question what I’m doing with my life. The moment that pushed me over the edge was when the sex doll asked Anna to clean out her vagina. I turn off my phone, place it calmly underneath a settee cushion, and go for a two-hour walk.
After yesterday’s debacle, it’s back to the algorithm that thinks I’m an explosives-obsessed gun nut that feeds off the despair of others. Today it’s Most Dangerous Game, and it is gloriously, unashamedly shit. Liam Hemsworth plays a man called Dodge Tynes (Dodge! Tynes! A professional writer wrote down those two words and decided: “Yes, that is the name a human man might have, and not a character from the Cars universe”), an athlete turned bankrupt entrepreneur who has just been diagnosed with terminal cancer. So far, so depressing.
Wanting to provide for his pregnant wife after he’s gone, he accepts the challenge of a delightfully camp Christoph Waltz – in return for a prize of $24.5m (£19m), all Dodge has to do is survive in the city of Detroit while a bunch of eccentric anonymous billionaires try to kill him with knives. Dodge has no idea who the billionaires are – all we know about them is that they’re violent sociopaths, and they’ve been given the codenames of former US presidents (yes, one of them is called LBJ, and I’m delighted).
From episode five, the series becomes a formulaic hot mess of nonsense – Swerve Prongs sprints through the city, away from a hunter (usually a sneering British man who dresses like he’s a Moss Bros model), before taking refuge in a church or a ferry or something. Evade Spikes will breathe a sigh of relief before, suddenly, the owner of the church/ferry takes out a knife, and THEY’RE A HUNTER WITH A PRESIDENT CODENAME, TOO! This happens constantly, and I love it every time. Towards the end of the series, Sidestep Spur walks up to a dog licking at a puddle, and I was half-expecting the dog to suddenly take out a knife and lunge at our hero while yelling “I’M BARACK OBAMA” More hunting humans for sport, I say!
So far, the only thing I’ve learned while watching Quibi is how to blow up your car to get out of a snowdrift (thanks, Wireless), so I decide to make Friday “education day”. First up, it’s Last Looks, a series that looks at scandals in the fashion world – and this episode is about Anna Sorokin, who managed to defraud nearly $300,000 from hotels by pretending to be a fake German heiress. It feels like a trailer for a cheap Netflix show – lots of exciting flashing images of her partying over footage of talking heads saying things like: “No one could believe she wasn’t a German heiress,” “Everyone thought she was a German heiress but actually she wasn’t a German heiress,” and by the end I’m really not sure I could tell you any specific facts about her, except that she said she was a German heiress, but she wasn’t a German heiress.
This is the weird paradox at the heart of most Quibi shows – there’s not enough time to do the deep dive that actually makes the content interesting, but there’s not enough superficial content to fill all the time. It’s like if Tiger King was just a seven-minute clip of someone saying: “The guy owns a tiger. He shouldn’t own a tiger, but he owns a tiger. He’s called the Tiger King because he owns a tiger.”
Despite being someone who still has nightmares about the ventriloquist dolls from Toy Story 4, the algorithm really wants me to watch some horror. I watch an episode of Fifty States of Fright, an anthology series where each episode is set in a different American state – so basically that Sufjan Stevens albums project where all the experimental indie-pop has been replaced by mediocre gross-out horror.
I start with The Golden Arm, which went viral earlier this year for being Absolutely Baffling – Rachel Brosnahan loses her arm in a needlessly graphic lumberjack accident, so gets her husband to make her a replacement arm out of gold. Why? Because Quibi doesn’t have time for subtlety, so its analogies are as heavy-handed as, well, an arm made of gold. The gold arm starts poisoning her, but she still won’t take it off, and she makes her husband promise that he’ll bury her with ol’ Goldyarm. He does, but then he needs the money, so he digs her up, so she comes back from the dead and kills him.
The moral of the story is either “always take proper safety precautions while lumberjacking”, or “just because something is directed by Sam Raimi and starring the woman from The Marvelous Mrs Maisel doesn’t mean it won’t be terrible”. That was Michigan, by the way – God only knows what they’ll be doing by the time they get to Delaware. A park ranger with a bronze foot? A plumber with a silver nose? A Nascar racer with platinum nipples? The possibilities are endless.
I watch three episodes of Die Hart, a lousy comedy where Kevin Hart (playing himself) tries to learn how to be an action hero at an Action Star School run by John Travolta (not playing himself, confusingly) before giving up. Everyone just seems to be going through the motions, meaning that it feels like a tedious chore and incredibly self-indulgent. Midway through a tedious scene in which Hart points out that “Action Star School spells out “ass”, I feel a deep and yawning despair. What is Quibi? No one is having a good time making it, I’m not having a good time watching it, presumably no one’s making money from it. Who is any of this for? Why are so many great actors in these tiny pointless shows that no one will watch? Has this all just been an elaborate prank, on Kevin Hart, on Andie MacDowell, on Laurence Fishburne, and on me, the viewer?
As I watch Kevin Hart mirthlessly say his catchphrase (“Oh, hell, no”) and run about a burning house with his arm on fire, I realise that Quibi wasn’t for anyone. Quibi existed for itself. It doesn’t matter if no one watched Quibi, Quibi must still be fed. Quibi is the golden arm – pointlessly flashy, hideously expensive and utterly pointless – and I can feel it slowly poison me. Perhaps it is for the best that it dies before me, before I’m lying on my deathbed, looking into my spouse’s eyes and whispering, “Promise me you’ll bury me with my Quibi. Promise me.”