A stench of desperation permeates the manic buffet of content available on Quibi, the mobile-only streaming service born from the groundbreaking insight that people are on their phones a lot. Short for “quick bites,” Quibi has spent over a billion dollars marshalling celebrities, writers, and comedians to create slick, miniature TV shows with episodes that run about six minutes long, designed to kill time between other, more important activities. It is a deeply cynical proposition: expensive content, made to be forgotten. We don’t go to the airport to watch CNN at the gate, and we don’t take a dump so we can watch Netflix on our phones. As if aware of its own tragedy, Quibi’s cloying programming has a fevered pitch. It’s like watching Taxi TV at gunpoint. Soon enough, you will beg your captor to pull the trigger.
Maybe it’ll be during “Barkitecture”—a “30 Rock” sketch come to life about building doghouses for celebrities. (“Kyle Richards is a real housewife who lives the ultimate life of luxury . . . and so do her five fur babies.”)
Perhaps you’ll reach your breaking point during “Last Night’s Late Night,” where a defensively cheery, socially distanced Entertainment Weekly employee recaps last night’s defensively cheery, socially distanced late-night shows. “Let’s kick things off with some monologues,” our poor narrator begins. It sounds like work because it is.
Or what about ending it all during “Nikki Fre$h,” an attempt at scripted satire starring Nicole Richie that feels like one long, expensive improv class. “What’s a twunk?” a producer asks Richie’s gay assistant. “It’s a twink and a hunk,” the gay helpfully explains. This is meant to be a joke.
Maybe you’ll dream of being mauled by one of the cheetahs on the first episode of “Fierce Queens,” a nature doc narrated by Reese Witherspoon as an inexplicably feminist safari. Lush drone photography and impossibly close slow-motion tracking shots follow a pair of cheetah sisters as they make their first kill. Blood drips from the ladies’ maws as they savagely dig into a baby impala’s tender neck. Witherspoon concludes the episode back in studio: “Such beautiful animals! Getting that belief in yourself and gaining confidence in yourself—that’s what growing up is all about. These big cats totally nailed it. Walk tall, fierce queens.”
This made me laugh out loud, though it was not supposed to. Were the bloodthirsty cheetah gals not fierce enough on their own? Did I need Witherspoon to remind me that they, too, were Lizzo-loving girlbosses, just grabbing a quick bite (a Quibi) of impala on their way to a summit for felines in STEM?
And then there’s the vibrator race. On an otherwise virginal reboot of MTV’s raunchy ’90s staple “Singled Out,” two contestants are forced to root for vibrators slowly buzzing their way down a ramp, while the in-studio audience—all of whom seem like they’re being held hostage—flash hysterically gummy grins.
Quibi is a cop. It is a promoted tweet with seven likes. It is Beto O’Rourke saying “fuck.” It is a Covergirl-branded mirror in the elevator of a boutique hotel that says, “Snap an elevator selfie!” Like so much of today’s culture, it is didactic to a fault—constantly overexplaining, overdetermining, overproducing, making a four-minute “show” about flower arranging feel like an agonizing eternity.
Typical of the creatively exhausted Hollywood machine, Quibi is awash with reboots. “Singled Out,” “Reno 911!,” and “Punk’d,” all somewhat naughty in their original incarnations, have been neutered beyond recognition. Originally aired on Comedy Central in the early 2000s, “Reno 911!” swapped the typical TV cop (oaf with a heart of gold) for preening, sexed up, and incompetent bimbos. At the time it felt subversive, even queer. Yet the remake’s first joke is a cop responding to what he thinks is a BBQ Becky afraid of black kids in her pool. He balks (see? Cops are the good ones!) before realizing she was only calling to save the kids from drowning (actually—no one is bad!).
The “Punk’d” reboot is just as tepid. Whereas MTV’s Ashton Kutcher waited until real celebrities got angry with his practical jokes before dropping the ruse, Quibi’s Chance the Rapper waits until fake celebrities (like TikTok’s Addison Rae) get mildly confused (in Rae’s case, a barely perceptible shift from her regular state) before pulling the plug. There is no room for discomfort here. Everyone is nice. Everything is good. Everyone is happy.
It is the logical endpoint of our pandemic of earnestness—from the infantilizing sweetness of “Queer Eye” to the condescending cultural exchange of “Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat” to the respectability politics of “Pod Save America.” Our culture is so obsessed with proving its morality that it searches for the faintest sign of spontaneity, then buffs it until it’s gone.
Quibi attends a joyless kindergarten of disyllabic streaming services—Hulu, Vudu, Fubo, Tubi, Philo—all designed to lock us in a near-vegetative thrall. Is it a coincidence that today’s emptiest manufactured pop acts—Dua Lipa, Rita Ora, Tove Lo—share the same ethnically indeterminate phonetic soup, warm happy sounds shaved smooth, unable to offend, with their autotuned messages of self-love and perseverance?
Legacy cultural producers are having a tough time in a more democratized attention economy. What’s funny is no longer a standup comic landing the perfect joke on Comedy Central, but a nurse’s TikTok, reposted to Twitter as a screen grab with a wry caption. It isn’t the nurse we’re laughing at per se, but the nurse—her dance moves, MAGA dress, blank stare—as mediated by the Twitter user’s POV. The screen grab, with its rough edges—perhaps the grabber’s battery percentage is visible—verifies the humor’s authenticity. It says: “This was so funny, I had to hastily capture it to share on another platform.” Quibi’s prohibition of screen grabs—try and you’ll get a pic of a black screen—shows just how little it understands contemporary media consumption.
I wonder if Quibi’s architects—congealed Hollywood producer Jeffrey Katzenberg and former tech CEO and failed gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman—have even watched the thirsty network they launched to much fanfare and a meager audience. I wonder if they watched it how it was intended—in quick bites. Maybe in the elevator (in their own home, naturally), or while waiting for their partner to finish their skincare routine.
Were they amused? Were they distracted? Or did their brains simply go blank? Maybe their neurons absorbed the frictionless Delta In-flight entertainment of it all, and decided to just switch off—to look instead at the vast, unmanaged chaos of the world, the painful exhilarating joy of being human, and think absolutely nothing at all.