If you want to piss off a film or TV critic — somebody who cares deeply about the art form they cover — don’t refer to their beat as movies or shows. Call it content. That’s long been a buzzword within the industry for the entertainment stuff that gets shoved into our eyes, but nowadays “content” is a pretty standard shorthand everyone uses, simplifying the thrills, emotions, drama and poetry of creativity into disposable slabs of narrative product that humans mindlessly consume in between other aspects of our lives. Forget joy, beauty or insight into the human condition. Just give us more of that sweet, sweet content.
On the one hand, it’s ridiculous to pretend that there was ever a golden age of pop culture unsullied by economic considerations — one in which mass entertainment was crafted by noble artistic souls whose only desire was to help us unlock the mysteries of being alive. Even in ye olden days, network television was just a way to get viewers to watch commercials; the shows around the ads meant less than the ads themselves. There’s no point in being precious or naive about the way the sausage gets made in the entertainment industry, but even so, the endless glut of modern product has, for a while, felt less like a bounty of riches and more like a desperate onslaught, each flashy piece of content begging for our attention, doing everything in its power to keep us watching. Just the thought of all that thirsty, needy content out there — all those futile hours spent by creative types in the hopes of making something that will stick — is depressing.
Since its inception, Quibi — the ill-conceived streaming platform that offers bite-sized content that’s like little snacks of entertainment — has been a catastrophe. Quibi has become such an industry laughingstock that, even though I’ve gleefully read just about every media story chronicling what a disaster its rollout has been, I couldn’t tell you a single program on it. But look at this list: There’s actually been a ton of stuff released since early April. You almost feel sorry for them. If a bad Quibi show falls in a digital forest and nobody bothers tuning in, did it actually even exist? Does all mediocre unwatched content go to heaven?
But I decided I should give the platform’s quick-hit entertainment a chance, and so I figured I’d start with its remake of The Fugitive, the fourth iteration of this property, which started as a 1960s TV drama and then morphed into an Oscar-winning 1990s movie. Starting today, this new version of The Fugitive will appear on Quibi, a fresh episode becoming available each day until the season finale on August 18th. Judging by the four episodes I was given, each installment will clock in at about eight minutes and end with a cliffhanger of sorts that will (presumably) have you excited to check back in the following day. Or maybe you’ll decide to hold off and just binge all of them on August 18th or later. Hey, this is the joy of modern content: You get to call the shots.
Set in L.A., the remake stars Boyd Holbrook as Mike, an ex-con who made one terrible mistake — he was behind the wheel for a fatal DUI — and is trying to pick up the pieces after being locked up for three years. But redemption is going to be hard after a deadly subway explosion leads the authorities to believe he set off the bomb. The city’s terrorism unit is headed by Clay (Kiefer Sutherland), a tough-as-nails cop who seems like he emerged fully formed from a pitch meeting about a tough-as-nails TV cop. (Also, he’s got a dark past, man: His wife died in 9/11, which has made him extra-prickly about terrorism.) Meanwhile, as Mike tries to avoid capture and Clay tries to chase him down, a brash, ambitious reporter — there is no other kind in generic TV thrillers — named Pitti (Tiya Sircar) will do some unscrupulous things to break the story, even if it violates journalistic ethics (another tired Hollywood trope).
I’ve just described the first four episodes of this Quibi series, but put another way: So much shit happens. Ad-driven television has always been a slave to narrative conventions — something dramatic has to happen before we cut to commercial — and even streaming sites like Netflix and Hulu focus on binge-ability by loading each episode with enough stuff that keeps you watching so that you don’t switch off and start consuming some competitor’s content. But this new Fugitive seems especially hyperactively “entertaining” in a way that I quickly found exhausting.
Ideally, the challenge of conceiving an entire “episode” as an eight-minute chunk forces an economy of storytelling that’s novel and exciting. (Every line of dialogue — everything the characters do — has to be crucial to the story.) But that format doesn’t allow you to really relax into the series. I watched all four episodes back-to-back, and the maniacal rush of the thing felt deeply mechanical: Here… comes… another… PLOT TWIST! I’m not sure watching these things one episode a day would be any more satisfying. Because there’s no breathing room in the storytelling, the whole thing is a ceaseless churn of punchy exposition and urgent activity. The Fugitive is a high-octane action-thriller that’s terrified of what might happen if it slows down.
Or maybe it just comes across as a less-good 24. It’s not just the Sutherland connection that creates that impression: The series is directed by Stephen Hopkins, who was part of that show’s first season and its short-lived spinoff series, and although The Fugitive isn’t a real-time thriller, its frantic forward motion tries to simulate 24’s adrenalized rush. But where that Emmy-winning show, despite its moral shortcomings, was gripping and cleverly constructed — Can Jack save the world in 24 hours? — The Fugitive feels neutered by Quibi’s short-attention-span conceit. Because there’s such a mandate to Entertain Us At Every Second, the performances are broad and the characters are dialed up too high. The Fugitive is the equivalent of shaking a loud, shiny toy in front of a kid or a kitten in order to keep them occupied. It is the apex of Content™ solely meant to satiate me so that I don’t try to do something else. It doesn’t have to be unique or interesting — it just needs to be on and do entertainment-like things that will distract me enough so that I keep watching more of it. You know, art.
That slick disposability is probably the point — you can keep an eye on The Fugitive while you’re on hold with your insurance company or, before the pandemic, standing in line for a coffee — but I actually found the show’s twist-twist-twist frenzy strangely impersonal, almost inhuman. Call me precious and naive, but I like to at least pretend that the stuff I’m consuming was made with some higher purpose in mind. It doesn’t need to be profound or original, but it needs to be something, and as Sutherland kept smugly chewing the scenery — is he supposed to have a Southern accent? — and Holbrook frantically ran around, the utter insignificance of the whole thing just bummed me out. It’s content stripped bare of any pretense that it’s anything but content.
The irony is that, both in its 1960s and 1990s versions, The Fugitive was an innovative, risk-taking entertainment that worked in mainstream mediums but brought some style and brains to the proceedings. By comparison, this Quibi remake just repurposes the property’s most salable elements — wrongly accused man being hunted by steely cop — and then flattens them with narrative clichés, snarky dialogue and a strict adherence to an algorithm. (And as far as “commentary” goes, the new show is here to inform us that journalists can sometimes lean on sensational headlines rather than responsible reporting: They don’t care about the truth, bro.) The strategy seems to be that if it’s similar enough to something else you enjoyed, you’ll give it a try — and that if it’s short enough, hell, you’ll sample another episode (or two or three). Quibi seems to be designing entertainment programming the way food companies insert addictive additives into their potato chips and cookies: You can’t eat just one.
The 21st century has seen the old forms of storytelling be challenged by new, more immersive formats. Between the return of 3D, the introduction of virtual reality, the continuing advancement of video games, the serialization of Marvel movies, the rise of peak-TV binging and the invention of interactive episodes of Black Mirror and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, the idea of what constitutes “a movie” or “a television show” has been completely exploded. A lot of those innovations have been genuinely exciting.
And then there’s Quibi. I don’t want to make one meh show a referendum on the platform’s viability, but The Fugitive’s bits-and-pieces structure reduces entertainment to time-wasting. We’re inundated with more content these days than we know what to do with. No one has time for gimmicks like this — no matter how short it is.