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Apple TV+’s Niche? Mind-Bending, High-Concept Science Fiction

Another day, another buzzy sci-fi hit for Apple TV. This time around it’s “Constellation,” a reality-twisting thriller starring Noomi Rapace as an astronaut who returns to an Earth that’s not quite right after a catastrophe aboard the International Space Station (ISS).

A few years ago, this didn’t seem like the obvious trajectory for Apple TV+. When the service launched in 2019, the star-studded drama “The Morning Show” was clearly the flagship series meant to prove the tech giant’s new streamer was coming out of the gate to compete with the likes of HBO and Netflix in regards to big budget TV projects. It was joined by historical dramedy “Dickinson,” the Peabody-winning Hailee Steinfeld vehicle, a quirky critical darling that once again showed Apple was aiming for something different from all the other streaming services.

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Half a decade later, and yes, “The Morning Show” is still going strong (though “Dickinson” has since called it quits). And we’d of course be remiss not to mention the full-on cultural phenomenon “Ted Lasso,” Jason Sudeikis’ recently concluded soccer dramedy that stole all our hearts — at least for a while.

But by investment and reputation, Apple TV has instead evolving into less of a would-be HBO and more of a safe space for a type of ambitious science fiction programming that simply doesn’t exist anywhere else. “Constellation,” which concludes its first season March 28, is the latest addition to that sci-fi catalog, weaving a twisty, unsettling tale following Rapace’s displaced astronaut “Jo” as she slowly realizes the reality she’s in back on Earth doesn’t match the one she left behind. It’s a slow boil sci-fi mystery wrapped in a family drama that doesn’t feel weighed down by the need to rush into answers or the next twist.

“Constellation” is the type of show that doesn’t really exist anywhere else, with Rapace joined by veteran character actors like Jonathan Banks and James D’Arcy in a story that just leaves you simmering in the well-constructed weirdness, often confused but absolutely compelled, not afraid to save even its biggest shocks for several episodes into its run. It’s the high-concept execution of a well-constructed drama told through the lens of science fiction, which is becoming the sweet spot that represents more and more of Apple TV’s originals catalog.

‘Constellation’
‘Constellation’

The DNA was admittedly there from the jump, with “Battlestar Galactica” mastermind Ronald D. Moore’s alt-history space drama “For All Mankind” also among Apple TV’s launch slate. Apple also tried its hand at a more broad science fiction project with Steven Spielberg’s splashy revival of the anthology “Amazing Stories,” though it was a critical dud and fizzled after just five episodes.

Apple seemed to fully embrace the potential of being a genre destination in 2021 with the launch of the wildly ambitious, Issac Asimov-inspired “Foundation” series, which helped pave the way for the network’s biggest sci-fi hit the following year with 2022’s “Severance” (a second season is in the works, though it was delayed by the Hollywood strikes). Starring Adam Scott as an office worker who has his memory “severed” to do his mysterious corporate job, the series became a cultural phenomenon with its creepy retro corporate aesthetic that led to everything from viral melon party memes to a Gaslamp Quarter activation recreating the fictional office space itself at San Diego Comic-Con.

The commitment to the genre has only expanded since then, with stars like Rebecca Ferguson and Rashida Jones showing up in the dystopian thriller “Silo,” and father-son duo Kurt Russell and Wyatt Russell anchoring the recent blockbuster monster miniseries “Monarch: Legacy of Monsters” that served as the latest chapter in the (typically) big screen Godzilla franchise. Apple also has at least two more sci-fi projects in the pipeline with Colin Farrell’s sci-fi-tinged private eye series “Sugar,” along with “Dark Matter,” which is based on the novel of the same name by “Wayward Pines” author Blake Crouch.

Apple has crafted the type of deep originals catalog that few services can match in this moment, even with the massive investment and scale of more established streamers like Netflix and Amazon Prime. It’s a testament to Apple’s tightly-honed approach toward a certain type of quality over quantity when it comes to its original series strategy. Apple isn’t making the type of broad science fiction shows that fans can find somewhere else. Every show is unique and outside the genre’s usual tropes and formulas, but taken together, a vibe of big ideas and the freedom to tell these types of stories comes into focus. Just a few years after launching from scratch, Apple has created a brand all its own in the science fiction space and is showing no signs of slowing down.

Apple TV’s origins may have been in places like the soccer field with Ted’s anecdotes and in the fictional newsroom at UBA — but it’s future is in space, locked away in a severed memory, and trying to figure out which unsettling, broken reality might be the right one.

“Constellation” Season 1 concludes on March 28 on Apple TV+.

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