While many of us watch streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime on phones or tablets, the shows and movies produced for those services are still made primarily for TV viewing. 30-60 minutes episodes, usually in widescreen--streaming services might be described as disrupters, but in many ways, they stick to the same model of programming that has existed for decades. Quibi is the first service to be aimed solely at handheld devices. You can't even watch Quibi shows on your TV, no episode runs longer than 10 minutes, and a vertical aspect ratio is taken into consideration. It's too early to say whether this is a game-changer or a one-off novelty, but it has created some interesting approaches to the content being produced.
The anthology series seems tailor-made for Quibi. Standalone stories, delivered in short, direct installments, that don't require any plot complexity or character building. Horror anthologies have long been a popular part of the genre, from shows such as The Twilight Zone and American Horror Story to movies like Creepshow and V/H/S. Quibi has embraced this format for its new show 50 States of Fright.
The series is produced by Sam Raimi, the maverick director who made the groundbreaking The Evil Dead when he was just 21 and whose subsequent career has led him from horror to huge blockbusters like the Spider-Man trilogy (and, reportedly, Marvel's upcoming Doctor Strange sequel). As the title suggests, the series explores different urban myths and legends from all over the US, taking a different state each time. The show kicks off with "Michigan: The Golden Arm," which is directed by Raimi and co-written with brother Ivan, both Michigan natives.
The first thing to note is that while no video on Quibi runs more than 10 minutes, that doesn't mean the individual stories are that short. "The Golden Arm" is divided into three episodes, and it clocks in at around 23 minutes. All three episodes are available at the same time too, so while Episodes 1 and 2 end on cliffhangers, you can go straight from one to the next, giving the whole thing a more conventional running time.
"The Golden Arm" stars The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel's Rachel Brosnahan as Heather, the wife of small town lumberjack Dave (Travis Fimmel). Heather is the prettiest woman in town and knows it, and Dave must work hard to buy her all the clothes and jewelry she demands. But when a terrible accident causes Heather to lose an arm, Dave builds her the only replacement that will make her feel happy again--a beautiful prosthetic arm made of gold.
It won't take horror fans very long to see where this story is going. It's essentially another variation on the classic scary kids story The Hairy Toe, which was famously adapted by Alvin Schwartz in his anthology book Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, as well as in the recent film version. But if there are no surprises here, the fun of "The Golden Arm" is in the telling.
Raimi is a master at combining gory shocks with outrageous humor--there's a reason why Evil Dead 2 is considered one of the greatest horror comedies of all time--and he quickly sets a macabre but highly entertaining tone. With no time for character development, Raimi uses a voiceover from Dave's former colleague Andy (John Marshall Jones) to set up the story, and Brosnahan and Fimmel's performances walk a fine line between playing it straight and winking at the audience. And horror fans who have missed Raimi's work behind the camera (his last horror directing credit was 2009's Drag Me to Hell), will love the return of the wild camera moves that he is celebrated for.
But as fun as this first episode is, it's hard to escape the feeling that there's nothing particularly innovative going on here as a format. "The Golden Arm" might be divided into three parts, but it's essentially still a standard-length episode--and this is the plan for future episodes too. Delivering entertaining, shocking stories under 10 minutes each might've been a more interesting use of Quibi's length restriction--a restriction which is, let's face it, entirely self-enforced. No one asked for 10-minute-only videos, but if the service is going that route, why then make episodes that really run for 20+ minutes? And while the show has been framed so that it works in portrait mode, it's inevitable that the screen is cropped that way, so it still looks way better in the standard horizontal aspect ratio.
Nevertheless, purely in terms of ghoulish entertainment, "The Golden Arm" is a good start for 50 States of Fright. The caliber of talent both in front of and behind the camera is impressive, and although the series has been made for small screens, the production values are high. Obviously not every writer and director is going to be at Raimi's level, but with names such as A Quiet Place creators Scott Beck and Bryan Woods and Cam director Daniel Goldhaber lined up for future episodes, there's every reason to expect this will be a regular check-in for Quibi-subscribing horror fans.
Disclosure: ViacomCBS is GameSpot's parent company