Traiping through the vast desert
More than 60 years ago, FCC Chairman Newton Minow gave a speech in which he described television as a “vast wasteland” of bogus nonsense. Minow wasn’t inherently anti-boob-tube (“When television is good, nothing – not the theater, not magazines or newspapers – nothing is better”), but he was clueless enough to issue a scathing accusation against the young television industry. . His speech did little to change the direction of TV programming, though it did have the effect of earning Minow immortality over exactly the kind of unwatchable pap he decried.
Beginning a discussion of the state of television – or, in this case, streaming, which is both the next stage of television and, as we’ll see, also a return to the television medium – with an invocation of Minow and its vast wasteland grows and, perhaps, shatters the barrier of clichés, but clichés exist for a reason: they are a useful shorthand for describing a real and persistent problem. And streaming definitely has a problem.
There are too many and most are not particularly good.
I’ve discussed “too many things” before. This problem has only grown over the past four years as the number of streaming services has grown and the amount of “content” (a crude word, but useful when applied to the whole of filmed art like feature films, documentaries, animation, shorts, TV shows, etc.) has exploded. This explosion had a myriad of negative effects, some of which are discussed in this endless Vice article that delicately addresses the fact that the old showrunner development system, while less diverse, resulted in superior content as writers rose through the ranks, were nurtured by bosses, and learned how to produce shows television rather than being thrown to the Netflix wolves.
When you task a group of people to do shows who don’t know how to do shows, you run into problems. That’s at least part of the reason why Netflix itself is in crisis, having lost three-quarters of its market capitalization and leaving creators unsure of its ability to do the one thing it was good at, which is shoveling. money in the filmmakers’ pockets in exchange for them producing stuff they couldn’t get made elsewhere. Netflix’s biggest draw – its endless muzzle of “content” – is now its biggest liability. Sure, the food sucked, but the portions were huge. Because no one ever said no.
Consider Anatomy of a Scandal, which I unfortunately spent the last week watching. It’s the kind of program Netflix has poured untold millions into, a mere chunk of the $17 billion the service spent on programming in 2021 and a similar amount spent the previous year. The six-episode miniseries was co-created by David E. Kelley of LA Law and Ally McBeal Fame. He stars in Sienna Miller (American sniper, Layer cake) and Michelle Dockery (Downton Abbey) that the algorithm has undoubtedly identified as public favorites. It is based on a relatively popular book of the same name. It has “social relevance” in the sense that it’s about #MeToo.
And it’s utterly implausible and silly, with each episode ending on such a silly cliffhanger that the director of the episodes had to drastically shake up the style of the show we were watching – going from vaguely realistic to surreal – in order to really hit the mark at home how shocking all is. As my wife and I joked when the first episode ended with James Whitehouse (Rupert Friend) literally being knocked down by an unseen force after being told what was until then just a scandal of infidelity turned into a rape accusation, it was like something The matrix.
But The matrix requires far fewer cognitive leaps, far less suspension of disbelief. Anatomy of a Scandal compels us to believe that a politician would not only be accused of rape as a result of a banter in the workplace, but that the prosecution against him would be randomly assigned to be prosecuted by a woman he assaulted decades before and who has since changed her name and also that neither the man charged nor his wife (Miller) would recognize this lawyer although he went to college with her years ago. And that is, believe it or not, the smallest leap of faith we are asked to make.
The show would be less boring if it didn’t strive to be About Something, a moving call to Believe All Women on screens at the same time Amber Heard does her best to make that phrase sound like a cheap posture. It would also be less boring if he pulled off even a shred of nuance and let the audience decide who got the better of the he-said/she-said case at the heart of the story instead than infuriatingly forcing the characters to work against their own interests in order to wrap it all up in a nice little arc.
Obviously, no network falls on the failures of a single show. But Anatomy of a Scandal is not a single failure and, as noted by Richard Rushfield in the Ankler, even Hollywood trades that have benefited from Netflix’s ad spending are starting to get involved. Example of Netflix’s Bloat in White: TV Review” in Variety would have been unthinkable just a few months ago. Now the narrative has changed. Netflix does a lot of shit, emphasizing both lot and shit, and people are finally starting to call them about it.
All of a sudden, Netflix has gone from being the darling of awards season and the big hope for the post-theater future to another faucet pouring stupid money into Hollywood. “Agents tell me that of course their clients will take the money from Netflix, who wouldn’t, that the effect on their clients’ careers from Netflix projects is nil,” Rushfield writes. “’There’s no bump,’ an agent friend told me. Apple and then HBO replaced Netflix as the place to carry out your project if you want to have the best chance of it being seen and noticed.
And for good reason! In the larger desert there remain oases with water to quench the parched. AppleTV+ beat Netflix to Oscar glory by winning the Best Picture trophy for Codabut it’s also created more shows that I’ve been interested in watching in the last 24 months than Netflix has since started stranger things six years ago. Ted Lasso and mythical quest are two favorites, but there are also Breakup (an entertaining puzzle box from a show about office culture and a sense of memory that really lands its emotional beats and doesn’t suffer Netflix-style bloat from dragging on too long) and slow horses (almost as unlikely as Anatomy of a Scandal, but lifted by the great Gary Oldman’s piss ride as an off-grazing ghost for MI5). I also hear good things about For all mankind and Servant and Pachinkoand I hope to be able to devote some time to them in the near future.
In our previous era of zero percent funding, taste was harder to acquire than capital, and Apple crushed Netflix on the taste issue. The same goes for HBO Max, a long-time TV champion in the likes category. And he remains the king of taste with his hit psychodrama barry and the fantastic Deputy Tokyo and David Simon’s latest campaign against the war on drugs We own this town and the insanely oddly gnostic-minded sci-fi show director produced by Ridley Scott, Raised by wolves. To say nothing of Peacemaker (a better comic book show than anything on Disney+) and Virtuous Gemstones (the most incisive program on religion on television). Even the stuff that isn’t great, like winning timeis totally watchable, and the stuff that is great, like hacksdeservedly racks up the Emmys.
Oh, that’s right: I haven’t mentioned yet Succession or Euphoria, which are arguably the biggest and hottest hits on the network. When it comes to original content, HBO Max is blowing Netflix out of the water. It’s not even close.
And then there is You better call Saul, which is the only and possibly the last show I watch on basic cable. It’s great, although I’m forced to watch it with ads. Like a savage. Because I don’t have a DVR. Because I don’t look anything more about basic cable, not since FX moved its hottest deals (What we do in the shadows, Developers, Reservation dogs) at Hulu.
Ads. They will be, supposedly, the great savior of Netflix. You can tell the company is freaking out as it plans to roll out an ad-sponsored tier by the end of this year. It’s a throwback to the way things were, the bad old days. The weirdest part? Everyone the fact. Not just Netflix. Peacock’s entire model is based on advertisements. HBO finally got into the ad game with a cheaper tier on HBO Max. I’m sorry, cross that out: the real the weirdest part? Viewers don’t seem to care. I had lunch with a cast friend this week who said Tubi, the ad-based SVOD provider, was extremely popular. Apparently, people don’t care for five minutes of algorithmically inserted ads stuck in front of their eyeballs in the middle of the stage.
Watching You better call Saul and enduring about 20 minutes of commercials once a week, I find myself baffled by the whole situation. The whole promise of streaming was to move away from ads, to deliver a continuous, unhindered flow of entertainment right into my prefrontal cortex. I want to stream, surf another stream, and then stream more, without interruption. This shit in spurts is the past, man. I don’t want to live in the past. It’s the future, and if I don’t have my flying cars (thanks, Elon), the least you can do is keep commercials for 1,700-calorie chicken sandwiches away from the pleasure centers of my life. brain.
Of course, I could do it if I really wanted to. AMC+ is here. It’s just $9 more per month. What’s one more drop in the streaming bucket?