The Negative Netflix Effect

Where there is more Bloodline, there is also Stranger Things. Another season of Orange Is The New Black comes with announcements of Bojack Horseman. More Daredevil means a spinoff with The Punisher.

At one point in the past—and it’s hard to put oneself back in that situation—Netflix was introducing House of Cards and Orange Is The New Black, among the first original programming on a growing streaming service. Netflix had the task of explaining to everyone the concept of creating and releasing shows seasons at a time. Their programs endeavored to maintain the production value of films while adhering to the small screen and providing creators with more freedom. Since then, Amazon, Hulu, and a whole slew of other channels, online and onscreen, have opted for original programming as well, which is often times cheaper than buying a show to re-broadcast and a powerful branding opportunity.

With more freedom, though, comes greater responsibility, as maybe someone on one of Netflix’s many superhero shows might opine. For however much we may love House Of Cards and Orange—the two Netflix tent-pole series—the consequences of this model have become readily more apparent: freedom means creative license, but it also means that some shows really take their time. Our precious, precious time.

Allowing writers to tell their stories in full without fear of selling people on a pilot, without worry that shows may be extended into infinity or cancelled before completion, and without needing to punch up certain episodes for sweeps (sweeps are pretty much gone, right?) allows the creative team to craft a self-contained show at the pace and intensity that they so desire. And that’s great.

Netflix was among those who helped usher in an era of TV that championed quality over quantity, when shows didn’t need to run for 20-some episodes a season because of an arbitrary television calendar. While HBO has championed that model for some time, Netflix demonstrated that television is burdened by old, conventional rules. A series does not need a specific run time or number of episodes. People don’t want TV in the summer? Sure they do, if it’s good enough.

Years later, though, we are starting to see some of the consequences. That pendulum swing towards the creative, wonderful extreme is now moving back towards the mediocre middle.

That is to say, a series can be patient — too patient. Initially for most audiences, the notion of slowly getting to know characters, having bits and pieces of a mystery revealed one episode at a time, was refreshing. We trusted writers because we were told there was a beginning, a middle, and an end. You know, the opposite of Lost. We trusted writers because House Of Cards and Orange were so great and novel.

And because we bought into the system, we now hold on whereas maybe in the past we wouldn’t. By accepting a template, we didn’t mind waiting for Bloodline to meander and ooze its way to something worthwhile. Whether the wait is actually worth it can’t really be quantified, which is great for Netflix. Are we actually satisfied with the amount of time we spent, or are we ready for the least bit of action or plot twist or revelation to justify our time with the show?

The first culprit of this was Hemlock Grove, a fantasy story that saw mysterious things happen in a small town. The poster featured a hand coming out of a wolf’s mouth and Eli Roth’s name on the project was meant to give it a serious and scary feel. The show was anything but, featuring no headlining stars like Orange or HoC, but a bunch of poorly written dialogue and a series of episodes that made little sense and did nothing to advance the plot. So much freedom was given to those not quite in a position to fully grasp the potential and the format suffered. Ahead of the second season, a new, more experienced showrunner came in to change direction and tone.

Hemlock Grove escaped the spotlight because it was a genre show and horror fans will watch horror, but others also following the Netflix model have trespassed. While the first season of True Detective was a revelation, the second was middling and widely regarded as uninspired. The changes weren’t many. Cary Fukunaga, who directed all the episodes and won an Emmy (and also directed Beasts of No Nation), left the project ahead of Season 2 and delegated directing duties to different people.

The Walking Dead is another good example of a series taking its time. Every half season or so, the zombie apocalypse ensemble show has an exact idea of where it’s going to end up; it just stumbles to get there. During the last half of season 6, it was very clear that our heroes were going to meet up with the nefarious Negan: that would take place in the final episode, nay, the final scene. And there was no better metaphor for the show—or for the many shows that stall along the way before they figure out where they’re going—than Rick and company driving a van across the countryside only to hit multiple roadblocks and have to turn around. They did that for, like, 45 minutes.

The worst culprit is one of Netflix’s most recent shows, Love — a lengthy, infantile, incoherent piece of storytelling dressed up as cute and edgy. That was an awful 90-minute rom-com bloated into an exceedingly awful 300-minute-plus piece of sexist drivel.

Sometimes people need restraints and restrictions.

It’s great that shows don’t need to adhere to a strict 42 minutes and account for advertisements coming at regular intervals, which in turn require scenes to wrap up at a certain time to provide for the break. But just because Vinyl or The Walking Dead want 10 extra minutes, just because the first episode of Netflix’s comedy Flaked wants an extra half hour, doesn’t mean it’s worth it.

We exist in a world with countless new and returning TV shows, so much so that we can never fully get through everything we need to watch. It’s really staggering, and even overwhelming. How many shows have you been meaning to start? And how many do you need to catch up on? Never mind the 10 seasons of Friends or 9 seasons of The X-Files that so many of us revisit periodically. Or, say, the previous seasons of seasons of Orange that we need to refresh ourselves on before starting the new.

It’s a lot to consume, and there just isn’t enough time to waste. So get a move on, shows; tell your story and get on with it. Be more like Game of Thrones season 6 than Game of Thrones season 5, and get on with it.

Anthony Marcusa
Anthony Marcusa is a Toronto-based freelance journalist whose writing dabbles in film, TV, music, sports, and relationships – though not necessarily in that order. He’s simultaneously youthfully idealistic and curmudgeonly cynical. But he’s always curious.