(Welcome to The Soapbox, the space where we get loud, feisty, and opinionated about something that makes us very happy…or fills us with indescribable rage. In this edition: why Netflix, for all the good stuff that the streaming service offers, sometimes completely bums us out.)
There’s no denying Netflix has been a gamechanger when it comes to bringing entertainment to the masses. Allowing people to rent DVDs by mail was a strong start for the company, but they ended up changing the face of film and television distribution forever when they entered the video streaming arena.
At first, Netflix was only giving their subscribers movies and TV shows from established studios and networks, but eventually, they started creating their own programming. It took them a little while to find their footing, but they came into their own in 2015, doubled their amount of original programming in 2016, and they have their sights set on having 50% of their library be original content in the next few years.
But as the streaming service has increased their output of original content, I find myself being really bummed out by Netflix sometimes. Indulge me, if you will, as I run through a couple of my problems with Netflix’s current path.
Yes, Netflix Is Doing Great Things for Entertainment
First, let me just say that Netflix deserves endless praise for financing and distributing movies and TV shows that otherwise would have received a much smaller audience, or may never have been made at all.
While successful shows like House of Cards and Orange is the New Black might have found a home on a pay cable network, shows like Sense8, The Crown, The Get Down, Lady Dynamite or the Santa Clarita Diet might have had a harder time finding a place that would take a chance on projects with such a niche audience. The same can be said for all the movies that Netflix has been picking up at film festivals, like The Fundamentals of Caring, I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore, Pee-Wee’s Big Holiday and the upcoming sci-fi indie The Discovery.
Netflix has even saved some shows from the grave. Arrested Development wouldn’t have come back without the streaming service taking a chance on reviving a series that had an established fanbase. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is an example of a show that was developed for network television, only to be abandoned by the network that ordered it, and Netflix picked it up, saved it, and delivered a great show. Plus, revivals like Fuller House and Gilmore Girls are made possible because Netflix is willing to tap into existing fanbases to give them what they want.
When it comes down to it, there are countless titles in film and TV that can be watched by the millions of Netflix subscribers out there. In most cases, this gets lesser advertised movies and TV shows in front of many more eyes than studios and networks would be willing to spend the money to reach. It’s nice to know that Netflix has the money to take bigger risks on movies and TV shows that the rest of Hollywood won’t take a chance on.
But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t come with some baggage.
The Downside of Binging Television on Netflix
As Buffy the Vampire Slayer celebrated its 20th anniversary recently, creator and director Joss Whedon has been making some rounds for interviews to talk about the legacy of the series. In one of the interviews, he lamented the culture of binge watching that Netflix has created.
When Netflix releases a new show, they don’t release a new episode each week like cable and network channels. Instead, they dump a whole season online for audiences to watch at their leisure. For some viewers, this has been great, because they don’t have to wait to find out what happens next. But for Joss Whedon, he misses the experience of having an audience experience a show together, and he has expressed hesitation in making a show for the streaming service for that very reason. Whedon says:
“I would not want to do it. I would want people to come back every week and have the experience of watching something at the same time. We released Doctor Horrible in three acts. We did that, in part, because I grew up watching miniseries like Lonesome Dove. I loved event television. And as it was falling by the wayside, I thought, ‘Let’s do it on the internet!’ Over the course of that week, the conversation about the show changed and changed. That was exciting to watch.”
So while Netflix has all this money to spend on whatever TV shows they want (and Joss Whedon says he wouldn’t turn down a bunch of money if Netflix wanted to make his dream project, whatever that may be), audiences don’t experience them like they used to, and that can be really frustrating, not just for creators, but for viewers too.
One of my favorite experiences in watching television on a weekly basis was absorbing all six seasons of the ABC series Lost as they unfolded week after week, year after year. The time between episodes gave them time to simmer, and it allowed fans to theorize about what every detail meant in the grand scheme of things. Clearly this level of scrutiny isn’t something that is required of all TV shows, but in the case of something like Netflix’s Stranger Things, I missed the opportunity normally afforded by a more traditional distribution format to absorb every detail together with a passionate fanbase.
My experience with Lost was recently revived by way of HBO’s series adaptation of Westworld. Each week a new episode debuted, and the time between them allowed endless conversation (including plenty from our own Jacob Hall, not to mention our podcast Decoding Westworld) about the significance of details that we only have the time to properly scrutinize and talk about when we don’t have the rest of the season just sitting there, waiting for us to watch it.
Netflix isn’t solely to blame for the absence of unifying discussion about TV shows since the DVR was changing how we watch TV long before Netflix became a streaming giant. But still, the problem is that we’re barely watching shows together anymore, and not only is there no sense of community when it comes to discussing these shows, but the window for any discussion has become so small that it makes it hard to effectively engage with each other about them. More and more, we’re missing that sense of community that can arise between millions of us, all from the entertainment we consume. That’s something that I genuinely miss as we all choose to watch Netflix shows at our own pace.