Tag Archives: Netflix

Adapting Skam: Television or “Television?” [Part Two]

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Television or “Television?”

Part Two

[This is the second post in a five-part series about the pending U.S. adaptation of Norwegian teen drama Skam. You can find the other parts of the series here, as well as my other posts about Skam here.]

In the era of “Peak TV,” there is no shortage of homes for television programming: while not all shows fit in all networks, channels, or streaming services, there are more options for more types of scripted series than ever before.

Skam is not a normal television show, however. Although it is ostensibly a once-weekly drama series as broadcast on NRK, it is primarily a transmedia webseries, distributed and consumed online through the NRK website. This is a crucial part of the format, allowing the show to build anticipation and suspense among its users, as well as reach a generation who is historically watching less and less linear television as their viewing moves to mobile devices.

Skam is built for an era where television content is inextricably linked to the internet, and for an audience that increasingly watches content online: accordingly, there are a wide range of options for its future as television channels become more deeply invested in online streaming, and as internet companies move increasingly into content production. However, all options present challenges compared to the free, open access model established by NRK, which—as noted in part one—is likely impossible in a commercial environment. Even before we consider the cultural challenges of adapting Skam, the industrial challenges are themselves something any adaptation would be forced to navigate.

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13 Reasons Why is a teen show built for Netflix, for better or worse

13ReasonsKeyArtLast week, media scholar Casey McCormick posted a piece at Flow—where I have also been contributing during this most recent cycle—based on her research into Netflix, with a specific interest in the way they tell stories. I saw her present some of this research last week, and at the heart of it is an interest in what she terms “Netflix Poetics.” While this can take many forms, at Flow McCormick narrows in one element wherein many series “tend to be particularly metafictional, or self-conscious about storytelling,” citing the use of voiceover or direct address in shows like House of Cards or Narcos.

I was thinking a lot about the idea of “Netflix Poetics” as I watched 13 Reasons Why, Netflix’s most recent drama series, and the second this year that we could call “Young Adult” programming after A Series of Unfortunate Events. But whereas that series adapts a dark but ultimately whimsical set of children’s books, 13 Reasons Why—developed by Brian Yorkey with Tom McCarthy as the director of the opening episodes—taps into the very real tragedy of Jay Asher’s novel about a teenage girl who commits suicide, and the tapes she leaves behind to call out those she holds responsible. Channeling the type of issue-focused storytelling that’s characterized shows like Canada’s Degrassi, and which emerges more sporadically in teen programming on U.S. cable channels like MTV and Freeform, 13 Reasons Why offers an unflinching consideration of the social problems that would leave someone like Hannah Baker to take their own life.

I have a lot of thoughts about 13 Reasons Why, but more than any other Netflix series all those thoughts are caught up in the fact that it is a Netflix series. Based on both the narrative it presents and the way it chooses to tell that story, both the good and the bad of the show feel inseparable from the context of its distribution. It is a show that feels like it might have only been able to do what it does on Netflix while simultaneously feeling like it encapsulates some of the pitfalls of the rigidity of the Netflix model and its associated expectations. It is a show that is brutally honest about the struggles teenagers face today in ways that are refreshing and important, while simultaneously positioning itself to appeal to the cynical binge culture that Netflix increasingly relies on its original programming to construct.

It is also ultimately very good, and well worth your time, but I want to focus on how it represents a meaningful case study of the distinctiveness of Netflix’s original programming on the level of both the text itself as well as its distribution.

[The following will contain light spoilers for the entire first season of Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why.]

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Cultural Review: One Day At A Time turns a cynical instinct into a culturally-specific triumph

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Michael Yarish / Netflix

On Friday, Netflix debuts a new series from Norman Lear, but I don’t want to talk about either the streaming service or the iconic producer.

This is, admittedly, somewhat counterproductive. One Day At A Time is part of a growing collection of multi-camera projects for Netflix, and thus part of their larger programming narrative—the service continues to expand its profile in the TV industry seemingly every week, and its investment in this “traditional” genre is undoubtedly part of this. And as for Lear, my disinterest in discussing his involvement in this reboot of his 1975 sitcom is not meant as a slight on his legacy or his contributions to this series, which are all deserving of praise.

However, in both cases, I struggle overemphasizing these parties when discussing the myriad strengths of One Day At A Time, a show that thrives in its specificity despite being a product of a culture of reproduction. While Netflix will get kudos for distributing the series, and Lear deserves recognition for his pioneering of a sitcom model imagining television as what Newcomb and Hirsch dubbed “the cultural forum,” One Day At A Time succeeds because it finds purpose and meaning where none was guaranteed, or even likely.

The origins of the series, as presented by Vulture, can be read two ways:

When legendary sitcom producer Norman Lear kicked off the book tour for his 2014 memoir, Even This I Get to Experience, the head of production and development at his company, Act III Productions, had a thought. “I wanted to get him back into TV to show people how relevant he still is,” said Brent Miller, the Act III executive. “It’s something people miss.” The idea to revive one of Lear’s legacy properties — the 1975 CBS sitcom One Day at a Time — was floated, but with one crucial difference, driven by the results of a marketing survey showing that single Latina mothers are a desirable target demographic: This time, it would center on a Latino family.

The first way is to focus on Miller’s goal of bringing Lear—a television icon—back to the industry, a timely one given the debut of NBC’s The Carmichael Show and the increased focus of ABC’s Blackish into cultural issues during this same period. That goal is admirable, and no one would be upset at the idea of Lear coming back to television.

The second way, however, is to focus on Miller’s actual strategy. Instead of having Lear work on a new series, perhaps partnering with a young writer similar to Carmichael‘s Jerrod Carmichael to develop a new property, the immediate instinct is to remake one of his existing series. Moreover, the choice to focus on a Latino family wasn’t motivated by a perceived lack of representation: it was motivated by a marketing survey, chosen to make the concept more desirable to Sony (the studio that held the rights, and would go on to produce the show) and Netflix (the distributor who would eventually purchase it).

This is not, ideally, how creativity is supposed to work, although it’s typical in the television industry. There’s a suggestion here that Miller—perhaps from past experience—did not believe that an original project from Lear would find a home, and that’s unfortunate if true. But the idea that this had to exist as a reboot of an existing property, and that its focus on a Latino family originated with a marketing study, points to the television industry’s unwillingness to abandon traditional profit motives, even when creating something that can—and, considering the final product, should—be framed as a step forward for representations of Latino families on television, and even when Netflix theoretically should be able to function outside of those logics as a self-proclaimed “disruptor.”

And so the fact that One Day At A Time is a great and meaningful television show is in spite of—rather than as a result of—its origins. Some of this credit goes to Lear, certainly, but it has much more to do with those who came on to run the series managed to turn it into something far beyond what its origins required. There is a version of One Day At A Time that barely goes beyond its initial pitch, telling generic family sitcom stories but with Latino actors, and living up to its promise for Netflix (interested in targeting niche audiences as a subscription-based service) and, on a basic level, to Miller’s initial goal of reviving Lear’s production company. However, what debuts on Netflix Friday is far from generic, and it has everything to do with what happened after the show was initially conceived.

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The strangest thing about Stranger Things is its (potentially) undefined future

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Stranger Things is the latest in a long line of originals from Netflix, a stable that is growing to the point where any one series is no longer really all that pivotal to their brand identity. Netflix doesn’t really put a significant promotional pitch behind a show like Stranger Things: they do some light marketing, some press (if critics/reporters are interested), and then season one becomes a litmus test. If it’s a “hit,” it goes into the list of shows that Netflix will push harder for a second season. If it’s not, it becomes like Marco Polo, which received almost no fanfare when its second season debuted earlier this month.

Stranger Things does pretty well in this litmus test. Critics embraced the show—although it received a slightly lower metacritic aggregate score than Narcos, it also had eleven more reviews in total, suggesting a wider interest in the series from the press. If I had to pinpoint a reason for this, it’s because Stranger Things feels different. Netflix’s series have at times slotted comfortably into existing genres: Narcos into the Breaking Bad anti-hero mold, Marco Polo trying to be a historical action epic, etc. And while Stranger Things‘ cinematic points of inspiration are none-too-subtle, it has less precedent in television, and thus feels novel even though one of Netflix’s first original series (Hemlock Grove) was a spin on the horror genre. The 80s period, Spielbergian, Stephen King-esque take on the material stands out amidst what I once dubbed the “psychosexual horror arms race” ongoing elsewhere in the genre, and the show overcomes some shoddy procedure—more on that after the jump—to construct a compelling milieu, fun characters, and a mythology that draws you in without getting overly complicated.

But there is another litmus test in Stranger Things that I want to focus on, which is this: what kind of television show is this in our era of limited series and seasonal anthologies? At only eight episodes, Stranger Things sits in a decidedly liminal position in an evolving TV industry, and the way the first season ends tells me that even those making the series aren’t entirely convinced where they want this show to fit. It’s a fascinating decision that creates an entirely new “postmortem” conversation about a season of TV: What, indeed, do we want a second season of Stranger Things—all but guaranteed given Netflix has never canceled anything, and certainly wouldn’t cancel something with reviews like this—to look like?

And, perhaps more importantly, do the show’s creators and Netflix feel the same way?

[Spoilers for “season one” of Stranger Things to follow.]

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Handicapping Hannibal’s Future: Netflix, Amazon, and Gaumont’s Unknown Design

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NBC did not “cancel” Hannibal.

Well, okay, that’s maybe a bit confusing. NBC did in fact announce that Season 3 would be the end of the show’s run on the network, following a slide from “problematic” to “abysmal” demographic ratings this summer. But while the rhetoric of cancellation was perhaps logically used to describe this decision, the simple fact is that NBC does not have the authority to cancel Hannibal. They are, in this case, one licensee of an international co-production, who Entertainment Weekly has revealed is paying only $185,000—this is absurdly low for a broadcast series, even in summer—in order to air season three of the show produced by Gaumont International Television. And so what’s really happening here is that Gaumont and its other producing partners—including Sony Pictures Television, who distributes the series and co-produces through its AXN international cable network—are losing their U.S. distributor. [I talked a little bit more about this in a Periscope broadcast you can watch if you’re more connected to nascent social media platforms than I am]

This type of inside knowledge regarding the show’s production is, admittedly, not going to be something your average fan knows. But it’s something fans should know as they make efforts to save the series, because finding a U.S. distributor is very different from finding the show a new home more broadly. They are not asking someone to “save” a show from outright cancellation—they are asking a streaming service or cable channel to step in as a licensee (and potentially production partner) as part of a pre-existing cocktail of financial interests, which shifts the show’s value in significant ways. And so the below is an effort to handicap how this reality shifts the logic by which different parties would be interested in the series.

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Demographics of Anarchy: Netflix, Afterword, and Gender

Screen Shot 2013-09-11 at 5.52.52 PMThe return of Breaking Bad this summer drew headlines for its meteoric rise in the Nielsen ratings, transforming from a cult success to a breakout hit for AMC seemingly overnight. Many credited Netflix for this development, rightfully so, but I was struck that pieces like Andrew Wallenstein’s at Variety made no mention of Sons of Anarchy, which is arguably the first drama series to benefit significantly from Netflix in its continued—and trend-breaking for drama series—rise from season-to-season.

The reasons it hasn’t been mentioned range from the statistical (its increases have been more gradual) to the contextual (it isn’t in its final season) to the typical: for better or worse, depending on who you ask, Sons of Anarchy has slipped under the radar when it comes to the prestige drama trend. With Justified and The Americans more beloved by critics in FX’s lineup, and shows like Breaking Bad or Mad Men seen as better representatives of the dark, masculine dramatic series trend, Sons of Anarchy has largely been left to grow its audience outside of conversations like Wallenstein’s that privilege those series deemed most important.

Sutter and his bosses at FX have been expecting these audience increases: Sutter continues to hold a “contest” to hold a special fan screening of an episode late in the season if ratings go up over the previous year, which is more a way of rewarding fans for sticking with and promoting the show than an actual contingency (I expect he’d find a way to hold the event regardless of whether or not ratings had gone up, as it wouldn’t be the first time he’s privileged his relationship with fans over an arbitrary number). Still, one increase that perhaps works against the ongoing trend—gradual 10-15% increases per season—is the fact that ratings for the season six premiere among women 18-49 and women 18-34 were up 35% and 43% respectively.

Variety’s AJ Marechal posed the possibility on Twitter that this could be chalked up to the casting of Sons star Charlie Hunnam in female-friendly franchise 50 Shades of Gray, but I’d argue that’s a web of causality we can’t possibly break down. That being said, the increase in female viewership does tie into discussions of the series’ streaming success, as well as its expansion in non-linear platforms with the online Anarchy Afterword series that debuted following the record-setting premiere.

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The Race to Address Race in Orange is the New Black

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Today I wrapped six weeks of writing about Orange Is The New Black, two episodes at a time, at The A.V. Club. It means I’ve written a lot of words about the show, and lived in its development more than most people, and it’s created some frustration as I’ve read a series of trend pieces that function as an interrogation of its progressive statements regarding diversity in television.

To be clear, this is rarely frustration with the overarching arguments being deployed. The core of pieces at The Nation, the Daily Beast, and Roxane Gay’s piece at Salon—the best of the three—in recent days have been seeking to complicate readings of the series’ diversity as a dramatic step forward. In many reviews, the diversity of the series’ cast has been considered praise-worthy, and Gay nicely captures the sentiment that has similarly driven other authors to resist this critical consensus:

“I’m tired of settling for better instead of truly great. I’m tired of feeling like I should be grateful when popular culture deigns to acknowledge the experiences of people who are not white, middle class or wealthy, and heterosexual.”

It’s an important argument, but it’s one that I’m seeing deployed with Orange Is The New Black not because the series is wholly representative of this problem but rather because it is a text with a degree of cultural relevance in our current pop culture moment that undoubtedly connects with this problem. The Daily Beast’s Allison Samuels didn’t even watch Orange Is The New Black before lumping it in with other pop culture examples. The Nation’s Aura Bogado only watched six episodes before quitting on the show’s first season. My reaction to these articles is not a rejection of the basic principles on which the authors stand, but rather a rejection of their relevance to this particular series as it evolved over the course of its first season.

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