Tag Archives: Netflix

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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That was (writing about) Arrested Development: TV Criticism in a Binge-Viewing Era

Arrested-Development-Season-4-PosterThere have been suggestions floating around in comment sections that the Netflix model—the decision to release every episode all at once—eliminates the function of traditional episodic television criticism. With viewers now able to choose the pace at which they watch episodes, potentially watching an entire season of Arrested Development in one session if they’re so inclined, the need for critics to evaluate individual episodes is no longer present. This is doubly the case, some would argue, with the puzzle-like structure of Arrested Development’s fourth season, which further confounds episodic analysis through its choice to emphasize each episode’s connection to a larger story arc one can’t truly appreciate until you’ve seen all fifteen episodes.

We’ve been talking about the former ever since Netflix released all of House of Cards at once in February, and there has been further conversation in the buildup to Arrested Development’s this weekend (including the ridiculous theory that critics are biased against Netflix for destroying their cultural purpose, a claim I responded to here). However, I have to admit that I’m not sure Netflix’s paradigm shift is actually anything close to a paradigm shift. Putting aside the fact that Netflix’s claim we will in the future move to a completely mass-release system of television distribution—which I talked about in a CBC Web Chat last week—ignores a lot of functional realities of the television industry which have permeated even webseries distribution patterns, I still feel like episodic and other forms of television criticism are useful and productive within the space of binge viewing habits.

Any suggestion to the contrary seems to be operating with a very limited conception of how and why episodic criticism is written, which functions in opposition to the ways in which binge viewing can allow us to expand—rather than contract—forms of television criticism in the wake of the binge viewing moment.

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Why Netflix and DirecTV Probably Don’t Actually Want The Killing

Last week, TV Line’s Michael Ausiello reported that DirecTV and Netflix were in talks to pick up a third season of The Killing, and boy did the Internet take it seriously.

Willa Paskin wrote at Salon that “metaphorically speaking, the news that both DirecTV and Netflix are considering reviving “The Killing” for a third season is like hearing that the Coca Cola Co. is plotting to relaunch New Coke or that a fringe group of Democrats are drafting Michael Dukakis to run in this next election— a confounding plan to resurrect a total failure.”

Andy Greenwald wrote at Grantland that “As insane as it may sound to those of us who have had our fill of the grief-wracked Larsens and the Batman-voiced Richmond, the reports aren’t entirely surprising. An established show like The Killing is attractive to up-and-coming content farms like Netflix and DirecTV for precisely the same Rumsfeldian reasons it was nearly rescued yet again by Collier: It’s a known known.”

While Paskin and Greenwald both mount compelling takes on the implications of a scenario in which either of these outlets were to resurrect The Killing, I can’t help but feel that they suffer from the same flaw: believing that Ausiello’s report actually indicates Netflix or DirecTV have any serious intentions of picking up The Killing.

Earlier today, I published a piece at Antenna indicating that I believe the real story here is less about Netflix, DirecTV and The Killing, and more about the active campaigning on the part of Fox TV Studios to get the show picked up by leaking reports of early negotiations to Ausiello in order to gain leverage:

Save “Their” Show”: Public Appeals of Studio Campaigning [Antenna]

It is possible to view these stories as a reflection of the expanding influence of streaming services and other emerging distribution models, with new options for shows that were already canceled (Arrested Development’s return on Netflix) or compromises that may allow a show to stay on the air longer (like DirecTV’s adoption of Friday Night Lights). However, while the existence of these networks and these precedents provide the conditions necessary for these stories to emerge, the stories instead reflect the increased agency and the increased activity of production studios within this new television economy: as opposed to fans seeking legitimation through news coverage, it is now studios working to gain visibility through their relationship with journalists.

I will admit this is predicated on speculation, but it’s part of a larger trend this season in which vague reports of negotiations are seemingly floated to journalists who then report the news in an effort to draw in the theoretical fan audiences who could flock to the site to show their support for such a move. The fact that none of the show’s suggested for resurrection—Pan Am, Terra Nova, The River—have been picked up doesn’t mean that no negotiations ever existed, but it does indicate that whatever negotiations were reported on were perhaps less serious than reports may have indicated. “The Killing May Be Renewed For Season 3—Netflix and DirecTV in Talks” sounds really exciting until you realize that “talks” could amount to a brief phone conversation, and the show may be no closer to being picked up than it was when Fox was looking for theoretical suitors immediately after AMC canceled the series.

I go into more detail on the larger implications of this trend within the piece, pushing us to consider the role of production studios more carefully, but I also wanted to expand on something I tweeted about last week, which is whether or not Netflix and DirecTV actually wants to be part of these stories, or whether their involvement is a case of wish fulfillment on the part of TV Studios. Hint: it’s the latter.

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