Photo: Jon Hall/Netflix
An Assemblage of Words in Response to is a new, probably ongoing project in which I give myself a limited time period to write words about things.
Sex Education is a surprisingly deep show, in terms of its ensemble.
Otis, the sex therapist’s son turned high school sex therapist, is undoubtedly the show’s lead. And his relationships with his mother, his best friend Eric, and his business partner/romantic interest Maeve are the most important relationships in the show. But as the show introduced other characters, it becomes more and more invested in their lives: while some “clients” appear and disappear in the episode where their problem emerges as an episodic point, others like Adam, Aimee, and Lily become part of the fabric of the show. It adds richness to a show that could have become tired amidst the tropes it deploys in order to stake its claim to ’80s teen movie nostalgia.
But when it comes to its finale, the writers’ interest in their supporting characters couple of hiccups for Sex Education, wherein story developments didn’t necessarily have the effect the writers desired.
Last 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.]
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.]
When I dropped in on an episode of The Leftovers at The A.V. Club earlier this season, it was cathartic: after weeks of watching but not writing about the show, it was nice to have a space to confront the series’ opaqueness.
But as I return to confront the finale, I’m wondering if I had it all wrong. On the surface, The Leftovers struck me as a series that begs us to analyze it, full to the brim with characters with uncertain motives building toward something and yet nothing at the same time. What’s the deal with Wayne? What drives the Guilty Remnant? Those questions at first seemed to bear fruit as it related to the themes of the series: even if we ignore the existential question looming over the entire series, these other questions funnel back into the meaning of the departure and accumulated considerable meaning as the season wore on.
That meaning was a smokescreen. It was a powerful one, granted, but as The Leftovers concludes I’m struck by how little separates a show that begs us to analyze it from a show that resists all analysis. Say what one will about Lost, but it wanted us to be invested in its mysteries, and even in the end sought to give purpose to our investment even if that failed to appeal to all viewers. By comparison, however, The Leftovers built a house of cards that it knew was going to burn away by the end of the season, leaving behind characters we relate to because they too were caught up in the construction. They lived through what we lived through, and must equally confront the landscape that revealed itself when the house burned to the ground. It was in those final moments that the show finally revealed its hand, and for the first time as an entire series became legible, and real, and open to the kind of analysis it had nonetheless inspired while resisting such visibility.
And the result was compelling, if also guilty of building a neater circle than it necessarily needed to.
“House of the Rising Sun”
Aired: October 27, 2004
[I’m going to be taking over The A.V. Club’s TV Club Classic reviews of Lost tomorrow—in preparation, I’m offering some short thoughts on each of the episodes Todd VanDerWerff already covered at the site.]
Whereas Jack’s flashback in “White Rabbit” leaves out huge swaths of his life, narrowing in on one part of his identity in his relationship with his father and not even offering insight into decades of that relationship, Jin and Sun’s flashback in “House of the Rising Sun” is a fairly complete narrative. We don’t see the moment they meet, sure, and there are large narrative gaps (captured with elegant efficiency by the age of the dog) that pose questions, but there is a clear certainty to this story that makes it among the most effective flashbacks in the series’ run.
Aired: October 6, 2004
[I’m going to be taking over The A.V. Club’s TV Club Classic reviews of Lost next Wednesday—in preparation, I’m offering some short thoughts on each of the episodes Todd VanDerWerff already covered at the site.]
On the one hand, the second-pilot-syndrome in “Tabula Rasa” seems to fly in the face of our conception of Lost as a highly serialized show. In the context of the mythology-heavy show it became, the idea that it would so pander to the idea any viewer tuning into this episode would have no idea what happened in the previous episode is absurd, particular when it’s now watched in a binge-viewing environment where it’s likely someone has just watched the pilot.
Aired: September 22, 2004/September 29, 2004
It seems probable that I revisited parts of the first season of Lost back in 2005, when I received the first season on DVD for Christmas. I have a distinct memory of watching some of the DVD bonus features, at the very least. But as life and the show grew more complicated, time grew shorter, and I’ve never revisited the show in any detail since despite writing about Seasons 3-6 in some detail here at the blog.
This is changing now that I’m stepping in to take on The A.V. Club’s TV Club Classic coverage of Lost’s first season this summer following the exit of esteemed former editor—and a big part of how I got into this episodic television criticism racket—Todd VanDerWerff. He’s completed coverage of the first six episodes of the season, and I’ll be stepping in to handle the rest, but in part for the sake of my own momentum and also to offer some perspective, I wanted to write at least some brief thoughts as I work my way through the episodes leading up to “The Moth” and “Confidence Man” next week.
And while I suggest above that I haven’t rewatched Lost, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t specific episodes—like “The Constant,” which is what Netflix told me was the last episode I’d watched—that I’ve revisited over the years. The “Pilot” is foremost among those, one of those episodes of television that I could recount almost beat-for-beat. It’s strikingly familiar, which is exactly why it’s so interesting to revisit it while knowing you’re about to embark on the journey of writing about the first season of the show while most viewers are still caught up in its sixth.