In 1995, the Emmy nominees for Best Drama were Chicago Hope, ER, Law & Order, NYPD Blue, and The X-Files. In 1996, the Emmy nominees for Best Drama were Chicago Hope, ER, Law & Order, NYPD Blue, and The X-Files. In 1997, the Emmy nominees for Best Drama were Chicago Hope, ER, Law & Order, NYPD Blue, and The X-Files. That is: two cop shows set in New York, two medical shows set in Chicago, and some aliens, spread across four networks, represented the height and breadth of the art form for three years running.
In 1995, the Emmy nominees for Best Comedy were Frasier, Friends, The Larry Sanders Show, Mad About You, and Seinfeld. In 1996, the Emmy nominees for Best Comedy were Frasier, Friends, The Larry Sanders Show, Mad About You, and Seinfeld. In 1997, the Emmy nominees for Best Comedy were Frasier, 3rd Rock from the Sun (surprise!), The Larry Sanders Show, Mad About You, and Seinfeld. Three shows about neurotic well-off New Yorkers, one show about neurotic well-off Seattleites, Garry Shandling, and some (other) aliens, concentrated almost solely on NBC with one lone outlier represented the height and breadth of the art form for three years running.
By 1999 that lone outlier was airing The Sopranos and Sex and the City, and the story from there is familiar to pretty much everyone. The Wire and Deadwood, Mad Men and Breaking Bad, HBO, AMC, FX, DVDs, DVRs, the New Golden Age, new voices, shorter seasons, higher standards, bigger stars, superstar showrunners, more choices, the widely pronounced death of monoculture and the waning of the Big Four broadcast networks—an embarrassment of riches, an art form in its ascendancy at last.
In this quest-narrative of progress through increased options, streaming services were supposed to toss the One Ring of monoculture into Mount Doom for good. They’d offer virtually limitless viewing options. They’d enable viewers to cut the cord that bound them to cable and broadcast networks, allowing those viewers to watch those endless options whenever and wherever they wanted. When the biggest of those services, Netflix, entered the original-programming fray in earnest, it kicked off the arms race of production known as Peak TV. In this content-rich environment, creating a culture-unifying hit is a war for the throne that only one or two shows could win, but finding the right show for your personal subculture of one was easier than ever. No more TGIFs, no more Must See TVs: Television was the art form of the future, and Netflix was the future of television, and the future was here at last.
And now we know what it looks like. In 2018, 14 of Neflix’s top 20 shows, and all 10 of its top 10 shows, were broadcast-network reruns. Friends, which received its first Emmy nomination while Bill Clinton was president, is number one.
The Foremost Purveyor Of What Was Once Must-See TV is of course not the primary public profile for the streaming behemoth. What used to be a fun way to rent DVDs through the mail is now both a full-service television network and a film studio, and as such makes its reputation off its original programming. The one thing that Netflix wants you to know about Netflix, even more than any of the many shows or movies it has made, is that it wants to make more original programming in the future. According to Netflix, all this is working out great.
According to Netflix, Bird Box (A Netflix Film), a Sandra Bullock community-service sentence in horror-movie form that has already been forgotten by everyone that ever watched it, was viewed by 45 million accounts in its first week of release, which overlapped with Christmas. That means that millions of families gathered around the tree to watch a monster movie that featured no monsters but did feature lots of people committing suicide. Also according to Netflix, You, a provocative but otherwise little-noticed Lifetime original which, somehow, is also billed as A Netflix Original—it’s about a sexy stalker played by the guy from Gossip Girl whose real name sounds more like a Gossip Girl character than his Gossip Girl character’s name did—was viewed by 40 million accounts over its first four weeks on the service. The same is true, allegedly, of Sex Education (A Netflix Original), which is a British show about Scully from The X-Files—you remember The X-Files, it was nominated for Best Drama in the ’90s a bunch of times—teaching her son how to give handjobs.
For context, those numbers would make both of these shows more popular than Game of Thrones. According to Jon Landgraf, CEO of FX and a longstanding figure of worship for TV journalists, Netflix is lying out its ass about those numbers. This would certainly explain why Game of Thrones spawned an entire cottage industry while it would be remarkable if you’ve ever heard a human person talk about You or Sex Education out loud, but who can say? Not me, because I don’t and can’t know if Netflix is telling the truth—and not Netflix, because their numbers and methodology behind them are otherwise kept private.
But if Netflix really was lying about all this, it wouldn’t be the creepiest thing that it’s currently doing. According to Cary Joji Fukunaga, the director of True Detective’s reputation-making first season and late of the warmed-over Jonze/Kaufman/Gondry knockoff series Maniac (A Netflix Original), Netflix’s algorithms have the final say over creative decisions—not just about what shows get picked up or renewed, but about what actually happens in those shows. If this were an episode of Black Mirror (A Netflix Original) it would be viewed as dystopian. None of this, of course, means that Netflix isn’t really the future. It’s just more proof that such a future would suck.
As a professional television critic, I am living there already. Netflix is now effectively my whole field of coverage. It’s increasingly difficult for me to place coverage of non-Netflix shows; all but the biggest “event” shows on other networks are passed over for regular reviews, and those on rival streaming services are afterthoughts at best. This is true even of Amazon Prime, the TV and film branch of the mind-bogglingly lucrative corporation after which New York Governor Amazon Cuomo was named. (Don’t feel too bad for Amazon, though: “Netflix Delivers Billions of Content Globally by Running on Amazon Web Services.”)
If you write about television the way I mostly do, which is through reviews—recaps, if you insist—of individual episodes, even Netflix is difficult to write about. Netflix’s own business model ensures this. Weekly shotgun blasts of full seasons of half a dozen different shows are just how it operates, but it makes deciding what will hit and how and when to cover it absolutely maddening for every TV editor I’ve talked to. By design, Netflix shows are consumed in one or two sittings, within 72 hours of their small-hours Friday release. They are to be discussed intensely on Monday and Tuesday, and then swept aside by the next torrent of programming to come down the Netflix Original Sluice by the end of the week.
This is not easy to schedule for. You can frontload reviews of every single episode and roll them out over that first all-important weekend to entice the bingers, or you can parcel them out one a day for a couple of weeks, or you can do the usual big-picture review of the season to start and then hone in on whatever absurd point of interest happens to catch on with individual write-ups. ([Robert Plant voice] Does anybody remember Barb?) What you absolutely cannot do, though, is stop to think about any of it. Fortunately, you will rarely have to. Virtually all of it is exactly like stuff you’ve thought about already.
Even if you discount Fukunaga’s revelation that programming is not just promoted but increasingly created by algorithm, Netflix shows—even the ones that you seriously should watch, like Suburra and Dark—almost always feel and look a whole lot like other shows. This has been baked into Netflix’s model from the start: Its first original series was a mob show starring Sopranos alum Little Steven Van Zandt, and its first major play was mega-popular director David Fincher remaking a British political drama. Orange Is the New Black, the rare Netflix Original which actually was original, obscured the (correct) impression that the site’s creative modus operandi is “If you like this kind of thing, here’s the kind of thing you’ll like.” That turned out to be a false dawn.
Years into Netflix’s ostensible renaissance, More Like This is still the rule. Fincher has returned most recently with true-crime serial-killer drama Mindhunter, a show that feels like his true-crime serial killer movie Zodiac (available on Netflix) and sounds like Michael Mann’s movie Manhunter but is as good as neither. It also sounds like true-crime serial-killer drama Manhunt: Unabomber (available on Netflix). Maniac, which also kind of sounds like Mindhunter and Manhunter and Manhunt, to say nothing of the exploitation-horror film(s) called Maniac, is in fact not about serial killers at all; it is instead a golem made from the best-loved films of 1999, from Fight Club to Being John Malkovich—Stranger Things for college sophomores.
And let’s not forget Stranger Things itself: warmed-over 1980s genre-film nostalgia, deployed with mercenary efficiency and charm that can only be described as algorithmic. It’s another clip job: Steven Spielberg spliced to Stephen King. (Particularly It, which one of the kids from Stranger Things starred in when it was updated from the 1950s to the 1980s, which coincidentally makes it more like Stranger Things.)
On it goes. Ozark is Jason Bateman’s Breaking Bad cover band. Peaky Blinders is British Boardwalk Empire. If you liked the Ted Bundy documentary, perhaps you would also enjoy the Ted Bundy movie. You can watch awkward sex-and-romance comedies set in pretty much any metropolitan youth community you can think of—except Atlanta, that one’s taken. You can watch kinda quirky true-crime shows or kinda depressing true-crime shows but by god you will watch true-crime shows. Until the site’s recent game of chicken with Disney’s soon-to-launch streaming service, you could choose from six different street-level Marvel superhero shows set in New York City. These have all been replaced by Russian Doll, which looks like Groundhog Day for people who’ve read Meet Me in the Bathroom but which everyone says is excellent, although this is also what they said about Stranger Things.
Try counting the original series starring people who got killed off in Game of Thrones. Try searching the site for “cocaine” and counting all the shows about Pablo Escobar alone. Try firing up the Big Red Machine this weekend and choosing between Netflix Originals under the category “Crime” with titles like, just going off what I’m seeing on my screen right now, Cannabis, Cocaine Coast, Money Heist, Undercover Law, Unauthorized Living, Altered Carbon, Dope, Drug Lords, Dirty Money, Dogs of Berlin, Babylon Berlin, Bad Blood, Blood Pact, Bordertown, Wild District, Wild Wild Country, The Break, The Fall, The Staircase, The Forest, The Keepers, The Mechanism, The Good Cop, The Indian Detective, Deadwind, River, Retribution, Collateral, Warrior, Wanted, Travelers, Narcos, Narcos: Mexico, Inside the Real Narcos. Some of those are good, some are bad, none are really great, all are sitting there in identical little rectangles waiting to be autoplayed while you see if your new CBD chocolates are any good.
The bet is that you’ll watch them, spend hours watching them. Then you’ll tweet about them, you’ll talk about them for a few days, maybe you’ll toss a few clicks in the direction of someone trying to write fast enough to keep up with them. And then a new day will come and you’ll have mostly forgotten them. You’ll return to a state of monocultural harmony in which everyone’s attention is driven to the same things at the same time, for the same minimal intellectual and emotional and artistic payoffs.
This is Netflix’s endgame: more of the same, and only more of the same, and all in one place only. You’ve got your two medical shows set in Chicago, your two cop shows set in New York, your four sitcoms about quirky people in apartments, and some aliens, only now you have them not from four different dumb competing corporations but one gigantic one. That same gigantic dumb corporation, by the way, just so happens to offer the products of those four different dumb competing corporations’ products, too, if you’d like to switch over from Making a Murderer to The Office (US) around 4:00 p.m. on Sunday. You can adjust for bigger stars and more explicit blowjob jokes and Roma as the Friday Night Movie instead of Mother, May I Sleep With Danger?, but in essence we’re back where we began. It’s not HBO. It’s TV.
And again, Netflix wants to make more original shows, based on the user data it gets from watching people watch its current shows, encouraging them to make more shows exactly like the previous shows. Sometimes the network evinces good if uncreative taste in the people it brings in to do this work. Even if they’re hardly the underprivileged up-and-comers who just can’t get a fair shake elsewhere that the current discourse has dreamed up, do creative dynamos like Shonda Rhimes and Ryan Murphy get huge deals? Do major filmmakers like Martin Scorsese and Ava DuVernay and the Coen Brothers and Alfonso Cuarón and Guillermo Del Toro get paid to make movies, or more precisely to keep the movies they make out of movie theaters? Sure, but robber barons have always enjoyed slapping their names on museums. What’s behind the door doesn’t matter much once the ticket price is paid.
Tony Soprano did not die/not-die for this, friends. Samantha did not eat funky spunk for this. Twenty years watching a famously stupid medium unexpectedly become fucking amazing did not pass so that we could return to precisely the same monopolized attention economy we used to have. It’s just what it was, except the monoculture now belongs to a tech colossus that burns through money, churns out product, drowns the competition, and puts its viewership metrics in a vault alongside the decisions you made during Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, a Netflix Original.