Too Much at Once, by David Bax
Remember Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt? It was a series whose full first season debuted on Netflix to a burst of acclaim way, way back on March 6th before being filed away in the Things We Have Seen drawer and replaced by Daredevil or whatever next big, fleeting thing is your cup of tea. Had Kimmy Schmidt aired according to a more traditional, one episode per week format, we’d only be about halfway through the season right now. That feels like a good enough landmark for me to be a grouch and air out some of my feelings about the Netflix release model.
Netflix was upending paradigms from the start, as its initial manifestation slaughtered video stores by delivering movies through the mail. When it turned its focus to streaming, major studios showed (and continue to show) a reluctance to make their biggest releases available to a subscription service, preferring the individual transactional model of iTunes or Amazon Instant Video. The result of this, possibly unintentionally, was that many consumers turned their literal gaze toward Netflix’s television content. The already established TV-on-DVD culture was kicked into overdrive now that the service’s catalog and autoplay function meant that there were seemingly endless seasons of television, each of which could be theoretically viewed in its entirety with the push of a single button. DVDs let you cram; now you could mainline. Perhaps wanting to avoid the glib invocation of heroin addiction, we chose instead to call it “binge-watching.” There’s a tongue-in-cheek tone to that term but it might be wise to remember that bingeing anything is generally unhealthy.
It may, in fact, be unhealthy for the shows themselves. Perhaps it’s still too early in the development of the system to tell but the case of Bloodline might be one to keep an eye on. Netflix doesn’t release viewer numbers but Bloodline apparently did well enough to warrant a renewal. However, due to Netflix’s necessary reliance on word of mouth, it doesn’t feel like the show was a success. Conversation about it flared upon its release but then petered out even faster than usual. There remain defenders and detractors but their points aren’t being debated very publicly. Netflix’s model results in disposability, if not of the content, which remains available on the site, then of the content’s relevance to the cultural conversation. Will anyone watch the second season other than the subset of those who enjoyed the first? Did Bloodline become a niche property before most people had the time to watch it? The real question is, would more people have come around to it were there an opportunity for its reputation to build via ongoing, weekly discussions?
These real or potential demerits to Netflix’s all-at-once strategy are important but they are not what truly worries me. I love movies and I love television. I love them as two largely separate things, like how a person can be into both hip-hop and comic books. But ever since The Sopranos kicked off this new Golden Age on a network that offered no commercials, less censorship and a more cinematic look and feel, the lines have been increasingly blurred, mostly in favor of the movie approach, among both creators and consumers. Shows like Game of Thrones are less focused on what an episode of television means as an individual work of art and more geared toward treating a season as a single object cut into ten pieces. And viewers are now apt to interpret a shaky and disappointing final season of a show like Lost as an unforgivable transgression that cancels out all that came before. I’m no doomsday paranoic. I know that respect for television tradition thrives on shows like The Good Wife, Hannibal and (whaddaya know?) Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. But when Netflix encourages us to consume a season in as brief a time as possible, it reinforces the idea that television can and should be talked about with the same sense of finality with which we discuss movies.
Undoubtedly, there are benefits to the Netflix model. Unlike with the broadcast networks, for instance, we always know we will get a complete season, no matter how the show performs. And shows that build slowly in early episodes have more of a chance with less patient viewers (though HBO has had no problems trusting its audience to stick with a measured series). Yet I maintain that these upsides are outweighed by the problems. Even if I wanted to take a hard line and stop watching Netflix, the binge culture is creeping its way onto the other networks. Both Glee and Empire closed out their seasons with “two-hour” airings that were really just back to back episodes. And The Last Man on Earth has torn through its first season with two episodes on most Sunday nights. If it hadn’t been renewed already, you’d think Fox was burning off episodes of a canceled show like it was Caprica or Better Off Ted or Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. No one wants to remind anyone of Studio 69 on the Sunset Strip. And let’s not forget Netflix’s main annoyance; choking down one of its shows puts you behind on everything else.
This all likely makes me sound old and out of touch. But I’m okay with not being on the cutting edge of something I find malignant. I’m not, for instance, on board with the majority of the films released by major movie studios these day. Which brings us to the other way television is being treated more like movies. In film, thoughtful and mature dramas have become the purview of the independents or, at best, ghettoized into awards season in favor of a model that relies on marketing and name recognition to gin up excitement in the hopes of a gigantic opening weekend before the revenue inevitably drops by half, the movie already forgotten in favor of next week’s tentpole. That sounds pretty close to the way we’re talking about Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Bloodline and Daredevil. Netflix’s way of delivering content turns TV shows into blockbusters.