Netflix is well on its way to having it all. In its quest to replace the old means of watching TV and going to the movies, the streaming behemoth with 100 million (and counting) worldwide subscribers seeks to offer at least one of every sort of show a viewer might like, pushing toward a goal of 50 percent original programming. The pace and budget size are impressive (a reported $6 billion spent in the last year making its own stuff), but Netflix is still lacking one vital and admittedly ineffable thing, which goes by many names:
Sensibility? Aesthetic? Identity?
Netflix ain’t got time for that. Its story started out as one of revolution, which has instead been overtaken by a case of quantity over quality. Now, rather than being known for a house style or a tastemaking effect on popular culture, it is becoming known for its raw desire to win the race, bragging about its latest deals (Shonda Rhimes! David Letterman!) and conquests.
Even amid this peak-TV chaos of its own making, Netflix has capably delivered prestige dramas that gather sterling reviews and multiple Emmy nominations (its total nods this year are second only to HBO); but that’s the same Netflix that recently released shows that could have used a little more time in the development incubator, such as this summer’s overly frantic con-man/family-man saga “Ozark” and this spring’s contextually haphazard “13 Reasons Why.”
From its best shows (“Orange Is the New Black,” “Master of None,” “The Crown”) to its pretty-good shows (“Stranger Things,” “Santa Clarita Diet”) all the way down to its dreck, Netflix has also shown that it can, if quantity was the only goal, make a lot of old-fashioned, mind-rotting American television — because there’s a global market for that, too. (Why else would it grant pop-culture’s ghastliest wish and exhume “Full House”?)
Somewhere in all this Netflix has artistic ambitions, perhaps fueled by its obvious rivalry with HBO, which has brand sensibility to spare, as well as other strongly identified networks, such as FX, that routinely bring out shows that feel like part of a visionary whole. Even Netflix’s nearest streaming competitors, Hulu and Amazon, have done a better job of convincing a discerning viewer that less is perhaps more when it comes to the green light.
Hulu is still running victory laps over “The Handmaid’s Tale,” easily one of the finest dramas of 2017. Hulu’s original shows, while not as numerous, arrive with a careful sense of polish. Amazon (whose chief executive and founder, Jeffrey P. Bezos, owns The Washington Post) cleverly loops its Prime subscribers into the pilot stage of series development, empowering them to weigh in on the shows they’d actually like to see more of. (How much their opinions actually matter has never been quite clear.)
Logging on to Netflix now means a visit the core of TV’s overall rush to die of obesity. It’s full of shows that one might have heard about, or intended to watch. The spirit is willing, but after one too many Marvel superheroes and self-absorbed dramedies, the attention span grows weak. That’s because Netflix is better than anyone at triumphantly unleashing a new show, gathering a moment’s buzz among the bingeing class, finding success with a niche of fans, and then moving on — with little lasting impact on the cultural conversation. Of all the shows Netflix has released, how many of them manage to reach common reference points, the way “Game of Thrones” or “This Is Us” or “The Handmaid’s Tale” have done?
To put it another way, how many of Netflix’s shows could be (or have been) lampooned in a “Saturday Night Live” sketch? Or stand as easy metaphors to use in op-ed columns or make relevant points in a public forum? How many shows has Netflix made in four years that enter our minds by osmosis, if not necessarily by watching?
The answer is perhaps three: “Stranger Things,” “House of Cards” and “Orange Is the New Black.” Three shows that are wildly different; entertaining and memorable for no shared reason or vision, except that they are riding the awesome wave of Netflix.
That doesn’t mean that Netflix aims to only throw as much spaghetti against the wall as it can, just to see what sticks. The company craves the respect (and acclaim) that comes with artistic identity. In interviews with Hollywood trades and financial news channels, Netflix’s top executives — chief executive Reed Hastings and content chief Ted Sarandos — have talked about Netflix’s need to take more risks, prodding creators to deliver edgier shows that will make viewers notice more than just the size of the menu and portions.
And, having gained a reputation for impulsively renewing its shows, Netflix has lately canceled a few (“Girlboss,” “The Get Down,” “Sense8”) in what could be a demonstration of network-esque discipline. This includes the swift ax given this month to “Gypsy,” which starred Naomi Watts as a therapist with serious boundary issues. Though Netflix infamously guards its viewership data from the public, it’s hard to keep a stinker like that from smelling.
For now, Netflix stands mainly for the idea that more is more. Beginning with “House of Cards” (its first original series, which premiered in 2013 and is now hopelessly upstaged by the far more compelling drama in the Trump White House), Netflix has delivered more than 200 original dramas, comedies, talk shows, culinary shows and what seems to be a concentrated effort to offer every stand-up comedian in America their own one-hour special. Netflix also now boasts a considerable array of its own kids shows in a battle with Amazon and HBO to gather ye little children. It brings out stunning documentaries along with efforts that would barely get a polite shrug at film festivals. It makes wretched Adam Sandler films along with such odd jewels as this year’s “Okja,” an effectively dazzling animal rights fable from director Bong Joon-ho.
With all this, and with younger generations considering a Netflix subscription (and somebody else’s HBO Go password) to be all the screen fodder they’ll ever need, why would Netflix ever stop to have an existential worry about its creative sense of self?
Because, as any Netflix subscriber eventually realizes, the overall effect can be like wandering in a Walmart without aisles — a feeling that everything is indeed here, but a lot of it is sort of cheap. With so much media attention on its wallet, subscribers rarely hear anything about Neftlix’s vision from someone with impeccable taste and unwavering standards and a certainty of what kind of content it stands for.
It sometimes take decades for viewers to know a network as well as it knows itself. To know what HBO feels like. To know what CBS, ABC and NBC feel like. While Netflix churns at full steam, will it ever be possible for us to sense that a show is — at its core — one that only Netflix could make?
Instead of a unifying sense of brand, Netflix thrives on its rogue image — the thief in the night with a talent for getting the goods. Only days after Disney declared this month that it would withhold some of its prized possessions from Netflix as a step toward launching its own streaming service, Netflix countered with the news that it has wooed producer Shonda Rhimes, the “Scandal” and “Grey’s Anatomy” creator who conquered prime time at Disney-owned ABC. Rhimes’s new shows will stream exclusively on Netflix.
That news came on the heels of another Netflix get, in which the company signed late-night legend David Letterman, who so elegantly retired from CBS in 2015, to host a new, topically talky series next year; and the announcement in late July that “Simpsons” and “Futurama” creator Matt Groening would be bringing his new animated series “Disenchantment” to Netflix. (Animated comedy has been one of Netflix’s more instinctual strengths thus far. A more artistically minded network could build itself a nice, twisted sensibility on the surreal brilliance of “BoJack Horseman” alone.)
Ballyhooing deals and shows that are more than a year away from being seen by viewers — that’s so Netflix. That’s what it’s known for.
Other networks have followed suit, which can cause problems before they even really exist: HBO took a stumble last month in announcing that the creators of “Game of Thrones” would next make “Confederate,” an alternative-history drama about a present-day Confederacy with an intact system of slavery. It was essentially a pitch, years from a possible premiere date, but enough to infuriate many.
Amazon, meanwhile, has sent critics and reporters several updates about “The Romanoffs,” a new drama expected in 2018 from “Mad Men” creator Matthew Weiner about people who believe themselves to be the descendants of Russia’s snuffed-out royal family.
Since when did Weiner, who was notoriously protective of even the tiniest details of “Mad Men’s” production, become so willing to release details of a show we haven’t seen yet?
Since Netflix turned the difficult work of producing the highest-quality television into a desperate race, in which the announcement of a new show carries as much weight (if not more so) than the show itself.
Left to its own devices, however, television will naturally race toward mediocrity — the almost-but-not-quite shows, the pretty good (but not consistently great) second seasons, the failed experiments, the B-/C+ efforts that get renewed anyhow. Among Netflix’s many ambitions, it has succeeded in convincing subscribers that it offers something better than broadcast and cable. Now what it needs to show viewers is that beyond its size, it has a soul.
But that idea, like so much else about the ancient ways of TV, may quickly become a thing of the past.