A dozen years ago, the success of HBO’s miniseries “John Adams” hinted at the hunger for blockbuster history dramas. They are only going to proliferate with the rapid rise of streaming services, which are certain to make them a staple of their subscription appeals. This entertainment phenomenon may have a significant real-world downside.
There are plenty of historical narratives already “in the can” — their central figures born, the outlines of their lives complete and now the subject of fine books that can be adapted to streaming video — each of which could attract the all-important new subscriber. Think about the miniseries-ready lives of Aimee Semple McPherson or Teddy Roosevelt or William Randolph Hearst. Dozens of others also offer promising hooks into new subscribers.
Viewers may love streaming “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” but creating TV hits with fictional tales is extremely hard; history offers time-tested story lines with the potential to interest millions of viewers.
Now the downside.
As “The Crown” moves inexorably closer to the present day, depicting people who participated in events within living memory, it raises a question for anyone now involved in matters that may be of historical consequence here in the United States. If you suspect that you might one day be played by a character in a Netflix or Apple TV Plus historical drama, how terrible will be the forces pulling on you to do something that will spark the writers’ interest? Will there spring into being a “Netflix effect,” wherein side players feel compelled to carve for themselves some pivotal moments lest they be written out of the story?
Zoom out and consider whether anyone involved in the British royal family’s present troubles is thinking about the likelihood of a TV series depicting them. (“The Crown” itself will probably stop short of current events, executive producer Suzanne Mackie said last week.) Even the bit players in the House of Windsor may be musing now, at least in passing, on whether their lives are episode-worthy. And the major players can just assume that the decisions they make will, sooner or later, play out in a TV drama.
The Netflix effect — loosely defined as prominent people behaving in a manner that might be judged worthy of including in the infinite and expanding streaming universe — may well be coloring plenty of real-life situations that lend themselves to multipart storytelling. For many of the streaming services, the only question is “Will this series bring, or keep, subscribers?” Neither the platforms nor their investors care about the real-world impacts on individuals who hold significant jobs and know they are likely to be depicted onscreen somewhere down the line.
The need to be interesting, to be sympathetic, to be compelling — to appeal to some future mass audience — now threatens to influence current events.
We saw what happened to White House press briefings. They became audition tapes for everyone involved. Have we considered the enormous downside of, say, a Peter Navarro wondering who will play him as the White House trade adviser in the inevitable Trump miniseries? Or of other players in the drama, such as Democratic Reps. Adam B. Schiff (Calif.) and Jerry Nadler (N.Y.), thinking about casting?
TV executives are watching all the time, though. Maybe it will be “Trump’s West Wing” or “The Impeachment Committee.” Those at the center or near the inner ring of attention have an awareness — whether an incentive or burden depends on the individual — that they could be the subject of a casting discussion. “Who’s going to play Larry Kudlow?” doesn’t seem absurd as it should. The Supreme Court has long kept its commitment to boredom protected by high walls, traditions of deep secrecy and the banishing of television cameras. Please, justices, keep the perimeter well-patrolled, lest TV producers start getting ideas.
The Netflix effect doesn’t have the same lure as reality television. It is much subtler, and more insidious, because those coming under its influence wouldn’t be looking for mere celebrity. They would be seeking to be part of history as portrayed across several TV seasons streaming into millions of homes. As for those at the center of events, who might have once needed only to consider the biographer’s eventual approach, now Hollywood is on their heels.