One of the reasons The Simpsons will prove to be, in this writer’s haughty, look-at-me-I’m-a-TV-blogger opinion, television’s greatest achievement is because it’s almost impossibly enduring. Those classic seasons just don’t age; even a generally under-appreciated episode like “A Streetcar Named Marge” only increases in stature the more I revisit it (if you don’t cackle hysterically at this The Birds reference at The Ayn Rand School for Tots — genius in itself — then I can nought but pity you).
The reason I mention The Simpsons is because of how progressively it became so brilliant and iconic. It started as brief little sketches on The Tracey Ullman Show, blustered through a good but uneven first season before finding its feet in its second, and now it’s probably the most oft-quoted body of work since Zombie Shakespeare wrote a bunch of plays. Even its increasing detachment from the original characters and persistent refusal to die can’t sully its legacy. But if you turn the clock back, even at its peak the show struggled to please everyone — thankfully, those dissenters’ ridiculous opinions on an episode like “Itchy & Scratchy Land” live on in the internet’s memory.
Which is not to say that time makes a show untouchable. But time is the great judge of art, and anything that flares its brightest overnight is likely to fade just as fast. Netflix’s foray into original programming has most famously brought us House of Cards, as well as Lilyhammer and the just-premiered Hemlock Grove. Each of these shows has followed the ‘Netflix model’, by which the streaming service premiered an entire season at once for subscribers. So why, you may ask, might this be problematic?
Well for a start, I’d be lying if I said it weren’t damn fine business. The rise of streaming in places where it’s more viable to do so — magical lands of myth where data usage is uncapped and joy flows freely through modems into our fingertips — has been meteoric; Netflix is now a massive company with 33 million subscribers and counting. That’s a huge potential audience to whom you can directly market a show, and without advertisers to worry about a show can be free to push boundaries and take risks (though this is something we’ve yet to see happen).
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But artistically, it presents a problem. Binge viewing is a modern luxury. We’ve all sat down with a DVD on a rainy Saturday and powered through an entire season of TV before, so what’s different releasing it for the first time in this manner? Let me put it like this: if you had a chance to spend as much time in the Louvre as you want, you wouldn’t just spend a day, would you? The most renowned collection of art in the world simply can’t be appreciated in a day. I, for one, could spend a day looking at Veronese’s The Wedding at Cana and nothing else. Similarly, you wouldn’t scoff down a delicious meal at a nice restaurant like a 2AM McDonald’s cheeseburger.
The episodic structure of television is designed to breathe. One of the things I noticed watching the perfectly okay House of Cards was how its propulsive plot practically shoved me toward the next episode. The end of each was a breathless plea to keep watching. If I walked away from my computer and thought about an episode, I started to see just how flawed the show was — entertaining, sure, but pointless. What does House of Cards have to say about, well, anything? Power, sex, and journalism are all concepts the show fiddled with but just kind of tosses them aside and goes back to moving pieces around a narrative chessboard.
But who’s talking about House of Cards now? Most everyone who’s seen it has found a way to see it, even in Australia where the chain has been dragged so long it’s practically Tina Arena. For those who haven’t, you have three options: bypass geo-blocking and subscribe to Netflix, wait until May 7 for Foxtel to make the show available in the same manner, or that other option we shan’t discuss. But for all the talk about the show, it’s never truly been about the actual show, just the lustre of David Fincher and Kevin Spacey’s names and the way it was being delivered to us.
If Netflix had released House of Cards in a traditional, weekly manner, we’d still be two episodes away from the season’s ending. Instead of the conversation around the show itself completely dying off, we’d be debating the show’s worth on a weekly basis (to The AV Club’s perpetual credit, they’ve chosen to review the show weekly, and reading Ryan McGee‘s excellent write-ups has greatly helped me to come to realise all of this). While the weekly review/recap mode of TV criticism has its detractors, it’s proof of how a week of discussion can help creators and audiences alike better understand their product; just look at Parks & Recreation, which responded to tepid reactions to its first season and soon became one of TV’s very best shows.
The thing is, when a typical show is written it has to account for all sorts of weird scheduling: fortnights without episodes, pre-emption, how arcs will play out over the course of months, and so on. House of Cards‘ failing was that it couldn’t do that, so what we get is a meandering show that rushes us through some plots while lingering too long on others, happily assuming — often rightly — that viewers won’t notice in their eagerness to find out what happens next. It’s incredibly clever but really quite deceptive, too.
Re-watching some episodes, it struck me how knowing what happens sucks the drama out of the show completely. Without that plot to drive it, it’s little but Kevin Spacey acting like a ham in a wood chipper, Robin Wright having fab hair, and Kate Mara’s cold, dead shark eyes. Would it necessarily have been improved by having to air weekly? Perhaps not. But not doing so has evidently worked in its favour; Netflix says its undisclosed ratings were great (the TV executive equivalent of George Glass) and the show has a higher IMDb rating than Mad Men, a show whose ratings are relatively low but which manages to dominate cultural conversation for months before and after it airs.
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But it’s not a gamble that’s going to pay off every time. The upcoming Arrested Development revival will be a puzzle but a very popular one, with episodes not even being made to watch in any particular order. Eli Roth’s just-dumped Hemlock Grove has been met with scathing reviews; if viewers can even make it through the pilot, there’s little chance they’ll watch the whole season just because it’s there. Also upcoming is Weeds creator Jenji Kohan’s Orange is the New Black, which will be worth a look just for Kate Mulgrew and Natasha Lyonne (“Natasha Lyonne who?”).
House of Cards writer and showrunner Beau Willimon said of his show’s impact, “This is the future, streaming is the future. TV will not be TV in five years from now…everyone will be streaming.” Netflix’s shows are an experiment, to be sure, and maybe it’s too early to say whether or not it’ll be a successful one. Based on the evidence so far, the show got the eyeballs and the hype Netflix wanted, and maybe that’s all they needed. Maybe the whole enterprise will collapse around them. Maybe some original content is waiting around Netflix’s corner to alter the zeitgeist. In the meantime, I suppose they can stick to reviving ones that already have.