Netflix Originals Are Just Bad Enough to Destroy It

Mediocre shows won’t cut it as the world’s biggest streaming company faces more competition

Paul Rudd, Aisling Bea in “Living With Yourself.” Credit: Netflix

LLast year, in August, I settled in with a smile to watch Disenchantment, Netflix’s satirical fantasy sitcom from Simpsons creator Matt Groening. I imagined it would skewer the popular fantasy genre as a hilarious satire of Game of Thrones and Lord of the Rings sword-and-sorcery tropes, with characters every bit as memorable as Marge Simpson and Krusty the Clown.

And so I spent the morning on Netflix, watching the first few episodes, expecting greatness. I chuckled a few times during the pilot, mostly at an elf character named Shocko (the joke is that he’s always shocked). But as I made it through each episode, a half-hour each with no commercials to pad out their running time, I laughed less and less. I glanced at my watch and fidgeted with my iPhone. By the middle of the first season’s initial run of 10 episodes, I began to wonder if I was going to be able to finish the show at all. It just wasn’t funny. The characters weren’t that interesting; they come across as whiny and lacking in personality, despite the voice talents of Abbi Jacobson, Eric Andre, and John DiMaggio.

Disenchantment improved a bit, but not enough to make it must-watch TV. The second half of the first season was released this year. It’s not much better. On paper, this show sounded fantastic. But actually watching 20 episodes of it is punishing; you want it to be so much better, and it never fully delivers.

If you watch a lot of Netflix, this is probably a familiar story. For every Netflix series that wins awards and excites critics, say Russian Doll, there are at least three or four that fail to live up to their potential, or that register so little they quickly disappear.

There are series that were added to Netflix only a year or two ago that now sound completely made up. Remember the 2017 Naomi Watts psychotherapy drama Gypsy? That forgotten 10 episodes of television had the unfortunate tagline, “Who are you when no one is watching?” We still don’t know.

Netflix isn’t in a position to settle for so-so much longer. It needs to invest in shows that, however flawed they may be, won’t be damned with faint praise for being mediocre.

As new streaming services from Disney and Apple come online, it’s hard to ignore just how many shows Netflix produces that are fine, perfectly acceptable to watch while you’re folding laundry or skimming Twitter, but not great enough to hold your full attention and win your devotion over multiple seasons.

These are shows like the recent Paul Rudd comedy Living With Yourself, which has only eight episodes but feels like 12 with a bad sag in the middle. There’s the entirety of The Ranch, which ran for an astonishing 70 episodes on Netflix despite getting very little love from critics from the start. The company brought back Insatiable for a second season despite awful reviews and continued outcry about its content. In terms of quality, the material hasn’t transcended its bad press. Ryan Murphy’s big Netflix debut, The Politician, arrived in its first season messy and scattered — a major stumble for the guy who earned wide acclaim for American Horror Story and Glee.

And that’s the problem, isn’t it? Even putting aside the issue of whether Netflix Originals movies have the same issue (boy, do they), many Netflix Originals feel rushed and incomplete, often in spite of the strong talent involved. After Netflix spent $120 million to make Baz Lurhmann’s show The Get Down, it got a positive reception, but not positive enough to keep it from getting canceled after only one season and lots of production turmoil.

Even when Netflix somehow summons the right combination of actors, writers, directors, and other talent to make a show people love, it doesn’t often let those shows go more than a few seasons, creating bad will among fans. Netflix will probably never live down its cancellation of the adored sitcom One Day at a Time, and it surprised many by cutting short the life of Tuca & Bertie, a hyperactive cartoon that had the potential of being a perfect companion show for BoJack Horseman (also just canceled).

Being on the outside of Netflix makes it hard to speculate how many of the decisions to scuttle shows that are working — or to rush forward on projects that aren’t fully baked — are made with regard to the company’s recommendation algorithm and its secret viewership data. In its goal to keep viewers glued to its service and willing to pay subscription fees every month, Netflix relies heavily on these data sources to craft programming that will pair well with what its watchers already binge, and when to purge shows that no longer contribute to that goal.

Netflix is spending about $18 billion on programming this year, including movies it buys at film festivals and shows it licenses such as The Office and Better Call Saul. But spending lots of money no longer guarantees that Netflix will get the talent it wants or the titles it needs; Disney, Apple, Amazon, Hulu, and others are also throwing billions of dollars at the content-creation problem. It’s going to get harder, not easier, for Netflix to develop great shows with great talent. It was lucky to get a head start against latecomer streaming services, but that lead may vanish quickly.

Netflix needs to look beyond its data to increase quality control over shows it makes. Show creators working with Netflix won’t want the streamer to override their creative control, but the company needs to make sure it’s moving ahead with shows that have a strong reason to exist, and that won’t hurt the company’s reputation by failing to live up to advance hype. Shows like The OA and Dear White People don’t appeal to everybody, but they benefit from a willingness to go way off-script for what most networks and streaming services do with television. Right now, Netflix isn’t in a position to settle for so-so much longer. It needs to invest in shows that, however flawed they may be, won’t be damned with faint praise for being mediocre.

When you look at what streaming services people subscribe to, Netflix is typically the top choice along with a second or third option, according to analysts. But the launches of Apple TV+, Disney+, and next year, HBO Max, will change the dynamics of how much money people will spend to watch their shows. For the first time in a long while, subscribers may begin to feel that Netflix is optional, especially if they consistently find themselves underwhelmed by enough series that don’t stand out from the crowd.

For Netflix, there’s one ray of sunshine that may buy the company some time: Apple apparently hasn’t figured out how to make great television yet.

Tech culture writer and podcaster, now freelancing in Texas. Bylines: Washington Post, WSJ, CNN, NPR, Texas Monthly. Here for all your wordy needs.

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