Netflix Isn't Changing TV — But it Should
“Netflix has changed everything.” This oft-repeated notion is generally accepted, and it’s true, too. Netflix has in many ways changed the TV landscape, skipping the step of airing episodes over several weeks, bypassing DVD, and going straight to the audience through a subscription streaming service. It’s a brilliant move, and one that forces an existential re-examination of the television medium itself. Is TV still TV if it’s not aired week to week? How is a TV series dropped all at once on Netflix any different, except in length, from a movie released on demand instead of theatrically? But all of this is relegated to Netflix having upended the standard TV distribution model. Beyond this — beyond the issue of how the art gets to the consumer — when you get right down to it, Netflix hasn’t changed TV much at all.
There’s no question the distribution model can affect the art, but that doesn’t mean it will. House of Cards, Netflix’s first major foray into original programming (after the international co-production, Lilyhammer), was positioned by the company as a revolutionary step in the evolution of television. They had names like David Fincher and Kevin Spacey to help sell the show, but the real selling point was the release strategy. Every episode of Season 1, already produced, and released all at once so audiences could watch at their own pace, fast or slow. Many people did binge through every episode as fast as possible. What could have been a series that built and sustained itself over 13 weeks of ups and downs and cultural conversation became instead a series purpose-built to create and then satisfy its own addiction. This isn’t special, though.
An argument could be made that because House of Cards was produced by Netflix with the understanding that it would all be released at once, its creative team would view the show as one 13-hour story. Only that’s clearly not the case. There is essentially nothing at all to distinguish House of Cards from a drama that would air on premium cable channel such as HBO or Showtime. It has the standard-issue 13-episode order per season; the episodes are between 50 and 60 minutes in length; there is some token nudity in a few episodes, especially early on; it has film actors in the lead roles. Even the episodes themselves, while heavily serialized, are also very much structured as single episodes, with assigned writers and directors for each. Its dark subject matter and cold visual approach are especially reminiscent of other dark dramas on cable. House of Cards is very emphatically a TV series through and through. It does nothing different and breaks no new ground.
The most popular and critically acclaimed Netflix original series, Orange is the New Black, follows exactly the same path: 13-episode seasons, 50-ish-minute episodes, and a tone that would be right at home on Showtime. And no wonder! The show was created by Jenji Kohan, whose Weeds helped define Showtime’s original programming brand. For as good as Orange is the New Black might be, it’s still just really good TV, indistinguishable in form from any other hour-long dramedy.
It figures that the most formally playful of Netflix’s original series would be the fourth season of Arrested Development. In its original three-season run on fox, the show was already highly inventive within the bounds of network television. It broke ground for what was possible in live-action episodic comedy, presaging the likes of Better Off Ted and 30 Rock. For its fourth season, Netflix essentially let creator Mitch Hurwitz have as many episodes as he felt he needed and could successfully make, and they let him make the episodes as long as he saw fit. Structurally, the season also broke from its previous incarnation, telling a complex, interconnected and non-chronological story focusing on specific characters with each episode. Of course, this was all born of necessity, with the actors too busy on separate projects to commit to the full run of a season. But just as we embrace freedom as an impetus for creativity, we can’t dismiss the value of restriction. Debates about Arrested Development Season Four’s quality aside, its formal creativity is striking in the world of Netflix original programming.
Compared against the rest of television, Arrested Development is still notable, but it’s also one amongst several series straddling the edges of what the medium can do. Hannibal, even without the shocking gore, has taken the medium to a place where tone and atmosphere matter far more than narrative. True Detective did very similar things with tone and atmosphere, plus it’s taking the new seasonal anthology approach pioneered by American Horror Story. Also taking the anthology approach is Fargo, which even more than Hannibal is also redefining the concept of adaptation in the television medium.
Even Arrested Development’s ability to make episodes of almost random lengths is something other networks have done. Specifically, FX has been extremely lenient, allowing shows like Sons of Anarchy and The Americans to go longer or shorter than the normal 45 minutes plus commercials. Then there’s FX’s Louie, perhaps the most formally inventive series on TV. Week-to-week the show is whatever its creator wants it to be, shifting from stand-up, to sitcom, to amusing short film, to deep drama. Lengths of episodes have varied. Tone has varied. Even overall structure has varied, with this season offering a sustained arc over six episodes that some have suggested would make an excellent standalone film.
In the landscape of television, the only revolutionary thing about Netflix is the distribution model. This is obvious, sure, but it’s important to note when examining the television it actually produces. As it stands, only one of its series has actually sought to push the boundaries of the medium, and not in very extreme ways. It’s one amongst many, just as the other Netflix series are. And when a series like Orange is the New Black is put up on Netflix, there is nothing to distinguish from any other show like Breaking Bad, which is also streaming on Netflix, except quality, and maybe Netflix’s desire to promote it.
And that’s too bad, because Netflix has a special position in the marketplace. While every other standard network, including HBO, needs to abide by the limitations of broadcasting — including airing episodes sequentially and fitting them into reasonable time blocks for easier scheduling — Netflix has total freedom. Furthermore, Netflix executives have no responsibility to release viewing numbers for its shows, and they don’t, meaning they have the latitude to take risks beyond spending a lot of money on getting Kevin Spacey to star. They have the unique space and ability to take serious formal risks, and they’re not. But they should. Netflix could give a group of very creative people reasonably small amounts of money to produce whatever kind of TV they want. Maybe those people will make something that completely changes and expands the scope of what TV is, that alters the definition. Maybe something highly abstract and non-narrative, like a TV Tree of Life. How wonderful would that be?
Now that Orange is the New Black Season Two has premiered on Netflix, I’ll soon be right there along with everyone else watching and enjoying it. But I’ll also be wishing it was more than just a TV show that happened to be delivered in a unique way. Hopefully Netflix does something genuinely revolutionary like that in the near future. Then they could steal HBO’s thunder and honestly claim, “It’s not TV, it’s Netflix.”