The Brooding Byron: Netflix Originals and Generational Angst

In 1997 Netflix was a rising DVD-rental-by-mail service competing with Blockbuster (remember them?) in the movie-rental business. After a five-year uphill battle, Netflix launched internet streaming in 2007 in the U.S., expanded to streaming internationally in 2010, and released its first original series in 2013. The world has been Netflix n Chillin’ ever since.

The success of Netflix is mostly credited to the technological transition from linear TV to internet TV as well as consumer preferences for more on-demand style entertainment. The freedom of choice, lack of commercials, and reliability of streaming options positioned Netflix at the peak of internet TV when they first started streaming. Although their competitors Hulu, Amazon, and HBO Go have been making great strides in the market, Netflix remains the only company to claim itself as a pickup line for good reason.

With the rise of Netflix came the rise of a new genre of television: the dark, cynical, brooding Netflix originals. The major complaint voiced by most Netflix members was the lack of prime movie selection. However, Netflix prides itself on its selections and original content, positioning itself as a “focused passion brand, not a do-everything brand: Starbucks, not 7-Eleven; Southwest, not United; HBO, not Dish.” Any avid Netflixer will readily spout off ten shows that fit this angsty, antihero, dark comedy genre, each of which is worthy of discussing in its own right. However, I’ll be focusing on Netflix Originals and how they reflect some cultural shifts in values and belief systems in today’s teenager to young-adult community.

I’ll start off by clarifying that Netflix Originals neither have first rights nor a monopoly on “the dark side” of television. There has been a developing trend in television and cinema toward a darker side of entertainment and artistic expression in the past 20 years. How else do we explain how an entire country has fallen in love with a meth-cooking drug dealer; a serial-killer killing serial-killer; a limping, drinking, pill-popping doctor; and countless curiously charismatic alcoholics? We crave imperfection in our protagonists, and sometimes even prefer them to be bad guys.

The antihero genre has some long reaching roots in literary theory. The consensus is that Odysseus was the first official antihero, though many debate whether his character was truly antithetical to the Greek perception of a “hero.” Unlike today’s counterparts, ancient heroes were not expected to be sympathetic and righteous and moral, and were more revered for being clever, skilled, and courageous. These days the antihero trope is a combination of two canonized literary tropes: the classical antihero and the Byronic hero.

As opposed to the classical antihero who is defined only as a counter-relation to the current cultural values of ideal “heroism,” the Byronic hero — courtesy of the mopey Lord Byron himself — is characterized by self-aware, resentful cynicism of an even dark/disdainful nature. As Lord Byron described his own hero Conrad, one of the first Byronic heroes: “he knew himself a villain — but deem’d the rest no better than the thing he seem’d; And scorn’d the best as hypocrites who hid Those deeds the bolder spirit plainly did.” Sounds like a hipster heart-throb am I right?

The collection of Netflix Originals boasts a litany of protagonists who meet both the self-abasing qualifications of the Byronic hero as well as the counter-value qualifications of the classical antihero. These characters are not exclusive to dramas only. Of the 26 Netflix Original series (that’s only the drama, comedy, and animated categories) that have been released thus far, 18 can safely be placed into the “Brooding-Byron” genre. Instead of splitting the discussion into dramas and comedies, because they all are by nature both cynically comedic and dramatic (because isn’t life?), my Oscar nominations for Netflix Brooding-Byron Beauties are split into three categories: The Antihero, Welcome to the Family, and Failed Happiness. Each of these different categories handles different taboos of modern mainstream culture and values, and shows the darker — and oftentimes truer — nature of the reality we have all been cast into so unwittingly.

THE ANTIHERO

Maybe it’s because we have matured as a TV watching species and expect more full-rounded characters to entertain us. Maybe it’s because everybody loves a bad boy. Maybe it’s because the year 2016 feels like a movie directed by Quentin Tarantino and half the world is filled with that unidentifiable and inexpressible angst that got Greenday and Blink 182 back on the radio. Whatever the reason, we the viewing public have spoken: The Antihero has arrived. And Netflix was quick to respond at just the right time. Following shows with cult followings like Dexter and Breaking Bad, Netflix released its original series House of Cards in February 2013. Within the first 120 seconds of opening, we see the protagonist Frank Underwood smother an injured dog on the sidewalks of Washington DC. No sooner had he staged the suicide of his no-longer-useful pawn, he had pried his evil, manipulative fingers into our hearts.

Whether you want to see the house of cards crumble, or if you are holding out to see if the writers go all out for a Frank Underwood dictatorship, Kevin Spacey’s portrayal of the antihero enthralls modern viewers with a Machiavellian attitude that is equal parts thought-provoking and spine chilling. Of course that’s politics, all a means to an end. If they are necessary evils in the corrupt world that Frank Underwood inhabits, what about the lighter side of life?

What about an animated comedy? Netflix responded again with another despicable yet pitiable and understandable protagonist with Bojack Horseman. Bojack, an alcoholic former sit-com star burnout living in the Hollywood hills, presents a world of hilarious antics and chaotic benders, as well as at-times terrifying psychological insights into the neuroses of fame. The show is a whirlwind of nonstop heartbreak and disappointment, with self-abasing and self-destructive characters and rampant drug abuse, all centered around a self-conscious, rude, selfish, and cowardly narcissist. But you can’t help but root for “that horse from Horsing Around.” Is it because we are ourselves all off track and we take solace in observing someone worse off than ourselves? Or do we see something of an underdog in this antihero that (thus far) the writers don’t see at all?

WELCOME TO THE FAMILY

I could probably make a case for Bojack making it into each of the three categories of these Brooding-Byron Beauties. But the success of Netflix lies in the different options it offers its members, so diversity is key here. Jumping to the next category, we look at the other recent animated original series released featuring a less-than-heroic protagonist. Whenever my dad is steaming out of the ears and red in the face with rage at the overwhelming and often unfair responsibilities of fatherhood — not that I’d ever push him to that point — I think of F is for Family.

In a brilliant opening sequence, a freshly graduated Frank Murphy looks to the sky and leaps into flight, an obvious metaphor for the seemingly endless possibilities of a high school diploma back in the 1970s. As the 1974 classic Come and Get your Love plays in the background, young Frank Murphy blissfully sores through the sky and passes in front of the sun — watch yourself there, Icarus — before being smacked in the face with a draft notice. He looks up in fear and before he can blink, he’s in his G.I. gear, then smacked by a baby bottle, followed by a wedding cake, and a pair of glasses that transform him instantly into middle age. While trying to navigate the slew of airborne garbage that is rushing at him — his baggage claim employee badge, mortgage payment bills, rabbit ear TVs, and children’s bicycles — he is knocked out of the sky and sent screaming and plummeting back to earth. He lands with a crash in a fit-for-a-father armchair with a beer in his hand, staring at us viewers with a disconcerted face surrounded by his wife, three children, and dog. A giant letter “F” slams down behind him followed by the rest of the series title. As far as setting the mood goes, ‘nuff said.

Just as Bojack Horseman relies on the stereotype of Hollywood superficiality, F is for Family relies on the stereotypes of patriarchal family structure back in the 1970s. These shows, and many more, latch onto pervasive beliefs held in common consciousness and dig their teeth in deep. It would seem as though the common thread of these darker-hued Netflix Originals, both drama and comedy, is some form of DNA triple helix combination of hyperbolic satire, archetypal nodes of social commentary, and a reflection of a rebellious counterculture of inherited values.

FAILED HAPPINESS

The final category of my Brooding-Byron Beauties has a cryptic title for a reason. In the TV world of happy endings, these programs have a serious knack for leaving you feeling pretty damn hopeless after the cut-to-black. While we can all laugh at certain sitcoms characters’ failed attempts to achieve their goals or gain the respect of friends and family, we are never that deeply invested in their mission. We can consider the comedy Arrested Development and Michael Bluth’s continual struggle, a strong honorable mention for the last two categories, as a strong example of this comedic detachment. However, as opposed to Jason Bateman’s performed ambivalence in Arrested Development, let’s now look at his costar Will Arnett’s performed passion in Flaked.

If there were ever a Byronic antihero characterized by self-loathing, self-pity, self-destruction, and a genuinely unheroic nature, it’s Chip. Living in Venice Beach and heading a local AA discussion group, we see at the end of the first episode that Chip — who has spent that last few years preaching the importance of the 12 Steps and standing as an idol in public eyes for his help in the community — has been continuing his drinking in secret. The show’s progress is nearly entirely dependent on Chip’s constant self-indulgences that cause constant strife for those around him. However, the “failed happiness” does not come from the obvious detail that the head of the AA group is a drunken hypocrite, but the countless — and I mean countless — introspective silences and moments of pause that consume Arnett’s character. Self-hatred and a crushing sense of failing one’s friends and oneself come through in every single one of Chip’s speeches, and each time his eyes dart to the ground.

What is tragic about Chip is his failure to those who love him, and his seeming inability to love himself. Happiness and love have always been two peas in a pod, and failure in one almost certainly leads to failures in the other. Now that all too depressing and angsty Netflix Original Love finally comes into view. In what many have called a depiction of what modern day society has done to the classic love story, we see two diametrically opposed characters (a risqué party girl, and a play it safe nerd) fall haphazardly into a tumultuous relationship. Awkward beginnings and endings and angry tirades pepper the show that spends most of its time examining how two different people open up to one another in a desperate search for companionship. The show begins with both characters breaking up with their partners, shocking right? For a show called “love,” the protagonist couple isn’t even a couple for half of the show. In fact, Gus and Mickey only find their way back to each other after — you know what, no need for more spoilers than necessary.

If the Antihero category is representative of our modern day concept of idols, and the Welcome to the Family category highlights the tensions of different group stereotypes that exist in today’s culture, then the Failed Happiness section is an expression of our state of ad nauseam at the difficulty of getting by these days. I mean, shit just seems harder than it was ten years ago, am I right? Who the hell turned the difficulty level of life and love up to 11?

At times like these, it’s comforting to know that you can throw on any of these shows and be enthralled by a bleaker but better-written version of the real world and hopefully come out the other side with some thought-provoking realizations of what it means to be one of Generation Z. Whether or not it is a Netflix Original or otherwise, the Brooding-Byron genre is growing, with more introspective and artistic shows popping up on Netflix, on different sites, and at film festivals every month. So if you are a psychological sadist like the rest of us, heat up the black coffee and turn on Netflix and I’m sure you’ll be pleasantly miserable in no time. And if not, F.R.I.E.N.D.S. is always a solid alternative.

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