Does Netflix have an obligation to be better than network TV?
The short answer: no, of course not.
Netflix is a commercial entity, and as one, their primary goal is make money. What I’m about to say is not a critique of that priority; if you want to hear a hippy rant about corporate greed, there are hundreds of other articles here on Medium to satisfy you. But I will suggest that for Netflix to support its prestige as a successful (even superior) alternative to network television, than it should lean on original programming that covers previously marginalized topics, tells stories from unique perspectives, and challenges the norms we’ve come to accept as commonplace TV.
I just finished watching two pieces of Netflix’s original content: a film adaptation of the manga series Death Note and the first episode of Disjointed, a sitcom about an L.A. pot store. I’m not trying to evaluate the shows’ content or value certain narrative risks over others. Ideally, Netflix would be making smart choices and bringing in talented actors, writers, directors, and producers. Complex issues would be handled well and with sensitivity. Jokes would be funny and drama dramatic. But that’s all subjective and suggesting that Netflix have more “good” programming doesn’t get us very far. Instead, I want to take a look what Death Note (which I overall enjoyed, generic and problematic as it was at times), Disjointed (a thorough, yet lazy kicking of a long-dead horse), and a few other Netflix original shows mean for the streaming giant’s future.
As I said before, Death Note wasn’t half bad. Shea Whigham and Willem Dafoe give stellar performances, most of the editing and cinematography was very engaging, and once I let the film’s fantasy take me for a ride, I enjoyed the twists the story took. They weren’t particularly clever, but I indulged in their guilty-pleasure like I did for Now You See Me or the Oceans 11 movies. Death Note’s white-washing controversy is important and indicative of a larger problem in Western film culture, but I still appreciate Netflix for telling a story that originated in Japanese manga. It introduced me to something I had not heard much of before.
Would I have checked this movie out if it had an all Japanese cast? Honestly, I don’t think I would. What attracted me to the film were the two actors I mentioned before, both veterans of film and TV that I’ve enjoyed in other projects. Its subject matter and plot description came second. Does this excuse the white-washing? Not at all; it just goes to show why white-washing continues to be profitable. Still, I’m glad Netflix is looking at manga for project inspiration. Their casting and execution need a lot of serious work, but at the very least, Death Note got one person interested in an entirely different medium of storytelling that he was not interested in before. I hope that through Death Note’s controversy, Netflix continues to make films from non-western source material, but casts future films to better represent the people their source material features.
Disjointed was painful. Mind-numbingly painful. I couldn’t tell if it was written for or by high people. Its jokes were lazy, its actors barely trying, and its attempts at being a “modern sitcom” (by talking about marijuana and shamelessly hammering in that it has a multicultural cast without giving them any character) fall short on all counts. But Disjointed is not a mistake for Netflix because it isn’t funny. It’s a mistake because it’s nothing new.
This is creator Chuck Lorre’s ninth sitcom (tenth if you count Young Sheldon, I’ll be posting more on that show soon) and it shows. The novelty of timing jokes for studio audiences is long gone. The New York Post’s review of the show put it best by pointing out that Disjointed desperately relies on its “in-studio audience” while Norman Lear’s Netflix remake of One Day at a Time faired much better without canned laughter. We will sometimes tolerate this outdated form of comedic storytelling on networks shows, like The Big Bang Theory (going on season 11) or Will & Grace (revived by popular demand after over ten years) because we’re already familiar with the characters and settings. On top of that, the sitcom format just feels very “network” and part of its charm is associating that type of show and an audience’s mindset while watching it with tuning into a specific channel on the couch. For an online show that’s able to be binged, Disjointed prominently features a sitcom’s most monotonous aspect.
There are a number of other examples on Netflix worth bringing up. The surprise summer hit Stranger Things comes to mind as a daring blend of science fiction, horror, and childhood nostalgia. Narcos had planned to kill off their main character, Pablo Escobar, from the first episode and continue telling stories of the expansive South American drug trade. Bojack Horseman has its animated, equine protagonist explore the existential truths of Hollywood and celebrity culture deeper than most shows with human leads. Even 13 Reasons Why, despite its downright dangerous methods of portraying suicide and mental health, tackled a subject that the majority of shows simply ignore and push to the sidelines. Shows that miss the mark when taking on the responsibilities of highlighting unique and marginalized issues should not get participation trophies just for trying- they should be doing them well and with immense consideration. But regardless of the quality of their content, the Netflix shows that take these risks remain noteworthy.
For Netflix to stay as relevant or more relevant than network television, it will have to embrace and incorporate types of programming that cannot be found elsewhere. Different stories, uncommon points of view, and a disregard for tired tropes. Netflix must learn from its mistakes, no doubt about that. But without reaching for such a noble and beneficial goal, Netflix will likely become commercial television’s worst nightmare: boring.