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Swimming Upstream: The Rise of Netflix and the Fall of Scheduled Television

It wouldn’t be totally surprising to eventually find a Netflix that no longer targets the streaming of older content, and instead focuses purely on its own programming.

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Just over a month ago, the list of Emmy nominations for 2013 were announced. There was the usual lot – your Game of Thrones and your Homeland – but nestled in amongst them were three rather important titles. But not because they were necessarily better, or that they tackled some particular issue.

They were important simply by virtue of being created by on-demand internet streaming giant Netflix. House of Cards, Arrested Development and Hemlock Grove; three shows that received a total of fourteen nominations between them. A rather paltry number when compared with HBO’s 108, and yet perhaps far more meaningful in the grander scheme of things.

Netflix isn’t the first company to offer an on-demand service. BBC iPlayer and HBOGo are two examples of catch-up services offered by competitors. Netflix also isn’t the first company to offer on-demand programmes from a range of different studios. Amazon Instant Video, Lovefilm and Hulu all offer a streaming service with a variety of content from across the spectrum of television channels, just as Spotify does for music. What Netflix has been the first to do, however, is to become a TV studio in its own right, and create a number of original (and in the case of Arrested Development, self-proclaimed ‘semi-original’) programming. Whilst Amazon has swiftly followed suit with Vikings, as well as their ambitious multi-pilot scheme, where viewers vote for their favourite pilot-episode and the winner gets the green light on a full season, they are in no way operating at the same level. 

From their first original show, Lilyhammer in February 2012, to their most recent offering, Orange is the New Black, Netflix has created a number of varied programmes covering a range of genres. The importance of this cannot be ignored: it is the equivalent of Spotify starting up its own music studio, signing its own artists and releasing its own albums. Quite the step up from Netflix’s original mantra of online-only DVD rentals. 

Beyond simply appreciating the magnitude of the task, however, is realising that not only have Netflix created their own television shows, but they’ve created good television shows – some of them even excellent. Whilst Hemlock Grove is a bit on the dodgy side, House of Cards, Arrested Development and Orange is the New Black are all critically acclaimed, and quite rightly, too. 

And that is why only a trifling fourteen nominations is such an important number. This is early days for Netflix as a television studio, and already they are creating original content deemed worthy of being award winning. It shows they can stand up with the heavy hitters like HBO and AMC. Indeed, it shows that internet-only content in general can be fairly judged alongside the best that television can offer.  

Further, the awards their shows have been nominated for include a number of the biggies. Jason Batemen has been put forward for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy for Arrested Development. House of Cards is up for Outstanding Drama Series, with Kevin Spacey, Robin Wright and David Fincher all hoping to win Outstanding Actor, Actress and Director in a Drama Series, respectively. 

Crafting original programming isn’t the end of the story, however. Clearly not happy with simply providing a streaming service to other people’s content, and with their subscribers numbering into the tens of millions, Netflix realised that they could compete directly with other networks – and undercut them, too. Why pay Showtime to be allowed to stream past seasons of Dexter, thereby helping boost viewers’ interest in the current season on a different channel, when you could have your own show and reap all the rewards yourself? But that’s only one way to compete with other networks. The other is to show their content not as a catch-up service, but rather as a region-specific current broadcast where no other channel is airing the content. 

In the UK, for instance, no channel has picked up the phenomenal Breaking Bad (a crime punishable by death). As a result, the only way to watch it is by waiting for box sets to be released (a fair while after their original broadcast) or to download it illegally. By the time the currently airing Season 5.5 came around, Netflix had already helped introduce a large number of viewers to the show. It made perfect sense, therefore, to simply be the ones to continue to air it in the UK, less than a day after it was on in the US. As the sole source of the show, Netflix suddenly made it far easier to just watch the show legally rather than torrent it – no mean feat, to be sure, but an extremely lucrative one. It was the same tactic iTunes used when they first launched, too. Similarly, when Netflix helped bring cancelled US drama The Killing back for a third season, their deal with AMC meant they would be the sole distributors of the show in the UK. 

And that’s the most exciting aspect of Netflix right now. Sure, they have an enormous library of classic films and televisions shows to watch, and it’s great having all that content at the tap of a button on a variety of devices. But helping viewers catch up with their favourite programmes is simply helping out your competitors in the long run, and it’s always going to play second fiddle to new content. By streaming a combination of brand new, original shows and being the sole source of up-to-date episodes of hit TV programmes, Netflix is covering all their bases. Rather than driving viewers away once they’ve caught up with a show, they’re ensuring they stick around to carry on watching it – as well as other programmes that they can’t find anywhere else.

It’s an intriguing business plan, and one that is being aggressively expanded. A further four original shows are planned for the near future, not including an deal with Dreamworks Animation to create new and exclusive animated programming. In three years time, where will Netflix be come award time? What new, exclusive shows will it have? And how will other networks react to their growth in this area? Perhaps they will start to pull their shows from the service. It wouldn’t be totally surprising to eventually find a Netflix that no longer targets the streaming of older content, and instead focuses purely on its own programming. 

But why stop there? Arrested Development creator Mitch Hurwitz has spoken for a while now about wanting to take his hit show to the big screen – with Netflix as a partner. Could we be on the cusp of Netflix Pictures? Being able to reap the proceeds of a successful film as well as fully control its television airing is surely a lucrative model. 

The television revolution has been slowly getting underway for a few years now, and we are finally seeing it being kicked into high gear. The day of waiting a week for the next episode of your favourite show is dying; this is the era of the binge, where people devour seasons in half a week rather than half a year. Where you can start watching on the bus, then finish off when you get home. The rigidity of scheduled programming simply cannot last – people want the flexibility that on-demand brings, coupled with the latest that television has on offer. It’s surely only a matter of time before other channels follow suit. And who would have thought, all those years ago, that an online-only DVD rental company would be the ones out in front, leading the change. 

Television

Why Fleabag was the most important show of 2019

Fleabag will be that show that influences other shows and movies for decades to come

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How is it that even among the award show sweeps, iconic jumpsuit copycats, and seemingly universal acclaim, Fleabag still seems underrated? Maybe it’s because, on paper, little about Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s play-turned-Amazon-series should have worked all that well for mass acclaim — particularly for American audiences. Half of the characters in the show are nameless. There is constant breaking of the fourth wall. And, perhaps most surprising to its success in the U.S., the show comprised only two seasons of just six half-hour episodes apiece — released an agonizing three years apart. (We typically like our TV shows abundant and delivered fast, the cinematic equivalent of a cheap dinner at a strip mall buffet.)

But paper can’t capture the brilliance of Waller-Bridge’s tale of a woman drowning her guilt and trauma in sarcasm and casual sex (and occasionally guinea pigs). Fleabag is packed with raw humanity, top-notch writing, and impeccable comedic timing. 

The ingenious writing and acting of Fleabag is matched only by the show’s ensemble cast. Brett Gelman is delightfully disgusting as swarthy, pitiful brother-in-law Martin. As Fleabag’s season two love interest, the Hot Priest, Andrew Scott exudes turmoil so heavy you can feel it through the screen, as he struggles to navigate sexual desire with spirituality. Sian Clifford beautifully embodies Fleabag’s high-powered sister Claire, whose Type-A rigidity is as palpable as her deep unhappiness. 

And who can forget the incomparable Olivia Colman? She is hysterical as Godmother, a self-important artist whose fixation on alienating Fleabag is only as cringeworthy as her pride on her wedding day in showing off the diverse identities of her “friends.” (“This is my verrrry interesting friend Daniel, who’s deaf. I picked him up at a student gallery opening. Utterly fascinating. Can’t hear a thing.”) 

But it so much more than outstanding casting and indulgent black humor that makes Fleabag the most important show of 2019.

Fleabag will be that show that influences other shows and movies for decades to come. Fleabag has proven that you can teach an old cinematic device a brand-new trick. The show has taught us that these techniques aren’t doomed to become a shtick or a crutch. And it has taught us how compelling it can be when stories of women’s sexuality and humanity are explored authentically (see: why fewer men should be writing these stories). 

But more than anything, Fleabag has raised the bar. 

We have much to thank Phoebe Waller-Bridge for — Fleabag is as deliriously funny as it is heartwrenching. But we should also thank her because, in the vein of Twin Peaks, her show will blaze trails for other artists. Just like David Lynch’s groundbreaking soap-opera-tinged supernatural series paved the way for shows like Northern Exposure and True Detective, screenwriters in the coming years will owe an equal creative debt to Fleabag

So we may clamor and beg for seasons three and four — which we will never and should never get — but we should appreciate Fleabag for exactly what it is: near-perfect television and inspiration for the amazing shows that we haven’t even seen yet.

Fleabag airs in the UK on the BBC and internationally on Amazon Prime.

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Television

Homelander is humanity’s most accurate superhero

Amazon’s hard-hitting, irreverent take on superheroes is a painfully accurate takedown of humanity

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If you haven’t yet seen Amazon Studios’ hard-hitting, irreverent take on superheroes, proceed at your own risk. But if you haven’t seen The Boys yet, why not? It’s not-so-quietly the best television show of 2019 and its painfully accurate depiction of what superheroes would really be like in our world is gloriously funny and poignant. You best get on it.

With that said, The Boys IS 2019’s best television show, and while it may not be the most easily digestible show (if you prefer your superhero television to be Supergirl type corny, you’re probably in for a bit of a shock), those who venture through its visceral 8-episode first season will no doubt be left in awe. Based on the 2006 graphic novel of the same name, The Boys tells the story of a group of nogoodniks led by Karl Urban’s brute Billy Butcher, who takes the seemingly hapless Hughie (played by Jack Quaid) on a vigilante mission to avenge the death of his girlfriend. Along the way “The Boys” set out to expose the fake news facade of the superheroes in the series’ world. These so-called heroes, backed by mega-corporation Vought International, are Earth’s premier team of superheroes. On the surface, they act like the Marvel Avengers / DC Justice League team, but in reality, are just a colossal mess of frail egos and giant assholes whose appearances are kept up to keep the money-making wheels spinning.

The story unfolds in glorious violence, capped by slow-mo gory deaths, shattered limbs, and enough sex and psychotherapy to make old “Skinemax” television blush. But what’s most telling about the series is the accurate characterisation of what it means to be a hero in the real world. “The Seven” (Vought’s Avengers) are led by the very Captain America/Superman-esque Homelander; a stoic, blond, barrel-chested hero for America that waves and kisses babies on camera, but away from it, is a fragile, colossal asshole egomaniac with severe Freudian issues. The latter become one of the focal points of the series’ narrative arc and are a small but telling dimension of the layers you find within this show. He’s surrounded by likeminded assholes; sexual deviant The Deep (if one of the characters from Gossip Girl ended up becoming Aquaman), sexual deviant Translucent (if Invisible Man was a chronic sex-pest) and murdering drug-addict A-Train (if The Flash was… well, a murdering drug addict). The only one who presents with any form of likeability are Queen Maeve and newcomer Starlight. The latter, integral to the story, is a good girl Christian superhero who discovers like most of us, The Seven aren’t who they make out to be.

Over the eight episodes of the first season, we come to the sad and painful realization that if superheroes were to exist in our reality, that this would be it. Intentionally or not, this commentary is one of the most compelling parts of this series. It’s beautifully cynical, but at the same, cuts right to the heart of the truth of our society. The Marvel Universe has spoiled us with dreams of heroic saviors, but in reality, we would get and deserve much less.

Superheroes in the Marvel and DC Universes are often too good to be true; cavorting around like false prophets. In times when humanity turns against them (Batman vs. Superman, Captain America: Civil War, Spider-Man: Far From Home), they react with some level of empathy for the reactions of the general public. Superman exiles himself in Batman vs Superman while The Avengers attempt to self-police in Civil War; all are actions of self-sacrificing their worth for the greater good. Their hope is that public opinion will turn once people realize the truth. Homelander is nothing like that, and often in The Boys, his good public persona will reveal his true self the moment he faces situations that harm his likeness, value, and/or monetary worth. It’s how most people would react no matter how much they tell you they wouldn’t. In all of Homelander’s inhuman superpowers, his most telling characteristic are his most human ones; selfish, egotistical, greedy, self-absorbed. They are not positive qualities, but they are very real.

You may be thinking that this is an overly cynical view on humanity, but the old adage of the truth hurting is ever present through the series. The Boys‘ socio-political commentary isn’t even about specific politics or people- even though you can equate it to them. It’s broader, more sweeping in its assessment that no matter your political views, no matter your race or creed, you are nowhere near as heroic or “good” as you think you are. “The Boys” themselves, of course, are a band of anti-hero criminals and outcasts that help confirm that even the people “doing good” aren’t all that good themselves. As the series points out, we are all just different sides of the same coin.

It’s all just a helpful reminder that in a world filled with liars, charlatans, hacks, and grifters, there are no real heroes and those looking to become one just end up getting burned. The Boys is a compelling look into the mirror of society; refreshing, invigorating, and painfully true. It is the truth we are all afraid to face wrapped in relatable costumes and transient power. I suppose we could keep telling ourselves that we’re nothing like the people and “heroes” in The Boys, but then we’d just be lying to ourselves. It’s in part, what makes Homelander humanity’s most accurate superhero. If that’s not enough for you, then watch it for Karl Urban calling everyone a “c*nt” for eight episodes.

The Boys is streaming now on Amazon Prime.

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