Pat Stacey: Have we reached peak Netflix already?
'The quantity of output is greater than the quality'
Have we arrived at peak Netflix already?
Has it really been just five years since Netflix transformed from a company that streams TV series and films to a company that makes TV series and films? It feels like it’s been an awful lot longer than that.
This might have something to do with the sheer volume of content it’s currently producing. It’s enormous.
The first fruit of its bold foray into production was, of course, House of Cards, which is due back in the autumn, minus Kevin Spacey, for a truncated, eight-episode final season.
This is surely not the way Netflix would have wished to wrap up what used to be regarded as its flagship show. Mind you, even before the sexual assault allegations (which have since become the subject of several police investigations) against Spacey hit the headlines, House of Cards had already slipped into something close to self-parody.
Nevertheless, the series will always be remembered as a game-changer for Netflix, as well as for its effect, for better or worse, on how we watch television.
Netflix and the binge-watch culture it popularised is the reason why that most traditional of broadcasters, the BBC, is increasingly making its series available as online “boxsets” on its iPlayer streaming platform.
Hard Sun, Requiem and The City & The City are among the series that were made available to viewers in the UK, in full, on the iPlayer, immediately after their first episodes had been broadcast in the old-fashioned way.
The trickle that began with House of Cards soon turned into a flood. In 2016, Netflix produced an estimated 126 original series or films — more than any network or cable channel in the USA.
Whether it intends to or not, it’s moving closer and closer every year to monopolising the market in large-scale, big-budget series. It took another significant step forward last year when it set up its own production house, Netflix Studios.
This allows it to self-produce some of its own original content, rather than partnering with outside production companies, which is how it operated up to that point. The rate at which Netflix has evolved is mind-boggling.
But when a broadcaster expands this fast, when its hunger for more and more new content becomes voracious, it follows that quantity is going to eclipse quality sooner or later.
Netflix is generally regarded as having raised the bar for prestige, event television — and, in the process, forced other broadcasters, both cable and terrestrial, to up their own games.
The titles inevitably invoked to support this view are Orange is the New Black, Stranger Things, Black Mirror (which Netflix lured away from Channel 4 with the promise of a bigger budget and bigger star names) and The Crown, arguably now Netflix’s signature series.
They’re all, in their own wildly different ways, brilliant. But we run the risk of letting their brilliance blind us to the fact that Netflix has produced more than a few Netflops.
Eli Hostel Roth’s gory horror series Hemlock Grove earned the dubious honour of being the first series Netflix cancelled, due to basement-level viewing figures.
Netflix waved the chequebook in A-lister Naomi Watts’s face to star in the dreary, silly Gypsy, then decided to wave goodbye to it after six episodes.
Haters Back Off, which was spun out of some short YouTube sketches, got the wish contained in its title: viewers backed off.
There are many more — the thoroughly obnoxious Girlboss; the vapid Friends from College; the feeble sitcom revival Fuller House, which makes The Big Bang Theory look as radical as Monty Python; the pretentious twaddle The OA — and then countless more after those.
When you have to wade through acres of dross like this, not to mention expensive, overblown misfires like Altered Carbon, to get to the good stuff, you have to wonder if the streaming giant hasn’t grown too gigantic too fast.
We might just have hit peak Netflix.