I’m tired of Netflix. I don’t believe they’re treating series the way they should. There is a ton of stuff about them being a data-driven company, how they measure and track everything so that they know us better than ourselves, yada yada. I think that is just a way to treat series as opaque commodities and it proves a lack of understanding about how fandoms and memorable series grow.
Netflix wants all their series to be a stellar success from the get go. There is no such thing as adjusting the series or letting the series grow and learn about itself. It is either an astounding success or it is dead. They have enough money to keep producing series and killing them as fast as they want, and then letting the very few cases of astounding success be renewed for further seasons.
Looks to me as if the Netflix series development workflow is to throw mud onto the wall and see what sticks. As a series, it is Hunder Games for you! You have one season to win over whatever else launched alongside you. If you falter or stumble on the way, you’re cancelled.
The recent cancellation of Cowboy Bebop live-action series is the tipping point for me. I love Cowboy Bebop as an anime. It is probably among my most cherished media products of all time. I really love it. The live-action series for me was a very different product. You can’t expect an anime to be transposable to live-action without language changes. That is OK. Did I love the live-action series? No, but I liked it well enough to keep watching. I could definitely see that there was potential for it to be great. They just needed to tweak it a bit in terms of tone and acting. The production value was great, the soundtrack was on par with the original, and the overall themes were there. It had the potential to grow.
And that for me is the crux of all that is happening in contemporary TV series made by streaming services: they are a radically different product than what used to be developed for cable. Let me walk you through this. We have a lot to unpack.
A run-of-the-mill TV series from the 90s had usually between 22 and 26 episodes per season. They were usually aired weekly. This means that a season took a long time IRL to be completed. This time between episodes helped fuel the fandom. Cliffhangers have a totally different feel if you have to wait a whole week to finally see what happens. Theories, Easter eggs, discussion boards, blogs, articles, all were in frantic activity between episodes. Not only people were analysing the heck of what happened in the most recent episode, but they were also doing many predictions and speculating about what would come next. I remember lostmania, I was there 3000 years ago.
With very short seasons, which are currently the norm, of about six to eight episodes, you don’t have enough time to engage with the material. Especially since Netflix often just dump the entire season at once. There is no time for the audience to develop into a fandom. There is no time for articles, speculations, commentary when it becomes a game of who can binge watch it faster. Just ask any famous YouTuber reviewer about the frantic pace they need to work at when an important series drop.
Short seasons and binge watching makes consumers, not fans. By developing series this way, Netflix is fighting for your attention, not your love.
Since seasons used to be longer and episodes were aired weekly, series often started airing before they wrapped production for the season. This permitted the production team to adjust and tweak the series while it was being produced based on feedback and reactions from the audience. Very often these days, an entire season will wrap production before airing a single episode. There is no time for the team to tweak anything. Instead of being able to learn and adapt weekly (not weekly, but probably monthly), the current teams can only change anything in their series if they end up being renewed for a new season. In most cases, if they’re renewed, they won’t change much or try to tweak much because of the chance of it backfiring and them being cancelled in the second season.
A TV series used to be a different product than movies. Movies are basically the production team throwing their vision at you, which is fine. I love them too. TV series used to be a dialogue between production and audience, with both sides contributing, or at least with the production attempting to listen every now and then. These days they might do a screen check with a focus group and that is it, not the same thing in my opinion.
Many of the series I love have only found their soul in later seasons. A good example is my beloved Babylon 5. B5 is a masterpiece of storytelling. It is an epic space opera with the best character arcs I have seen in SFF television. Damn great TV, if you ask me. The first season was full of potential, but it was not the best season. Heck, I’d argue that B5 only really starts in the second season. Under the current way Netflix works, I’m sure B5 would have been cancelled before it could astound us with its storytelling.
This is true of all slow-burner series with long arcs. Series that combined mayhem of the week with a pinch of continuity such as The X-Files simply can’t be made today. There is no time for us to engage and care for Moulder and Scully if all we get is a single season. Without the kind of dialogue that happens between audience and production team, the X-Files could not tweak the story and chemistry between our beloved investigators. It would just be cancelled. The same is true of Buffy, it only finds its soul later, after the first season.
Recent series like the live-action Cowboy Bebop, Marco Polo, even Firefly, didn’t get the chance to grow into what they could really be because Netflix is just too happy to cancel and try something else. That is why you don’t get new fandoms. That is why there is nothing similar to lostmania today. There is no time for that kind of relationship between audience and series to develop.
If you care to check what current day series have a sizeable fandom and engagement, you’ll see that most of them are not original IP. They’re mostly adaptations. The Witcher had a massive gaming community to back it up, and a sizeable fantasy book community as well. The Wheel of Time has a massive fandom because of the books. Developing new IP is easy, what is almost impossible is to make people care about it with just a single short season. Arcane did it, but then again Arcane had all the LoL fans and it is a fucking masterpiece. Those two things don’t appear in combination very often.
I’m tired of wanting to engage with Netflix series because I don’t trust Netflix to allow a series to grow and realise their potential. The producers know this too, that is why they cram the highest stakes so early into the episodes. That is why characters develop relationships at light-speed. They’re trying desperately to compress what would amount to a couple longer seasons’ worth of emotional investment into a single brief season because if they don’t do that, they’ll be cancelled. That is how you get love at first sight in episode one and world destroying cliffhanger in episode five. In the X-Files, the first time Moulder calls Scully by her first name is on episode 13 of the first season, that would put it in the second season of a current day’s series.
Basically Netflix doesn’t give enough time for series to grow, because of that it becomes impossible to develop a fandom. Without a fandom, there is no sustainable engagement with that property, and the series gets cancelled. I’m breaking this cycle, I will go back to books and other services, I’m tired of this broken relationship with Netflix’s original series.