As a weapon of mass consumption, Netflix’s aim is true
I won’t say it was The Year of Netflix, but I will say that it was Another Year of Netflix Dominance, as the streaming service continued to throw big money at new original shows of every genre, as well as foreign imports. Week after week, free of space limitations, Netflix delivered enough fresh content into our homes in 2018 to keep us binge-watching and chilling through the next millennium. The company spent $8 billion on series this year, according to industry estimates — that’s more than any other American TV outlet. Next year’s forecast: More, more, more.
Netflix escalated its move to buy up the biggest talents in non-streaming TV, adding Kenya Barris of “Black-ish” and Ryan Murphy of “American Horror Story” to a roster that already included Shonda Rhimes of “Grey’s Anatomy,” Jenji Kohan of “Orange Is the New Black,” and David Letterman. Chuck Lorre, the CBS sitcom king, made his latest, “The Kominsky Method,” for Netflix. The streamer also snagged Barack and Michelle Obama; the former president and first lady signed a multiyear production deal in May that will enable their company Higher Ground Productions to make scripted and unscripted series, documentaries, and features.
The primary goal: To keep the more than 125 million global subscribers engaged, using statistics about their viewing habits to give them more and more of what they already want. The secondary goal: To get some prestige awards love. Netflix got more nominations — 112 — than any other outlet at this year’s Emmys, with HBO second with 108. Still, it had to hurt a little at Netflix when Hulu was the first streamer to win best drama (for “The Handmaid’s Tale”) last year and Amazon was the first streamer to win best comedy (for “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”) this year.
So far, though, Netflix has not yet sufficiently raised the bar on quality — something HBO did when it first came into vogue, and something it still does. At times, Netflix seems to toss its massive amounts of content, Filene’s Basement style, into digital bins for viewers to pick through. There were highlights to be found this year, for sure, including the graphic-novel adaptation “The End of the [Expletive] World” and the frenetic “Bodyguard,” both British imports, as well as the grumpy old man-a-thon “The Kominsky Method.” The 1980s-set “GLOW,” about the origins of women’s wrestling, the regal “The Crown,” and the crime drama “Ozark” are also among Netflix’s critical success stories.
But still, the good shows comingle with more mediocrities than I can name here, from “The Ranch” and “Lost in Space” to “Fuller House.” When it comes to original content, the Netflix brand has more to do with range and capacity that it does with excellence. Much of Netflix’s output seems like content for content’s sake — just to fill up the coffers. The company knows that subscribers are going to watch whatever’s easily available, and often they’re simply going to watch Netflix, not specific shows, in an effort to unwind. Reviews mean very little when you’ve got people chilling at your altar.
None of the titles on my year-end best-of list were Netflix products. I still find more of value on what are now “old school” channels, even if only 15 years ago they were the hot newcomers undermining the networks with their programming for adults. The basic cable channel FX remains a curator of note, with “Pose,” “The Americans,” and “American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace,” and so does the pay channel HBO, with “Sharp Objects,” “Succession,” and “My Brilliant Friend.” Let’s see if next year’s giant batch of shows brings more distinction to the Netflix name.