There was a time when Netflix was king of the world. I’ve been a Netflix subscriber since it was called Love Film and the films weren’t waiting for you on your TV, they were mailed to you in little paper envelopes. Back then, you had to be careful with your watchlist or risk being sent Vanilla Sky or Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium for ticking them off on a whim. Entering the streaming era, Netflix completely uprooted traditional television and offered a bright new future. Jump ahead about a decade, and that future just keeps expanding — sadly, it’s not yet clear for Netflix if it has a place in it.
Netflix was miles ahead of everyone else when streaming started. It wasn’t just the new kid on the block, it was the only kid on the block—a little Richie Rich in a hard hat who demolished cable TV and built a high-tech mansion in its place. It wasn’t long before Netflix Originals came along, and while you can certainly unwind duds, there have been some that pierced our cultural zeitgeist and became the most talked-about shows on the planet. Orange is the New Black led the charge, followed by BoJack Horseman, The Crown and Stranger Things. That trend appears to be changing, however – Bridgerton had more viewers than any of the listed shows in its first year, but with eyeballs now scattered everywhere and Netflix no longer being the only game in town, it didn’t feel like a part of the pop culture fabric like Stranger Things. And I say “has,” not “might,” because even if the new series of Stranger Things is set to launch, the biggest talking points are the overly long, and probably forgiving, episode lengths.
It’s easy to watch Netflix and still see the bright side. Squid Game was the most talked-about show over the past year — albeit uncharacteristically for Netflix, not just as a Korean drama, but as an entirely organic success that Netflix was completely unprepared for. That means Season 2 is still a few years away and crazy, crazy ideas like the “Squid Game Universe” are being thrown around. Even if it doesn’t have to take the big one home with it, Tick, Tick… Boom! and The Power of the Dog this year, and Roma and The Irishman also get recognition. It must be a little sad that its dog-powered frontrunner was beaten by an Apple TV maverick, but there are reasons to be cheerful. On the TV side, The Queen’s Gambit won just about every prize it could win, including a basket of bath soaps in the Southend Community Center raffle.
However, you have to consciously look for the positive aspects in order to see them. Netflix’s stock has fallen, both literally and in terms of public perception. It has an unfortunate (but deserved) reputation for canceling shows ahead of their time, meaning viewers are less likely to invest in new shows and creators are less likely to trust Netflix. They light the candle of goodwill at both ends.
Netflix was also supposed to replace cable TV, but instead a new version of cable TV has emerged that has every media company desperate to be Netflix while completely misunderstanding that Netflix was so big because it was new. Disney, especially with Fox, Marvel and Star Wars under its empire, has the clout to take on him. Amazon has the money, but a poor user interface and a batting average just north of zero (God bless The Boys and Invincible) means it’s not taking advantage of it right now. HBO, Peacock, Paramount, Sprungo, and Hulu all have their own services, and you think about them so seldom that you’re probably still trying to figure out if Sprungo is even legit.
Netflix, however, has found a way to consistently grab the headlines — comedy specials. Netflix is jam-packed with comedy specials these days, and there’s nothing particularly wrong with that. It regularly hosts real-life comedy festivals and if you like stand-up, Netflix has something that none of its competitors have. The problem is that Netflix has repeatedly wooed a controversial, conservative “anti-wake” audience and has repeatedly endorsed Chappelle’s anti-trans rhetoric. Ricky Gervais has a new special on Netflix this week where he jokes about how god isn’t real and trans people are freaks of nature. No, yes, this is new. I know his last one was like that. And the one before that, yes. However, here he is wearing a black t-shirt on a plain stage. What is that? Did he do that in all his other specials too? Well then.
In a way, Netflix is sensing the cultural pointers that after decades of oppression, people are ready to embrace queer culture and make Our Flag Means Death, RuPaul’s Drag Race, and Pose smash hits. Netflix has tried to capitalize on this by buying (and then losing) RPDR and giving Heartstopper two new seasons after seeing it resonate. But it has continued to push the most conservative comedy specials as part of its identity. After Dave Chappelle’s anti-trans uprising was highly controversial, Chappelle was promptly “cancelled,” by which I mean “paid big bucks to keep doing comedy for Netflix.” Employees who disagreed with Chappelle were promptly fired, while subsequent messages from Netflix’s C-Suite urged employees to seek jobs elsewhere if they didn’t like Netflix content.
The question remains: who is Netflix these days? The news factor is gone. Squid Game is perhaps the exception that proves the rule – it no longer has the huge cultural impact it once had. Disney+ and its line of Marvel shows now regularly beat Netflix Originals. It’s not meant for experimentation or developers, as its cancellations and recent layoffs prove, it’s not consistently high quality enough to be a mainstream Criterion, and its big blockbusters leave no trace (remember Red Notice? And The Gray Man looks similar (generic). It can’t consistently entice Heartstopper’s young, culture-shaping audience as long as it’s pushing comedy specials that hit the bottom, and if it wants audiences to gleefully celebrate (and partake in) that hit, why is it renewing Heartstopper?
Netflix never really had to define what it was. Netflix and streaming were the same. Now that it’s facing a lot of competition, it’s still unable to provide an answer to the question, “Who is Netflix for?” “Everyone” just isn’t an answer these days, and soon the answer could be “nobody”.
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