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Iron Fist

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Netflix had very few wins and too many failures in 2017

Time to sacrifice quantity for quality


Polygon is kicking off its best of entertainment series, which will run through the end of December and beginning of January, coming to a close just before the 2017 Golden Globes. These personal essays will examine the best, most important and weirdest moments that occurred in television, film, streaming and YouTube/Twitch in 2017. Each will examine why the author believes that moment to be one of 2017’s most extraordinary. The series will end with Polygon’s Best of TV and Best of Movies pieces.

Netflix has a quantity problem, and that quantity problem is building up into a quality problem.

Four years ago, Netflix made its mark on television with the introduction of heavyweight original series. Netflix walked in as the hipper, younger sibling to traditional cable and network television. Gone were the days of having to wait a week for a new episode; instead, Netflix introduced the novel concept of having all 13 episodes available at once.

Netflix released three original series that year and just about all were loved by critics: House of Cards, Orange is the New Black and Hemlock Grove. By the end of 2014, another addition was added to the pile: BoJack Horseman. It seemed like Netflix was taking its time, picking up shows that would make cable and network stations green with envy.

Between 2015 and 2017, everything would change.

Netflix ordered close to 100 original series, not including children’s animated programming. Chief content officer Ted Sarandos confirmed in 2016 the company was aiming to make at least 50 percent of its content original; Netflix invested billions in making that number happen. It seemed to all be about the numbers for the streaming giant.

It didn’t seem attainable or sustainable. In 2016, FX president John Landgraf gave his annual “state of the industry” address at a television conference, and noted that Netflix was pushing out too many shows too quickly. Landgraf argued that no one could pay attention to ensure the level of quality was upheld for each individual series.

“Television shows are not like cars or operating systems, and they are not best made by engineers or coders in the same assembly line manner as consumer products which need to be of uniform size, shape and quality,” Landgraf said.

Now, at the beginning of 2018, it seems Landgraf was right.

Too much content

I’ve said this before on Polygon, but Netflix needs to do more than just produce. If it wants to assert itself as the best and biggest network, which is what CEO Reed Hastings and Sarandos want, then it has to do more than provide subscribers with bargain bin picks. There are some real gems in Netflix’s new and returning series — just look at American Vandal or BoJack Horseman’s fourth season — but most of the series were forgettable or mediocre at best.

Here are just a few of the series that debuted in 2017:

If you, like me, went through that list and needed a second to remember whether you heard of these series, let alone watched any of them, you’re not alone. During a critics roundtable with Vox and Verge, Polygon’s sister sites, I brought up this exact issue, noting:

The comedies fared better. Big Mouth, as mentioned, was phenomenal, and is easily on my list of top 10 shows, along with American Vandal. I also liked fellow comedies Dear White People, Atypical, and She’s Gotta Have It. But most everything else was kinda lackluster. I either skipped a number of the dramas, including Ozark, or made it partially through others before becoming bored (I’m sorry, Mindhunter fans). Even Netflix’s push into anime with Neo Yokio proved less than appealing.

As a critic, I came to loathe the longer Netflix dramas, edgier teen series like 13 Reasons Why, or even more formless comedies like Friends from College. As a subscriber I found myself turning to Hulu more often than not for comfort shows to stream. It’s not that I hate Netflix’s content, but I feel inundated with mediocre original series, making it that much harder to find the gems.

Netflix spent $6 billion last year on developing original content and has pledged $8 billion for original series and films in 2018. The company just ordered a sequel to Bright, a movie it spent close to $100 million on and, although reviled by most critics, seemed to receive positive reaction from subscribers.

Still, a couple of weeks later, no one is talking about Bright anymore.

The issue is quantity and the way those series and films are marketed on the actual platform. There are too many original shows, films, mini-series and documentaries for Netflix to properly convey to its audience. That means some of its best series from 2017, including the German show Dark, go unnoticed by the majority of the public while boring shows like Santa Clarita Diet get far too much press.

Last year, Netflix announced it wasn’t going to renew one of its best and most beloved series, Sense8, for a third season. Though official numbers for the show were never released publicly, CEO Reed Hastings hinted that viewership wasn’t high enough to support the network spending nearly $9 million an episode — more than what HBO spends on Game of Thrones.

At the time, I applauded Netflix’s ability to say “no” to a renewal, something the network never seemed comfortable doing before. Hastings understood the only way to move forward was to make difficult decisions, cutting what didn’t make sense for the network. I wish Hastings and Sarandos had decided to let Sense8 continue, taking out more mediocre programs in its place, but at least they were making executive decisions that showed they were dedicated to the company’s future as a network.

It’s not just a Netflix problem, but no one is willing to spend the money Netflix is. Landgraf commented on the state of peak TV at that same aforementioned television conference, saying:

While there is more great television [now] than at any time in history, audiences are having more trouble than ever distinguishing the great from the merely competent. I also believe that there is so much U.S. television we have lost much of the thread of a coherent, collective conversation about what is good, what is very good and what is great.

Just one year following Landgraf’s grave outlook on the industry’s future, it appears like Langraf may have been right.

It’s not all bad

Netflix still produces good work. There is a reason the service has more than 100 million subscribers worldwide. Its foreign slate of new series, including Dark, and comedies like One Day At a Time, inspired by television’s golden age, captured my attention and held it. I’ve gone on and on this year about how important American Vandal and Big Mouth were to me as an avid television watcher and critic. I fell in love with the problematic Atypical, found a new hope in Dear White People and fell in love with a troupe of women wrestlers in GLOW.

But I didn’t just stumble upon these series. I only watched American Vandal and Big Mouth because I had access to screeners and sought out information on each show. Atypical never appeared in my recommended section and was buried in Netflix’s new additions section; I only watched it because a close friend told me how much she appreciated it as a mother of a boy with autism.

The issue isn’t that Netflix can’t produce good content; the issue is that Netflix is spending too much time trying to produce series in huge quantity that good series get drowned out by the mediocre stuff.

We talked more about 13 Reasons Why, a show that glorified suicide for a teenage audience, than we did Big Mouth, a series that found nuance in a coming-of-age tale. We barely gave Dear White People our attention because we were too busy trying to get through the awfulness of Iron Fist.

Netflix has some phenomenal shows, but until the network learns to give up on having the most original series so it can focus on having the very best, it’s not going to get any more attractive to subscribers. I’ve been spending far more time digging into Hulu originals and series on niche streaming platforms because Netflix has begun to bore me. Unless I’m marathoning an old series that I want to return to, I have no interest in trying out a new show Netflix thinks I might be interested in.