TV

Netflix Originals: From Worst to Best

Netflix is quite the Internet presence. For years it has offered its subscribers a huge catalogue of movies and TV shows to watch how they like, when they like. Even if you’re not in the US where disc rentals are unavailable you, the service still has a gigantic collection of content to watch via its massively popular instant streaming service. Whether you’re watching from a TV, a smartphone or a tablet, there are thousands of titles ready to be watched, with only a click separating you.

But as big as Netflix is, and as much as its subscribers spend portions of their life watching what it has to offer (Netflix is responsible for some of the heaviest internet usage in the world), there was one area where it had yet to make itself known: original content. It became so successful for offering users content created elsewhere but hadn’t yet attempted to be the one creating said content. Until this year, that is, when Netflix finally made a strong effort to infiltrate the market previously, and still, dominated by network and cable stations.

netflix-img-1Of course, 2013 wasn’t the year in which Netflix made their first attempt at original content. Last year, they offered Lilyhammer to their subscribers. Starring Steven Van Zandt, an actor most famous for his work on The Sopranos, Lilyhammer represented the service’s first effort at becoming more than just a streaming service for the wares of others. But it was a rather mute effort at best, and one certainly unable to break into the television market. With a distinct lack of marketing or pre-release attention, the show was never going to be the wrecking ball that Netflix needed to smash down the doors of the member’s only club, populated by the likes of HBO and other big network and cable providers.

So, in essence, 2013 was the year in which Netflix made their first true foray into original content. They had the shows, they had the mission statement, the marketing power, and a subscriber base millions-large already in place to give all of this content to. You can argue about whether their decision to release all the episodes at once is advantageous to how engaged the show’s audience is once the initial release period is over, or even whether it’s financially beneficial to Netflix to throw everything out there at once. But in this post, I’m going to discuss the shows themselves, what I considered to be their biggest successes and failings, and why the prospect of Netflix continuing to become a big presence in the television world excites me considerably.

Hemlock Grove

I’m going to start this post with the show I liked the least out of the four Netflix have released so far this year, and that is quite obviously Hemlock Grove.

netflix-img-2After watching House of Cards and being surprised by how well made and cable-like it felt, I had high hopes for the site’s second attempt at offering original content that people would subscribe for and return to watch. Well, whatever I had hoped Hemlock Grove would be, whatever expectations I had of it, were squashed. Violently and reprehensibly squashed.

From director Eli Roth, famous for movies such as Cabin Fever and Hostel, Hemlock Grove was a monumental disappointment. Whenever I come to write something about it, I almost don’t know where to begin, because there’s just so much rot there that it’s hard to distinguish what may possibly lie underneath.

But as difficult as it may be, I guess I’ll have to start somewhere. For a start, the show was just so frustratingly slow. Sometimes a show taking its time to get where it wants to go can be a good thing, as it allows time to be spent developing characters and story at a pace that doesn’t get diluted due to the rapid narrative movement. Such an example of this would be Mad Men, a show that moves so slowly but uses this opportunity to provide truly exemplary character work. Hemlock Grove, in comparison, felt like it was deliberately being a slow-moving show simply because it didn’t have much to do otherwise, and it was annoyingly grating.

netflix-img-3It doesn’t end there, however. Nope. On top of moving at a glacial pace, Hemlock Grove also had poor characters, appalling dialogue that was, at times, incomprehensible, and more than a few ham-fisted performances from some of its stars. Oh, and let’s not forget the innumerable gratuitous sex scenes. Because why not.

It goes without saying that Hemlock Grove was everything that House of Cards–the Netflix original that directly preceeded it–was not. That sense of compulsion to continue watching, that feeling that the show had been ripped right out of the hands of a cable station–they were just gone. But even with that, the show still enjoyed a moderate success.

Netflix have never released audience figures for their original shows (and without having to concern themselves with how big their ratings are, they likely never will), but the show has been renewed anyway. It’s arguable that consuming a show via the Netflix model of ‘watch when you want, as much as you want’ is enough to paint over some of the show’s faults that you would perhaps be more susceptible to noticing were you to watch it on a weekly basis. If Hemlock Grove were not on Netflix, and was released weekly as is the norm, I strongly suspect it would’ve been picked apart so much that the audience would’ve rapidly drifted away, killing it stone dead. But this is Netflix, and it’s clear that the same rules don’t apply here.

House of Cards

The first of Netflix’s original shows this year, House of Cards is the one that demonstrated how dedicated the service was to breaking into the market. Led by Oscar-winning actor Kevin Spacey, the reimagining of the British series of the same name was a gargantuan success, combining an intriguing narrative with exceptional performances across the board. And if that wasn’t enough, it was the show that made history in this year’s Emmy nominations for being the first nominated show in the major categories to be available on an online-only platform. House of Cards was the wrecking ball that Netflix needed, and it caused quite the carnage.

netflix-img-4Unlike Hemlock Grove, it’s not remotely difficult to choose where to start when discussing House of Cards‘ achievements. We can start with Kevin Spacey, who sits at the top of the cast hierarchy and does a brilliant job of doing so. Frank Underwood is charming and conniving, seductive and secretive, but above all, dangerously ambitious. But he’s the show’s anti-hero, the one you love and want to see succeed even if it involves trampling over somebody in the process–and he plays the part impeccably.

Kevin Spacey was a big name attraction for the show, and certainly one Netflix did good on using to their advantage, but he was by no means the show’s only strong actor. Robin Wright, who played the ice-cold wife to Spacey’s character, did a stellar job of playing the part she was given. Also, Corey Stoll, the unknowingly doomed pawn in Frank’s scheme, was arguably the show’s MVP, playing his character’s rise and subsequent downfall with such skill that I’m still struggling to understand why he wasn’t recognised in the Emmy nominations.

As the first of Netflix’s original shows to premiere this year, House of Cards was an undeniable success. Not a flawless one, as it became a little problematic towards the final stretch, but it was enough to make Netflix’s agenda one to be taken seriously. This was a show with a huge budget, a recognisable and talented cast, an expansive story, and a definite aura of quality that wouldn’t have been unfamiliar on a variety of cable channels.

HOUSE OF CARDSPersonally, I really, really enjoyed the show and consumed the entirety of it over the course of a few days. That being said, while Hemlock Grove benefitted from the binge-watching synonymous with Netflix, I feel that House of Cards probably would’ve been the opposite. It felt like a show that should’ve been absorbed steadily rather than greedily, but regardless, it really didn’t do much to harm its impact.

Overall, even with its faults, House of Cards was exactly what Netflix needed to kickstart their mission plan for original content. It’s what they needed to be considered a viable contender to shake up the game. And it worked.

Arrested Development

For their first two attempts at original content, Netflix had the task of building an audience from thin air. Both House of Cards and Hemlock Grove were adapted from already existing shows and books, and they inevitably would’ve had a few fans migrating to the shows as a result of that, but Netflix still had to build an audience regardless. But with their third attempt of the year, namely the new season of cult hit Arrested Development, they already had a fanbase in place. Instead of building one, they had to appease one, but that didn’t mean the task ahead of them was lessened any.

netflix-img-6The Arrested Development fanbase isn’t one easily satisfied. Yes, there would’ve been a large portion of people who were just thrilled at having these characters back, irrespective of the actual quality of the season, but there were just as many who wouldn’t accept anything less than exemplary. They appreciated Netflix for reviving one of the greatest comedies of all time, but if it wasn’t up to their standards, they would lambast the service for bringing it back just to drop an ink blotch onto an otherwise spotless sheet.

In that regard, it’s arguable that Netflix had a much tougher time with Arrested Development than they did with any of their other shows. They did a fantastic job of marketing the heck out of the show beforehand, with television advertisements and even a real-life banana stand in London, but the true test came when the season premiered. Would it be loved and adored by many, or detested and labelled a failure by the rest?

Well, the reaction to season four was…lukewarm. There were those that loved it, those that merely liked it, and those that simply hated it. Personally, having only just watched the first three seasons at the time, I fell firmly in the ‘liked it’ camp. The fact that these wonderfully crafted characters were back on my screen was enough to paper over many of the cracks, but the change in format (even if understandable) proved problematic, as did the increased episode lengths that padded out content that could easily have been condensed into the traditional twenty-two minutes that a comedy usually utilises.

netflix-img-7But if there’s one criticism that seemed particularly widespread, it was that the season didn’t appear to have a central storyline, merely a series of seemingly unconnected plots appearing whenever the character involved in them had their own episode. This was indeed true for the first handful of episodes, but as the season progressed, a greater sense of connectivity began to emerge until the point came where they were all intertwining with each other, referencing scenes and moments that happened at the beginning of the season. It was this sense of intelligent storytelling and rewarding of the viewer’s continued watching that impressed me considerably with Arrested Development’s fourth season, and if there is to be a fifth, I hope they would consider doing it again.

As I mentioned with the previously mentioned House of Cards and Hemlock Grove, sometimes the Netflix model of binge-watching can either be an advantage or a problem when it comes to how these shows are perceived and how engaging they continue to be after the release period has passed. With HoC, I felt that watching weekly would’ve made for a better experience, while HG probably would’ve been better had it never been made. With Arrested Development, having all the episodes available to watch at your own leisure was definitely beneficial, because as impressive as I found the season’s connectivity, it would’ve been grating to have to wait for it to unfold weeks and months after the premiere.

But overall, the show’s fourth season was a relatively big achievement for Netflix. The reactions were mixed across the board, but the fact they managed to resurrect a show so beloved as Arrested Development and avoid committing some form of lese majesty is testament to their success. And better yet, if they can succeed with bringing AD back, what other shows might they be able to revive in the same vein?

Orange is the New Black

OITNB is the latest of Netflix’s original shows, having premiered less than two months ago. And not only is it the latest but it’s also the greatest. Why? Because it’s just so good, so enriching and satisfying, that it captured my adoration from the first moment I heard the fantastic theme tune from Regina Spektor. If you have a Netflix subscription and you haven’t yet watched the show, you are doing a major disservice to yourself.

netflix-img-8So let’s start with the many, many things that OITNB did right. The most easily recognisable one would be the cast, and more specifically, how they represented a rarity for television. You see, OITNB had an almost exclusively female cast comprised of mixed ethnicities, cultures and sexual orientations that you simply just don’t see on television. (The show actually has a black, female transgender character that isn’t some variation of a sex worker and is actually played by a transgender actress. That, to me, is commendable, and I loved that they did it.)

However, more impressively (if that was somehow possible), the show refrains from making a big issue out of the above. It treats its characters with respect, and it treats them like human beings. In a show set almost completely in a prison environment, it would’ve been very simple for it to have dehumanised those within its walls, and the fact that they didn’t, and instead gave these people motives and reasonings that were distinctly sympathetic at times, was just wonderful.

netflix-img-9That’s another area in which the show succeeded greatly–that all of the characters had their own backstory, often explored via Lost-like flashbacks. Although Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) was the show’s main character, the audience’s vessel for experiencing the prison, OITNB was very much a team effort. Nobody felt like a glorified extra; everybody felt like an integrant part of the same machine.

I could quite honestly write thousands of words gushing about OITNB. It’s actually difficult to stop. This is because this show represented Netflix’s finest and most refined original show yet, combining a fascinating set of stories with an excellent and impressively diverse cast of characters that are simply exquisite fun to watch. There is a reason that the critics are singing this show’s praises, and it deserves every single note.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, the prospect of Netflix growing even more to become a dominating force in the market really excites me. This year alone they’ve shown that with the right shows, they can really make things interesting, and that they don’t rely solely on ratings figures in order to justify keeping them around is interesting. Season four of Arrested Development probably would’ve been labelled a failure on FOX, whereas it was a success for Netflix because of this model.

The market is changing to include platforms like Netflix, and the potential this has for the future is certainly interesting.

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