Is Netflix still groundbreaking?
“Marvel movies are not cinema.” It’s been almost two months since Scorsese’s assertion caused an uproar in the fandom community and invited critics to re-examine the contemporary criteria for classifying something as cinema rather than just a film production. The scale of enragement is not surprising at all, considering that the dispute over the artistic quality of the visual medium is far from being a new concept. Film has been scrutinized by critics and experts in terms of its artistic value nearly from the moment it came into existence; some have perceived it as a groundbreaking opportunity to move and inspire people, while many accused it of cheapening other visual art forms, such as theatre. And this disquiet has been increasing as steadily as the prevalence of the entertainment industry. The growing encroachment of media giants and their gradual appropriation of stories and characters is yet another reason to worry about the effect of the entertainment industry on Art with a capital A. And Netflix is one of the giants that plays the primal role in such endangering of Art.
At the time when Netflix came into existence, it was groundbreaking. It offered opportunities both for viewers as well as independent filmmakers. Today, however, as Netflix has expanded its ‘expertise’ into film production of the so-called Originals (although in most cases, there is nothing original about them), its status as a quality media provider is suffering. It is enough to look at the sheer amount of Original content it has released in a span of a year, with 2018 hitting the staggering 90,000 minutes. And the problem does not solely lie in the numbers, but also in the repetitiveness of the storylines, characters, and sometimes even actors (I’m looking at you, Noah Centineo). Sierra Bourgess, Tall Girl, The F prom, The Last Summer, The Perfect Date… The list can go on and on. And that is just films; television series, although marked by similar issues, is a wholly different problem.
The quality of Netflix productions is in fact so bad that such leading experts as Steven Spielberg voiced their concerns about the future of the cinema art as dominated by Netflix. And they are right. To echo Scorsese’s criticism of Marvel, Netflix productions are not cinematic — they are something else. If anything, they are the commercialization of cinema, the cheapening of cinema, the dumbening of what could be a truly beautiful and stimulating form of art. And this problem does not solely pertain to film productions, but also to the black sheep of the visual art family — Television.
It is not to say that Netflix does not have a single good production. In fact, it has a few remarkable works, such as Stranger Things or House of Cards, which provide them with a loyal, somewhat cultish groups of viewers. But considering the amount of repetitive storylines about teenagers, high school, poorly crafted romances, lack of plot and originality, Netflix drowns in a plethora of productions that are wholeheartedly devoid of any quality whatsoever.
What is even more frustrating is Netflix’s tendency to cancel the shows that are actually good and offer very much needed discussion of socially controversial topics. Last year, for example, and much to the social disquiet, Netflix decided to cancel one of their best sitcoms, One Day At A Time, which discussed the increasingly hostile social attitudes towards immigration, as well as the presidency of Donald Trump. The humour was intelligently crafted, it was educational, it featured healthy relationships, both romantic and platonic, and offered a perspective of a marginalized social group. And what is more, it did all of the above while focusing on such crucial social issues as mental health, single motherhood, religion and LGBT.
Another show cancelled recently is Anne With An E, the most recent adaptation of the renown and beloved classic — Anne of Green Gables — by Lucy M. Montgomery. Despite taking place in the 19th century, the adaptation still managed to rewrite the story in a perfect balance between what was canonically included in the novel, and what was introduced to keep the story relevant in the new social context of the 21st century. The TV series thus managed to retain the core of the story — Anne’s fiery temper, found family, as well as her romantic relationship with Gilbert — while introducing new, more relevant issues of feminism, LGBT, indigenous history and the Canadian Residential School system. Out of many retellings of this classic novel, this one is by far one of the most beautifully crafted. And as far as the cancellation cannot be wholly blamed on Netflix due to it being a co-production with CBC, there is something suspicious about the fact that, like many other successful Netflix productions, Anne With An E would get cancelled when at its best.
Why is it that Netflix decides to cancel such extraordinary shows but decides to keep shows like Riverdale, which not only depict oversexualized teenage figures, but also look as if they were written by beginning fanfiction writers (no offence to you, you’re the only thing that keeps me going when my TV shows are on hiatus). Apparently, in most cases the official reason is not enough viewers, and thus not enough revenue for upkeeping the production. However, there may be more to this; if money was truly a problem, Netflix wouldn’t have released over 90,000 minutes of original content per year. Another explanation, albeit still relevant to the issue of money, is that as the shows become more successful, the actors start negotiating better salaries. In such cases, it is truly easier and cheaper to create new shows, with new actors, whom they can pay much less than the ones starring in much better and more popular shows. Nevertheless, the question of commercialisation and cheapening of the visual artistic form persists.
For the sake of cinema and quality content, maybe the nature of Netflix as a media-provider and content producer cannot coexist. Maybe the giant’s work culture is the doom of the cinematic form. Maybe Netflix should stick to what they do well — content streaming — and steer away from what they are not designed to do — content production. Or maybe they can induce some self-control and stop exploiting the visual form as a money manufacturer.