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(Netflix/Ringer illustration)
(Netflix/Ringer illustration)

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Netflix’s Extremely Busy April

Last month was unusually dense for the streaming giant. What can its new releases tell us about where Netflix is, and where it’s headed?

Even by the standards of our current content fire hose, April was a ridiculously dense TV month, with a new series or season premiering more days than not. As Vox’s Todd VanDerWerff helpfully pointed out, that’s largely due to the impending end of the Emmy eligibility period; all the big broadcasters want to ensure that shows, from Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale to Netflix’s Dear White People, are ideally situated for awards season. April is now to TV what October has long been to movies: a prime period for shows to make an impression just before voting begins.

For Netflix, however, the increased drip of new releases is only partially an Emmy grab. The added volume is also part of the gradual, longer-term ramp-up to a near monopoly on its subscribers’ media diets. To that end, the service spent its April unleashing a mix of proven hits and brand-new experiments, adding up to the constantly expanding, constantly shifting monolith’s highest-intensity month yet. Netflix’s April offerings reveal a complementary set of truths about the service: It’s struggling with the scope of its ambition in some cases, well on its way to winning the content wars in others. This is what Netflix has shown us it takes to build an entertainment Death Star: almost infinite breadth, strategic depth, and a willingness to wait things out when they don’t immediately click.

A Show for Everyone Is a Show for No One

(Netflix)
(Netflix)

By now, it’s clear that Netflix wants to be all things to all people: CBS and HBO, Disney Channel and Discovery. The platform can make a bid for one America with its multicam sitcom about a Colorado ranch even as it courts another with its multicam sitcom about Cuban immigrants in Los Angeles. That’s the advantage of a 10-figure original content budget: rather than efficiently market yourself to a single demographic, you can generally market yourself to every demographic. But that possibility leaves both viewers and the company’s marketing department with the brand-new problem of figuring out which things are for which people.

Such is the quandary facing Bill Nye Saves the World, the second in Netflix’s awkward, nascent roster of talk shows (more on that later). Nye is one of those "we gave a popular personality free rein to do whatever they want!" projects — including Master of None, Lady Dynamite, Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life — that have been the company’s signature since Season 4 of Arrested Development, and it embodies that strategy’s pitfalls. PBS’s beloved Science Guy doesn’t seem to have had the clearest idea what, exactly, he wanted — and the streaming service isn’t built to guide him toward a more focused final product. Instead, Nye and his team made a straightforward talk show, but overtly science-themed and filled with colorful, gimmicky demonstrations. Rachel Bloom sings a song about her "sex junk"; Randy Couture dresses up in a silly costume and sips some wine. It’s all fun, but when thrown together with lectures on climate change or contentious debates on modern medicine, it makes for a confusing mix.

The most common line of criticism, or even just earnest inquiry, leveled at Nye has been the question of who this is for. Is it for the kids who once watched his show on PBS, who likely won’t understand the evils of Monsanto and aren’t equipped to act on knowing the virtues of vaccines? Or is it for the adults those kids have matured into, who’ve outgrown the need for their science lessons to come swaddled in comedy sketches and celebrity cameos? Netflix has both children’s programming and weightier nonfiction fare on its roster, but it lets Nye be both — and therefore neither. Netflix’s omnivorous diet is its greatest selling point as a one-stop entertainment shop. But no limitations also means no template to follow, and unlimited alternatives just a click away means there’s no reason for a viewer to stick things out if a show doesn’t immediately come together.

Spending Big — Especially on Really Big Names — Is a Sound Investment

The umbrage at The Ridiculous 6 passed years ago, and with it Adam Sandler’s last time in the crosshairs of the critics he otherwise couldn’t care less about. But Sandler has continued to produce content for his new patron saint, to the apparent satisfaction of all parties involved. In late March, Sandler and Netflix expanded their deal from four films to eight; a few weeks later, Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos bragged that users have consumed nearly a half billion hours’ worth of Sandler comedy worldwide, an unusually staggering instance of populist appeal trumping tastemaker consensus — and an unusual nod to viewing statistics from an executive who doesn’t like to talk about them. (In addition to made-for-streaming movies like 6 and The Do-Over, Netflix also has archival selections like Big Daddy and The Waterboy.) And now their third collaboration, Sandy Wexler, is available to anyone with an internet connection.

(Netflix)
(Netflix)

From a business perspective, the Sandler deal is starting to look like a best-case scenario for both sides. Sandler gets to do what he loves (make unabashedly dumb starring vehicles for himself that double as employment opportunities for his entourage), and Netflix gets a monopoly on a proven commodity (Pixels may have bombed domestically, but Sandler has 13 nine-digit hits on his CV.) The arrangement now seems like a successful foray into vertical integration, forging long-term relationships with creators rather than merely acquiring their work. Sandler may not be homegrown, but he’s certainly on Netflix’s home team. It’s a testament to how well the deal has worked out that Netflix is attempting to replicate the model elsewhere: April also saw the release of Win It All, a Joe Swanberg feature that went straight to the platform where the director’s previous features had found the bulk of their audience. And it’s no coincidence that the latest round of episodes of Chelsea Handler’s Netflix talk show opened with a Sandler cameo. Speaking of:

It Is Possible to Fix a Streaming Mistake

Chelsea returned on April 14 after a nearly four-month offseason. Given the indifferent reception to the first season, which was barely in the same conversation as the network Jimmys despite nearly matching their output (three shows a week to The Tonight Show’s five), it’s almost surprising it came back at all. A topical — and by design, disposable — format like a late-night show was always an odd choice for a platform that prides itself on permanence. Unsurprisingly, Chelsea initially proved an awkward fit, with episodes too timely (monologues, guests doing promo) to binge and too evergreen (pretaped dinner parties and trips abroad) to feel urgent. This made the original 90-episode order seem like an instance of Netflix biting off more than it could chew in a bid to secure a Sandleresque talent.

Instead of cutting its losses, the company ordered 30 episodes of a second season; despite its trimmed-down length, the tweaks to Chelsea indicate that Netflix is still very much invested in having a late-night star. The episodes that are produced are noticeably bigger, in scope as well as size. Installments are now a full hour, as opposed to just 20 to 40 minutes. The host has also promised more, and more ambitious, field segments; the first handful of episodes have seen an interlude in Paris and a visit to a Los Angeles City Council candidate’s office. The changes hint that Handler and her distributor were aware that Chelsea wasn’t quite working; the show is now streamlined to just one episode a week, pushing Handler closer to Samantha Bee’s and John Oliver’s more meticulously crafted cable fare. That parallel proves true in substance as well as style: Handler has always said she wanted Chelsea to have more of a political focus than Chelsea Lately, Handler’s E! talk show, but the emphasis is especially apparent in a season planned after the election. Candidates, representatives, and senators now round out the guest list alongside celebrities, and discussion of Trump’s first 100 days spilled over from the monologue to a panel chat with Tracee Ellis Ross, Aisha Tyler, and Rosario Dawson.

Those who dislike Handler’s surface-level provocation and self-satisfied crassness won’t become sudden converts, and Netflix’s algorithm will no doubt allow them to forget the show’s existence after a few weeks of home-page promotion. But the changes do indicate that Netflix is capable of retooling its approach even as it remains steadfast in its commitment to name-brand talent.

There Is No Comedian Too Big — or Too Small

The name brands that Netflix has courted most aggressively are stand-up comedians: Dave Chappelle, Chris Rock, Amy Schumer. April saw just a couple of new specials make their way onto the platform, but they demonstrate both poles of Netflix’s recruitment program, which they’ve expanded to the point that the service is planning to broadcast a new hour every week for the rest of this year.

First, there was Louis C.K., lured by a deal sweet enough to convince him to abandon the self-release strategy he’s favored for the past few years, at least for now. (How sweet? Numbers weren’t made public for C.K., but Rock received $40 million for his two specials.) C.K. didn’t need anyone to help him find an audience, and while 2017 wasn’t a major creative shift, its mere presence on the service spoke to both Netflix’s clout and how serious it is about locking in comedy’s entire A-list.

The Lucas brothers’ On Drugs, on the other hand, is a much more niche proposition. The first comedy special from the twins — yes, they perform jointly — behind FXX’s animated Lucas Bros Moving Co, the special is aimed squarely at the Adult Swim stoner set. The Lucas brothers aren’t household names like C.K., and On Drugs suggests they’re not after that kind of fame with their mumbling, banter-filled delivery anyway. But Netflix is still interested, because its comedy strategy is a microcosm of the service’s larger one: capture all the markets, from the large to the small. Once in a while, you might even find yourself with an Ali Wong–style breakout on your hands.

Anything Can Be a Franchise — and a Good One, Too

Movie-to-TV-show transitions are generally reserved for mass hits (Clueless), genre world-builders (Star Wars: The Clone Wars), or lately, all-time classics (The Exorcist, Training Day). Reboots and revivals, meanwhile, are afforded to old-school properties (The Odd Couple, MacGyver, Netflix’s own Fuller House) or, lately, cult series that never got their fair shot from the cruel mistress that is ratings-dependent ad revenue (Arrested Development).

But with Netflix’s seemingly bottomless pockets comes a much wider array of possibilities, including two of this month’s more pleasant surprises: Justin Simien’s supersized, "TV" version of Dear White People and the Jonah Ray–hosted revamp of Mystery Science Theater 3000. The surprise comes less from the series’ very existence — on the internet, anything is possible — than their creative success. An indie film grossing less than $5 million isn’t a logical foundation for a widely marketed television series. Conversely, turning his standalone movie into IP isn’t a logical next step for a promising young auteur. Yet Dear White People proves itself to be a far better vehicle for Simien’s vision than a feature, expanding his distinctive world and giving its characters the subtle shading he struggled to fit into 108 minutes. The plurality of campus perspectives is better conveyed through a TV ensemble cast than a feature with a primary protagonist. Antoinette Robertson, in particular, benefits from having multiple episodes to flesh out Coco Conners, the ambitious, pragmatic striver who might come off as more of a one-note sellout in a feature film.

Mystery Science Theater, too, was an odd candidate for resurrection. With space robots heckling B movies, the show certainly fit the "cult" qualifier, but with hundreds of episodes spanning nearly a dozen seasons and almost the entirety of the 1990s, it’d be hard to argue MST3K didn’t get the chance to live out its full potential. Yet the Netflix version proves that a show doesn’t have to feel necessary to feel worthwhile. As long as there are B movies to embellish and funny people to embellish them, MST3K is an infinitely renewable resource. Longtime Nerdist and Meltdown cohost Ray proves a capable steward, flanked by helpers who also clearly grew up on the original and value its legacy, Patton Oswalt and Baron Vaughn among them. And so Netflix has given rise to two odd, unlikely entrants in the trend it helped to start. Turns out the philosophy symbolized by Fuller House — that there’s no property too old, established, or played out to make another shot not worthwhile — may be a bigger tent than we’d previously thought.

Being Relentlessly On-Trend Has Its Drawbacks

Netflix’s most intriguing miss this month also happens to be the most topical of its scripted shows. Girlboss has been in the works for a while, and that’s the problem. In the time since Netflix acquired Kay Cannon’s adaptation of Sophia Amoruso’s titular book/hashtag, neither the show nor its distributor has had time to adjust accordingly. What was once the hot femoir du jour is now the poster child for a certain kind of hypocritical feminist-flavored capitalism. The final product is consequently incapable of imagining we might find Sophia’s unabashed selfishness anything but aspirational. Those who don’t — and following accusations regarding how that me-first attitude manifests as a management style, there are many — won’t find her as charming or even interesting as the show does. Girlboss thinks its heroine is a one-of-a-kind trailblazer. The average viewer has enough distance (and familiarity with post-Amoruso bosses like Miki Agrawal) to see through the hagiography.

Buzz Is Fleeting, but Quality Is Eternal

(Netflix)
(Netflix)

When The Get Down’s first set of episodes dropped last summer, its marquee director (Baz Luhrmann!), style (’70s New York!), and most importantly, budget (nine figures!) helped dominate headlines, with a polarized critical reception holding it in the popular consciousness for a few more weeks after release. The production was indeed spectacular, the writing indeed obvious; this was a Luhrmann production. But the show’s sentimentality was fitting for a moving coming-of-age story, with the homage to early hip-hop coming off as heartfelt rather than exploitative.

Now, though, the show is yet another highish-profile release in a month that’s chock-full of them. Rotten Tomatoes lists just a handful of reviews for this month’s back half of Season 1, and chatter has been almost nonexistent compared to other returning prestige fare like Fargo or Veep. Then again, that’s a completely acceptable outcome for the ratings-resistant streaming service, which is built for the long game, and a preferable result compared to what befell Girlboss. Better to have a durable product — and with its quirky ambition, The Get Down is certainly that — than a disposable one that’s missed its moment before it even arrives. Idiosyncrasy ages better than trend chasing, even if it doesn’t announce itself as loudly. The Get Down isn’t a flashy new show anymore — it’s just a solid, charming series. And in the long run, that means Netflix’s investment is paying off.

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