Ten years ago, on Feb. 6, 2012, Netflix launched its first original series. That was Lilyhammer, starring Steven Van Zandt as an American mobster who was hiding out in a small city in Norway because he’d spilled the beans about his mob connection in the United States and had been placed as far away as possible from his old pals.
Not a lot of people saw Lilyhammer, a slightly daft fish-out-of-water drama-comedy. But its arrival was a pivotal moment. Over the next 10 years, Netflix would change everything in TV, and create an ecosystem that is still evolving today. Here are 10 things about 10 years of Netflix originals.
1. At the time, it just seemed a bit odd that the show was set in Norway, but it made sense in terms of the premise. What was really significant was that Netflix made it in partnership with Norwegian broadcaster NRK1. That was the first step in a monumental shift. A decade later, Netflix has made non-English-language TV content palatable to a vast audience that used to stay away from content with subtitles. French-language Lupin and Spanish-language Money Heist are among its biggest successes.
2. It was House of Cards, launched a year after Lilyhammer, that really made Netflix’s reputation for original content. The political thriller, loosely adapted from the 1990 BBC series, looked stunning, had a solid cast and 13 episodes landed together. The series was never quite as good as some critics claimed, and audiences impressed with it had probably never seen any major HBO series.
3. The term “binge-watch” became associated with Netflix, thanks to House of Cards and Netflix’s acquisition of, and streaming of, entire seasons of AMC’s Breaking Bad. But the binge-watch habit already existed. As soon as entire series were released on DVD (starting with The X-Files in 2000), people binge-watched TV series. Netflix started as a company that rented these DVDs by mail.
4. For all its alleged reliance on algorithms to create content, Netflix owes part of its success to simply finding a gap in the market and filling it. Ten years ago, if you were in the age group 15 to 35, hardly any TV made by broadcasters was aimed at you, and aware of your taste and preoccupations. Netflix just created or bought and streamed a ton of series that spread by word of mouth online for that group, from romantic comedies to the skeptical, streetwise series such as The End of the F***ing World.
5. Romance. Netflix has elevated the romantic drama from the Hallmark-level of predictability and inanity. Virgin River will never win awards but the series, mainly made in Canada, is a huge international hit. Firefly Lane, a series with a similar tone, is also huge.
6. Sometimes it just doesn’t work out for Netflix. A few years ago, the company signed Ryan Murphy to produce multiple series. To date, nothing he has done for the streamer – The Politician, Ratched and Hollywood – has come anywhere near his work for FX and Fox; nothing at the level of Glee or The People v. O. J. Simpson: American Crime Story.
7. The phrase Netflix-numb should be coined and used. The number of similar-themed crime dramas can get ridiculous. Netflix has a deal to adapt 14 of Harlan Coben’s books into series and, so far, the ones that have arrived, including The Stranger and Stay Close, have been formulaic time-wasters.
8. Canada has essentially been exploited by Netflix, with little to show in return. Many of its productions are made here, and some CBC comedies, such as Kim’s Convenience, have reached a big audience. But real investment in Canadian content is all-promise, no-delivery, so far.
9. The amount of money Netflix has poured into the production of feature films has not resulted in much that’s been truly outstanding. Both The Irishman from Martin Scorsese and Mank from David Fincher were so sprawling they were barely watchable. Netflix’s best two features have been Roma and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.
10. You reap what you sow. Before starting to produce original content with Lilyhammer, Netflix’s library of existing shows was what drew subscribers. As soon as Netflix grew in status and importance, the producers and original broadcasters wanted those shows back. Netflix’s original bread and butter, such series as Friends and the NBC version of The Office, have gone to new streaming services who want what Netflix already has – a massive international audience that began with a series set in Norway, of all places.
Plan your screen time with the weekly What to Watch newsletter. Sign up today.