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Anya Taylor-Joy as Beth Harmon in The Queen’s Gambit, Netflix's biggest scripted limited series to date.

Phil Bray/Netflix

When TV critics get together, first we complain. That profusion of new channels and platforms, all clamouring for attention, means more work and more worry that we’ve missed something. Then we try to figure out what’s happening in the industry. The big picture. We might conclude that, in general, the big picture is that so much content means more quality and we’re quite lucky, so quit complaining.

We don’t get together anymore. The last press tour was an online-only event last summer, and what emanated subtly from it was a sense of fear. Not from the TV critics, but from some producers, writers, directors and actors. It was a fear that COVID-19 would upend the industry in ways that were ominous and long-term.

They weren’t wrong, the worriers. Like life itself and U.S. politics, the TV landscape is a shambles. It’s impossible to figure out trends and certainties. This is a rogue year, and things may never go back to normal.

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Binge-watching guide: The recent shows you need to catch up on, all available to stream

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. The public’s taste is more fickle and unpredictable this year, even as more and more people are watching TV instead of engaging in other activities. Take the past few weeks.

On Monday, Netflix issued a release to announce that The Queen’s Gambit is its biggest scripted limited series to date: 62 million households watched it in its first 28 days, and it’s a hit in 92 countries. Unheralded in advance, lacking in sex and violence, and distinctly literary in tone, the miniseries is a phenomenon.

Meanwhile, some COVID-delayed network series returned recently. In the first week of November, the No. 1 network show in Canada was The Good Doctor (ABC, CTV), and not far behind was Young Sheldon (CBS, CTV). Both might be considered formulaic and forgettable series, but there’s a hunger for them. Also doing well was U.S. election coverage – mainly via CNN – and Hallmark-made holiday-themed movies. There’s no logic to this, as far as many in the industry are concerned. It’s like the audience is drunk, careening from one distraction to another.

Freddie Highmore as Dr. Shaun Murphy in The Good Doctor. In the show's first week of November, it was the No. 1 network show in Canada.

JEFF WEDDELL/ABC / CTV

Perhaps even more worrying for the industry is the outright cancellation of good series that simply cost too much to produce during COVID times. GLOW on Netflix, with three Emmy awards and 18 nominations, has been shut down forever. The same goes for Showtime’s excellent On Becoming a God in Central Florida (in Canada on Crave), which arrived to acclaim last year, was renewed for a second season and then cancelled. The same applies to ABC’s hit Stumptown.

Why are they cancelled? Well, according to The Hollywood Reporter, the complications of safely making a series – testing, safety protocols and required stoppages if anything goes awry – can add between US$300,000 and US$500,000 an episode, to production costs. Yes, per episode.

Kate Nash, Sunita Mani, Shakira Barrera, Marianna Palka and Alison Brie in Netflix's GLOW. Despite a slew of accolades and nominations, the series has been shut down permanently.

Ali Goldstein/Netflix/Netflix

Then, there’s the role of social media. Time was, a broadcaster or streaming service could pretend there was huge interest in specific content by flooding social media with mentions. Now, the public is biting back. What irritated people this year were series – drama and documentary series in particular – ballooning to eight or 10 hours when the story could be told in four. What was once called “Netflix bloat,” that phenomenon of storylines sagging as a 10-episode target was reached, spread to other areas.

HBO’s The Vow received a ton of derision for its meandering, repetitive style and pacing. A true-crime documentary series about the cult NXIVM, it was presented as a holy-moley look at an organization facing charges including sex trafficking and racketeering conspiracy, involving some TV stars and the very rich. It was, for the most part, frustratingly muddled, long-winded and confusing. Maybe one outcome from this rogue year is shorter series and tighter storytelling. The public’s patience is wearing thin.

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Kirsten Dunst as Krystal Stubbs in On Becoming a God in Central Florida. The show arrived to acclaim last year, was renewed for a second season and then cancelled.

Patti Perret/Showtime / Crave

As for TV critics, we’re not complaining. With more people watching TV on various and multiple platforms, and seeking guidance, it’s like we’re all in this together; critics, readers and viewers. Not a bad thing either.

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