There is much to be enthusiastic about. The coming series Let The Right One In, adapted from the famous vampire movie, looks excellent. It’s sensitive and moving. The second season of The White Lotus is coming. And with it more queasy humour and sharp questions about wealth, class, identity and sexuality.
Well, those are two items. A suspiciously low number. And it’s a sign, I think, that this Golden Age of TV, which began about 20 years ago, is ending. There is more content on more platforms, but little that is serious-minded, original and provocatively fresh.
You could say, the age began to fade away when the streaming wars got serious. What the big players, Netflix, HBO Max, Disney+ and Amazon Prime, want, are global hits to further the brand. Their instinct is to spend large on fantasy. In this they are mimicking movie studios that invest heavily in superhero franchises.
As l’ve written, I find House of the Dragon tedious, with its reliance on flying, fire-breathing dragons and violent spectacle, and with a thematic undercurrent in praise of tyranny and subjugation. I find The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power unwatchable. And no, that’s not about a racially diverse Middle-earth. I could, however, do with less of what the Irish call “paddywhackery”, the strange amalgam of phoney Irish accents and the harfoots characters presented as creatures from somebody’s notion of the cute side of the Irish Famine. You know, the leprechauns were going hungry, or something.
Over on Netflix, it’s disappointing to see that the No. 1 show in Canada now is the morbidly solemn and boring Dahmer – Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story. You can tell what creator Ryan Murphy and co-writer Ian Brennan are aiming for – making Dahmer’s victims important as people and teasing out a theme about the closeted gay lifestyle. Yet there’s so much Dahmer (played by Evan Peters) that the drama moves with a grisly slowness and amounts to a familiar fetishizing of the serial-killer figure. It lacks logic, needs editing and one doubts that many viewers have actually ventured beyond the first two episodes of 10.
It has come to this: dragons, sword play, faerie-folk and serial killers. Little wonder that many viewers are using Netflix to binge-watch conventional TV that turns up on the streamer. If a new season of NBC’s The Blacklist or Global TV’s Rookie Blue arrives, they have a big audience.
There’s something almost homogenous about the streaming universe right now. It’s impossible to imagine that Netflix has another series such as The Queen’s Gambit coming, because that level of sophistication is not encouraged. Netflix doesn’t want Emmy Awards for excellence in storytelling and acting, it wants subscribers hooked on true crime, serial-killer dramas, reality shows more risqué than on CBS or ABC, and fantasy series such as The Sandman, which have an already existing fanbase.
This isn’t a crisis. There is plenty of assured, smart TV to be found, stories told with confidence and with nuanced meaning. Subscribe to Disney+ in Canada and you’ll find the FX-made series The Bear and The Old Man. Apple TV+ has succeeded with multiple literary adaptations, from the droll espionage series Slow Horses to Pachinko. Often what is best on Netflix are non-English series, from the bonkers but delightful Swedish drama Anxious People to the Quebec-made, pungent and poignant Can You Hear Me? (M’entends-tu?).
As this fall TV season rolls along, it’s obvious that multiple streaming services are banking on movies to draw subscribers and attention. Apple TV+ has a batch of movies that premiered at TIFF and feature stars such as Jennifer Lawrence, Ethan Hawke and Zac Efron. And if I have to read or hear any more about Netflix’s Blonde, I will scream.
There is an irony in all of this. If we think of this Golden Age as beginning with The Sopranos on HBO in 1999, we should think about why The Sopranos came into existence and shows like it were nurtured. Back then HBO was a niche premium-cable service in the United States. It noted a drop in subscribers every quarter and wanted to find out why some people stopped paying.
The answer from former subscribers was, once the menu of movies had been consumed, they didn’t see much point in continuing to pay. Would they be willing to see more original content in drama and comedy? Yes. And thus the 13-episode story arc, which became the premium-cable standard (later mimicked by Netflix and other streamers) was born. First, it overlapped with the quarterly billing period, and if you dropped the service, you missed the end of the season. The gist was, fewer movies, more long-form storytelling to please and intrigue customers. That’s how this period began, and perhaps soon we will see its end.