Less than five years ago, Netflix was essentially a library. Movies, old TV shows, a smattering of hard-to-find series. People liked it, once word spread. It was cheap.
Then it started making original programming. The pace of that has been staggering. In 2012 it had one series, Lilyhammer, in 2013, five series, in 2014, 11 and for this year and just beyond, it plans 36 original productions – series and documentaries.
Is it all good? No. That's the Netflix reality. It's my problem with the streaming service. More money than sense. Less than discerning taste in choosing projects. Netflix is wonderful, naive and wasteful with its resources. All of that.
In 2013, just before the arrival of House of Cards, Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos told HQ magazine in an interview, "The goal is to become HBO faster than HBO can become us."
Noble goal. But, HBO-quality? That's still out of reach.
Sarandos met us critics on the first morning of the TV critics press tour here to explain the plan for the next while.
"Today I stand here to kick off our presentation of Netflix original programming for this year. That includes 16 scripted dramas and comedies, nine original documentary features, three documentary series, 12 original stand-up comedy specials, 17 original series for kids. In total we'll be releasing about 475 hours of original programming in the U.S. this year."
Much of that will be seen, too, in Canada and around the world. But it's a boast about quantity, not quality. There are some exceptional offerings, sure. A documentary about Keith Richards coming this fall looks very promising. The series Narcos coming in late August is truly great.
There are pros and cons to the Netflix situation. Let's assess.
It's good that Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, which is about to go into production for a second season, is able to flex some comedy muscle on the streaming service. The first season, though delightful, was originally made by NBC, who passed on it and it landed at Netflix. What we'll see in the second season is material that doesn't have to adhere to network standards and practices. One of the producers, Tina Fey, told us here that the show now has: "licence to play with time and structure," and nobody involved has to wonder about offending advertisers. Fey also noted that it's a pleasure to promote a show that doesn't require people to stick with it, week in and week out.
It's also good that Netflix revived the drama Longmire from cancellation. Sarandos made an interesting point about that: "Sometimes a show gets cancelled off the network not because it's run out of creative steam; just because it was attracting the wrong audience demographic to sell ads. I think that's the case with Longmire, which was less attractive to advertising – but the show's really great." That's a fair point – a show appreciated by older viewers, not one sought by ad-buyers, finds a longer life on Netflix.
In the documentary arena, Netflix also has a lot going for it. Liz Garbus, whose doc What Happened, Miss Simone? is much feted at festivals, is delighted that Netflix is streaming it. "There is so much discovery of docs on the Netflix platform," she said. "The constancy of availability is important. People don't have to ask you 'When can I see it?' It's just there, all the time."
Meanwhile, for all of Netflix's boasting about new productions and Emmy nominations, there is a quality-control issue. House of Cards wobbled and then fell into near-caricature of itself in its third season. Bloodline is a superficially serious drama, but crippled by the deep conventionality of its storyline.
A show that Netflix sees as a success, Sense 8, is a complicated indulgence. A cult show, not a classic. When the cast and actors came here, critics ran out of questions to ask because, essentially, nobody really understands its mixture of sci-fi and fantasy. From the Wachowskis, who did the Matrix movies, it is deeply illogical in plotting and reeks of pretension.
So, for every Orange is the New Black, there's also a Netflix production that lacks artistic and storytelling rigour. It ain't at HBO-level yet.