Cancelled Too Soon: Mindhunter

This article is part of the Cancelled Too Soon series. Previously, Lodge 49.


Television has changed so drastically in the last decade that it’s hard to comprehend in hindsight. The history of television is full of drastic change, from the move to colour to the rise of cable and satellite channels, but the emergence of streaming has exploded the very concept of what television is. Something literally no longer has to appear on TV to be a TV show. We watch TV shows on computers and telephones, instantly available and on our own schedule. So much of what we call TV now would not be recognised as TV by time travellers from twenty years ago. Cable television was small fry by comparison: it was still recognisably television, there was just a lot more of it. A dozen new places to watch Murder She Wrote reruns. 

Streaming is different. It’s not just the rise of major new companies in the TV landscape, it’s the transformation of both how we watch TV and how TV gets made. In 2013, Netflix started pivoting in earnest to original programming with Orange Is The New Black and House of Cards, and in the years since, basically every tech or media company has decided to launch its own subscription streaming service, each offering original, exclusive programming. Most of it is released a full season at a time, although Disney+ and Apple TV have tried (with varying degrees of success) to release episodes weekly. The season lengths are generally short: if the typical seasons of American television were twenty-two episodes or so on a network and around thirteen on cable, recent streaming shows tap out at about ten. While short seasons are typical of how TV is produced in a lot of countries – six episodes has been the consistent norm in the UK for decades – those old-fashioned long seasons are now at death’s door in the US, too. 

This is important because it’s transformed what TV is actually like. In the early days, the rise of streaming services was often discursively bundled in with the Golden Age of TV that was set off by The Sopranos: complex, serialised storytelling, the story goes, was now possible on television, usually in the form of dark antihero dramas. If the rhetoric about the Golden Age of TV was sometimes overblown – a strange form of backhanded snobbery that put television as a medium down in order to praise its programmes – it was describing something real and tangible and exciting. Watching Breaking Bad for the first time was one of the greatest thrills I’ve had with any piece of art. Although to this day Wikipedia frames this golden age as ongoing, there was a clear shift at a certain point. Bundling modern streaming television in with The Sopranos totally misses what streaming shows are actually like to watch. 

Television as a medium has traditionally been both short and long: you watch it for half an hour or so, but over months and years. Streaming television has effectively reversed this: episodes bloat and bleed into one another, which combined with the shorter seasons, gives the feeling of a stretched-out movie. And then it gets cancelled prematurely. So much of great old television is tight, short episodes churned out for the better part of a decade – an epic mosaic made from tiny, carefully crafted individual artworks – and so much of modern television is two bloated and sluggish seasons and then cancellation. The second season of Jessica Jones was such a bloated mess that didn’t even really feel like it had episodes, it just rolled credits at around the hour mark. Most people around me seem to have adjusted to the new television landscape fairly well, even if I am convinced they have forgotten exactly what they’re missing. When people talk about binging shows, too often it sounds to my ear less like they are enjoying the show so much they want to stay with it that bit longer and more like they’re racing to get it over with. 

If you love television – and I do, dearly, since I was a tiny tot sat in front of the box to watch cartoons – it’s easy to despair and retreat into old detective shows and classic sitcoms. Emily VanDerWerff captured my feelings perfectly

The things I love about older TV are precisely the things that are missing from TV right now. In the olden times, TV sprawled and took its time and unfolded over many episodes over many years. Even a show like Breaking Bad took several years to unspool its story, and when you look at something like Cheers, it’s impossible to imagine something with that level of depth and complexity getting that long to tell its story today. We are built not for the long haul, but for an endless assault of the new… That makes me sad, or maybe it just makes me old. But it does seem like whatever this medium I love is becoming, it’s not quite the thing that made me fall in love with it.

But it is possible for great shows to still get made. Great shows get made all the time, in fact. I Think You Should Leave is quite possibly the greatest sketch show of all time, and it probably wouldn’t have gotten made in any previous era of American television. But too many great shows feel like they were born too late, trapped in a time that can’t appreciate them the way they deserve. Shows like Mindhunter

Continue reading “Cancelled Too Soon: Mindhunter”

Eternal Subscriptions of the Spotless Mind

We’re living through a time that future media historians will call a major turning point in the digital era. The younger, techier companies that created the modern streaming market, like Netflix and Amazon, have used up their first mover advantage and the regrouped old guard are gearing up to crush them. (Apple are on the tech side, but did not use their first mover advantage, because they’re idiots, presumably.) The biggest conglomerates in the film industry – Disney, AT&T, Comcast, ViacomCBS – will stop licensing their films to streaming services owned by other companies in favour of exclusively streaming them on services they own: Disney+, HBO Max, Peacock and Paramount+ (formerly CBS All Access) respectively. It’s gonna take a few years to make the shift, as deals that were signed before launching these services cannot be rescinded. But they’ll pretty much all be expired by the end of this decade and very few will be renewed, especially once HBO Max, Peacock and Paramount+ go international. That’ll leave any streaming service without a major studio archive increasingly reliant on their original releases as enticement to stay subscribed, which will always be a worse value proposition for a consumer than original releases plus loads of existing films. Amazon seem to be futureproofing Prime against this threat by buying MGM and securing a back catalogue of their own. Netflix and Apple seem to be doing sweet fuck all, but that could change any minute. It’s Silicon Valley vs Hollywood in a fight to the death over which shower of assholes in California get to shape the future of global media, and it terrifies me.

Streaming has only been around for the bones of a decade and it’s already transformed the industry so much, mostly for the worse. Suffocating overproduction, cinemas decimated, expanding power of corporations to censor art. The casualties of the first streaming war (June 2011March 2020) have already been severe, and that was before Disney, one of the most awful, nihilistic media companies in human history, got involved. What fresh horrors will come now the second streaming war (May 2020 – present) is afoot? I obviously can’t know what Bob Iger and his ilk are cooking up in their high rises, but I can try to think like them. I’ve looked at graphs of market trends and nodded slowly, I’ve brainstormed and wordclouded and powerpointed, I’ve put a photo of Martin Scorsese on a dart board and shot it with a revolver. I’ve danced with Minions in the pale moonlight, huffed the helium from Walt Disney’s cryopod and sought prophecy in the entrails of a still-living Boots the Monkey. I’ve read the fucking Economist. And lo, the Invisible Hand came forth from the great maelstrom of the market, laid a single finger on my forehead and answered my prayers. I have seen the future that Disney and all the other rogues will bring about in their ruthless, pointless pursuit of wealth. It has come to me as if in a vision, and, buddy, it is fucked up.

Continue reading “Eternal Subscriptions of the Spotless Mind”

Patching the Zeitgeist

It all started with George Lucas.

The man who once wrote that “people who alter or destroy works of art and our cultural heritage for profit or as an exercise of power are barbarians” released the Special Editions of the original Star Wars trilogy on VHS in 1997, using new digital technologies to alter these works of art with bafflingly hideous changes like making Han Solo’s neck jerk awkwardly to dodge a clumsily-inserted blaster shot from Greedo. He altered them again for the 2004 DVD release, the 2011 Blu-Ray release and the 2019 4K release on Disney+, in which Greedo now says “Maclunkey” as he shoots. (Lucas apparently made that change before selling the copyright to Disney.) Obviously, directors had been releasing new cuts of their movies for some time when Lucas decided that, actually, being a profiteering, power-hungry barbarian sounded pretty good, but no one else in the era of home media had ever decided to make the original cuts totally unavailable by legal means and keep them that way seemingly forever. (The original trilogy will enter the public domain at some point, assuming we don’t turn the planet into a charred lifeless husk, but that won’t be for another seventy-something years at minimum.)

In the years since, few others have made the original versions of popular works of art unavailable in quite so calculated and malicious a manner. But in a world where art is increasingly available only in digital formats – and especially one where such art is increasingly stored on faraway servers and streamed to our computers rather than stored on them – the ability of copyright holders to alter or destroy works of art has grown exponentially. There’s Kanye West repeatedly “updating” his 2017 album The Life of Pablo on streaming services after release and Netflix letting Mitch Hurwitz recut the Rashomon-like fourth season of Arrested Development into a chronological order with shorter episodes (the original cut is still available on Netflix, but buried with the trailers). It’s not necessarily a power they frequently flex in obvious ways, at least outside the video game industry. But it’s still a power they have, and it should worry us.

Continue reading “Patching the Zeitgeist”

What Gets Lost: TV archiving, preservation and accessibility [Current Affairs]

I’m not much given to ranking such things, but if you put a gun to my head and asked me to rank my favourite sitcoms, The Likely Lads would easily make the top tier. It aired three seasons on BBC between 1964 and 1966—which, because it’s British television, means twenty episodes and a Christmas sketch—following Terry and Bob, two young men working in a factory in the north-east of England. It was commissioned because The Beatles were big and that made someone at the BBC want a show about young northerners, even if they ended up in Newcastle instead of Liverpool.

Terry and Bob are instantly, vividly realized: they are united in their shared ambitions of getting drunk, picking up girls, and watching football, but there is always a tension between Terry’s pride in being working-class and Bob’s ambitions for social mobility. Bob will always blame Terry for his bad behavior, but the phrase “pushing an open door” was invented specifically to describe Bob. While many 1960s sitcoms are warm, wholesome and full of wacky misunderstandings, The Likely Lads is vulgar, realistic and incredibly modern. Season one’s “Older Women Are More Experienced”—in which Terry dates an older woman and Bob dates a younger one—ends on a punchline that wouldn’t feel out of place in Peep Show. It’s a show I adore, that I will evangelise for any chance I get.

Of the twenty episodes produced, only ten survive.

I wrote an essay for the new issue of Current Affairs. It’s about TV wiping, the inaccessibility of popular art and the precarious archival implications of streaming. You can subscribe to read it here, or buy a copy of the issue here.

UPDATE: You can now read this piece online here!

DVDs Don’t Buffer

Debates about the relative merits and pitfalls of the rise of streaming services are among the most frustrating cyclical discourses in the world of film and TV critics, entertainment journalists and other people who just like to argue about pop culture. It’s right up there with the annual “pick one film in the Oscar race and arbitrarily designate it the evil one” discourse, the quarterly attempts to cancel Martin Scorsese, and the monthly skirmishes over “letting people enjoy things”. Yet, as with those tangles of bullshit, I am drawn inexorably toward streaming debates like a shrimp to an anglerfish’s luminescent head frond. I just don’t see how you can care deeply about film or television and not care about the material conditions under which they’re produced, distributed and exhibited.

There are lots of interesting ways to think about streaming: whether it offers more creative freedom to artists (kinda), whether it’s more democratic than theatrical distribution (no), whether it’s all just gonna implode one day and thousands of original movies, television series and stand-up specials will just kind of vanish from any legal distribution channels (probably). I’m glad to see more of a sceptical eye turned to immoral business practices in the industry lately, from Disney’s attempts to destroy independent cinemas to talent agencies selling out their clients for their own benefit to the obvious moves towards monopoly by the major media conglomerates. (Not how exploitative record deals are, though. I guess I’ll have to dust that one off sometime.) It’s important these issues are not just highlighted but explored thoroughly, so we don’t end up with situations like the California law ostensibly designed to stop Uber and similar companies misclassifying employees as independent contracts, which has (1) not stopped Uber et al. doing anything and (2) ruined the lives of basically every freelance journalist in the state.

But I also think a robust engagement with streaming requires looking at narrower issues with user experience. I kind of hate talking about topics like this, because you end up using terms like “user experience”. Materialist analysis is a useful and important way to look at art as a function of the economy, but it still makes my skin crawl to hear works of art described as “products” or, worse still, “properties”. I would rather never have to think about the minutiae of how movies and TV shows are presented to me, but since they are both literally and figuratively embedded in the mediums they’re distributed in, it must be done. Especially because there’s an issue in the debate over streaming vs physical home media that I’ve never seen anyone else really articulate.

DVDs don’t buffer.

Continue reading “DVDs Don’t Buffer”

The Problem with Your Netflix Recommendations

I despise The Big Bang Theory to an almost pathological degree. According to Netflix, The Big Bang Theory is an 88% match to my interests. By contrast, Blackadder is just a 71% match, even though it’s a show I’ve watched and loved my entire life. Breaking Bad, which I’ve watched from start to finish multiple times on Netflix, has a healthy 96% rating. But Brooklyn Nine-Nine, which I used to watch on Netflix until it got crap and I stopped three and a half years ago, has an even healthier 97%. Hannibal, another show I’ve watched from start to finish on Netflix, clocks in at 84%, narrowly ahead of Peppa Pig at 82%. Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, a show I would only watch if paid a princely sum to review, is a 90% match to my interests. Only Fools and Horses, a show I watch all the time, is rated too low for Netflix to even bother giving me a number. My recommendations are full of anime, even though I haven’t watched any anime since I was a child. Netflix thinks I’d like every single Louis Theroux series it has, even though I have never, ever watched any documentary TV series in my life.

Netflix’s recommendation algorithm seems like it’s broken. But it’s not, it’s working just fine, at least for now. The problem is the algorithm’s job isn’t to help users find TV shows and movies they would enjoy. It’s to trick Netflix’s investors into thinking the company is worth more than it is.

Continue reading “The Problem with Your Netflix Recommendations”

What Disney Will Destroy Next

We don’t much like giant media conglomerates around here – they make art inaccessible to the poor and abuse the copyright system to steal from the entire human race. But if I could smash just one of the huge corporations that dominate the entertainment industry, it would be Disney, no question. The Walt Disney Company is now the second-largest media conglomerate in the world following its acquisition of Fox, just behind AT&T. It is by far the largest film company in the world, collecting over a third of the global box office this year alone. And it’s a terrible, evil company that can’t be trusted with the power it’s acquired.

The merger’s first victims – after the thousands of people who lost their jobs because of it – were independent cinemas. Disney has a unique policy about who can screen its new and old films. It divides theatres into commercial theatres (which can show new Disney films, but not old ones) and repertory theatres (which can show old Disney films, but not new ones). Most independent theatres don’t fit this binary, of course. Many will screen some new releases so their foot traffic can subsidise smaller films or releases. After the merger, Disney extended this policy to the 20th Century Fox back catalogue, with disastrous implications for independent theatres. Disney is arbitrarily ruling theatres commercial or repertory, often without communicating this fact to their management, so they only learn when an attempted booking goes nowhere. The Fox catalogue contains loads of classic films whose well-attended rereleases are the financial backbone of many independent theatres: Young Frankenstein, Alien, Raising Arizona, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Die Hard. Without them, independent cinemas will struggle to survive. (There is a purported exemption for The Rocky Horror Picture Show, for unexplained reasons.)

But it won’t stop there. Disney doesn’t care about the collateral damage of its endless pursuit of profit for its own sake. The people who run it are perfectly willing to lay waste to anyone who delays them even one second on their way to the next billion dollars. Disney will only grow more and more powerful unless it’s broken up by state action.

Until then, here’s some other things Disney will destroy.

Continue reading “What Disney Will Destroy Next”

On Cinema(s)

In 2018, Ireland had the highest per-capita cinema attendance of any country in Europe, averaging 3.3 visits per person and just edging out France’s average of 3.2. This really surprised me, because I go to the cinema a lot more than that. I go to the cinema most weeks, and it’s not unusual for me to see two or three films in a row on the same day. Last year, the Pálás cinema in Galway had a Jeff Goldblum day, and I went to see The Big Chill, The Fly and The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension and really regretted not seeing Independence Day because I was at such a loose end, and I don’t even like Independence Day. I once saw Justice League, Murder on the Orient Express and Suburbicon on the same day for some reason. I pretty regularly miss out on seeing films in the cinema that I’m interested in, and yet I regularly beat the Irish annual average in a week without even thinking that I’ve been going to the cinema “a lot”.

This means that just by myself, I’m skewing that average up a bit. I can’t imagine going to the cinema three times a year, but there are obviously loads and loads of people that go far less than that. I think for some people, going to the cinema is something you mostly do as a child, the way lots of people think of libraries or bowling. It makes me sad.

Cinemas are special places, and they offer a special experience. And I’m terrified of them dying.

Continue reading “On Cinema(s)”

The Problem with Netflix Originals

Netflix is a very successful business, and I don’t know the first thing about business, so far be it from me to tell them what they should do. (I know so little about business that I can’t understand why owning a company that has never made a profit has made Jeff Bezos, the Amazon guy, the richest person on the planet.) But I do co-run this blog about pop culture, and Netflix has been one of the most important and transformative forces in film and TV (mostly TV) in recent years. The effects of that have been a mixed bag, but it’s hard to deny their sheer scale.

This kind of scares me, because Netflix’s share price does not seem at all proportionate to its profits, and while I don’t know anything about business I have seen Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, so a part of me is convinced that Netflix will suddenly and unceremoniously collapse one day. Which, aside from anything else, means all the art made exclusively for Netflix might just… disappear? The archival implications of the streaming model are pretty terrifying if you think about it for more than a minute, which is why I’m one of the few people my age that spends her money buying second-hand DVDs.

But, like I said, I don’t know the first thing about business, so that might be nonsense, and my DVD collection might be no different from stockpiling tins of food in a bunker in case the Cold War turned nuclear. But I do think I know a small bit about film and TV, and film and TV is Netflix’s business. So, on that basis I would like to make this humble suggestion to Netflix HQ: stop making so much fucking original content.

Continue reading “The Problem with Netflix Originals”