Culture

Television

The hyperbole machine

By Matthew Clayfield
Social media and streaming services are changing what and how we watch

If I never see the words “Sweet birthday baby!” again, at least on Twitter, it won’t be a moment too soon. Uttered at various times and in various ways by Maxine (Greta Lee, who nearly didn’t take the part because of the line) in the Netflix series Russian Doll, they have started to rub me the wrong way. When I see them, I find myself wanting to act like Groundhog Day’s Phil Connors (Bill Murray) when he hears Ned Ryerson (Stephen Tobolowsky) call out to him for the thousandth time. “Phil? Phil Connors?!” “Ned?!” Murray screams before punching Ned in the face.

I use this example deliberately. “Sweet birthday baby!” is Russian Doll’s “Phil Connors?!” in the same way that Harry Nilsson’s “Gotta Get Up” is its “I Got You Babe”. These are very obvious hat-tips to Groundhog Day, which is Russian Doll’s most obvious precursor. The series tells the story of Nadia Volvokov (co-creator Natasha Lyonne), who keeps reliving the night of her 36th birthday, continually dying in her attempts to work out what’s happening to her.

Of course, Russian Doll doesn’t simply lift Groundhog Day’s metaphysical rules and apply them to a new narrative. It reworks them to its own purposes. Phil never makes it through the night and only occasionally – though, in one famously bleak sequence, repeatedly – dies. Nadia occasionally manages to see in the morning, but each time dies soon after. Russian Doll also has a decidedly different thematic focus, adding to the growing corpus of television comedies about addiction and trauma (Bojack Horseman, You’re the Worst, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend) where Groundhog Day, a product of simpler times, was merely about the need to become a better, more selfless person. It’s a very good show, one of the best Netflix has released in a long time, grounded by an outstanding performance by Lyonne and by writing that mostly masks its derivative nature and other shortcomings. But unlike Groundhog Day, it is not a masterpiece. “Sweet birthday baby!” isn’t destined to become an iconic line. It certainly seems unlikely that we’ll be discussing Russian Doll 26 years from now, in anniversary think pieces and philosophy dissertations.

For one thing, it would have been better as a movie. Almost half of the season is dedicated to a series of red herrings, including an entirely unnecessary, episode-long deep-dive into the source of the ketamine-laced cigarette Nadia smokes at her party. (She insists she’s never used ketamine before. This is summarily dealt with when Maxine tells her that she has.) For another, the flow of narrative information is handled with a certain arbitrary laxness, more concerned with dragging things out to fill eight episodes than it is with creating a real sense of dramatic tension. We are nearly two hours into the proceedings – the entire length of Groundhog Day and change – before we are introduced to the other character, Alan (Charlie Barnett), who is experiencing the same death-rinse-repeat loop. We are nearly at the end of the thing before we get flashbacks to Nadia’s childhood, which is what she’s going to have to deal with – the metaphor is almost too clear – in order to get on with her life. There’s a tonne of supernatural baggage, too: the fact that Nadia and Alan always die at the same moment, the disappearance of people and things on each successive loop, and the appearance of Nadia’s childhood self towards the end of the season (causing her to die of natural causes without the writers needing to devise new ways of killing her). These serve only to remind how perfect in its simplicity the Groundhog Day model really was.

But Twitter will tell you another story. Twitter will tell you that Russian Doll is a masterpiece. It will tell you – in the form of a hundred thousand retweeted memes – that “Sweet birthday baby!” is already iconic. It will tell you that it is that most precious of things: a must-watch.

How many must-watches are out there right now? How many of them do you know about because of social media? Every week now, or so it seems, Twitter explodes with praise for the culture’s latest and greatest home run. Perhaps not surprisingly, given how quickly it has become most people’s preferred method of watching anything, Netflix is usually the company that has hit it. Before Russian Doll it was Sex Education. Not long before that, it was Bird Box.

Sex Education is an enjoyable but derivative high school comedy made edgy and new by virtue of its frankness about teen sexuality. It’s also made weird, sometimes to the point of distraction, by the way it blends American and British high school realities in a way that, according to Gillian Anderson (who plays a supporting role), was intended to give it cross-cultural appeal. (That is telling in and of itself.) Bird Box is a somewhat less effective, mid-budget horror film given a patina of prestige by the presence of Hollywood stars like Sandra Bullock and John Malkovich, not to mention Australia’s own Jacki Weaver, who, like everyone apart from Bullock, is given approximately nothing to do.

It is difficult to imagine either Netflix “property” exploding – like “content”, “property” is an ugly word, but what are you going to do? – quite the way that they did without the willingness of Twitter critics to overstate their quality, in Sex Education’s case, or meme the shit out of them, in Bird Box’s.

You can probably think of countless other examples: shows you heard gushed about that, when you watched them, warranted something on the level of the shrug. This doesn’t mean you didn’t binge them anyway: Netflix, like any tech company whose model is predicated on addiction, knows how to make you do so. (As Myles McNutt wrote for the The A.V. Club last year, this is largely why the opening credit sequence is dying as an art form.) It goes without saying that Netflix isn’t concerned whether you like Russian Doll or Sex Education or Bird Box much at all.

It’s not only the stuff we’re praising, either. Even when we discuss more divisive Netflix fare, we are ultimately helping the company out. It didn’t matter to Netflix that no one – which is to say no one but me – much cared for the final season of House of Cards. All that mattered was that we were talking about it, writing our articles, sending eyes their way. To rework the old adage about publicity: even a bad tweet is a good tweet.

Let’s consider another example. For a mercifully brief moment a couple of months ago, the streaming service’s Fyre Festival documentary, Fyre, was all anyone seemed capable of talking about. The documentary was rushed out to compete with Hulu’s Fyre Fraud project and now seems likely to have been a reputation-laundering scheme on the part of Jerry Media – also known as FuckJerry – which is to say for the social media marketing agency partially responsible for the Fyre Festival debacle in the first place. Of course, the damage has already been done. Netflix doesn’t release viewing numbers, or even the metrics by which it measures success, but it seems fair to assume that Fyre did exactly what it was supposed to do not only for FuckJerry but also for the streaming service itself. By tweeting up a storm, and talking about both documentaries endlessly, we gave the companies exactly what they wanted. The same methods that FuckJerry used to generate buzz about the festival were used again to generate buzz about the documentary. We took the bait and we turned the documentary into a bona fide cultural “moment”.

Rearguard actions are being fought against Netflix by players at the highest levels. But these battles are not always the right ones and are rarely being fought with what we might describe as good faith. Steven Spielberg made headlines late last month after it was announced that he plans to support new rules, to be discussed at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Board of Governor’s meeting in April, that would restrict movies produced by streaming services from being eligible for the Oscars without having previously enjoyed more time in actual cinemas. As Australian playwright and screenwriter Keith Gow wrote eloquently – on Twitter, to give the platform its due – “Spielberg [is] supporting the status quo for the sake of it.”

“His position is effectively the worst kind of ‘merit’ argument,” Gow wrote in a short but impassioned series of tweets. “[I]f the film is good enough, of course studios will make it and give it a four-week release. [But] if the filmmakers can’t get their films made through traditional channels” – he had already pointed out that Netflix released more films directed by women and people of colour last year than Hollywood has, like, ever – “he’s happy for them to be ghettoised and branded ‘TV movies,’ which doesn’t penalise people like him.” (Gow also made the obvious point that Roma, the reason Spielberg and others are losing their shit, is hardly “just a TV movie”.) Both Gow and the great Vulture critic Matt Zoller Seitz observed that Netflix, not the age-old Hollywood studio system, has largely taken up the mantle of producing the kind of “mid-budget” dramas that Hollywood once excelled at but has today largely abandoned in favour of effects-driven franchise fare designed for teenage boys. Both observed, too, that Spielberg’s nostalgic connection to what the filmmaker called “the motion picture theatrical experience” (something to which Seitz and this humble critic remain emotionally wedded despite ourselves) is, these days, inherently classist. Have you been to the movies lately? Perhaps you can lend me a dime?

A more covert effort was made by Academy Awards voters, who last month preferred to shoot their credibility in the foot than give the Oscar for Best Picture to Alfonso Cuarón’s Netflix-produced Roma. They gave it to Peter Farrelly’s Green Book instead – number 80 on Vulture’s recently-revised list of all 91 Best Picture winners – resulting in immediate backlash and scorn. (Spike Lee, who won his first competitive Oscar for penning the screenplay to BlacKkKlansman, tried to walk out and was prevented from doing so. “Every time somebody’s driving somebody, I lose,” Lee said later. He was referencing the fact that Driving Miss Daisy won Best Picture the year that Do the Right Thing should have been nominated for Hollywood’s highest honour but wasn’t.) The problem here is pretty straightforward and obvious: Roma was clearly the better picture, as were any number of the other nominees. The Academy, which in recent years has done a good deal to rehabilitate its image as an inclusive, forward-looking institution, made itself look archaic all over again (despite making history by giving two technical awards to black women who had worked on Black Panther, and, of course, by finally recognising Lee). These people, including Spielberg, have chosen the wrong hill to die on.

It’s the wrong hill because the war’s already over. Hollywood’s march on Roma was for nought. Even if the rules do change, Netflix – which spent nearly four times Roma’s production budget on its Oscar campaign – will remain all too happy to put its best work in theatres a little longer to address the non-issue. We will have to wait and see whether Martin Scorsese can recapture his magic with this year’s The Irishman – which stars Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci – but I’d be willing to put money on Netflix getting a Best Picture win sooner rather than later. (Even if the rules don’t change, The Irishman is likely to get a full theatrical release regardless of its streaming-service providence, not least because Scorsese, who is an even greater champion of the theatrical experience than Spielberg, has all but insisted upon it.)

But such rearguard actions aren’t exactly the point here. The choice between Hollywood and Netflix is a false one. We don’t often think about the role that we play, as social media users (let alone social media “influencers”), in the media strategies of companies like this. We should probably think about it more often. The role Twitter plays in turning middling-to-average fare into must-see television and cinema is not dissimilar to the role it plays in news reporting. In the same way that Twitter, and the 24-hour news cycle more generally, encourages journalists to be “first” often at the expense of being correct, so too does it encourage critics to “discover” (and, by discovering, promote) the next big thing. That we do so at the expense of sound critical judgement is on us and we’re not doing ourselves any favours by allowing it to be the case. As David Sims observed in The Atlantic, back when Bird Box was on fire, the movie’s success is ultimately bad news for non-Marvel blockbuster entertainments: “The film is a competent, sometimes gripping survival thriller that skimps on plot specifics [and is] a perfect piece of entertainment to have on in the background,” Sims wrote. “That summary may sound uninspiring, but it could also be the blueprint for a new age of blockbusters.” Why would Netflix want to produce anything else?

Such concerns could be applied to almost every other genre in which Netflix tends to entangle itself: to ethically questionable documentary filmmaking, to derivative comedy–dramas, even to the mid-budget dramas for which Gow and Seitz gave the company most credit. Its determination to win an Oscar aside, “a perfect piece of entertainment to have on in the background” is the bar that Netflix has set for itself. Given its quantity-over-quality approach, this is hardly surprising. (Recent developments at HBO suggest that the war might already be over on this front, too. AT&T, which recently acquired the company, has little interest in maintaining HBO’s reputation as what The New York Times described as a “boutique operation” and hopes to make it something “bigger and broader” instead. With Amazon, Apple and Disney all in the game now, too, Netflix’s approach to scale is the only one that matters any more.) What is surprising is the way we keep losing our minds every time Netflix clears this low bar. What, I wonder, are we thinking?

In a recent piece for The New Republic, on the 20th anniversary of The Sopranos’ premiere, Josephine Livingstone argued that television ultimately learned the wrong lessons from the series that changed the medium forever. “[W]e’re in a weird new era in which everything on TV looks so good that you can’t tell whether it’s prestige or not,” Livingstone wrote. “Call it post-prestige television. By this I mean that every show is cut beautifully, every soundtrack is great, and – crucially – every main character is rounded out by psychological flaws that make them seem human.” (She goes onto argue that The Sopranos, by the standards of 2019, is “not an especially artfully produced show”.) “But is the writing [of ‘post-prestige’ television] as good? […] Despite the visual perfection of the shows being produced by Netflix and HBO today, the words have been lacking. […] Without the script, there’s no Sopranos; without great writing, there’s no ‘prestige’.”

I think some of our willingness to gush – our determination, even our need to do so – stems primarily from this fact. It can be hard not to feel that the “Golden Age of TV” might have come to an end without our quite realising what was happening. When The Americans finished airing last year, countless reviews of its final season noted that it marked the end of something special. (Mind you, the same was true a few years ago, too, when Halt and Catch Fire came to an end.) I suspect we will see a similar tone in the pieces that this year mark the passing of a number of American comedies. My own such piece – about Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, You’re the Worst, Broad City and Veep – is already on its way.

As Livingstone suggests, “prestige” has become a look, a style. It has almost become a genre of its own. At least when it was a value judgement it served some purpose in helping us to navigate the culture, whatever the biases and blind spots of that culture may be, including who was allowed to produce and critique it. There are more English-language scripted series on air or online than ever before – a whopping 495 in 2018, up from 182 in 2002 – and while it is true that there are still some great shows out there (Atlanta, Better Call Saul, Killing Eve), it’s also true that it can be all but impossible to find anything you actually care to watch. Forget the “Golden Age of TV”. We have well and truly entered the “Glut Age”. We need not praise the merely good – “Sweet birthday baby!” – to make up for that fact.

Matthew Clayfield

Matthew Clayfield is a freelance foreign correspondent and travel writer.

Photo by Thibault Penin on Unsplash

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