Everyone remembers their first time. The excitement…the expectation…the worry… So much can go wrong when you’re trying out a new streaming service (what else would I be talking about?), from a finicky player to finding a compatible device to, of course, the quality of the show itself. One of the reasons Netflix is the gold standard isn’t just that it was first (and thus the most prominent). It’s also got a superb track record for quality, and it did right from the beginning of its release of original drama series.
While “Lilyhammer” was technically the first original program to stream on Netflix, it wasn’t wholly owned by the service and it wasn’t a premium drama. It was a niche crime comedy, making it more of a test case than a first foray (a pattern established and continued to this day by new distributors). “House of Cards” was the defining moment for Netflix, and everyone — everyone — wanted a piece of that show when it first came out. Film fans needed to see David Fincher take on TV, and mainstream audiences just wanted to see Kevin Spacey, Robin Wright and maybe even Kate Mara scheme their way up the political pipeline. It was a smash hit, and drove audiences toward more of the same — “Orange is the New Black,” “Bloodline,” “Daredevil” and “Sense8” all have strong critical support, awards attention and/or stats backing up their success.
Few others have been able to match up; at least, not straight out of the gate. Amazon has had great success with “Bosch,” a well-reviewed crime drama helping to draw a key demographic of Prime users to the streaming benefits of their subscription. (One could also argue “Transparent” is as much of a drama as a comedy, but it’s not an hour-long.) Amazon bet big on a name brand, and it paid off. Michael Connelly’s fans found ways to watch, making “Bosch” the most-watched show on Amazon to date. First, though, Amazon used comedies as a gateway to drama, releasing “Alpha House” with great fanfare but less of a response than when they graduated to hour-long, pricier, but more profitable drama series.
Hulu is in the middle of a similar process; they’ve released a slew of short-form content including a number of comedies (“Deadbeat”), reality shows (“Behind the Mask”) and animated programming (“The Awesomes”) rather than moving quickly into hour-long prestige fare. Of late the company is pushing more ambitious comedies like “Difficult People” and “Casual” as they prepare to dig into dramas with Stephen King’s “11.22.63” (starring James Franco) and Jason Katims’ “The Path” (with Aaron Paul). Yahoo, meanwhile, never got the chance, or at least has put such efforts on hold as it recovers from the losses involved with acquiring and producing comedies like a new season of “Community” and Paul Feig’s original series “Other Space.”
So what does this long-winded yet far from complete history of streaming series mean for Crackle and its first original, scripted, hour-long drama series, “The Art of More”? In brief: nothing good. Whether or not you believe a brand is defined by its initial launch, the age we live in demands that networks — online or off — have the best or the most provocative shows out there. TV newbie Chuck Rose’s drama is neither. The episodes plod along without much urgency, empathy or (ironically) art. The twists aren’t that juicy or even intriguing, with a lot of patterns repeating themselves — even within the first two episodes.
Crackle’s first scripted drama series is set in the “surprisingly cutthroat world” of premium auction houses, and if that official synopsis doesn’t sound quite right, believe me, the show doesn’t sell its questionable assertion. While I can’t speak to knowing the secret underbelly of art auctions (assuming there is one), the show undermines any authenticity it tries to create with a general lack of specificity in language, presentation and mise en scene.
It doesn’t help that the characters are so off-putting even the expensive items up for bid can’t keep the show from feeling ugly. Christian Cooke is your de facto leading man, Graham Connor, an antihero without the pizzaz of your Don Drapers or Walter Whites, who is solely dedicated to making money by any means necessary. He’ll hire prostitutes to court clients while chatting up the boss’ daughter (okay, granddaughter) with an innocence impossible to believe because we’ve been given no reason to suspect it exists anywhere within him.
His faux boyish charm isn’t the only thing that’s hard to believe. Graham is ex-military, so he’s not only an expert in identifying elaborate art forgeries, but he’s a living, breathing lethal weapon to boot. This is implemented to help the drama amp up a very limited amount of tension as Graham goes to any extremes necessary in order to win coveted, high profile clients. His biggest fish is Samuel Brukner, played with fitting gusto by Dennis Quaid… except what’s exciting to Samuel is often appalling to anyone living in the present day, where women are more than “Sparkly Tits” — a descriptive phrase doubling as the name of a young woman Brukner hasn’t met yet, but is already inviting up to his penthouse.
It’s not that we’re meant to imagine Brukner or Graham as “good guys,” but they’re also not engaging enough to make up for their disdainful habits. Nor is their world established as anything more than an excuse to show off gobs of money, fancy auction items and pretty girls in tight dresses. We’re supposed to buy into this high-stakes story simply because there are riches to be had, sold and had again by selling. But if you don’t care about the people — and really, you’re given no reason to — then why would we worry about their bank accounts?
How this affects Crackle’s bottom line is as vague as the show’s plot. The widely-available streaming option could use its prominence to push “The Art of More” on unsuspecting viewers willing to put up with lower quality for free TV, or prospective audience members could steer clear of this and future offerings after the inevitable negative feedback gets out into the ether. Yet in the age of “too much TV,” it would stand to reason Crackle needs to bring better offerings than this if it wants people to pay attention.
“The Art of More” is streaming now on Crackle.