Every week, IndieWire asks a select handful of TV critics two questions and publishes the results on Tuesday. (The answer to the second, “What is the best show currently on TV?” can be found at the end of this post.)
This week’s question: What is the best and worst thing about Netflix? (Only one of each, please.)
Alan Sepinwall (@sepinwall), Rolling Stone
The best thing about Netflix is how many types of voices and shows they’ve created room for in this crowded TV landscape. Who else would have greenlit “Orange Is the New Black,” let alone even more esoteric stuff like “Master of None,” “Lady Dynamite,” or “American Vandal”? The worst thing about Netflix is the way that nearly all of their dramas are just much too long without interesting episodes, stringing the same handful of story arcs across seasons that are never built to sustain them for that long. And their insistence on the “our season is really a 13-hour movie” model is starting to infect the rest of TV.
Damian Holbrook (@damianholbrook), TV Guide Magazine
The best thing about Netflix is the number of comedians that I would never have heard of or sought out who I’ve been exposed to. I spent a recent weekend chewing up a whole bunch of their comedy specials, some were blandly generic, some were hilarious and some just reminded me that comedy isn’t for everyone to try. The worst thing about it is that I have become so dependent on their short short-form docu-series content that when I have finally exhausted the ones I’m interested in, the wait for something new that will grab me feels endless. Also, the quality and post-consumption satisfaction of their documentaries tends to vacillate. For every “Wild Wild Country,” there’s a “The Keepers,” which actually didn’t really solve anything it told us about.
Tim Surette (@timsurette), TV.com
Best thing: No commercials! Which not only affects our viewing enjoyment but the creative process of those who make shows for Netflix. Worst thing: “Friends From College”! Seriously, that show is terrible.
Kaitlin Thomas (@thekaitling), TVGuide.com
Netflix and I are in a strange place in our relationship; since the streaming service prioritizes original programming over being a robust online catalog featuring all my favorite departed shows, I tend to gravitate more toward Hulu when I want to watch something to relax (though Hulu really should fix its menu/interface, just saying). But while Hulu might be home to my favorite WB shows, Netflix is still good for discovering new programs I probably would have missed. Don’t get me wrong, I can lose an entire hour scrolling through Netflix’s library and still not find a single thing I want to watch, but the way it is set up and the algorithm it uses to tell me which shows might be of interest to me is still the best I’ve encountered. It’s how I found “Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries” and approximately 35 other murder mysteries and crime shows from around the world. It’s the reason I finally watched “Wynonna Earp” last summer. It’s how I know there is a show called “Secrets of Great British Castles” (yes, I watched it). I will forever love discovering something new on Netflix, but I also worry that one day all that will be left is the service’s original programming, and that’s unfortunate, because the worst thing about Netflix is the fact that it renews horrible shows like “Friends From College” but cancels the delightful “Everything Sucks!,” and that is majorly uncool.
Soraya Nadia McDonald (@SorayaMcDonald), The Undefeated
The best thing about Netflix is that it’s willing to take risks and it has the deep pockets to do so. That ends up being a good thing for minority creatives who might not necessarily get the same treatment from networks, and it gives promising talent like Justin Simien an opportunity to grow. It gave us the wonderful ladies of “Orange is the New Black” like Danielle Brooks, Laverne Cox, and Samira Wiley, who don’t fit into traditional molds for Hollywood actresses, and parts that allowed us to see their obvious talents. It also provides an arena for shows like “Grace and Frankie,” which are so unlikely given the ageism that pervades Hollywood. “One Day at A Time” is the sort of programming that makes me want to sing the praises of Ted Sarandos. And so I’m deeply curious to see what Ryan Murphy and Shonda Rhimes will do with the creative freedom and resources Netflix provides.
But the worst thing about Netflix is that there’s too much content, it’s all over the place, and it’s easy to overlook something that might actually be interesting. Netflix, which seems to be binge-releasing, is not doing itself any favors in the era of Peak TV. I guess now it’s decided to be multiple cable networks rolled into one. Is it food? Is it comedy? Is it movies? Is it documentaries? Is it dramas? ALL OF THE ABOVE PLUS MOAR. I hate to admit this, but I haven’t even watched the new season of “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” yet. I wish Netflix would simply slow down when it comes to its original programming, which would allow it to sidestep stuff that’s basically forgettable (“White Gold,” “The Ranch,” “Disjointed”).
Michael Yarish / Netflix
Diane Gordon (@thesurfreport), Freelance
The best thing about Netflix is that they are facilitating the new age of auteur storytellers. Because of the sheer volume of original shows they produce, Netflix is not only another place to sell content to, they’re also less restrictive than broadcast and cable networks. The Netflix development team seems to be respectful of creatives, and many showrunners make a point of mentioning that when they do get notes from Netflix execs, the notes are very helpful and thoughtful. If the auteur age in the 1970s yielded storytellers such as Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, we owe Netflix a tip of the hat for funding creative visions in scripted, unscripted and documentary storytelling that result in shows like “American Vandal,” “Mindhunter,” “GLOW,” “Grace and Frankie,” “Nailed It,” “Evil Genius,” “Making a Murderer,” and “Babylon Berlin.” And that’s just a sliver of their original programming.
Which leads me to the worst thing about Netflix: the volume of original content. The volume of shows is only getting more expansive and in addition to the rest of Peak TV, we’re drowning in it.
While the idea of endless program choices seems like nirvana in theory, it doesn’t hold up in practice. Most of us have felt that sense of ennui as we mindlessly click through TV shows and movies on the Netflix screen. This speaks to Netflix’s ever-evolving algorithm that’s supposed to help users find content they’ll like, not just show us more of the same kind of shows we’re already watching. Avid movie and TV fans crave new things to watch, but Netflix still needs to find a better way to help us find all of it. It’s a high-class problem to be sure, but one that’s essential to solve in order to ensure the service’s lasting hold on consumers.
Liz Shannon Miller (@lizlet), IndieWire
My favorite thing about Netflix is its commitment to decent user interface, something which has come over years. While I don’t love how it sometimes forgets to prioritize what I’m in the middle of watching, series-wise, in general the system seems to work on a fluid level, part of what has made it so indelible in our culture.
What I love least is its new trend toward splashy top-of-the-page ads, which are impossible to minimize and mean that sometimes you get confronted by a yelling male comedian you don’t personally care for but can’t seem to turn off within your browser. There are probably bigger issues to confront Netflix with, including a bad tendency to let subpar dramas and comedies come out under its banner, but on a personal level, that one bothers me the most.
Daniel Fienberg (@TheFienPrint), The Hollywood Reporter
I really don’t know how to answer this question simply. Like if I’m wearing my industry analyst hat, the absence of data is easily the worst thing, because it means I’m incapable of offering comparative commentary and of understanding business decisions that the company makes. That’s infuriating, but if I’m not wearing that particular, strange hat, what do I care that I don’t know what Netflix’s ratings are? [From a fandom perspective, this absence of data makes it hard for vocal advocation on behalf of canceled shows, because I’m forced to fabricate my case or to react purely on gut passion. That makes the case for “Gypsy” identical to the case for “Sense8” and identical to the case for “Girlboss,” when presumably those three shows aren’t identical if you have any resources with which to dig down.]
Anyway, that’s not my answer. The best thing is easy. Netflix provides a vital ecosystem of shows that offers the opportunity for almost one-to-one viewer curation. If you don’t feel like Netflix has made or acquired a show seemingly made almost specifically for YOU, that means either the show is still in production and hasn’t arrived yet, or else you haven’t looked hard enough. Netflix has provided a portal for a previously unimaginable wealth of creative voices and actors and languages and cultures. I love that my parents can just randomly (or algorithmically) start watching a Danish dramedy about school teachers that 10 years ago, nobody in this country ever would have even known existed.
And the best thing is also the toughest thing, which isn’t necessarily the worst thing but for these purposes will have to be, namely that in this volume, there are invariably “big” fish and “little” fish, and it’s very hard to always find the worthwhile “little” fish. As much as it’s my job to point viewers to something like an “Everything Sucks!” it’s still easy for a show like that to get lost and then to wither if Netflix treats renewal decisions like a fairly traditional network. My fear is that this will happen more and more frequently as Netflix’s costly new auteurs with their deals worth hundreds of millions — folks like Shonda Rhimes and Ryan Murphy — start producing content. How will Netflix be able to promote and steer viewers toward the stuff they need an immediate return on and yet still give the smaller stuff the chance to get nurtured and find an audience?
Scott Patrick Green/Netflix
April Neale (@aprilmac), Monsters & Critics
Simple for both “best” and “worst”. The shared and communal experience of letting a great story unfold in incremental time is my main “bone to pick” issue. Spooling out episodes in a weekly manner lets us savor the ensemble work of all involved in making a great TV series, and it allows us to relive the moments and imagine and anticipate where the story goes. Never underestimate anticipation! Netflix dumping the story in one fell swoop in pick and choose menu makes everyone unsure of who has seen what and the conversation and the upswell of chatter and enthusiasm is diminished.
Hulu was smart in how they treated the “Handmaid’s Tale.” We all wait impatiently for Wednesday for the next chapter. Conversely, for some, the Netflix content dump is the very best thing and why they love the streaming service so much.
I would argue that for docuseries and reality shows that I had never heard of like “Big Dreams Small Spaces” with my new British TV addiction, Monty Don, having them all at the ready to watch on my schedule is brilliant. But for a drama like “Stranger Things,” I think it kills the magic.
Eric Deggans (@deggans), NPR
The best thing about Netflix is also the most troubling: Its ubiquity. It’s not just that the service seems to be aiming for status as the Google of television, ponying up gigantic sums to corner the market on every type of programming, from standup comedy specials to documentaries and prestige TV projects. It’s also easily accessible across a wide range of devices, from mobile phones and desktops to Apple TV and smart TVs from a load of manufacturers. So it’s become a wonderful resource for media fans with a wide range of interests, who can burrow down a rabbit hole of their own, specialized tastes or sample new things without the worry of paying lots of extra charges. And it’s a portal that is increasingly accessible almost anywhere.
The worst thing about Netflix, for me, is twofold. First, it’s inspiring other media companies to bulk up so they might survive in whatever new TV future Netflix helps make a reality. This is creating a media ecology where independent voices struggle more to break through the noise and consumers have a more difficult time discerning exactly who is speaking to them and what mega-conglomerate owns them. My second concern is more content-related. Because so many of its series drop a season’s worth of episodes at once, some storytellers have gotten too used to an audience who vacuums up multiple episodes in a single sitting. Too many of its TV shows stretch thin ideas over multiple episodes; narratives take too long to gain momentum. They take for granted that viewers will spend long episodes wading through storytelling that is just setting up scenes and positioning characters for more substantive plots to come later. And those weaknesses are now showing up in series made by other outlets, as well. I’ve taken to calling it the “Netflix-ization” of TV, and it’s a major reason why so many new series are merely good instead of outstanding.
Allison Keene (@KeeneTV), Collider
The best and worst thing about Netflix is that there is just so much of it. On the positive side, that means it’s easy to find plenty of things to watch. Shows are premiering, in full, almost every week. The app is intuitive, there are no commercials, and bingeing is a breeze. But as a critic, or a TV editor, it’s exceptionally hard to keep up with all of these series, or know when to comment, or if you should comment at all. Plus, the increasingly overstuffed production model Netflix has been leaning into is a negative for everyone — it too often values quantity over quality in terms of overlong episodes, episode counts, and the number of series produced. If Netflix just quit for a year, we’d still have plenty to talk about just from their library of originals alone, many of which are great if you can find the time to watch them. Show us mercy, Netflix!
Todd VanDerWerff (@tvoti), Vox
Most of my major complaints with Netflix stem from its seeming inability to understand how the movie industry works. But that’s not really relevant to what we’re talking about here, so I’ll limit myself to the company’s TV productions, which are generally more consistent across the board, even if very few of them jump out at me as genuinely essential shows. (“Orange Is the New Black,” “BoJack Horseman,” and “One Day at a Time,” with a bunch of one-season wonders that I’m waiting to see more of before moving them to the “essential” list. Consider this a reminder to myself to get on those “GLOW” screeners.)
I still remember when Netflix was this random repository of so much stuff, because nobody had quite realized just how lucrative streaming was going to be, and they sold the company some pretty amazing packages full of shows and movies. I still occasionally get that sense when browsing the company’s library, but I guess I would say the worst thing about Netflix is just how much it’s shifted to producing originals, thus letting many of its best shows slip off to Hulu or Amazon or some other streaming service entirely. I realize that’s the nature of capitalism, but I’d feel a lot better about it if Netflix’s production track record were even slightly more consistent, and if its shows didn’t so often feel like they were all saggy midsection, with occasionally exciting beginnings and endings. Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” winning the first Emmy for a streaming series has been widely seen as a victory for the show’s timely political vibe, and it probably is. But it also doesn’t hurt that that show breaks down into episodes so readily, something Netflix seems to have little interest in.
What I like best about Netflix is that its interface is pretty easy to use. But even there is a hidden danger. If you want to genuinely browse – instead of seeing the stuff Netflix thinks you might like – it’s tough to do. But at least it’s a thoroughly pleasant experience as you grow frustrated with your limited options!
Joyce Eng (@joyceeng61), GoldDerby
The best thing about Netflix is whatever algorithm it uses to suggest other British murder mysteries to me after I watched “Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries” (yes, I know she’s Australian). I discover far more hidden gems on Netflix than I do on, say, Hulu, which is content to be like, “Here are the five latest episodes of ‘Chicago P.D.,’ which you’ve never seen before in your life. Bye.” The worst thing could be its audacity to suggest I skip an opening credits sequence (I would never). Or it could be the very rude “Are you still watching?” prompt (yes, yes, I am). Or it could be the kajillion shows and movies it releases every week that I have never heard of until then. Honestly, this isn’t the worst thing, but it’s the thing that annoys me the most right now: when a preview of whatever Netflix is pimping that day plays at top of the homepage as soon as you get to the site. Death to autoplay.
Ben Travers (@BenTTravers), IndieWire
The best thing about Netflix is its accessibility — on all fronts. Netflix provides a diverse array of stories from a diverse array of storytellers; the network makes something for everyone, and it often leads people to discover undiscovered gems once they find the first thing they’re looking for. Simiarly, it’s incredibly convenient to watch downloaded original series on my phone from a WiFi-less airplane, just as it’s often rewarding to lean back and bask in the high-level production value (that, granted, still cannot match the picture quality of a Blu-ray) of various (if few) films on a big screen.
However, that form of accessibility has led to laziness, from both the audience and the creators, which is easily the worst thing about Netflix. Viewers are disinclined to stop bingeing the seemingly unlimited options Netflix has to offer, even when they can access better programming for a similar price and with comparative ease. Few people are willing to cut ties with Netflix for a month in order to catch up on great Hulu originals (like “The Looming Tower,” “Casual,” or “The Path”) — it’s clear they have the capability, but subscription totals indicate one is being watched far more than the other.
From a creators’ standpoint, the idea that people will watch any form of storytelling for 13 hours has led to a proliferation of faulty structuring, bloated run times, and the belief that individual episodes don’t matter as much as the bigger picture. Though seasons of television are so often compared to novels, viewers don’t act like readers — they won’t put down a book if it’s boring them, they’ll just keep plowing through until the inevitable “exciting incident” finally occurs. (I cannot, for the life of me, think of any other reason why so many people finished the first seasons of “Gypsy” and “Altered Carbon” or two seasons of “Flaked.”)
This isn’t necessarily Netflix’s fault. The folks over there are working on a business model that requires their service to a replacement for all other viewed entertainment — movies, TV shows, documentaries, etc. They have to keep producing content if they want to achieve that vision, so it’s up to audiences to tell them the content they’re offering just isn’t good enough; that it’s not worth the monthly fee. It clearly can be good enough: “BoJack Horseman,” “Grace and Frankie,” “Dear White People,” “GLOW,” “Ozark,” “The Crown,” and more are all terrific series. But the rest is just easy to watch, not worthy of watching, and everyone needs to sit up and realize the difference.
Q: What is the best show currently on TV?*
A: “The Americans” (11 votes)
Other contenders: “Westworld” (two votes), “The Handmaid’s Tale”
*In the case of streaming services that release full seasons at once, only include shows that have premiered in the last month.