Within six minutes, “Insatiable” tosses out a joke so offensive even a great series might not come back from it. When Bob Armstrong, who’s somehow the second best attorney / beauty pageant coach in a small Georgian town, reveals he’s been accused of sexually assaulting an underage girl, he quips, “I was an accused molester saying the victim had made it up — which was almost as bad as if I’d actually done it.”
Whether this is the pitch-black satire “Insatiable’s” lonely defenders claim pervades the whole series or just a really tone-deaf means to score pity points for a down-on-his-luck wealthy white guy, nothing that comes after this eye-opening faux pas contradicts the idea Bob put out in the world: that being falsely accused of sexually assaulting a minor is as bad as doing it. From this point forward, Lauren Gussis’ Netflix original series only invokes more causes for concern, but despite critics ravaging the series and vocal backlash from the public, all the moaning may be for naught.
Does a catastrophic critical debut really matter to Netflix if the ratings are high enough? Or, to put it another way, can anyone define a failure for Netflix other than the service itself?
As crazy as it may sound, Season 2 could still happen. As of 2 p.m. ET Monday afternoon, “Insatiable” is listed in the “Popular on Netflix” section of this writer’s account — not that such a classification proves credible popularity; after all, it’s sitting right next to “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society,” which simply cannot be a hit based on its word jumble of a title alone. And, personal bias aside, even if both are being watched — which mortals locked outside the Netflix Algorithm Vault will never know — that’s the only metric by which “Insatiable” is winning.
Shortly after the trailer came out, a Change.org petition called for the series’ cancellation and has garnered more than 231,000 signatures so far. Viewers immediately took issue with the use of a fat suit to depict a plus-sized teen, as well as the proliferation of “diet culture,” specifically related to young women.
Once people saw the whole show, reactions didn’t fare any better. On Metacritic, “Insatiable” is the worst reviewed series of the year — by a wide margin. With an average rating of 23, it’s No. 110 on the site’s list of 2018 TV shows, and 19 points lower than No. 109 (“Our Cartoon President,” which is also very bad). With a 14 percent “rotten” score on Rotten Tomatoes, “Insatiable” lands at a historically low tally: It’s just below the first season of “Iron Fist” (17 percent) and just above the cancelled 2015 sitcom “Truth Be Told” (13 percent) — or tied for 18th worst TV series ever rated on the site.
But if you know your Netflix history, you’ll notice precedent for renewal despite terrible reviews and damning scandals: “Iron Fist,” the fourth Marvel series in its “Defenders” franchise, faced early complaints about cultural appropriation followed by the aforementioned reviews, which were, again, abysmal. Though it took four months, Netflix did pick up a second season of the series with a new showrunner attached and a slightly revamped image after “The Defenders.”
Could the same fate await “Insatiable”? As with most decisions within the buttoned-up halls of Netflix, it’s hard to say. Speaking at the Television Critics Association press tour last month, Cindy Holland, Netflix’s vice president of original series, said, “The most important thing in renewing a series [is], ‘Are we getting enough viewership to justify the cost of series?’ She also said Netflix looks at “how beloved the fan community is, how social the title is, and there are a lot of other things we look at that you all can see in the world.”
Their last drama series to see largely negative critical reactions — “Gypsy,” which scored a 45 rating on Metacritic — didn’t make it to Season 2. Another drama, “Seven Seconds,” saw better markings (68), but was also canceled (before being billed as a limited series to snag Emmy attention). Both were attempts at prestige TV; they had limited audience potential due to serious subject matter, which may explain why a family adventure series like “Lost in Space” and a sci-fi action drama like “Altered Carbon” earned second seasons despite worse reviews (58 and 64 ratings, respectively).
Netflix has made it clear critical reaction doesn’t define its choices or even carry the same weight as it does for other networks, like FX and HBO. Well-reviewed series have been quickly axed (like “The Get Down” and “Everything Sucks!”) as Netflix vowed to cancel more programs, while the secret algorithm and its findings (including detailed ratings breakdowns) still drives decisions. This helps justify renewals and cancelations because it’s hard to be critical when you don’t have all the information. Moreover, it protects the streaming service from backlash splashing from the criticized shows to the network itself. The executives are just doing what’s best for business, and moves like hiring a new showrunner for “Iron Fist” shows they’re trying to improve their product.
This stands in staunch contrast to at least one network often billed as Netflix’s rival: HBO. When “Here and Now” was dragged by critics earlier this year, it didn’t take long for everyone to acknowledge its demise. The drubbing and low ratings were a one-two punch for a quick K.O., and because HBO doesn’t have that many dramas, it was seen as a big blow, as the network kept searching for its next hourlong hit.
Netflix doesn’t see the same blowback because a) it has many, many more dramas, and b) ratings aren’t shared with the public, so the success or failure of any drama is speculative. “13 Reasons Why” may not seem like a “Stranger Things”-sized hit, but maybe it is; maybe “Altered Carbon” was a monster, and maybe “Iron Fist” is the highest-rated Marvel show. There’s no way of knowing, which gives Netflix some security from external scrutiny.
Qualitatively, “Insatiable” isn’t a great series. That much can be agreed upon, at least by a majority of TV’s tastemakers. But it’s hard to say how much an onslaught of negative reaction has hurt the series until Netflix decides the show’s future. They can afford to wait and see if people forget their initial anger and enough subscribers use their viewing hours to demand more episodes. With that in mind, it seems like a failure is only defined as such when Netflix says so itself.
For more on the first season of “Insatiable” and how the narrative outside the episodes has shaped reaction, make sure to listen to this week’s Very Good TV Podcast. IndieWire TV Editor Liz Shannon Miller and TV Critic Ben Travers dissect the most troubling aspects of the season and dig into all things Netflix.
Don’t forget to subscribe to Very Good TV Podcast via Soundcloud or iTunes. Make sure to follow IndieWire on Twitter and Facebook for all your TV news. Plus, check out IndieWire’s other podcasts: Screen Talk with Eric Kohn and Anne Thompson, the Filmmaker Toolkit Podcast with Chris O’Falt, as well as Michael Schneider’s podcast, Turn It On, which spotlights the most important TV each week.
“Insatiable” is streaming now on Netflix.