When Netflix first moved into original programming in earnest, it cultivated a mystique around the massive quantities of data it appeared capable of mining from subscribers—allowing the company to predict what viewers wanted better than viewers could themselves. The press surrounding House of Cards frequently ascribed to the development team “the ability to see into the future,” a description that appeared borne out by the success of that show and its successor, Orange is the New Black. But increasingly, Netflix’s development process appears to be less precision strike and more carpet bombing.
Beyond its wholly original series, Netflix fields revivals of canceled shows (season four of Arrested Development), films and stand-up specials, and international shows that it has secured for exclusive U.S. distribution (The Fall, Derek). This adds up: Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos has claimed the company would expand to the point of premiering a new series, on average, every two weeks. These numbers aren’t staggering for broadcast networks with long-running pipelines, but certainly are a lot for a relatively new player, and become more impressive in contrast to direct competitors like Amazon and Hulu. With that much content, there’s bound to be some failure of quality control, a problem embodied by the latest Original: a British comedy that is actually, seriously, titled Scrotal Recall.
To be fair, a terrible name doesn’t necessarily indicate a series will be bad (Terriers, we hardly knew ye). But while it displays flashes of inspiration, Scrotal Recall is mostly the result of years of rom-com cliches being run through a supercollider. The silly pun only provides the inciting incident of the show, when hopeless romantic Dylan (Johnny Flynn) is forced to call his exes in alphabetical order to inform them he’s been diagnosed with chlamydia—How I Met Your Mother meets Broken Flowers, without the snap of the former or the emotional resonance of the latter. By the end of the series, characters have only begun to hint at more depth than the archetypes of horndog best friend, milquetoast husband, or domineering wife would suggest. Encapsulating the whole problem, Flynn calls the show “Woody Allen for the Girls generation.”
TV development readily jumps on trends—when something hits, other networks rush to copy what they think made it work. Consider the legion of shows attempting to mimic the success of Lost‘s bonkers plotting (The Event, FlashForward) or the slick, 20th-century period dramas hopping on the back of Mad Men (The Playboy Club, Pan Am). For all Netflix’s supposed ability to predict newer things audiences will enjoy, its Originals slate has engaged in this at a blistering rate. The bloated, critically ignored Marco Polo is an obvious attempt at leaping on the Game of Thrones bandwagon. Bloodline, which has as its tagline “We’re not bad people, but we did a bad thing,” recycles elements of every other prestige drama, ever.
And Netflix has been ahead of the curve (or, in a sense, helped create the curve) with a more recent trend—reviving dead properties. Canceled shows it has brought back range from the zombification of long-gestating cult favorites (Arrested Development) to additional episodes of shows no one seemed to be watching or caring about (The Killing, Longmire). And it’s not even including the upcoming Bob & David, a Mr. Show revival in all but name. New seasons of Trailer Park Boys, a show with its own devoted following, appear to have passed by without much notice.
Given the age of the platform’s audience, it’s unsurprising that several upcoming Netflix shows and movies are extensions of old kids’ shows like Pee Wee’s Playhouse, The Magic School Bus, and Care Bears. (Let no one speak the name of the upcoming series that may or may not feature Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen.) A few weeks ago, the company premiered an inexplicable reboot of Richie Rich starring an alternate-universe Justin Bieber. These development choices have started resembling the business model of The Asylum, the production company that has split its time between ripping off established properties (Transmorphers) and the Sharknado trilogy. Describing its approach to content a few years back, Asylum partner Paul Bales told WIRED the company was in the “pretty-box business.” Netflix, it seems, has gotten into the same business.
Take its recent bulk deals for films from Adam Sandler and the Duplass brothers, who, regardless of whether you like the work, are formalized enough to be considered brands. (Something that becomes a bit more explicit considering one of Netflix’s other big areas of investment—stand-up specials, which rely primarily on recognition of the comic to drive viewers.) Netflix’s tone-deaf response to Native American actors walking off the set of an Adam Sandler film suggests the streaming service’s attempt to dethrone appointment viewing may not be ready for prime time.
The best example of the upside of Netflix’s future development is Daredevil, which proves a strong entry into superhero TV behind The CW while also explicitly combining other genres in slightly original and interesting ways, with a couple of good performances. There’s no way it will ever be great, but it’s content to be “very good.” Then again, these days, it’s very good to be content. As Vulture‘s Margaret Lyons puts it, it’s representative of the Netflix brand: “competently assembled but ultimately sort of hollow.” The decision to one-click consume a brand has never been easier—and that’s all Netflix really needs.